Saturday, July 28, 2012


Just the other evening, I was out tree-hunting in West Philly.  It was blazing hot, steamy and sticky, so I headed to Clark Park.  I wanted to catch some shade.  I wanted to cool off and I wanted to spend the last few hours of the day watching one of my favorite oaks in the entire city.

On my way through the park, I noticed that one of the recent thunderstorms had split a branch off a yellowwood tree.

Ever wonder why it’s called a yellowwood?  Well, here’s your answer:

The oak tree that I was hunting was on the other side of the park.  It’s really one of my favorite oaks in the city.  I love the way it leans over the grassy bowl.  On this particular night, the leaning oak was the setting for a Shakespeare in the Park rendition of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

William Shakespeare was, like many artists, a romantic fan of trees and flowers, plants and herbs, nature and the wilds.  Who can forget the bloody climax of Macbeth…when Thane Macduff disguises his army as trees so they can secretly advance upon the murderous Macbeth’s castle, inspiring my favorite Shakespeare quote of all time:

I, too, have seen the woods move.

So, there I was, enjoying the oak, enjoying the shade, enjoying the Shakespeare…finally cooling off, just getting used to the Old English…when my cellphone started blowing up with voicemails and text messages, all saying the same thing: Jon Spruce, turn on the local news.  There’s a tree attacking a house in the Northeast.

I need a vacation.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Hot enough for you?

Ain’t that just like Coyote?   Ain’t that just like the Strong Sun Moon?   

Blasting that unbearable, that stifling, that maddening heat just when you were on a roll.  Makes you want to just sit at home in air-conditioning and watch bad TV and bad baseball. Just when the days get long, just when the shore opens, just when the trees are bearing all that fruit, just when the local farmers’ markets are bedecked and bedizened with all that summer bounty.

Including the heirloom tomato, one of the greatest foods of all time… 

…and I do mean all time.  Although this is relatively a new food on the farm stand scene, it’s actually been around for a long, long time.   

This is, by anybody’s standard, an old food.

According to the farmer’s almanac, the first of the tomatoes are normally ready by the first full moon of July, usually by the rising of the next moon of the cycle: the Ripe Berries Moon.  That makes sense. 

After all, the tomato is, technically, just a giant berry.

But this abnormal heat – this gut-wrenching, sweat-pumping, underwear-clumping heat -- has launched tomato season a week or so ahead of schedule.

Ain’t that just like Coyote?

I’m not complaining.  Citybillies, take Jon Spruce’s advice: get your hands on some local 2012 heirloom tomatoes.  If there’s one thing out there enjoying this heat, it’s a tomato.

I even got a recipe for you.  Fry up two slices of bread, preferably sourdough bread.  Schmear on a guilt-free layer of mayonnaise.  Add thick slices of ripe tomato.  Sprinkle on some good salt.  Eat over the sink, alone.

The heirloom tomato is, without question, the greatest comeback ever in the long, troubled history of grocery.  Back when it was first marketed to restaurants and to grocery stores, it went under the name of ugly tomato.  It was the corporate way of explaining to the paying public that these tomatoes were supposed to be wrinkled, cracked, scarred, misshapen and, even, ripe when green, orange or yellow. 

Only years later did they start selling it under the more distinguished name of heirloom.

Yes, after years and years of subjecting the public to the year-long, season-defying crops of perfect, consistent, bland, dry, tasteless tomatoes, the Big Ag marketers had to re-educate us on the old-ways lesson that, in the wild, things sometimes get a little ugly.

Does this look ugly to you?

Each tomato is like its own little starburst.  Each one is like a little sun.  The best part?  Although you can tell which tomatoes are the same kinds of tomatoes, each one has its own rays of colors, its own patterns of wrinkles, its own carousel of flavors.

The tomato as an individual.  Sorry to say, but it’s a 21st Century Concept.

Well, more accurately, it’s a 21st Century Comeback.

These tomatoes hearken back to the good old days, before that large-scaled, mass-produced onslaught of big, red, perfect tomatoes, available year-round, bombarded the produce departments of nation-wide supermarkets.  Before the invention of refrigerated tractor trailers.  I don’t even understand why anybody even serves tomatoes outside of Coyote’s moons.  I’m talking to you, all you sandwich and hoagie shop managers.

More accurately, though, these tomatoes hearken back to the ancient farmers of South America and Mexico, the first civilizations to propagate the modern tomato.  From what we are told of heirloom varieties and seeds, these are the descendants of the kinds of tomatoes that people used to enjoy hundreds of years ago, going back to 700 AD.

Their return to our world of grocery and farm stands is a gift from the Old World, a true and treasured heirloom.

There are some trees that can also be considered heirlooms. 

Even though they may now be common all over our city grid, there are some trees that had disappeared for eons but have returned to our modern world.

Heirloom trees.

These trees hearken back to the Old Days, to the wild back-wood groves of colonial country or, even further back, to the very first days of trees themselves, to the primordial soup that bedecked and bedizened the landscapes of the super-continent we call Pangaea.

People are always asking me: Jon Spruce, if you had a time machine, where would you go?

The answer is Pangaea.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


Happy Independence Day, Philadelphia and all of its trees.  I’ll try to take a break from all that Original People mumbo-jumbo and spend a day celebrating the totems of the United States of America.

The national animal?  The bald eagle, although a case could be made for other native animals: the beaver, the bison, the shad, the crayfish, the painted turtle or the moose.

The national flower?  The rose.  That’s a little disappointing.  There are a lot of reasons why it could be the marigold, the dandelion, the prairie rose, the yucca flower or actually the sunflower, one of the few flowers native only to this Turtle Island.

The national tree?  Officially the oak.  Another disappointment.  How about something very specialized to America, something akin to Turtle Island: the sequoia, the tulip poplar, the ponderosa pine, the southern live oak, the Joshua tree, the bristlecone pine or the saguaro cactus?

Well, you can’t say I didn’t try. 

And the national colors?  The red, white and blue?  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s just that we’re in the heart of the Strong Sun Moon, but I am enchanted and bedazzled by so many more colors than just those three.

There is no scientific basis for the following statement but I am going to say it anyway: it takes a real strong sun and a real high heat to brew all that summer color.  The first colors of the year are usually white, red, yellow and, of course, green…but, by the time we get to the Strong Sun Moon, we get the oranges, the blues and the purples, plus all the different shades and blushes of the original colors: the pinks, the crimsons and the jades.  In the summer, we go all the way around the color wheel. 

I believe, just on a gut instinct, that it simply takes longer for the trees and plants to produce those complicated colors than it does the reds and whites and greens.  But, like I said, I have no basis to believe that it’s true.

Except for my own eyes, of course.  Here is a typical farmstand in the very beginning of the Hardy Zone Seven growing season, mid-May:

And here are some farmstands in the heart of the Strong Sun Moon:



It’s just a theory but I’m saying that it takes more time, more sun and more heat to make all that color.   Although, come to think of it, the rainbow swiss chard kind of destroys that theory. 

Well, you can’t say I didn’t try.  Let’s move on.  Let’s go downtown to historical Philadelphia, see what the trees are doing over there.