Springtime in La Grande.  Lilacs, tulips, irises, and of course, spirea.  Spirea with its masses of small, white flower clusters.  Spirea with its delicate foliage.  Spirea with its cascading branches.  Spirea around the Grand Staircase.

spirea Spirea at the top of the Grand Staircase – Photo – May 2, 2015

We heard from some of you about your memories of the “mysterious hiding places just on the outsides of the stairs”.  Might some of those hiding places have been the secret places created by the propensity of spirea to mound, the arching branches bending to the ground to form an umbrella?

And, every little girl who attended Ackerman Elementary School knew that, when shaken, spirea branches release showers of petals – armfuls of delicate white confetti.

From early pictures, it appears that spirea were planted around the staircase in the 1930’s, as a part of the original landscaping.

The 1919 Gardeners’ Chronicle of America, Volumes 23-24 indicates that the Vanhouttei (bridal wreath) variety of spirea “has justly achieved great popularity”, so it was likely a common choice of landscapers of that era.

Spirea Vanhouttei

In the 1934 photo below (courtesy of the EOU Pierce Library) you can see the small bushes (although not in bloom) at the bottom (along with the “baby” arborvitae).

Spirea 1

By the 1960’s, bridal wreath spirea had become an impressive feature of the hillside, each spring showcasing a profusion of white blossoms.

Spirea 2

Some of the spirea is now gone and the extensive work needed to fully restore the Grand Staircase may one day necessitate partial or total removal of the rest.  In addition, Eastern Oregon University’s 2012 Master Plan calls for a “local landscape palette” – planting with locally available native and adapted species to help meet the University’s sustainable development goals for landscape management.

From what we’ve seen so far (e.g. with the plantings around the Hoke Union Building) David Lageson, Director of Facilities & Planning at EOU, has done a great job leading that effort.  So, we’re sure whatever is in store for future landscaping around the staircase will be just wonderful!

Hoke 1

Hoke 2

Hoke native plant landscaping – photos courtesy of David Lageson


We will end with an aside, classified under “random things you learn when you’re trying to save an architectural treasure”.  We were fascinated to find out that the word Aspirin comes from the name of the chemical ASA—Acetylspirsäure in German. Spirsäure (salicylic acid) was named for the meadowsweet plant, Spirea ulmaria, from which it could be derived.  You can read more about it (and the fascinating history or Aspirin) here.


To read more about the staircase and why it needs saving go to our About page here.

If you have any questions or have Grand Staircase memories, stories, or photos you would like to share please contact us at savethegrandstaircase@gmail.com.


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