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.


Here is an excerpt from the official story from Fox News:
          Abandoned House Forcing Neighbors To Move Out
A bad situation is getting worse for a Feltonville family.  Problems with a vacant house next door are forcing them to pick up and move.

This is the problem: A tree is growing from inside the crumbling house next door on West Thelma Street.

Feltonville?  Why did it have to be Feltonville?  I really need a vacation.

Feltonville is a neighborhood in the Northeast, somewhere between Olney and Hunting Park, Frankford and Juanita.  It’s an area of the city I don’t visit often, although I should head down to the nearby Tacony Creek Park and go tree-hunting along the Tacony Creek.  A tributary to the Delaware River, the Tacony Creek watershed was a favorite haunt of the Lenni Lenape Indians.  Even the name Tacony comes from the Lenape word for wilderness…and, up and down the creek, there are loads of historic stone arch bridges.

But I didn’t want to go anywhere, least of all the Northeast.  Coyote is out there somewhere and I don't like messing with Coyote.  He's a trickster and I've fallen for his tricks way too often.

It’s way too hot, it’s way too muggy and I’m way too lazy.  I don’t do good in the heat.  And why should I?  I was born under the Long Snow Moon of mid-Decembertime.  My totems are spruce and holly, elk and grizzly, cones and needles…and these hot summer moons just distract my trains of thought.  They trick me up, muddle my brain and boil my blood.

Ain’t that just like Coyote?

And Feltonville?  That place is too cramped and too busy and the people of the Northeast?  They’re kind of mean.

And…and…I didn’t want to miss one televison moment of my favorite sporting event of all time.

International battledore and shuttlecock.  More commonly known as Olympic badminton.

Like most citybillies, I love a good lawn game and badminton is right up there at the top of the list, right below bocce ball and Frisbee. 

The original badminton racquet used stretched-out animal guts for strings and the original shuttlecock?  That was made using duck or goose feathers plucked, for aerodynamic reasons, only from the left wing.

Nowadays, they use nylon strings for the racquet and lightweight plastic for the shuttlecock…and hey, is it just me or does the badminton shuttlecock bear an uncanny resemblance to the echinacea flower?

It’s a great game and I only get to see it on TV once every four years…although I really can’t continue without voicing my objections about the official Olympic rules. 

Why in the world are they playing badminton indoors?  It’s supposed to be a lawn game.  They don’t move beach volleyball into a stadium, away from the sand and the sun, so I don’t understand why you can win a gold medal in badminton when you don’t have to play against the wind, bees, low-hanging branches, little kids or friendly dogs.  It doesn’t make any sense but I didn’t want a miss a minute of the summer game.

Still…there’s a tree in Philadelphia that is taking over a house.  If this isn’t a case for Jon Spruce, then I don’t know what is.  I had to go and hunt it down.

And then…I’m going on vacation.


From what I can tell, Thelma Avenue runs for one block, between Palethorp Street and Rising Sun Avenue, taking up about 410 feet of the entire city. 

The first tree I saw on Thelma Avenue?  My old nemesis, the mulberry.  Not a good sign.

Across the street from the mulberry?  It’s hard to tell from the photo, but that’s an overgrown, untended, neglected apple tree.

You can tell it’s an apple tree without even looking up, if you walk into the fenced-in, garbage-strewn patio.

And just a little bit down the street, I stood face to face with the notorious tree house.

Abandoned and boarded up, I would have to hack my way through the unnamed alley that runs along its back yards and back doors.   

The trash was thick, the stink was unbearable and, at every fifth step, I seemed to disturb a feeding frenzy of flies, sending them swarming around my ankles and up my shorts.

I took some deep breaths, thought about vacationing somewhere cold and icy, maybe the Yukon or Siberia, and then continued on down the alleyway.

The back yard to the tree house was unbarred.

Catalpa.  I should’ve known.


How does something like this happen?  I think it has to do with two things: water and sunlight.  Soil?  Dirt?  Ground?  I don’t know if that’s as important as water and sunlight.  In the end, that’s what trees chase and, with a steady supply of water and sunlight, some trees will just take over.

Here’s how I think this kind of thing happens.  A house is abandoned or it’s neglected.  Either the gutters back up or there’s a bad leak dripping through the roof.  Or there’s just a dampness, a filthy dew, that settles inside the house.  However it begins, I think the first set of circumstance is a water source.

Eventually, some tenacious weed tree like the catalpa will seek out that water source, maybe coming in through the bottom of the house, through some softened spot on the floor or through the basement.  Maybe, it starts growing from the get-go in between the wet bricks, starting out as just a thin tendril or stray twig but growing bigger and thicker with every rainfall.  It then digs in and starts growing…and growing…climbing towards the sunlight coming through the windows…eventually cleaving its way through the walls and the bricks to the outside world.

Catalpa is the perfect tree for this kind of phenomenon.  It’s fast growing.  It’s strong.  It survives in high heat.  It loves acidic soil that other trees and plants cannot tolerate.  Its branches can grow in unwieldy, crooked paths.  It can endure in almost every environment and, perhaps most significantly, it grows these huge, heart-shaped leaves. 

Those leaves create an enormous shield of shade, blocking out any chance of other plant competition.  Thanks to those big leaves, it’s the big chief of any plot of land it roots into.  Those leaves can also capture a huge amount of sunlight and rain, providing the tree with enough food and energy to keep the tree alive under any circumstance: strong, dominant and squirming for more room.

Once those big leaves find an avenue of growth towards that sun, nothing will stop this tree from taking over, not even bricks, not even windows, not even walls, not even stone.

Here’s another example of catalpa taking over a building, this one is the St Peter’s Church of Christ on 47th and Kingsessing.

This is not a nice tree, although it is native.  It’s a member of the Trumpet Creeper family, the Bignoniaceaes, which grow all over the world and include vines, shrubs and other exotic trees like the fountain tree or the sausage tree, both native to Africa.

Its curt name actually comes from the Catawba Indians, a small but fierce tribe from the Carolinas, who engaged in generations of war with the Cherokee and Lenape tribes of the Delaware River watershed.

From these Catawba Indians, the tree is sometimes called the Indian bean tree, named after the slender, long bean-pods that are dangling from its branches right now in these hot summer months.


From the shapes of those bean pods, it’s also sometimes called the cigar tree, although no book recommends lighting them up.  The Catawba tribe supposedly used the pods to make snakebite medicine.

Whatever.  The less said about the catalpa, the better.  It’s a dirty tree, destructive and bossy, too tenacious for its own good, unwelcome and not very neighborly…I guess that makes it perfect for the city.

I’ll give it credit for one thing.

There is a noteworthy connection between those long bean pods dangling from the catalpa branches and the current harvest of vegetables decorating the tables of local farm stands.

The summer beans are ripe and ready for eating.  Just the other day, I visited a local farmers’ market and, right next to the heirloom tomatoes, the eggplants and the peppers, you’ll be able to see the same kinds of fruits similar to the catalpa: the bush beans, the pole beans and the okra pods, all plants that store their fruit and seeds in bean pods.


This is the time to really notice the summer fruit. 

I’m not talking about the edible kind of fruit. 

All flowering trees produce fruit, the dry or fleshy envelope that carries its seeds.  Dry like the walnut or the samara or fleshy like the cherry or the callery pear.

Remember all those lovely spring flowers?  Well, now they’re fruit.

If you’re only paying attention to the edible kind of tree fruit, then you’re missing quite a show out there.

You got your bean pods right now, like the catalpa or the honey locust, but there are loads of trees that grow their seeds in bean pods.

Like our old favorite…the night sleeper tree, the mimosa.  They grow their seeds in a bean pod that has an uncanny resemblance to the sugar snap pea.

And don’t pass by a magnolia these days without trying to catch some of its fruit.  I walked by one the other day and, on one tree, I was able to watch the full evolution of its fruits and seeds. 

The magnolia’s big showy flowers turn into these upright capsules and, from within those capsules, its bright red seeds burst forth, in a scene that reminded me of a butterfly escaping from its cocoon.

Just to repeat myself, that was all happening on one tree, at the same time.  Time runs a funny course along a single tree.

You really shouldn’t be missing this show.  There is inedible fruit popping up all over the city…including the undisputed king of inedible fruit…I’m talking about one of the most noteworthy, one of the most important, one of the most iconic totems you can ever find in the hardwood forests and woodlands of the entire Turtle Island.

The acorn.

The acorn of a chesnut oak, summer
The acorn of a sawtooth oak, shaggy and hairy, summer

Going around the city noticing all this inedible fruit bursting off the branches, I decided to hunt down two indigestible foods from two of my favorite trees, heat or no heat.

I drove down to the old church in Old City, the site of the Lewis and Clark osage orange trees. 


On my way home, I stopped at the small, hidden orchard and garden on Chester Avenue in between 37th and 38th streets.  I wanted to harvest some of those hardy oranges. 

I simply love these trees.  They’re so gnarled and thick…with those knotty, rugged branches of spiky wood and those dangling orbs of green oranges.  This is the perfect tree for a gloomy, fabled, haunted forest.

I grabbed a hardy orange and headed home, stopping by a catalpa on the way to grab one of those long bean pods.

Inside my house, I set them all up on my cutting board and started dissecting.

The catalpa bean pod?  I ran my knife down the slender bean.  Inside?  I guess it did kind of look like a tightly packed cigarillo. 

I pushed it aside and got ready for the osage orange.

This is actually, technically, what they call an aggregate fruit, meaning that it’s many fruits growing together in a clustered ball, like a raspberry or a blackberry.

I squeezed it and this milky sap started flowing out of its center.  Ha.  Nothing eats this thing anymore, although some scientists claim this was once a staple in the diet of primitive elephants, mastodons and wooly mammoths.

Next up, the hardy orange.

This one was very surprising.  Its seeds are large and densely packed but, looking past those seeds, I recognized its pulp.  It really did look like an orange and, seconds after cutting into it, a very strong, familiar scent of orange zest filled the air of my hot, steamy kitchen.

And that’s just about the time when I took a healthy step back and a long, good look at the mess that I had made.

Sweat running down my back, my cutting board full of inedible fruit and mammoth food, Olympic badminton was over and now they were broadcasting something called handball…and I had just spent the day trail-blazing through the muck and the goo of Feltonville’s back alleyways and for what?

To catch a catalpa.

Ain’t that just like Coyote?

Man, I really need a vacation


  1. That was an interesting story! :-)

  2. "Why in the world are they playing badminton indoors? It’s supposed to be a lawn game. They don’t move beach volleyball into a stadium." I Absolutely agree with you!! It`s the different energy indoors. But of course it depends on the weather. I`m a big badminton fan. Also I want to share with some courts/places to play here in Philly