The native range of Oregon White Oak or Garry Oak (Quercus garryana) stretches from Vancouver Island BC to the hills of Southern California. Climate, altitude, soil, and water availability cause this species to vary in size. The Garry Oaks of California most often have characteristics that are scrubby or shrub-like, while the same species in the Willamette valley and up through Washington are typically widespread trees, sometimes over a hundred feet tall.
The national champion Oregon White Oak seems to prove the phrase "geography determines biology". This tree is located in an isolated oak meadow surrounded by a mixed conifer forest dominated by Douglas-firs, Grand Firs, Madrones and Ponderosa and Sugar Pines. Upon closer inspection, the steep grade of the land and direct southern exposure of the ridge, combined with loose rocky soil, provided a hot and dry enough micro-climate suitable for slower growing Oaks. We also suspect the grove has serpentine soil, a soil type inhospitable to many plants that is found in volcanically formed areas such as Southern Oregon. It is relatively rare and usually found in small patches. Right on the edge of this grove, in an area mostly populated by younger Douglas-firs stands the national champion tree.
The champion Oak was nominated in 1972. The property belonged to a timber company and shortly afterward changed ownership to a different timber company. Records of the tree were lost or forgotten. Very few people had visited the giant Oak, and no trail or sign on the road indicated its presence. When we contacted the timber company, they were surprised to hear they had a champion tree on their land. They had just surveyed this area for commercial timber, and promptly halted any cutting around the grove to avoid disturbing the champion Oak.
Getting to the grove proved to be difficult, and involved navigating many miles of remote, poorly marked forest roads, but finding this tree once in the grove was easy. With its seven and a half foot diameter trunk and huge branches, alive and dead, emerging low on the trunk and arching down to the ground, it was easily recognizable as the king of the grove. As an extremely old tree, its health was in decline, but it is a slow decline that has probably been taking place for a century. As a result, most of the branch tips have died back, giving the tree a short, stout appearance.
After marveling at the remarkable size of the champion we set a line at the highest safe branch attachment to reduce the impact to the tree during our ascent. The line was set within fifteen feet of the tallest point of the tree. Using the line drop measuring method, we measured the Garry Oak to be ninety-two feet tall. We also found that the trunk diameter had only increased by four inches in the last 35 years.
Even with the trees old age and competition with younger, more vigorous conifers, the National Champion Oregon White Oak may still stand and repopulate the grove for many years to come.