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How a Colorado spruce became Utah's state tree

Published October 2, 2010 8:24 pm

Some wanted the box elder, while others preferred the juniper.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In his wonderful 1950 book, A Natural History of Western Trees, Donald Peattie writes about Utah's state tree, the Colorado blue spruce. This tree is popular in eastern gardens, he says. "But when the Easterner comes West, he does not find the middle slopes of the Rockies covered with neat blue symmetrical little trees like those on the lawn. … In this wild state, they are in beauty far above the mere symmetry of the lawn-grown specimens; here they have the proud look of fighters."

These fighters have been in a few legislative fights.

Utah started to kick around the idea of a state tree in the early 1900s. In 1919, Rep. Wilford Day, of Cedar City, sponsored a bill to anoint the spruce. Day praised the tree's hardiness and ease of transplanting. The bill died.

Day tried again in 1921. By now, representatives of Box Elder County and Poplar Grove in Salt Lake City had other ideas. Why couldn't the state tree be the box elder? Or the poplar? They argued until the spruce bill died again.

All who have put up with box elder bugs and other quirks of the tree will be astounded to know that in 1923, the Box Elder County representative actually nominated the male box elder as the state tree (the female box elder being too messy). However, he "was asked not to further the cause lest mistakes be made in deciding the sex, and an unclean, undesirable tree be given the place of honor."

Nevertheless, in 1925, 1927 and 1929, boosters tried again to exalt the box elder. The Legislature didn't go for it.

Finally, in 1933, the blue spruce got its day. Both chambers chose the tree unanimously in an hour. It may be a coincidence, but I think not, that the Utah Federation of Women's Clubs had pushed for the blue spruce this time. No doubt echoing their arguments, the Murray Eagle wrote that the tree "is a valuable tree for lumber, is important for wood lot use, and it is one of the most beautiful of the conifers for ornamental purposes."

Lots of states had state flowers at the time, but now that the Colorado blue spruce was Utah's state tree, "Utah is very much in the lead in the adoption of an official state tree." And Utah had beat Coloradans out in claiming "their" tree, which may have been part of the hurry. Colorado adopted the blue spruce in 1939.

Over the years, some Utahns, not so impressed with "ornamental" qualities, have thought the Utah juniper (or cedar) symbolizes the state better. Not because of the name, but because it is widespread, rugged, homely and tough. Peattie writes (from his 1950s perspective), "it is as characteristic a settler as the Mormons, and in its venerable age sometimes reminds you of an old patriarch of the sect — rugged and weathered and twisted by hardship, but hard, too, to discourage or kill." It's intertwined with our past: Indigenous people used the tree for structures, medicines, poultices, purification and protection, food, diapers, beads, and more. Juniper poles fenced the state; juniper logs warmed homes.

You may remember that in 2008, fourth-graders and teachers pushed for a switch to the juniper. But the Utah Cattlemen's Association scotched the movement, fearing this aggressive tree would earn special protection that would slow down juniper removal programs that increase the acres for grazing.

So we still have the blue spruce: still beautiful and symmetrical—and, in my mind, not nearly as interesting as a twisted old juniper. But as history shows, no matter the topic, you'll always find someone with a different opinion.

Kristen Rogers-Iversen can be reached at kristenri@yahoo.com. Sources: University of Michigan "Native American Ethnobotany" website; Utah state legislature website; Iron County Record; Davis County Clipper; Salt Lake Tribune; Salt Lake Telegram; Murray Eagle.