The Palouse is known for many things - rolling wheat fields, peas and lentils, deep fertile soil - but trees are generally not considered one of the area's specialties. That's what makes the University of Idaho Arboretum and Botanical Garden such a treasure. Presiding over the 63-acre site and its nearby historical cousin, the Shattuck Arboretum, is director Richard Naskali, a long-time professor and advocate for the plant life on the Moscow campus. Naskali will retire in June, but not before sharing his love for the arboreta in a series of tours and events this spring.
Back in 1909, professor Charles Shattuck came to the UI campus to develop a curriculum in forestry. To provide a living laboratory for his students - and beautify the campus at the same time - he planted trees on a weed-choked steep hillside. Over the years, the trees grew into a shady grove of American beech, California incense-cedar, English maple, and Canadian hemlock, and became known as Arboretum Hill. Following Shattuck's death, university officials in 1933 renamed the 14-acre site the Charles Houston Shattuck Arboretum.
"The Shattuck Arboretum is truly holy ground," Naskali says. "It contains some of our greatest specimens, and it's one of the oldest tree plantings west of the Mississippi." He puts Shattuck's accomplishment in perspective this way: "We sit on the eastern edge of the Palouse prairie. When the campus was founded, it was totally treeless."
Among the grand trees on the slope is a lone giant sequoia, measuring three feet nine inches in diameter at 40 inches above ground level. Two smaller companion trees died in the harsh winter of 1968-69, leaving this one to stand alone. Efforts to develop new saplings from seed have been unsuccessful thus far.
Following in Shattuck's footsteps, Richard Naskali arrived in Moscow in 1967 from Ohio and began teaching botany. Eight years later, he was invited to join a committee to select a site for a new and expanded arboretum. The committee chose a 63-acre parcel set in a north-south valley across the street from the president's home. Naskali helped develop the master plan for the arboretum and selected the initial plantings in 1982. Five years later, he was appointed director of the arboretum. Since then, he has raised more than half a million dollars from private sources to fund the growth and maintenance of the arboretum. Now he's aiming for accreditation from the American Association of Museums (AAM), even though fewer than 30 arboreta or botanical gardens in North America have achieved the designation.
"Every tree, grove and shrub here is paid for with private money," he says proudly. "The plants are all labeled, mapped, and placed in geographically correct places. We believe there's no better-labeled collection of documented plants in the West."
Spring is perhaps the best time to visit the arboretum, although its beauty and variety are striking throughout the year. Visitors in April and May will see blooming trees and shrubs in their full glory, Naskali says.
"Right now, the forsythias and dogwoods are in bloom. Later, come the ornamental cherries, flowering crabapples, and a better collection of lilacs than in all of Spokane. Some come from China, and we have a lot of hybrids. And we have blocks of European roses. There will be something in flower from now till June."
The Arboretum Associates, a group dedicated to supporting and enhancing the UI arboreta, plans several events over the next month to take advantage of the springtime bounty. Tonight at 7:30, the group holds its annual meeting with guest speaker Jim Knopf, a landscape architect from Boulder, Colorado, known for his expertise in xeriscaping and water-wise gardening.
"Jim Knopf is one of the early people in xeriscaping," Naskali says. "He was part of the original movement through the Denver Water Department."
Two years ago, Naskali and others created a xeriscape demonstration garden covering a little less than an acre at the southern end of the arboretum. "Kentucky bluegrass and other types of lawns need a great deal of water," he says. "We try to show alternatives, so we've just sown a patch of gorgeous fescue. Very attractive landscapes can be made that can save water."
Saving water is important for both economic and ecological reasons, Naskali asserts.
"We'll be giving away a four-page handout showing how to calculate the cost of water use," he says. "All water in the Moscow-Pullman area is pumped from deep aquifers, and they're dropping about a foot a year. You see this happening all over. The next wars will be fought over water."
The arboretum also makes an attractive rest area for migrating birds and waterfowl at this time of year, and Naskali will lead a series of bird-watching walks on Sunday, April 27, along with amateur ornithologist Terry Gray. Walking tours depart from the north entry of the UI Arboretum and Botanical Garden opposite the UI President's Residence, 1260 Nez Perce Drive, Moscow, Idaho, at 8 am, 9 am, 10 am and 11 am. The walks will go on rain or shine, and organizers encourage walkers to bring along binoculars and rain gear. For more information about the arboretum and related events, visit the new Web site (www.uidaho.edu/arboretum) or call the arboretum office at 208-885-6250.