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Woman Tracks History Of Portland's Trees

When you look at a tree, what do you see?

For some it’s just a structure of wood and leaves that can provide shade for a summer picnic.

But for others, trees can almost assume a personality — standing for decades in the same place, observing the fever of human activity. 

Kristian Foden-Vencil tracked down one such tree aficionado and files this report.

It’s 10 o’clock on a Monday morning and I’m in Kenilworth Park in Southeast Portland.

Two older women, with warm clothes and a backpack, walk through the greenery looking at a big map.

Phyllis Reynolds: “This is the original map, done by Emanuel Tillman Mische in 1911 for Kenilworth Park. And here is the plan that he made for the park and here is the plant list over here.”

Kristian: “A list of, are those trees or shrubs?”

Phyllis Reynolds: “Trees, shrubs, everything, that he wanted to put into this park.”

80-year-old Phyllis Reynolds folds a copy of the map — so it doesn’t get blown about — and with a pen, marks the precise location and species of every tree.

Phyllis Reynolds: “Here we are, right here right now, at the corner of the tennis court. So, we’re looking at this tree right here.”

Kristian: “Now, let me guess. I should know this. It’s an ash?”

Phyllis Reynolds: “No.”

Kristian: “Well I know it’s not an oak, and it’s not a birch. Elm?”

Phyllis Reynolds: “No, no, no! It’s a London Plane tree. P-l-a-n-e. Plane tree.”

It’s a nice tree, but it’s not one I would more than glance at. It’s probably not much more than 20 years old. But to Reynolds there’s a whole history here.

Phyllis Reynolds: “It’s one of the earliest garden hybrids ever.  It was done in King Charles II in England way back in 1630 something or other. And it’s a cross between an American Sycamore and an Oriental Plane tree. These guys get huge.”

Apparently, London Plane trees are everywhere in France — Napoleon liked them and planted several.

Reynolds knows trees all over Portland that are special to her.

For example, the Grand Fir on the hill above Northwest 23rd and Burnside. She sees it from all over town: the Fremont Bridge; the Vista Avenue Bridge; and even her dentist’s chair. The retired psychologist loves the fact it stands alone, without much shelter, but has survived hundreds of years of storms, logging and the building of a city.

Then there’s  the ‘Burl’ Elm on Southwest 10th and Main — tucked next to the YWCA.

Phyllis Reynolds: “It was planted in 1870 by the Burls and it was brought around South America by boat. It was planted there and it survived. It’s survived all kinds of urbanization. Even the last one. There’s a huge condominium that’s built next to it and it seems to be surviving that.”

Kristian: “I sense you see them not as people, but as characters of their own. That ability to survive and do well when someone builds a condo next to you and takes your sunshine.”

Phyllis Reynolds: “Yeah. I call them sweeties at that point.”

12 years ago, she found a tiny sapling from the ‘Burl’ Elm.  She grins that she didn’t ask anyone, but she dug it up and gave it to her friend Susan Landauer:

Susan Landauer: “I soon won’t have any place to plant tomatoes because I’ve got all shade now. But I love it.”

Today the two women are wandering through Kenilworth Park in a bid to find every tree that was planted by the landscape designer Emanuel Tillman Mische. He worked for the famous Olmstead Firm in Massachusetts before coming to Portland in the early 1900’s.

Reynolds identifies the trees, writes them down and eventually the information will be incorporated into a data base at Portland State University.

Phyllis Reynolds: “What I hope to do in collaboration with the geography department at PSU is to make a book of what Emanuel Tillman Mische did 100 years ago and what’s left. And also provide people with a total tree-ID of Parks. So they can walk into a park and say oh yes, this is this and this is that.”

Kristian: “So nowadays with iPhones and things like that you could do that with an application where you could walk and go and see it.”

Phyllis Reynolds: “Yeah, you could.”

Kristian: “Is that the business plan. I don’t think it is?”

Phyllis Reynolds: “Not yet. But that might be a thought though. I found this park by using an app. So yes, that’s a good idea.”

There you have it. The latest killer app and I won’t charge her a nickel for the idea.

Reynolds is no newcomer to this. She’s already written one book ‘Trees of Greater Portland,’ and she also responsible for the plaques that can be seen pinned to various trees around town — explaining what they are and declaring them ‘heritage trees.’