How Did Sacramento Become the City of Trees?

When settlers arrived during the Gold Rush-era, the Central Valley region was mostly covered by grasses. Finding the summers intolerably hot, the newcomers planted shade trees that flourished in the rich soil at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers.

We Could Almost be Named OAKland

Home to a number of native trees in Sacramento, the most recognizable are our native oaks. The three most common native oak trees are the valley oak (Quercus lobata) the interior live oak (Quercus wislizenii) and the blue oak (Quercus douglasii). Oak trees can pollinate other oaks in the same botanical section and a number of hybrid oaks can be found at certain locations in Sacramento.In eastern Sacramento County, blue oaks are most common. Blue oaks are well adapted for our Mediterranean weather patterns and thrive with wet winters and hot, dry summers. If this natural pattern is interrupted or altered (for example by the addition of irrigation within the area surrounding the tree) the blue oak will decline and not live out its potentially centuries long life span.The valley oak is the largest tree in the valley. These trees love to grow in the deep soils left by the meandering rivers and flooding cycles of pre-settlement Sacramento. Though highly adaptable, they will grow in almost any of our valley soils if treated with care. These large trees prefer to keep their roots dry in the summertime and do not appreciate heavy irrigation.The interior live oak is the most common evergreen oak in the valley. This tree sports two different leaf forms with young foliage having spiky edges and older foliage having smooth edges. Though similar to its cousin the coast live oak, the interior live oak is better suited to our extremely hot summers.

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How Did Sacramento Get to Have so many Trees?

The first known reference to Sacramento as the “City of Trees” dates back to 1855, and by the early 1900s the saying had clearly taken hold.One place to witness the city’s incredible canopy is in Land Park, where at 33 percent coverage that area has the most trees in the city.Jennifer Drayton lives in Arden Park, a neighborhood that is right up there with Land Park in terms of canopy coverage. In fact, it was the trees that spurred Drayton and her husband to buy a house there.“The things that we really fell in love with are the two magnificent oak trees in the back and the beautiful maple that’s in front,” Drayton explained during a recent chat at her home.But she always wondered: “How did Sacramento get to have so many trees?”

One Million Tree March

A 2018 city report listed 87,324 trees within its nearly 100 square miles. Hocker says that number only reflects street trees and ones in parks, and the data was collected in 2010.“I think that it is fair to say that the city maintains approximately 100,000 public trees,” Hocker said. “Overall, there are approximately 1 million trees within city limits on both public and private property.”


Over the course of 150 years, a combination of cultural and natural processes drove Sacramento's transition from City of the Plains to the City of Trees.  Local government directed early street and park tree plantings and banned problem tree species by ordinance. During the first half of the 20th century, participation in street tree planting and preservation by groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, Boy Scouts, Science Teachers Association, and "tree enthusiasts" raised public awareness and civic pride. The large trees shading city streets became a community icon, frequently described as the "crowning jewel of Sacramento." More recently, concern about street tree health associated with declining funds for municipal tree care has spawned new partnerships that involve trained volunteers in Dutch elm disease control, residents in energy-conserving yard tree planting, and a public task force in developing policy recommendations to perpetuate Sacramento's legacy as the City of Trees.

Made in the Shade

As April showers turn the region green, a new locally produced documentary, Made in the Shade, is shedding light on how Sacramentans fought to turn the city’s open spaces into a lush tree canopy that now serves as a natural air conditioner and a significant source of civic pride.Set to debut with a free screening on April 25 at the Crest Theatre, Made in the Shade is directed by Phil D’Asaro, a Sacramento resident whose short documentary Death of Del Pasowhich chronicles the economic decline along North Sacramento’s Del Paso Boulevard—won the Producer’s Choice Award at A Place Called Sacramento film festival in 2015. D’Asaro and producer Bruce Handley have spent the past two-and-a-half years studying the city’s urban tree canopy, examining how Sacramento evolved from treeless farmland to possessing the largest tree canopy in the U.S. and the third largest worldwide, after Vancouver and Singapore, according to a 2017 MIT study.“I think the tree canopy in Sacramento is probably the most important thing in Sacramento—period,” D’Asaro says. “I don’t think life would be possible [here] without this tree canopy, and it certainly wouldn’t have been possible 100 years ago.”.

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