Wednesday, April 18, 2012


The best part about spring is its inconsistency. 

Summer is one long battery of heat, sun, sweat and glare.  The best part of summer is walking into air-conditioning and peaches. 

Winter? I actually enjoy winter, but I admit that it’s just one long onslaught of cold, moon, ice and snow.  The best part of winter is apple cider and wearing long johns.

When it comes to weather though, I’ll take the eager spring and its seasonal shadow, autumn, any time. This is my kind of life, this weather.  It’s inconsistent, contrary, capricious and spontaneous. 

Winter?  You know it’s cold.  Summer?  You know it’s hot.  Spring and autumn?  You better just follow the advice of Bob Dylan, America’s greatest weatherman: You want to know the weather?  Open up the window and stick your head outside.

One day, it’s hot and sunny.  The next day, it’s cold and drizzly.  That’s nice.  I like it when it takes two attempts to walk out the door for the day.  I never get the right clothes on the first time around.

Here in the Lenapehanna Delaware River Watershed, we’re only two or three day away from the next spring moon…it all depends on the frogs.  It’s been a good moon, full of flowers and adventure, but I wanted to get one more good tree-hunt done before the next rising.

Something special.  Something rare.  Something out of the ordinary.  This is going to get a little nerdy.


Paulownia tomentosa
I went to Logan Circle, right in the middle of the Ben Franklin Parkway.  I’ve been driving around the circle for the last few days and the circle of trees surrounding the fountain was catching my eye.

These are paulownias.  Native to China and Korea, it’s also called the Empress Tree or Princess Tree, probably because of its purple flower, and the way that those flower grow, in what’s called a corolla, which means garland or wreath

It’s a strange tree to plant around a city landmark but it’s part of the tradition.  There used to be a circle of older paulownias around the fountain but they became too old and weathered, deteriorated, full of cracks and crevices and fungus.  Using cuttings from the original paulownias, these new trees were planted and, thanks to their quick growth of nine inches per week, they should be landmarks themselves in no time.

When I hunted them down, their big flowers were out, blooming purple, shooting out of the tips of their barely-leafed branches like the fountain in the background.

This is a virile tree.  It spreads thousands and thousands of tiny seeds from those hard, split nut-cases that persist on the branches all throughout the winter.  In its native land of China, those seeds were used by porcelain distributors as packing material for overseas deliveries of china plateware and fake Ming vases.  This was before the unfortunate invention of polystyrene.

Paulownia seeds as packing material?  May Wabun the Golden Eagle have mercy on our souls.  Using seeds as trash?  Thanks to dumpsters full of paulownia-seed-filled boxes, that’s why this tree is now considered a foreign invasive species in our native woodlands, on our city streets and on our exit-ramp islands.  Except for carefully designed groves like these Logan Circle paulownias, this species is usually considered a weed-tree, the king of vacant lots, in constant competition with the other weed-tree kings, catalpa and ailanthus.

I don’t mean to knock on this grove though.  As you can see in Logan Circle, properly planted, these are royal trees. 

But I was looking for something really rare and special and I wasn’t going to find that in the middle of traffic in the middle of the city’s main touristy thoroughfare.

Lucky for me, at work the other day, I received an email from a fellow citybilly, the gardener at the Historic Wyck House on Germantown Avenue.  She wrote:

Hey Jon Spruce,

Just wanted to mention our big Horse Chestnut is blooming beautifully right now, and so are our Pawpaws, which have really interesting flowers!  Just in case you're interested in either of those for your blog.

Now I got a thing for horse chestnut flowers, sure, but it was the mention of the blooming pawpaw that compelled me to fake a rash, punch out and zip over to Germantown. 

Pawpaw?   Now that’s something.

Pawpaw, Asimina triloba

And there it was, literally right under the swooping branches of the horse chestnut tree, which is a good thing.  It’s not the kind of tree that usually survives in full sun.  It does much better as part of an understory, growing as a rare thicket in the shade of the hardwood trees of our native woods.

What’s so special about this tree?  If you have to ask, then you really don’t know.

Let me be the first to introduce you to the only native tropical fruit tree in the northeast Americas.  

No other tropical tree survives naturally this far north.  The Lenapehanna Delaware River Watershed is the northeastern boundary of its native range, although it does creep up all the way north towards the edge of Lake Great Water in Michigan Country.

Come late fall, after its leaves drop, this tree will produce the largest fruit grown naturally in North America, the pawpaw itself.  It’s a tough fruit to eat.  It’s soft and custardy, with large black seeds that alway get in the way of cleanliness, but it tastes great, with a real rustic, barn-yard flavor.  

Someone once wrote that it has a tangy wild-wood flavor peculiarly its own. It is sweet, yet rather cloying to the taste and a wee bit puckery—only a boy can eat more than one at a time.

To me, it tastes like an over-ripe, smushed, stepped-on banana.

But that comes in late fall.  This is spring pawpaw.  As you can see, its tropical flower blooms sparingly in its dense underbrush.   

I felt enlightened to see it.  

It was a cold, drizzly afternoon, a typical spring day in the northeast, and here I was, face to face with its only native tropical plant, a favorite dessert for Founders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The pawpaw was also a life-saving manna for the Lewis and Clark expedition as they journeyed across the midwest plains looking for the great Chinese waterway.  They were probably the first people to call it by its other name: the prairie banana.

I’m months away from tasting its fruit but it was still a treat, to see Philadelphia’s only native tropical plant growing and blooming on native soil, without the benefit of a greenhouse or grow-lamps, just good old-fashioned Yankee know-how.


On my way out of the Historic Wyck House, I took a quick walk around its old garden, just about to burst into the growing season. 

Right there, at the edge of its rows, I found another rare plant: Poncirus trifoliate, the hardy orange.

Hardy Orange

This plant is only loosely related to the citrus oranges we all buy from Florida and South America.  It does eventually grow a fruit that, technically, can be called an orange, but it’s much too bitter to eat raw or juiced.  It can be made into marmalade, I’ve heard, but I don’t know nothing about making marmalade.

Like the pawpaw, this is another rare tree on the border of its natural range.  It’s mostly cultivated now to use as a rootstock for the typical citrus orange crop-trees down south, but it’s natural history in these parts has less to do with its roots and more to do with these thick, green, hardy, thorny branches.


I could barely get a good grip on them, they were so dense and thorny.  Colonial farmers used this tree to form a natural fenceline for their homesteads.  The hardy orange grows so dense and so low to the ground that it works to keep livestock and chickens in…and foxes and wolves out. 

This was another rare find and it evoked, in the best way, a rarefied feeling.  Plant with purpose, they say.  Now that’s a true statement, for an old saw. 

This was a good hunt.

1 comment:

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