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Record-big walnut tree survived 100-plus years of Ogden history

Monday , June 25, 2018 - 5:15 AM

OGDEN — A little more than 100 years ago, the owners of a new white brick bungalow with a welcoming porch planted an English walnut tree in their backyard. 

The home and the neighborhood are gone, but the tree is still growing. State officials confirmed last week that it holds the record for the largest English walnut in Utah. Turns out, it’s remarkably old, too.

Utah State University Professor Mike Kuhns, who first noticed the tree earlier this year, took a corer to it last week, but the tree is so large he was only able to collect rings back to 1969.

“My increment corer only went in 16 inches and we would need a core more than twice that long to get to its center,” he said.

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Assuming the tree kept growing at the same rate over the years, Kuhns calculates the tree is 104 years old. 

“Very few trees in urban areas make it to 100 years old, and most only live for 15 to 20 years,” he said. “It is not only a tremendous biological and environmental resource because it is large, but it is likely a cultural and historic resource because of its age.”

RELATED: Utah State professor hopes to save massive Ogden walnut from getting whacked

When the walnut tree was first planted, World War I had just begun. The U.S. Forest Service was less than a decade old.

In the tree’s neighborhood, near the banks of the Ogden River, Becker Brewing and Malting Co. was booming — it was a few years before Prohibition. Just to the south, the American Can building was brand new.

“When you’ve got a tree that’s been around for a long time, stories tend to collect with it,” said Jeran Farley, urban and community forestry coordinator for the Utah Department of Natural Resources. “We as people tend to like things that have history and can tell a story.”

Those old trees have value. Big trees like the English walnut have value, too.

Farley also manages the Big Tree and Heritage Tree registries for the state of Utah. He confirmed the walnut tree in downtown Ogden is the biggest of its species known in the state. It’s 85 feet tall, with a trunk 18 feet and 7 inches in circumference. 

“Urban trees ... cool areas and provide shade. They cool buildings. They help clean the air, they help collect pollutants in the air, they act as filters. They provide visual interest. They provide habitat for animals and places for children to play,” Farley said. “They are important.”

The house that was once home to the English walnut was built in 1907, according to Weber County Assessor information. The entire neighborhood was demolished between 2009 and 2011.

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The tree somehow survived, even as apartments and parking lots were built to the east.

“I would guess at some point when that whole area was cleared ... somebody was scared it would fall on their bulldozer or something, it was too big for the equipment they had,” Kuhns said.

Now part of the Ogden River redevelopment area, the tree’s future looks uncertain. Ogden City currently owns the land where the tree grows. City officials previously told the Standard-Examiner they can’t make any promises about its future.

“It won’t be at all rewarding if the tree comes down,” Kuhns said. “It would be one thing if the tree gets hit by lighting, dies of its own accord, but if it’s just bulldozed or something that would be sad.”

Kuhns’ tree-ring record also shows the walnut tree is in trouble. Over the last six years, its growth has slowed. That could be because the tree’s roots are damaged or, more likely, because it’s no longer getting water. 

“If the tree has not been irrigated then it is likely under considerable stress, as indicated by the narrow growth rings,” Kuhns said.

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Stressed trees are more susceptible to disease. Thousand cankers disease, caused by bugs and a fungus, has wiped out “thousands” of black walnut trees in Utah, Kuhns said, and he worries Ogden’s English walnut could be vulnerable. 

With a little effort, however, the tree can be saved and keep growing with its changing neighborhood. It could be part of a residential landscape again. It could shade a parking lot. It could continue filtering pollution, providing shade and producing edible nuts.

“It is very possible to save a tree during a construction project as long as the owner or developer wants to save it and gets an expert involved from early on,” Kuhns said. “This is the perfect time to start saving this tree.”

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/LeiaInTheField or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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