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Tucson Oddity: City's tallest tree has a name and a story

Trees in the desert, especially those providing plenty of shade, tend to get more attention than ones in more forested parts of the world.

One local tree has garnered its fair share of renown over the years, so much so that it even has a back story and a moniker, along with the official designation as Tucson's tallest tree.

Known as "Phina's Tree" — for the little girl who planted it — the red gum eucalyptus that hovers over the south side of West Congress Street just west of the Santa Cruz River is somewhere between 110 and 120 feet tall, a local tree expert estimates.

"It's been a while since anyone's measured it, but it's definitely the biggest one in the city," said Doug Koppinger, coordinator of Trees for Tucson, a program of the local nonprofit agency called Tucson Clean & Beautiful.

Koppinger said there might be some trees on Mount Lemmon that stand taller, and others have claimed trees in other parts of the city top Phina's Tree.

Even without being as tall as it is, Phina's Tree would likely still be considered Tucson's most notable tree for its colorful history.

As the story goes, in 1910 the eucalyptus was planted by Delphina Valencia Lizarraga Bravo, who came to be known as "Mamaphina" after she ended up raising her nine younger sisters and brothers as a teenager.

According to son Manny Lopez, who relayed the story of his mother during an event at a local boutique in March 2008, Mamaphina planted the tree in hopes of bringing shade to people in the Menlo Park neighborhood who would wait along Congress to ride the city bus.

Over the years, the tree has been maintained by the city and other groups interested in keeping its history alive. The city even altered its plans to widen Congress Street in 1970 to avoid harming Phina's Tree.

The city also is working on getting a new sign to commemorate the tree, said Diana Rhodes, an aide in Councilwoman Regina Romero's Ward 1 office. "It is a huge landmark tree for Menlo Park and a favorite of the organizers of El Día de San Juan and the new Mercado San Augustín community being built nearby," Rhodes said.

The eucalyptus was placed on the Arizona Community Tree Council's Great Trees of Arizona list in 2002 and is a regular stop on Trees for Tucson's annual Great Trees of the Old Pueblo tour.

Have an oddity?

Is there something you've noticed while driving through Tucson that has piqued your curiosity to the point that you wish you could find out more about it?

Drop us a line, and we'll look into it. Call Brian J. Pedersen at 573-4224, or send an e-mail to

Contact reporter Brian J. Pedersen at 573-4224 or

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