Western redcedar (Thuja plicata)
West of Old Main
The western redcedar, or giant arborvitae, is one of the familiar forest giants of the Pacific slope. Wood from Thuja plicata is highly prized for its straight grain and decay-resistant properties; shingle mills dependent on western redcedar formerly sustained many small logging communities throughout Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. Although the tree is too large for most landscape uses, it has many cultivars that do find their way by design into parks and lawns (see example below).
The redcedar shown here dates from sometime after 1909. It is now about 125 ft. high and over 5 ft. in diameter, and shows no sign of diminished growth. Record trees reach heights of more than 170 ft., with diameters approaching 20 ft.
Western redcedars abound on the WWU campus and around its periphery; some excellent examples are found on Sehome Hill. This particular tree was chosen because of its proximity to Old Main, and for the fact that for most of its height it consists of five vigorous trunks.
To date it has proved impossible to learn much about the history of this tree. What follows is plausible speculation. Because no gardener would plant a tree with such growth potential so close to an important public building, it seems likely that this tree was a "volunteer"; that is, it seeded itself. Probably some gardener cut it down, but neglected to exhume its roots. At the time this (may have) happened, the young ladies of Whatcom State Normal School at Bellingham were much influenced by Professor Ida Agnes Baker (see entry BS). Miss Baker was a lover, and fierce defender, of all things living and natural. It should not be too difficult, then, to envisage a harassed gardening crew surrounded by angry young women in hoop skirts, bent on protecting the mutilated little tree. And so the tree survived, and prospered. In another century or so it may be necessary to move Old Main, to give it room to grow.
See Thuja plicata on Wikipedia.