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Lucia Hadella poses two summers ago near a giant spruce at Cape Perpetua that has served as a measuring stick of sorts for her growth over the years. - Paul Hadella

Giant trees touch lives

If you have ever stood under the 150-year-old Monterey cypress, just south of Brookings, and tried to count its branches, then you have experienced an Oregon Heritage Tree moment.

Have you ever watched leaves fall from the majestic elm outside the Douglas County Courthouse in Roseburg? It, too, is part of our state's tree program, established in 1995 to increase public awareness of how trees have contributed to Oregon's history and heritage.

In all, the program includes about 50 trees that have been designated as significant because of their importance in state, national or regional history. That cypress on the coast, for example, is the oldest in Oregon. A maple on West Clackamas Boulevard in Portland was a meeting place for Native Americans and the site of the first Oregon State Fair in 1861. The Ponderosa pine in LaPine State Park, off Highway 97, has the largest circumference of any tree of its kind in the world.

There are several Oregon Heritage Trees in the Rogue Valley, including the Britt Sequoia in Jacksonville, planted by pioneer Peter Britt in 1862. In 2011, a small grove of Comice pear trees in Medford — the remains of an original Harry & David planting — was added to the program.

According to the Oregon Travel Information Council, which selects and promotes the trees, the trees on the list "stand as living memorials that connect us to our historical roots and carry a sense of the past into the future."

I feel that I have a relationship with one of these Oregon Heritage Trees, having visited it many times. It is known as the Giant Spruce of Cape Perpetua — located along a creek in Siuslaw National Forest. An easy 1-mile hike from the visitor center at Cape Perpetua, midway between Florence and Newport, brings you to it. This monarch of the woods — a 500-year-old Sitka spruce — boasts a circumference of 40 feet and was about 220 feet tall before a storm broke 35 feet off its top in 1962.

This ancient tree was already standing when Spanish explorer Bartolome Ferrelo became the first European to record passage of the cape, in 1543. By the time that Captain James Cook and his British expedition sailed by — on March 7, 1778 — and gave the forested headland the name of Cape Perpetua, the tree was already old growth.

It began its life as a sapling on a nurse log. After the log deteriorated, centuries ago, the roots of the spruce continued to grow above the ground, eventually forming an arched tunnel from one side of the tree to the other.

These days, kids can crawl through the opening and pretend they are hobbits, like our daughter did when she was little.

No single picture can capture the magnificence of this great living thing. But who knows how many parents have posed their children in front of the tree's bottom segment over the years? We have pictures of our daughter at the tree when she was a toddler, a second-grader, and a middle-school kid trying a new hairstyle. In the most recent photo, she is an impatient teen, wishing her father would hurry up and snap the shot.

Placing the photos side by side, my wife and I can readily observe, with some sadness, how much our only child has changed and grown. Curiously, though, the tree always looks the same, as if time has no effect upon it.

Despite the battering it took from that storm, the Giant Spruce is in good health. A Forest Service ranger at the visitor center told me it is still growing. Sitka spruces can live for 700 years, she said. Therefore, although we may think of the Cape Perpetua fixture as very old, it could still have more than a quarter of its life ahead of it.

Go to www.oregontic.com for details about Oregon Heritage Trees, including criteria for how trees are chosen for the program. You can nominate a tree for heritage status by completing the application form found on the website. Dedication ceremonies for new entries are held during Arbor Week in April.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.

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