Entering its 30th year, the Ashland Tree of the Year contest is a quiet and fun event that costs nothing, invites public voting and does the service of canonizing privately owned trees that are usually big, old and beautiful, and often historic, so that residents will be encouraged to admire them and help their own trees become old and venerable.

Through Wednesday, Feb. 28, you can vote for one of seven citizen-nominated trees at http://gis.ashland.or.us/treeofyear2018/. On the site, you can peruse each one, zoom in for a close-up, see the number of votes so far, and find the address and go look at it. The winner will be announced at the March 8 meeting of the city’s Tree Commission, in time for Arbor Week.

The leader so far is the modest-looking fig tree at 566 Fairview St. with 37 votes, almost as many as all the other trees combined. The blurb says it’s more than 100 years old, got split many years ago, is a “survivor” and produces bountiful figs.

Tree Commission member Asa Cates says proud owners sometimes call friends and neighbors to vote for their tree, often accounting for one nominee leaping ahead of the pack.

“In this case, there was a much larger fig tree nominated, but the Planning Department wouldn’t let it be on the ballot because it’s on public land; however, many winners in the past were public and that didn’t keep them off the ballot,” said Cates.

The rules of the contest say trees must be on private land because trees on public land have the advantage of professional landscapers pruning and watering them, says historian and former Tree Commission member Maureen Battistella.

Those rules are bent on occasion. One public tree, a big silver maple on the Southern Oregon University campus, was named 2014 Tree of the Year, helping a groundswell of support that spared it when new dorms were built between Wightman and Walker streets.

A Tree of the Year designation gives a sacrosanct aura to a tree, but doesn’t mean it can’t be cut down. The 2013 winner, a cottonwood on lower Clay Street, was targeted for removal to make way for affordable housing. But riled-up city residents staged protests and it survived.

“The point of the contest is to raise awareness of the role of trees in our community,” says Tree Commission member Christopher John. “A lot of people recognize beautiful trees and have an emotional attachment to them, but we should keep in mind that gives them no extra level of protection. It’s just a fun thing to raise awareness of big, healthy trees."

Winners usually have some history behind them and often are “specimen trees,” meaning they exhibit the best qualities of that species, says Tree Commission member Mike Oxendine, SOU staff arborist.

In addition to the fig tree on Fairview Street, other trees on the ballot — and nominating comments — this year are:

Black oak, 875 Oak St. More than 300 years old. “Epitomizes the natural and cultural history of the oak.” Has 13 votes.
Oak, just east of Clay Street Park. “Beautiful. Kept from days when the property was a work site … has a chain grown into upper branch where it helped hoist equipment. It gives majesty to apartment complex for subsidized housing of elders and low income families.” Has 8 votes.
Italian cypress, northeast corner of Siskiyou Boulevard and Mountain Avenue. “I'm nominating this beautiful and health legacy tree, as old as my father at least, because I understand a developer intends to cut it down to make a parking lot. So many birds.”
Dogwood, 77 Granite St. “ It's the biggest and most beautiful dogwood tree I think I have ever seen! It has really pretty pink flowers in the spring and it is just so full and uniform. I love it!” Has 6 votes.
Mulberry, 664 Ray Lane. “I think this is a specimen tree — beautiful, symmetrical shape of canopy. Full color is superb! Mature and fits its setting.” Has 5 votes.
Tree of heaven, 147 Nutley, at Scenic. “It hosts a monstrous formation of English ivy (with a root 6" in diameter) that conceals its brittle branches and blocks the sunlight. This could serve as a replacement for the Ailanthus (tree of heaven, the 1989 Tree of the Year) that was removed from the plaza in 2006.” Has 2 votes.

As a guideline for future nominations, Battistella says the ideal is the Osage orange tree, planted by noted pioneer Abel Helman in the front of his still-standing house at the corner of Helman and Orange streets.

“I would love the Tree of the Year to have heritage,” says Battistella. “It’s a remarkable significant tree, marking the founding of Ashland and pioneers who became wealthy. There’s a photo of him standing in front of his house with it, when it was a sapling.”

The Tree of the Year contest started in 1988 with honoring of the giant, spreading Monterey cypress in front of the old Briscoe Elementary School at the corner of Laurel and North Main Streets. The list of winners is at https://www.ashland.or.us/Page.asp?NavID=11718.

The Tree Commission also hopes to create a Tree Professional of the Year contest, says Associate Planner Derek Severson, to honor those who protect trees, such as Lomakatsi Restoration Project.

In addition to the website voting, votes may be emailed to nathan.emerson@ashland.or.us or by mail to 20 E. Main St., Ashland, OR 97520.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.