Tuesday, June 26, 2012


An average weekday in June, sun setting at 9:00pm, a quiet night at home, waiting for the rice to cool off, waiting for the thunderstorm to break, waiting for Cliff Lee’s first win, just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, ladies…and I make the heart-breaking mistake of delving into the photo archives to look at tree-pictures I never posted.

What happened?

There are just too many trees and not enough time.

Out there on the mean streets, I always end up running into trees that don’t quite fit into my planned posts. 

I mean, I’ve missed a lot of great trees. 

The yellowwood and the black locust?   

Never got around to writing about that deep-ridged bark.  Never got around to describing their brief spell of dangling flowers in mid-spring, though I have loads of pictures.

Honey-suckle and fringe trees?   

Yeah, I missed that boat too…although even their pretty pictures can’t capture the spring breezes that always belied their presence, wafts of honey out of the corner of your eye.

The horse chestnut?  Now, that’s a big regret.   

What a spectacular miss.  It’s got everything I’m looking for in a tree.  Droopy branches.  Big-fisted, tear-drop leaves.  Bright steeples of spring flowers just popping out of the green. 

What happened, Jon Spruce?  I was busy, horse chesnut.  Busy and lazy.

Well, I won’t make the same mistake this time.  Here are three quick sketches of three notable trees…trees I just can’t watch pass by.


If you go down to the Citizens Bank ballpark to catch a Phillies game, walk down the Lincoln Financial Field side of Pattison Avenue.  There, you will see a stand of ash trees.

This is no coincidence.  Someone knew exactly what they were doing.  Someone knows their trees.

The ash tree is the premier wood for sports equipment.  It’s used for pallets and tool handles and it’s used for musical instruments and it was even used in early airplanes and automobiles but ash wood will always be known for its use in sporting equipment: hockey sticks, lacrosse paddles, tennis raquets and that big, bad peacemaker itself, the Wonderboy of legends, the Louisville Slugger.

In fact, the company Hillerich & Bradsby, the makers of the Louisville Slugger, own 7500 acres of timberland on the Pennsylvania-New York border, used to harvest the wood necessary to make all those bats.  “The best white ash comes from parts of Pennsylvania, New York and several other northeastern states,” their website says.

Fifty-percent of their bats are made from ash wood.  The other fifty-percent is maple but maple bats didn’t become popular in the big leagues until the nineties. 

According to woodsmiths, it has the perfect ratio of weight to strength.  “Ash has just the proper amount of tensile strength and resiliency required,” the Louisville Slugger website states.  “These properties, in the finished bat, transmit power or drive.

In baseball parlance, we call it the home run thwack.

It’s too bad, then, that this stand of ash trees is doing so poorly.  They look wretched, sickly, dying. 

Such a missed opportunity.

This is the perfect place for a shady stand of healthy ash trees.  It would be an honorable, rightful monument for both the sport and the tree and just look at them.  Just look at them.

For comparison, here is a picture of a healthy ash tree.

I’m going to make the uneducated guess that the Citizens Bank ash trees are suffering from drought, but there is a bigger danger now to all of these trees, whether they are healthy or not.

Citybillies, meet your new nemesis: the emerald ash borer.

This persistent little bugger is currently destroying the entire northeastern ash population. From a recent article in the Inquirer, March 2012: 

A small, glitter-green insect that has killed more than 50 million ash trees in the Midwest and beyond has arrived in the Philadelphia region.

Officials had both dreaded and expected it - just not this soon. 

"This is pretty much going to hammer ash trees in Southeastern Pennsylvania almost into oblivion," said Scott Guiser, an educator at Pennsylvania State University's extension service in Bucks County.  

Carl Schulze, director of the division of plant industry in the N.J. Department of Agriculture, figured it was inevitable.

        "We're sort of resigned to the march of this."

In another article that appeared around the same time, the Pennsylvania Department of Forestry offers this dire statement: expect nearly all of the ash trees in the Philadelphia area to die eventually now that a Southeastern Pennsylvania infestation has been discovered.  

So the golden age of ash baseball bats and the classic Louisville Slugger is slowly, sadly coming to an end.  

Like all things, it might cycle back to its former dominance but, according to the experts, the northeastern ash tree extinction will most likely happen within our short lifetimes.  With all these doomsday predictions, and with the current state of the Phillies line-up, we’re no more likely to see the ash population prosper again than we are to see another World Series championship parade down Broad Street.

These sickly, straggly ash trees outside Citizens Bank now have a more prescient, prophetic look to them.  Enjoy them, even in this state, while you can, citybillies.


There’s an interesting tree outside my friend’s house on Kingsessing Street in between 47th and 48th streets in West Philly.  I've passed it by many times but it took the summer flowers out in bloom to catch my notice.

This is the golden rain tree, Koelreuteria paniculata, its poetic name a reference to those drizzly sprays of small, yellow flowers.

I snapped a few pictures of that golden rain tree because, one, you don’t see it very often and, two, it’s always interesting to see trees that flower later in the summer.  It’s a special kind of tree that holds its flowers until after it leafs out.

I didn’t think too much of the golden rain tree again, until I walked by the new Barnes Museum on the Ben Franklin Parkway.  Ringing its parking lot?  Golden rain trees.  Lots of them.

It’s a tree native to Asia, especially China and Korea, planted here as an ornamental.  Some of these trees even have their fruit out: small, papery capsules that end up hanging on all winter long.

Again, I have the feeling these trees were planted with a specific purpose, so that, even in the summer, there’s some sort of tree activity happening on the grounds.  In other words, they are meant to be hunted down in late June, just like this.

I found another interesting tree in a corner of the museum grounds. 

This is a cryptomeria, a member of the cypress family.  It is the national tree of Japan, resembling a redwood or a sequoia.  In its native land, it can grow over 200 feet tall and 13 feet in diameter. 

This is an exciting tree to find.  It has huge potential to someday be a great, notable tree here in Philadelphia.  I'll be keeping my eye on it.  I predict that this tree in this corner of the museum will one day will be an extraordinary, stunning sight, a towering spire between the public library and the new Barnes Museum.  

This cryptomeria will someday be a tourist destination by its own right.

Maybe even one day, it might challenge that big, red crane down the road for a place in the sky.

Sorry.  I got a thing for big cranes.


For the last week or so, I’ve been seeing a lot of these pink flowering trees up and down the highways and, then, I ran into some during my West Philly urban fruit picking escapades. 

This time of year, they’re pretty easy to find.  Here’s one on Trinity Street, between 49th and 50th streets.

This is called the silk tree, sometimes called mimosa, and sometimes it’s mislabeled and misnamed and mistaken for acacia or mesquite.  Boy, I know how that feels.

But its real name is the silk tree, Albizia julibrissin, and it’s a beaut.  A few weeks ago, on this very blog, I called it a weed tree.  I really did.  If you drive into Jersey across the Walt Whitman Bridge and start driving up 295 North, you’ll see this evasive tree sneaking out of the woods and heading for the shoulders.  I’ll still stand by my claim.  It’s a weed tree, except during this time of year.

This time of year, it’s a show-stopper of a tree, a real head-turner. 

I found three of them in a row on the corner of 42nd and Spruce. 

Native to ancient Persia and Korea, it’s known for those pink, groovy flowers, technically and literally called inflorescences.

They’re dazzling, a pom-pom of silky threads with wee orange specks right at the tips. 

And look at those leaves: fine like a comb, lacy, complicated, one giant leaf made up of small leaflets. 

They have a real rain-forest quality about them.  I like running my hand through them.

As I was researching this tree, I learned that its Persian name translates to night sleeper because, according to legend, these leaves fold up at night.

What?  No way.  This, I had to see for myself.

So I put the rice in the fridge, grabbed my hat and shoes and went back out to 42nd and Spruce, in the dead of night, around nine-thirty. 

Well, look at that. 

I carefully snipped a leaf off, not something I recommend for amateur tree-hunters, but I wanted to see this in the clear light of the cabin.

Sure enough, the legend is true.  The night sleeper tree, all tucked in. 

Trees, man.  Too many to see, too much to learn, never enough time.  Story of my life, ladies.

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