Old-growth juniper trees define much of the High Desert landscape, but it’s rare to find an ancient juniper in someone’s backyard.
That’s the case for Claudette Wirkkula, an 83-year-old Eagle Crest resident who has a juniper tree on her property estimated to be between 800 and 1,000 years old. The tree, which is a little more than 12 feet tall, is one of the oldest known trees in Central Oregon.
“Because of that length of time and what it endured, it’s a seat of wisdom,” Wirkkula said. “It’s seen more than we will ever see.”
As much as Wirkkula enjoys viewing the old tree from her back deck, the tree is rotting and has become a wildfire hazard for the community west of Redmond.
Wirkkula plans to have the tree cut down and to use the salvageable wood for a round table in her home.
“The thought of cutting it down makes me cry,” she said. “But it is diseased. It has to come down.”
Wirkkula is hiring Scott Stewart, who owns Log and Lumber Concepts in Redmond, to remove the tree and repurpose the remaining wood.
Stewart said he won’t know how rotted out the tree is until he cuts it down, but he can tell just by looking at it that it needs to come down. He plans to do the work in the next few weeks.
“The top is completely rotted out,” he said. “It’s not viable anymore.”
Juniper trees that are several hundred years old can be found across the region, especially in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness east of Bend, Stewart said. Some of the old trees were used as target practice by soldiers in the 1800s, and bullets are still lodged in the trees.
“We find bullets all the time,” Stewart said.
It is special to have a juniper tree nearly 1,000 years old sitting outside Wirkkula’s house, Stewart said.
“They are usually not that close to where the houses are,” he said.
Ed Keith, the Deschutes County forester, said the county does not keep track of its oldest trees, but a 1,000-year-old juniper would be one of the oldest in the region. Most junipers and ponderosa pines are between 300 and 400 years old, and some are up to 600 years old, he said.
“If it is that old, it is going to be one of the older Western junipers that I know of,” he said.
The ancient trees sit in areas that were spared from wildfires, and somehow the juniper outside Wirkkula’s home avoided wildfires and other dangers over the centuries, Keith said.
The juniper tree on Wirkkula’s property shows its age through its weathered branches. Keith said the condition of a juniper shows its age more than its size.
“More indicators of age are how gnarled the bark is and the amount of deadwood on there,” Keith said.
Wirkkula’s 3,300-square-foot home was built in 2002, and at the time, the developer wanted to conserve trees in the area and allowed the home to be built next to the juniper. Wirkkula and her husband moved into the home in February 2012 after 14 years living in Astoria, where they met.
Since moving into the Eagle Crest home, Wirkkula has admired the juniper and the way it blended into the views of the High Desert.
Having a table made from its wood will keep the old tree from going to waste, Wirkkula said.
“We are doing what we have to do in the most respectful way,” she said.
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