The appearance of the iconic Pittenger sequoia at St. Luke’s — a little brown and shaggy these days — has been concerning neighbors and tree lovers, including many who have posted on the North End Facebook page.
But tree expert David Cox, co-founder of Environmental Design, Inc. said the tree’s brownish appearance is normal.
“This is a common occurrence and is perhaps particularly darker this year because the winter winds and weather were harsher and there are more eyes on the tree than usual. I am confident the tree is in good health,” he said.
The move, initially planned for May, will likely take place in June. Anita Kissee Wilder, St. Luke’s public relations manager, said the hospital is coordinating the move to coincide with transportation improvements in the area to minimize the effects on the surrounding neighborhood.
Environmental Design Inc., which specializes in moving large trees, will handle the move.
The process to move the tree, notable as the largest known sequoia in the state according to Idaho’s Champion Big Tree List managed by the University of Idaho, began in the fall of 2016.
Crews dug a trench around the tree and pruned its roots back to a 20- to 25-foot radius. They installed a barrier to “ball” the roots and began a specialized watering plan to help the roots heal in preparation for the move.
But how do you move something that big?
Environmental Design invented a technique that involves building a steel platform to go under the tree once its roots are contained. Then, inflatable tubes “like giant hot dogs” are slid under the platform. The tubes are inflated and the tree rises straight up, some 5 or 6 feet in the air, not unlike a wedding cake on a plate, said Cox.
As the platform moves, hauled by a back hoe, tubes in front are deflated. They’re then placed under the back end of the platform and reinflated. In this way, the platform rolls forward. The process is similar to that used to launch ships, said Cox.
The hospital will pay around $300,000 to move and care for the tree.
Once it’s moved, the tree will become property of the city.
A long and storied history
The tree is known as the Pittenger sequoia because its location was once the estate of Fred and Alice Pittenger, prominent Boiseans. The sequoia grew from a small cutting given to Fred Pittenger by the conservationist Emil Grandjean, one of Idaho’s first foresters, around 1912. The family gardener planted the cutting next to the Pittengers’ home.
Alice, a doctor who founded Camp Alice Pittenger, a Girl Scout camp still in operation in McCall, and the Children’s Home in Boise, died in 1953. Fred, also a doctor who served as Idaho surgeon general, died in 1964. New owners moved their house to Caldwell. The sequoia stayed behind.
The tree became a holiday attraction in the 1980s after the hospital began the tradition of stringing it with thousands of Christmas lights. Unfortunately, the decorations took a toll on the health of the tree. St. Luke’s consulted with horticulturists, removed the asphalt from around the sequoia’s trunk and stopped decorating it.
Eventually, tree experts were able to revitalize the tree by removing 11 feet from the top and bending a “leader” branch up to replace the treetop. The cure worked, though it did give the tree its distinctive Prussian helmet shape. The new tip is 15 feet and grew 4 inches this year.
Sequoias, more suited to regions such as Northern California, are relatively rare in the area. The Pittenger sequoia does have a local cousin, growing on the grounds of North Junior High at Fort and 13th streets.
The Statesman included the sequoia in its book “150 Boise Icons,” published in 2013 to mark Boise’s sesquicentennial.