Giant Ogden walnut tree is largest in Utah

(Ben Dorger | Standard-Examiner | The Associated Press) In this May 25, 2018 photo, a century-old tree growing in a vacant lot in downtown Ogden provides shade on a sunny day. State forestry officials confirmed it is the largest known living English walnut tree in Utah, but the area is slated for redevelopment and its future remains uncertain.

Ogden • A little more than 100 years ago, the owners of a new white brick bungalow with a welcoming porch planted an English walnut tree in their backyard.

The home and the neighborhood are gone, but the tree is still growing. State officials confirmed recently that it holds the record for the largest English walnut in Utah. Turns out, it’s remarkably old, too.

Utah State University professor and Wildland Resources Department head Mike Kuhns, who first noticed the tree earlier this year, took a corer to it last week, but the tree is so large he was only able to collect rings back to 1969.

“My increment corer only went in 16 inches, and we would need a core more than twice that long to get to its center,” he said.

Kuhns found the tree in downtown Ogden that turned out to be the largest English walnut in the state. The tree is off Park Boulevard and is currently owned by Ogden City.

Assuming it kept growing at the same rate over the years, Kuhns calculates the tree is 104 years old.

“Very few trees in urban areas make it to 100 years old, and most only live for 15 to 20 years,” he said. “It is not only a tremendous biological and environmental resource because it is large, but it is likely a cultural and historic resource because of its age.”

When the walnut tree was planted, World War I had just begun. The U.S. Forest Service was less than a decade old.

In the tree’s neighborhood, near the banks of the Ogden River, Becker Brewing and Malting Co. was booming — it was a few years before Prohibition. Just to the south, the American Can building was brand new.

“When you’ve got a tree that’s been around for a long time, stories tend to collect with it,” said Jeran Farley, urban and community forestry coordinator for the Utah Department of Natural Resources. “We as people tend to like things that have history and can tell a story.”

Those old trees have value. Big trees like the English walnut have value, too.

Farley also manages the Big Tree and Heritage Tree registries for the state of Utah. He confirmed the walnut tree in downtown Ogden is the biggest of its species known in the state. It’s 85 feet tall, with a trunk 18 feet and 7 inches in circumference.

“Urban trees … cool areas and provide shade. They cool buildings. They help clean the air, they help collect pollutants in the air, they act as filters. They provide visual interest. They provide habitat for animals and places for children to play,” Farley said. “They are important.”

The house that was once home to the English walnut was built in 1907, according to information from the Weber County Assessor’s Office. The entire neighborhood was demolished between 2009 and 2011.

An undated photo from the Weber County assessor shows a home, built in 1907, and a English walnut tree in the backyard. The house was demolished in 2010 or 2011, but the tree is still growing in downtown Ogden.

The tree somehow survived, even as apartments and parking lots were built to the east.

“I would guess at some point when that whole area was cleared … somebody was scared it would fall on their bulldozer or something, it was too big for the equipment they had,” Kuhns said.

Now part of the Ogden River redevelopment area, the tree has an uncertain future. Ogden City currently owns the land where the tree grows. City officials previously told the Standard-Examiner they can’t make any promises about its future.

“It won’t be at all rewarding if the tree comes down,” Kuhns said. “It would be one thing if the tree gets hit by lightning, dies of its own accord, but if it’s just bulldozed or something, that would be sad.”

Kuhns’ tree-ring record also shows the walnut tree is in trouble. In the past six years, its growth has slowed. That could be because the tree’s roots are damaged or, more likely, because it’s no longer getting water.

“If the tree has not been irrigated, then it is likely under considerable stress, as indicated by the narrow growth rings,” Kuhns said.

Stressed trees are more susceptible to disease. Thousand cankers disease, caused by bugs and a fungus, has wiped out “thousands” of black walnut trees in Utah, Kuhns said, and he worries Ogden’s English walnut could be vulnerable.

With a little effort, however, the tree can be saved and keep growing with its changing neighborhood. It could be part of a residential landscape again. It could shade a parking lot. It could continue filtering pollution, providing shade and producing edible nuts.

“It is very possible to save a tree during a construction project as long as the owner or developer wants to save it and gets an expert involved from early on,” Kuhns said. “This is the perfect time to start saving this tree.”