Washington • Tucked into a corner of the nation’s capital and miles away from the tourist-jammed monuments and museums lies a forest of state trees — sugar maples from New York, the Magnolia from Mississippi, the blue spruce for Utah and Colorado.
And soon, the U.S. National Arboretum may have to plant another tree if a Utah lawmaker has his way.
The arboretum in northeast Washington boasts a grove of trees representing the official ones from many of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Utah’s blue spruce, a bushy, tall tree on the grove’s edge, has been a fixture for about two decades.
But with the Utah Legislature debating a measure by Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, that would declare Utah’s tree the quaking aspen, a species that makes up 10 times more of the state’s greenery than the blue spruce, the sign on the arboretum’s current tree may change and a new seedling may be planted nearby.
Whether a quaking aspen would survive, though, is a big question.
“Quaking aspen, in all likelihood, wouldn’t do so well here,” says Joan Feely, a curator and horticulturist at the arboretum, “because they’re really a cold-weather species.”
The 446-acre arboretum — which features plants, flowers and trees from across the United States and the world — currently has one quaking aspen, though it hasn’t fared well in Washington’s humid heat.
Instead of leaves turning orange, yellow and red in the fall, they turn black.
“The leaves get mildewy and they just fall off,” says Feely, who notes that she has seen the fall foliage of quaking aspen elsewhere and “it’s spectacular, but not so much here.”
But Brian Cottam, Utah’s state forester, says if the official tree changes and the arboretum wants to give it a go, he’s game.
“If we change the state tree — and we are hopeful for that change — I’d love to work with the National Arboretum,” Cottam says. “We could send them an aspen clone and help them in any way we need to.”
Okerlund’s measure, SB41, has cleared the Utah Senate and is now before the full House.
While not all states are represented at the arboretum — Alaska and Hawaii, for example, don’t have trees that would grow in the mid-Atlantic — the D.C. grove offers examples from pines to oaks to hollies, scattered in a grassy area complete with picnic tables.
The sampling of tree varieties lies near the U.S. Capitol’s original columns, which now stand alone like an ancient Greek temple.
Other states have changed their trees before. Kentucky swapped the Kentucky Coffeetree for the tulip poplar. The coffeetree, now the state’s “heritage tree,” remains in the grove.
The blue spruce — also known as the Colorado blue spruce, or Picea pungens — will remain in the grove, too, even if Utah makes the change because the tree also represents Colorado.
Cottam notes that if Utah’s state tree becomes the quaking aspen and it can take root in Washington, officials there would have to be mindful because the species spreads. One of the largest organisms on the planet is believed to be a quaking-aspen stand in central Utah known as the Pando Clone.
“Other trees would sprout up” if the aspen takes hold in the arboretum, Cottam says, “and then they’ll never forget us in Utah.”