Wednesday, May 23, 2012



The other day, I received an urgent message from one of the many citybillies following this blog: FOUND A FROG.

Just in time too.  She sent the following photo within the last days of the Frogs Return Moon:

This particular citybilly works in the produce section of a supermarket and, as she was unpacking a box of local asparagus, she found a frog.

I think this photo would’ve really tickled the ancient Wheelmakers.  Frog and asparagus, two totems of the second spring moon of Wabun, the Golden Eagle. 

We enter, this week, Wabun’s third and final moon of the year, the Corn Planting Moon.  It’s time to start preparing for the long slog and the bountiful harvest of the upcoming summer months.  Most of the tree-flowers are gone, the leaves are out, the frogs have returned and the asparagus?  That quintessential spring crop?  Time to let it go wild and weedy.


Just recently, I asked one of my farmer friends, “Why does asparagus season have to end?”   

I mean, as I understand it, the asparagus shoots out of the ground, you let it grow, you snip it at the base and you take it to market…then, a week later, another asparagus breaches the surface…and it’ll keep coming back and coming back.  “Can’t you just keep picking it all summer?”

“No time,” she said.  “There’s too much else coming up.  Got to pick, got to plant and you gotta weed.”

Gotta weed. 

I went over to her place, the Urban Girls Produce farm located at the Schuylkill Center, to watch the wild asparagus. 


So this is what happens when asparagus goes wild.  This is what happens to your favorite vegetable when you gotta weed.

Trees can go to weed too.  There is a whole roster of trees that are unwanted, uninvited, undesired, blackballed and ostracized.  In the books, it’s called spontaneous urban vegetation.  In the college classrooms, it’s sometimes called Urban Ecology.  Down here on the mean streets, we call them weed trees and I’ve found a couple worth talking about.


In The Urban Tree Book, Arthur Plotnik writes: There is another way to recognize mulberries: by slipping on the crush of slimy, sidewalk-staining fruit that has ripened and fallen from the tree.

And that is actually exactly how I found this mulberry, as I was hunting for weed trees in North Philly. 

I literally slipped on the purple wash of wet fruit as I was walking down north Seventh Street, kind of near Temple University.   

There it was, growing behind the crumbling brick wall, hanging over the dumping ground and just littering its fruit all over the sidewalk.  No wonder people don’t like mulberries.

This is one of those cases, though, that makes you wonder. 

Here you got a city corner that’s literally a trash pit: cinder blocks, rotting pallets, pipes and tires, Arizona ice tea cans and Gatorade bottles, wet trash bags, warm mulberries and one ugly carpet.

But which came first? 

Did this become a trash pit because of the mulberry tree and its annoying habit of dropping thousands of berries in its shade?  Or did the mulberry tree flourish here because this corner is nothing but a trash pit for the neighborhood?  Either way, the two components of this corner – trash and mulberries – are twins now.  Cleaning up this city corner will now require the removal of this mulberry tree.


Such a shame too, because the actual mulberry fruit is delicious.  It looks kind of like a blackberry and it tastes like a wild grape.  I like the fruit, but the tree itself is just unfriendly and messy.  I don’t care if it’s the subject of an amazing Van Gogh painting, and I don’t care that, in China, the mulberry is revered because the Bombyx mori caterpillar eats its leaves and spins all that silk.  Yes, this is the very same tree that the worms eat and turn into silk.  It’s a historic tree, one of the trees that changed history.  Great.  Good to know.  Here in the city, it’s a trash tree.  Cross the street when you see it coming, especially if you’re wearing nice shoes.


Here’s a quick run-down of common urban weed trees.

SASSAFRAS: This is a native understory tree, found along the edges and in the lower canopy of the typical beech-maple forests of the northeast.  In the city though, it’s a weed tree.  It’s extremely tenacious.  In fact, it reproduces by cloning and takes over the abandoned edges of untended yards, weedy parks and unused driveways.  Where you see one sassafras, you’ll see another right near it.   

Another shame too, because this tree – its leaves, barks and roots – are the essential ingredients for two of America’s greatest contributions to world cuisine: the gumbo and the sarsaparilla. 

MIMOSA: I learned this plant’s name as the mimosa but, after a quick dive into my Dendrology Library, I learn that its true name is the silk-tree.  This tree deserves a better reputation.  They have those elegant, fan-like leaves and eventually they sprout a dazzling pink flower.

Too bad that I usually find it chasing the sunlight out of an overgrown hedge, or creeping out between a sidewalk crack through a pile of trash bags.

CATALPA: The big chief of vacant lots, highway islands and train tracks, the catalpa is one of the most successful plants in the city.  This tree can, and will, grow anywhere. 




People are always asking me: But, Jon Spruce, what makes this tree a weed tree?

I guess, in the end, it is a value call.   

A weed tree, after all, is just a very successful urban tree, able to withstand pollution, salt, drought, compacted soil, noise, wind, dogs, construction, urine, loud rap music and neglect.  I know, deep down inside of my green heart, that weed trees don’t cause vacant lots and corner trash pits and bad neighborhoods.  People don’t say: look, there’s a mulberry, I’ll just dump my old carpet here in its shade.

No, weed trees are a symptom of urban blight, not the cause.

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to ever like stumbling across a mulberry or a catalpa or any of the other weed trees that clog the city homesteads.

I’d like to appreciate them, I really would.

Take a look at this scene, right around Diamond and North 22nd Street:

It’s actually quite lovely, almost pastoral, the tall tower of that spruce just the perfect contrast to that giant humpback willow.   There’s the unbroken fence riding out of the green hedges and that long trail of ivy eating away at the red house.  But right there, right in the middle, you can see the thin spires of the ailanthus tree.

Ailanthus, the undisputed king of the weed trees.  Friggin’ ailanthus.


You’ve seen the ailanthus tree.  

I'm sure of it.  

It might be invisible to you because it’s just about everywhere.   

You’ve walked right by it, on your way to work, to the movies, to a restaurant, to the dry cleaners, to Citizens Bank, to the Art Museum, or on your way to the park to see some nature.  You’ve probably parked your car next to it.  

You’ve probably stood next to it, waiting for the bus or waiting for the light to change.  If these things were determined by number alone, then the ailanthus would be the official tree of Philadelphia, probably the official tree of the entire megalopolis.


It comes in all shapes and sizes.  

It grows on stoops or out of walls.  It can be thin and wiry or big and husky.  It’s a remarkable grower and it will climb its way fast to the sun through backyards and alleyways.   

It doesn’t suffer other trees lightly.  Take a good look at it.  The next time you pass one, break off its leaf and snap it in half and take a good, deep smell.  Burnt peanut butter.  That’s what it smells like.  It’s actually a chemical called ailanthene and this tree pumps it into the ground to fend off all other vegetation.

I hate ailanthus.

In the academic tree world, there is a current movement that is saying, swallow your pride and learn to like the ailanthus.  These brainiacs in their climate-controlled classrooms?  They’re asking us citybillies to put aside our hatred and to appreciate the ailanthus for what it is: one of the most successful plants to ever survive in the urban environment.  They say that the ailanthus can be used as a gateway plant to help younger generations appreciate nature, that the ailanthus is sometimes the only nature that some city dwellers will ever encounter.  Ailanthus, they say, is just as good as any other tree in getting rid of all that noxious carbon dioxide and turning it into fresh air.  They say that, if not for the ailanthus, many neighborhoods would be without shade or without any green at all.

Yeah, I’m not buying it.

I’ll give this weed tree a few points for its tenacity and that’s it.

But you know what I do appreciate about it?  I appreciate what it represents: the wild.  You cannot stop the wild.  Even here in the city, you cannot escape the practice of the wild.  Even a city is permeable when it comes to the potential of living things, which we are a part of.  There are just too many cracks in the sidewalks for there to ever be a permanent wall between us and the unwanted wild.


You cannot stop the wilds, man.  You can steal it from the Indians.  You can plot out the grid and name the streets.  You can pave it over with cement.  You can lay down the sewer pipes and you can run the trolley tracks.  You can stack the buildings and you can stack the people but the wild will always be there.  That’s what you learn by noticing weed trees.

Ailanthus growing out of woodworks, deer on the highway, germs on the subway, mold in the basement, rats in the sewer, frogs in the asparagus, seagulls circling the dumpster, maypop in the parking lot, birds on the wire, cockroaches in the kitchen sink – there is a tenacious survival instinct germinating in every nook and cranny all over this city, just waiting for one momentary lapse of reason so it can be wild once again.

I hope the same can be said of you.

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