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.


I went down to Independence Hall on a blazing hot day.  Absolutely blazing.  High of 96 degrees, felt like 99, humid and clear.  I could actually watch the heat steaming out of my sneakers.  The only consolation?  It wasn’t as hot as the day before. 

I don’t do best in heat…and that’s expected.  After all, I was born under the Long Snow Moon of mid-Decembertime and, consequently, my natural habitat is cold, frosty bitterness, full of wind and ice, spruce and holly.  So I was relieved to see that the yard behind Independence Hall was dominated by big trees known for their shade: sycamores, beech and elms, plus a few surprises.

The beech tree there looked so inviting. Thank the Wheel for the beech tree.  I headed right for that dark pool of shade to cool off.

A beech is, in almost any landscape where it appears, the finest tree to be seen, writes Donald Culross Peattie.  Taken in all seasons and judged by all that makes a tree noble – strength combined with grace, balance, longevity, hardiness, health – the Beech is all that we want a tree to be.   All I wanted, at the moment, was shade – cool, deep, dark shade.

The beech tree is in the same family of the chestnut and the oaks.  Like other members of its family, it can be an old tree, surviving over three hundred years.  It can be a big tree too, one that grows to extraordinary heights and girths.  Outside of the woods, it’s usually found growing solitary and wide on a big lawn.  Its solitary nature is mostly the result of the enormous amount of shade it makes.  Everything, even grass, has a hard time surviving in such a dense blanket of shade.  I wasn’t complaining.

The beech is easy to recognize, thanks to that smooth, gray bark that always reminds me of elephant skin.  It’s a soft skin, too, which is why, for centuries, people have been using the beech trunk as a canvas for graffiti or as a permanent valentine message.

Oh Wheel, where is the lucky lady whose initials I will someday carve into a beech tree?  I can just picture the scene…we’ll take cover, one hot day, under the shade of a beech tree…and I’ll take out my car keys and start writing on the beech trunk…and she’ll say, “Jon Spruce, that encourages wood fungi” and I’ll say, “But, honey babe, people have been doing it for years.  In fact, the word beech comes from the same root word as book” and then…well, you can get in a lot of trouble dreaming under a beech tree.

Besides, the most famous beech tree signature had nothing to do with love or romance.  Engraved by one of the greatest citybillies of all time, Daniel Boone from Tennessee, it still survives in a museum and, although the writing has worn off, it is believed that this carving once read: D. Boone, Cilled a Bar, On Tree, In Year 1760.

Cooled off, I walked out of the beech nook and meandered around the shady mall, trying not to step in front of the tourists posing for family photos.  Sycamores lined the walkways, growing straight and true like statues, but sycamores are so plentiful here in the city that they are somewhat invisible to me.  Now the other tall trees throwing shade on the mall?  Not so invisible, not so common anymore.

Here behind Independence Hall, there be elms…and elms like none other in the city.
I’ve already written about the outbreak of the Dutch Elm’s disease that toppled millions of these mighty trees all up and down the megalopolis.  The elm was once The Tree, the go-to tree for all city and town planners.  Those days are over.  But walking in their shade behind Independence Hall?  I can finally picture what it must have been like to have all those elms lined up on all those Main Streets.

Whether they knew it or not, most of the ticket-paying tourists had huddled under the great pool of shade cast down from one of the elms.

Their form is spectacular: one long, lean muscle of a trunk racing to the open sky, then these huge, wrinkled branches twirling upward in the other directions, still rising and gushing, until it drops all those branchlets and twigs, cascading all those fluttering, sawtooth leaves, throwing down that sea of shade.   


There is one elm tree down there whose shade covers almost the entire western side of the mall, no joke.

There are a few other surprises behind Independence Hall.  Here, you can see two recently planted American chestnut trees. 


These two trees hold a lot of hope for the tree-watchers of the world.  The American chestnut was once the king of the northeastern forests until the chestnut blight ravaged their population beginning in the early 1900s.

David Allen Sibley writes: It is difficult to overstate the importance of American Chestnut trees in pre-1900 America.  Fast-growing and abundant it was one of the most common forest trees within its range, where fewer than 100 large trees survive today.

Donald Culross Peattie begins his essay about the American chestnut like this: All words about the American chestnut are now but an elegy for it.

And fellow Philadelphian tree-blogger David Hewitt writes: …something I will never see, except in paintings, or in very old photographs, is a full grown Castanea dentata in an American forest.  It is gone, times have changed – oaks, and other kinds of trees, have filled in the space laid open by the passing of the chestnut, and so the forest remains.  But the chestnut, as the lord of the forest, does not.  His entire eulogy on the American chestnut can be read here: Growing History.

These chestnut trees here are a combination of 94% American chestnut and 6% Chinese chestnut.  The Chinese chestnut has shown resistance to the blight, though the expert tree-breeders of the world have yet to find the right combination to survive here again in America.

One more surprise tree…entirely appropriate and perfectly fitting, I only wish I could’ve gotten closer but I was blocked by a few barriers, a thick chain, a deep trench and one very diligent park ranger checking tickets. 

That is a franklinia, a member of the tea family.  The franklinia and Philadelphia will forever be connected.

This tree was discovered, in 1765, by John and William Bartram while on a botanical trip in deep-river Georgia.  There, they ran into this secluded grove of wild, rare trees, completely unidentifiable, an absolute mystery to two of the most well-versed botanists of their age.

They returned several times to the location and eventually brought back seeds to their Bartram’s Garden here in Philadelphia.  By 1781, they finally had the tree healthy and flowering in this city, although they could never identify it.  Certain that they had discovered a new species, they named it Franklinia alatamah.  Altamaha was the name of the river in Georgia where the tree was found.  The Franklinia part was named after William Bartram’s father’s good friend, Ben Franklin, of course.

Behind Independence Hall, actually Philadelphia itself, is now its natural habitat.

That’s because the franklinia is extinct in the wild.  It hasn’t been seen in Georgia or anywhere else in the woods since the early 1800s.  All franklinias alive today are descended from the seeds rescued and collected by William Bartram and grown in West Philly's Bartram's Garden.

Their flower is just about to burst onto the scene and I’ll have more about this fascinating tree later. 

So far, so good on the tree-tour of historic Philadelphia: elms, chestnuts and one franklinia.  You really can’t do better than that but I wanted to catch a few more spots in downtown historic Philly before I called it a day.  Next stop: the oldest, continuously inhabited street in the country.


Elfreth’s Alley is located between Old Sassafras and Old Mulberry Street…okay, fine, between Race and Arch…and in between Second and Front Street.  Like it says everywhere down the street, people have lived on this street continuously since 1702, which is some kind of record, I guess.

As far as tree-hunting goes, there’s not much to see down Elfreth’s Alley. 

There’s a pretty gnarled rose bush tied back to the wall to keep the tourists safe from their prickles.

There’s a small alleyway with some ornamental hollies and roses, which was kind of interesting. The alleyway ends in a shady grove of shrubs and maples…

…but, other than that, yeah, not much to really to see, despite the crowd of tourists snapping photos. 

I wanted to go visit other historic sites around that area of Philadelphia but I made the mistake of entering the Elfreth’s Alley gift shop.

All of sudden, I felt like I’d eaten a bad piece of pigeon pie.


Yeah, after wandering into the Elfreth’s Alley gift shop, my desire to see other historic sites turned into a desire to go home, sit in air-conditioning and watch the Phillies lose another game. 

I know this isn’t some great revolutionary thought but there’s something real phony about all this merchandise.

Mass produced dream-weavers?  Plastic quills?  And look, kids, get your own copy of the Declaration of Independence and hey, history buffs, it’s on bona fide crinkly paper.

I lost my appetite for this kind of malarkey a long time ago.

This is the worst kind of mass-produced phony authenticity because it’s made to look both phony and authentic at the same time.  It’s so infuriating.  It's designed that way so people can’t call it what it really is: a sham, a fake, a shame.  It’s saying “we know we’re not authentic so don’t get so upset” at the same time it’s saying “reproduced on antiquated parchment that looks and feels old.”  That’s a direct quote from the Pirate’s Creed packaging.

People who don’t get angry about this kind of sham always tell people who do get angry about this kind of sham the same thing: “But it’s just for fun.” 

That’s hogwash.  Fake is never fun. 

Those are the same people who like places like Johnny Rockets on South Street, where they can pretend to eat in the fake fifties.  Same kind of people who get a thrill out of places like Sea World, where they can watch wild animals jump through hoops and swim around in circles in a giant pool which, compared to their native habitat, is really just the size of a big puddle.

Yeah, I'm bitter about it.  It does anger me.  So what?  As we say in Philly, you got a problem with that?

I feel the same way about certain trees, don't worry.

Trees, too, aren’t immune to this kind of baloney.  Trees, too, can be commercialized and merchandised and mass-produced for the ticket-paying public…and there’s one tree like that right at the end of Elfreth’s Alley.

This is a honey locust tree.  It’s actually a really cool tree, with a dark and rich bark that pops out of the trunk in thick plates.  It’ll turn a golden color in the fall, its flowers are bright and honey-scented, and the silhouettes of its leaves are lovely against the clear blue skies.

But this is not the real honey locust.  The real honey locusts should have these dreadful, intimidating set of spikes jutting out of its trunk like medieval weapons.  Even its name says so.  Its Latin name is triacanthos meaning “three-spiked.”  Here, I’ll show you.  To Google…

That’s the real honey locust.  The ones you see on city streets, city streets like Elfreth’s Alley, have been bred and cultivated without its own namesake, without its true nature, and why?  Because it has pretty flowers and pretty colors in the fall.

I was done for the day.  The honey locust was the last straw.  You can’t say I didn’t try.  I wanted to visit other historic sites in the area but I knew it would just fire me up.  I couldn’t watch another over-fed, docile horse cart tourists down the cobblestone streets.  I didn’t want to see any more facades.  I didn’t want to see the masquerade of Yankee Doodles and Betsy Rosses and Ben Franklins sweating through their regulation colonial garb.

Enough.  I’d had enough.  There’s plenty of history here in Philadelphia without having to fake it. 

Happy Independence Day, happy Fourth of July.  Just remember: you can go to town, you can ride a pony, you can even stick a feather in your hat.  I don’t care what you say.  That ain’t macaroni.

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