Friday, March 9, 2012


I always knew the exact tree I wanted to hunt down for the beginning of this blog.  There was never any doubt in my mind.  It just took a while to get down there.  There's always too much to do, too many errands to run, too many hours of Law and Order on the TV.

Then, something happened.

I went to the CVS Pharmacy down the street from my urban cabin.  I needed a new hand-soap dispenser, some more paper towels, which I buy in bulk, and a new bottle of dandruff shampoo.  No matter what time I go to the CVS, there's always a line at the counter.  Walking around the store, I very rarely see anybody in the aisles but, as soon as I approach the register, there's suddenly a line of people.  It happens every time.

The person in front of me?  He was buying a 36-oz bottle of Mountain Dew, some canned soup and an assortment of candy from the impulse-buy racks in front of the register.  Then, he started filling out an application for a CVS Wellness Card to get the initial 10% discount.  That took about ten minutes and that's all it took.

It was time.  I needed to go tree hunting.  Like I said, I knew exactly where I needed to go.  


Spring is right around the corner.  Every tree I passed on the way to my car seemed to be bursting with new buds.  If you know how to look, this is an exciting time of the year.  It's hard to see, I admit, but spring is right there, right now, at the end of every branch on every tree.  I tried to take some pictures that could capture this, but it's too small, too ephemeral.  This time of year, spring happens out of the corner of your eye.

I'd say that Philadelphia is about three weeks away from being all leafed out.  I checked my mental calendar and reminded myself that, on March 20th, it will be the first day of the first moon of Wabun the Golden Eagle, Spirit Keeper of the East.  According to the Medicine Wheel, the first moon of Wabun’s reign is called the Budding Trees Moon.

Cherry Tree in early bloom
It looks like Philadelphia is right on schedule and the Wheel gets
it right yet again.

Some trees are already in springtime mode.  It’s been an 
unusually warm winter and the cherries are already blooming.
I’ve got to drive myself to the Japanese house in Fairmount Park.  I’ve never been there, a fact which always surprises me most of all, but I heard they have groves of weeping cherry trees
right near the Shofuso Tea House.  This would be the time
to visit.

I also saw my first leaves for the year.  They were on a row of maples along Fitzwater Street between 17th and 18th Streets.  These are very, very early leafers.  Most of the maples are still in their flower stages.  The maples, the cherries and the olives, 
these are always the first trees to bud, flower and leaf. 

17th Street Cherry
17th Street Cherry

Which trees spring next?  

Usually the magnolias, the dogwoods and the callery pears. 

I passed a callery pear in front of a tire store on the way to North Philly.  

Callery Pear Right Before Bloom

I could see the big buds on the end of the branches.  This is a tree I only appreciate in the early spring.  Once their white flower bloom is done, I see the callery pear as just another cog in the bureaucratic monoculture conspiracy.


Hunting Park is located in North Philadelphia.  That’s the name of the neighborhood and also the name of the 87-acre park in the center of the area.  This is a tough neighborhood, with one of the worst crime rates in the city.  In fact, the park itself has one of the worst crime rates in the city.

According to, since March 1st, the following crimes have been reported in the Hunting Park neighborhood: burglary by day (1), burglary by night (1), vehicle theft (6), theft (8), retail theft (1), aggravated assault by handgun (2), aggravated assault by other weapon (2), aggravated assault: gang on gang: by knife (1).

There’s hope though.  The park itself is right in the beginning waves of a $20-million rehabilitation spearheaded by the Fairmount Park Commission and the Philadelphia Horticultural Society.  Driving through the park, I noticed two new baseball fields, one sponsored by Ryan Howard himself.  There’s new playground equipment, the rec center was bustling, and people were working in the new community garden.

But, for me, right now, there is only one reason to visit Hunting Park: the gigantic, monstrous, perplexing willow oak that stands like a titan in the parking lot near the entrance at Old York Road.

Typical Willow Oak Size: Fifth and Pine Streets
Willow oaks don’t ever get this big in Philadelphia.  This is the kind of oak that flourishes in the southern states, not in the Delaware River Watershed, not like this, not here.  Philadelphia itself is a finger on the northernmost arm of this tree's range and, although it can be found in the wild, it’s unusual for one to grow this big.  Out in the woods, there’s too much competition from other oaks and, since it likes to nestle close to rivers and creeks like its namesake, the willow, it rarely has the space to get this tall, this wide, this humongous.  Philly actually has a lot of willow oaks but they are normally medium-sized street trees, perfect for street-side shade.

This willow oak is an anomaly.  I first met this tree while scouting locations for a farmers’ market almost a year ago and it has never left my train of thought.  With a $20-million revitalization in full swing, I hope somebody at that table thinks to celebrate this park’s most interesting set of trees.

But I hold no delusions.  I carry no confidence.  As I stood there under its wind-rattled, heavy branches, I decided it was up to me to make this tree notable and remarkable. 

With this blog as my witness, I hereby declare that I will successfully register this willow oak as a Pennsylvania Champion Tree as recognized by the PA Big Tree Society.  I never measured a tree before, never nominated a Champion Tree before, but this one deserves the attempt.

You stay in touch.  I’m lazy, I’ll admit.  I’m addicted to bad TV and Sportscenter.  I’m prone to just sit around and do nothing, even though I’m a restless and antsy person by nature.  It’s a horrible combination but I promise that, by summer, this willow oak will be recognized as a Champion Tree of Philadelphia.

Here’s one more picture of the tree, just for inspiration.

That blurry, handsome dwarf standing next to Hunting Park’s future champion Quercus phellos?  That’s me.  Jon Spruce.


  1. Great entry. Can't wait for more!

  2. Replies
    1. You're absolutely right, DNA. I just got to get the right tools.

  3. Very cool. Glad to find your blog.