This oak stands out in the City of Trees.
Towering over the Sacramento Zoo, this mammoth valley oak has stood on its vista at least two centuries. It was already tall when Mark Twain rode steamboats down the nearby Sacramento River.
When William Land Park’s original 238 acres were purchased in 1918, this oak served as a landmark for placing attractions. Besides offering shade in the zoo, it framed the view behind the Swanston Pioneer memorial statue atop the streamlike fountain that runs down to the lily pond.
In recent years, this Sacramento sentinel almost died, a victim of plant disease and prolonged drought.
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But now, this mighty oak has renewed strength, green foliage – and new status. On Wednesday, June 1, the Sacramento Tree Foundation will honor the Sacramento Zoo’s oak with a Legacy Award during its annual Tree Hero celebration.
As Sacramento’s “tree of the year,” the award hails not only the oak but the volunteers who saved it. Working with the zoo and the city of Sacramento, members of the Land Park Volunteer Corps brought this beloved oak back from the brink.
“In recent years, the tree was badly ailing from crypt gall and pit scale, as well as soil compaction from heavy use,” noted the foundation in its award proclamation. “Working with City Parks, the Land Park Volunteer Corps made arrangements to secure a series of disease treatments and specialized fertilization to save this magnificent tree.”
Like many other longtime Land Park residents, volunteer Rick Stevenson could not imagine the park without this oak. He has a lifelong connection with this tree and its hillside.
“It looked bad,” Stevenson said. “Two years ago, it had almost no foliage at all (in summer); it was very sparse. We brought in an arborist and found it had two diseases that both sound scary.”
“The oak was really suffering,” said Craig Powell, founder of the volunteer corps. “We’re having so many problems with redwoods in the park, we didn’t want to lose this oak, too. It’s really gratifying we were able to turn around this magnificent valley oak.”
About 1,000 volunteers are part of the Land Park corps, which formed seven years ago during the recession when the city slashed park staffing, Powell said. At that time, full-time city parks staff went from 17 to two.
In its short history, the corps has become a lifesaver for William Land Park’s urban forest and its thousands of trees. Once a month, scores of volunteers get together for major work parties. Every day, volunteers such as Stevenson walk the park and help out where they can, picking up trash or pulling weeds. They note the health of trees and spot potential problems.
“Our goal this season is to mulch every tree in the park,” Powell said. “Our challenge is we have a park created and planted more than 80 years ago. Some of these trees will start dying off, regardless of drought, in a short period of time. It’s a reminder we need a reforestation plan.”
While oaks can live centuries, other trees time out more quickly. Southern magnolias, for example, have an expected lifespan of 80 to 120 years. Most birches live only 25 to 40 years.
Planting a replacement oak for the zoo’s legacy tree was not a good option, said Stevenson, who spearheaded its rescue. Estimates for its removal topped $9,000, he added. Saving the tree was a much better goal.
“This is the best vista in the park,” he said. “None of us want to wait 200 years for another tree to grow this big and beautiful.”
Tree Care Inc., a Rancho Cordova tree service, provided the specialized treatments to fight the gall and scale diseases. The soil was drenched with fertilizers and the tree treated with pesticides to kill the scale, little insects that suck the juices out of leaves and stems. The oak responded with new healthy growth.
“The area around the tree is now roped off to protect its roots,” Powell said. “Soil compaction really contributed to its poor health. Vehicles were driven over its roots; lots of special events were held under this tree. The zoo created these barriers so the tree now has room to live.”
Zoo staff and animals really appreciate the oak’s continued presence.
“As a conservation-minded organization, we’re just ecstatic that we were able to work with this group and the city,” said zoo spokesperson Tonja Candelaria. “We’re all about conservation of everything. We see so many animals utilizing the tree. We really love this oak.”
Birds – particularly red-tailed hawks – nest in the oak and perch on its branches, she noted. “And there are always lots of squirrels in that tree.”
Brought together by one oak, the volunteers and zoo now are working on another project: planting more trees in the park that could help feed the zoo’s animals.
“Our animals eat a lot of local (greens),” Candelaria said. “In particular, the giraffes love acacia.”
Sacramento Tree Hero Awards
Where: California Farm Bureau’s Heritage Oak Grove, 2300 River Plaza Drive, Sacramento
When: 5:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 1
Details: 916-974-4303, www.sactree.com