TOP O' THE MORN: Garry oaks are deeply rooted in local history

Garry oaks may have begun growing here because of the Indian custom of carrying acorns from Vancouver Island in their canoes as famine food. The acorns were pulverized and eaten, bitter though they were, when food was scarce.

Vancouver Island Indians regularly traveled to Whidbey Island, sometimes to fish, sometimes to raid settlements and a canoe cache of acorns could well have been the beginning of Garry oaks that the first mate of Capt. Vancouver’s ship Discovery, Joseph Whidbey, found when he landed at Penn Cove in 1792. Whidbey noted the abundance of oak trees in his diary on a rainy June day.

An early 1850s settler, Dr. Richard Lansdale, gave Oak Harbor its name, based on the main tree which grew from the town to San de Fuca, around Penn Cove.

Oak is a sturdy wood and the big trees were cut for timber for sailing ships. Settlers cleared the land for farms and Garry oaks became scarce, almost an endangered species.

Time and weather have taken their toll on some trees. Several were blown down in the 1962 Columbus Day storm when hurricane-force winds also blew the roof off the newly-built city hall. The big oak at the post office has lost several limbs to storms, aging and harsh pruning. But it is still a magnificent tree.

Garry oaks still make their stand mostly in the southeastern section of town. One large oak stands smack in the middle of SE Eighth Avenue and traffic flows around it. On Eerkes Hill, the Navy left several of the trees when the land was cleared for Navy housing. Whidbey Presbyterian Church maintains a small grove of graceful oaks.

Our first city park, Smith Park, was originally known as Oak Park for its stand of lovely trees. The plot was given to the city years ago by Dad Smith, an early resident. For years the area has been the scene of picnics and celebrations. Some time ago, in an early era of safety-consciousness, leaders decided to remove a glacier rock to eliminate the “dangerous” climbing area. The dynamite used only fractured the rock and the pile stands today, covered a bit by some Oregon grape growing from the cracks.

As late as the 1940s, the area was an unmowed springtime medley of shooting stars, dog-tooth violets, tiger lilies and buttercups, all native Whidbey Island flowers, flowering beneath the Garry oaks, island pioneers that today speak of old times and almost-forgotten landscapes.

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