Giant tree at Wa-Hi

Superintendent Wade Smith and Project Manager Larry Harding stand at the base of an immense tree on the Walla Walla High School campus.

Sometimes the root of something new is found in something very old. In this case, more than a century old.

The seed of a proposed new park at Walla Walla High School was planted in the late 1880s to the best of anyone’s guess, said Wade Smith, superintendent of Walla Walla Public Schools.

He’s referring to the massive tree on the west side of the high school’s campus, which is set to become a base for a new park, thanks to 1969 Wa-Hi graduate, businessman and philanthropist Michael Murr.

In his time at Wa-Hi, Murr was a high achiever in sports and academics, and he has been recognized by the school district as a graduate of distinction. He went on to earn a bachelor of arts and a master of business administration degree at Harvard University.

Since then, Murr has made his philanthropic mark in a number of ways and places, most notably his home community, and wants to do so again, Smith said.

Murr, who lives in New York and Miami, has driven by the sycamore thousands of times since 1966, “and didn’t even notice it until recently … what a shame,” he said Monday.

“Notwithstanding current smoke conditions, Walla Walla has always been about clean air and water, magnificent trees and great people. For me, assuring the preservation of the giant sycamore symbolizes all that.”

Murr approached the district last spring about developing and funding a project aimed at properly treasuring the historic tree known widely as a sycamore, Smith said.

In reality, the tree is believed to be the world’s largest London plane tree in existence, a hybrid offspring of the American sycamore and the Oriental Plane.

Such trees were first noticed in about 1670 by a gardener in the Oxford Botanical Gardens, who noted saplings coming up he’d never seen before, according to Timothy Standish, a researcher with the Adventist-sponsored Geoscience Research Institute.

“It turned out that these new trees were the result of hybridization between American sycamore trees, Platanus occidentalis, and oriental plane trees, Platanus orientalis, whose native range extends from the Balkans to Iran,” more than 3,000 miles apart, Standish wrote for Adventist Review on Aug. 17.

The Walla Walla version measures 150 feet tall and nearly 30 feet around. Its crown of foliage and branches is in excess of 100 feet in circumference, Smith said, pointing out the tree here outshines by girth and crown the tallest London Plane on record in Europe, noted to have been planted in 1749 to mark the 100th anniversary of the execution of King Charles I.

Murr’s gesture may be as long-lived. The park he has worked with the Stubblefield Trust to create will include walking paths, decorative fencing, benches and other landscaping to highlight the tree. The main focus, however, is to preserve its health.

Smith said that meant pulling in Whitman College and city arborists to evaluate the tree, which was found healthy and “young in its life span.” Anderson Perry and Associates was hired to do site studies. Walla Walla Community College carpentry instructor Larry Harding, another 1969 Wa-Hi graduate, will oversee the $250,000 park project.

Removal of a dilapidated house and shed near the site is slated to happen soon, Smith said.

The project will begin next month and is expected to be completed in spring. Walla Walla Public Schools will financially assist with the buildings’ demolition and has agreed to maintain the tree park.

Murr will announce the name of the park at a later date, Smith added.

For his part, Murr said he is happy the school district shares the enthusiasm about preserving the majestic tree.

“The giant sycamore will now be protected for centuries. Importantly, the sycamore park — with its meditative quality — just might inspire or change the life of a young student or passer-by now and then.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.