El Palo Alto – the Stanford Tree

Today, life finally brought me to a tree that I’d wanted to visit for a while: El Palo Alto.

As I learned quickly when I moved to the San Francisco Bay area almost 15 years ago, Palo Alto, the city where Stanford University is located, means “tall stick” or “tall tree” in Spanish. Palo Alto is also well known for Silicon Valley icons such as the garage-birthplace of Hewlett Packard, the PostIt tributes on the Apple Store after Steve Jobs’ death, and Tesla Motor’s headquarters. Of note, the city seal contains a tree:


And two of the official Stanford University logos contain a tree as well:

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Finally, the unofficial mascot of the Stanford University Cardinals sports events is ….. – you guessed it right! – a tree. The Stanford Tree is, according to Wikipedia,  has been called “one of America’s most bizarre and controversial college mascots”. Every year, a new person gets chosen to become The Stanford Tree in a gruesome competition called Tree Week. And a nice factoid for my microbiology crowd: Bob Siegel, currently professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford, once was The Tree too! Every year a new Tree costume is made.

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Some of The Stanford Tree costumes of years past. Source: http://www.thepostgame.com

Taking all these things into account, several questions have been on my mind for a long time: Has there ever been a real Palo Alto Tree, and if so, does it still exist?

As it turns out, the answers to both of these questions are: Yes! The Tree is real, it still exists, and it’s over 1000 years old. After some digging around, I found out that El Palo Alto is located in El Palo Alto park just North of the Stanford Shopping Center. The tree, a Coastal Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), was the location of a campsite for the Portola Expedition Party in 1769. In 1776, it was described by a Spanish missionary as ““I beheld in the distance a tree of immense stature rising above the plain of oaks like a grand tower.”

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Left: El Palo Alto, ca. 1910. Right: El Palo Alto, ca. 2004. Source: Wikipedia.

There are several pages on the history of El Palo Alto, including a Wikipedia page and one from at PaloAltoHistory.org, where you can read how tall the tree was, and how its health declined in the 18th and 19th century due to lack of water because of the demands of growing industry – and Stanford University! – nearby. Around 1988, efforts by Jim Johnson and many others improved conditions for the tree, and it began to show new growth.

And today, I finally was able to pay a visit to the tree. El Palo Alto is located in El Palo Alto Park, a small park right next to the CalTrain tracks.

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Walking in the small park, this was almost a case of “can’t see the forest for the trees”. The tree does not really stand out because it is surrounded by a lot of other trees. But it has been well marked with several plaques at the base of the thick tree trunk.

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A pipe that brings water to spray the top of the tree has been installed a couple of years ago. Today, the tree is only 68% of its old height, but still very much alive and over 1000 years old. I stood a couple of minutes by its trunk, contemplating its rich history and old age. It was wonderful.

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