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.

Ah, to go tree-hunting along the fabled, primal, paleozoic shores of the great super-continent of Pangaea.  I’d pack up a few bags of food, several day’s worth of oxygen, a sturdy pair of boots, some dinosaur repellent, a waterproof notebook and a box of sharpened pencils. 

It’s always been a dream of mine to write the first Pangaea field guide for trees.

Even in Pangaea though, I wouldn’t be entirely alone.  There would be one familiar face.

Amidst all that strange, curious and cryptic flora and fauna of the original primordial soup, there would be one tree – and one tree only -- that I would be able to recognize, identify and call by name.

Let’s talk about the ginkgo biloba.


In the beginning, there was ginkgo. 

You’ve seen them.  They’re everywhere now.  Absolutely distinctive to the amateur eye, thanks to those green duck-footed leaves, that strange branching pattern and the nauseating stink of their ripe fruit.  Does this look familiar?

There is only one species of ginkgo left in the entire world but the original ginkgo family used to consist of, probably, 20 varieties and species.  They first appeared on the tree scene over 270 million years ago.

To give a little perspective, here’s a brief picture of the world 270 million years ago.  The gravity was a lot lower, which means the first trees, the conifers, had an average height of 100 feet tall.  The moon was actually closer to the Earth, creating a much more violent tide system.  Pangaea itself was mostly a desert, although closer to the shores, there were large ponds and lazy green rivers covered in a sheen of algae.  Its shores were a humid and dank swamp consisting mostly of conifers and ferns and cycads, which would’ve looked like early palm trees.  If I ever did make it back to Pangaea, I’d have to battle dinosaurs but also primitive cockroaches, amphibious dragonflies, scorpions the size of rabbits, crocodiles, flies and the very first mammals, which were actually cold-blooded.

My only friend, in the whole super-continent, would be the ginkgo biloba.

In fact, most paleontological illustrators normally include one or two ginkgo trees in their pictures.

According to the fossil record, the ginkgo disappeared two million years.  It was thought to be extinct…until 1691, when explorers ventured up to Tian Mu Shan, a city-state in the mountains of China, and discovered the very last wild grove of ginkgo trees, kept alive and nurtured by a group of secluded Zen monks.

What?  Yes, it’s true.

This amazing history inspired one of the most award-winning haikus of all time, written by Jon Spruce himself:

                Duck-foot gingko leaves –
                        I think of mountains, monks and
                Chinese dinosaurs.

Could this be called the greatest discovery ever in the history of trees?  Probably.  Especially when you consider what happened afterwards.  In the 1700s, trees and seeds from this one final stand in China were shipped around the world, including the great city-state of Philadelphia.  If you go to Bartram's Garden in West Philly, you can actually see Turtle Island’s oldest surviving ginkgo tree, planted in 1785, still thriving.

Ginkgo is now one of the most common street trees in the entire megalopolis.  It is, by anybody’s standard, a true survivor.  Not only has this species survived two global mass extinctions, including the one that killed the dinosaurs, it also survived two atomic blasts.

Yes, the ginkgo is one of the very few living things to survive the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Ginkgo at Hiroshima

Same gingko

There is nothing boring about this tree…and yet most of us walk by it every day without a moment’s thought, unless it’s dropping one of its nutty stink bombs on the sidewalks and violating our precious olfactory nerves. 

Make no mistake.  The nuts of its female trees, when ripe and falling on the ground, give off a rank odor, a vile combination of Saturday night vomit, dirty diapers and pissed-off skunk…in the immortal words of the stuck-up, half-witted, scrappy nerf-herder Han Solo: What an incredible smell you discovered!

It’s a small price to pay, that smell.  Citybillies, I’m telling you: once you learn more about this tree, you will be eternally fascinated by it.  I’ll tell you why.


We should start with its odd branching style.  It grows, usually, straight branches from off its trunk in a spiral, conical shape.  Then, its branches produce these odd, knobby spurs.  They are more visible and more weird in the winter before the tree leafs out.



Supposedly, every year, these knobs grow just a little longer and little knobbier, in the same way that a tree grows an inner ring in its wood every year.

Its reproduction is especially strange and, to be honest, I don’t understand it.  I know the ginkgo tree can either be a male or a female.  It’s the female that grows those stinky nuts.  The male trees produce sperm that travel underground to pollinate the nearest female tree.  I think.  I don’t understand how that is possible, except I know that this tree originated before the evolution of modern pollinators like bees and birds and bats, so it must have developed some way of reproducing without any help.

Its branching style, those knobby spurs, its wayfaring sperm…it’s all so fascinating, but it’s those crazy leaves that always make me stop in my tracks, gaze off into the sky and ponder.

Those ginkgo leaves represent the missing link between the needle-leafed trees and all the other broad-leafed trees, like the maples and the oaks and the hollies and the magnolias and all the rest.

That leaf is actually a group of needles webbed together.

The next time you walk past one of these ginkgo trees, pull off a leaf and carefully pull it apart.  You’ll be able to see the individual needles stitched together, a process that would eventually become the foundation for the all the big-leafed trees that would dominate the landscape after the breaking up of Pangaea.

This tree is the missing link between the gymnosperms with their evergreen needles and cones and the angiosperms with their deciduous big leaves, flowers and fruit.  The ginkgo is the Sasquatch of the tree kingdom.

There are other clues too.

It’s a deciduous conifer, meaning that it drops its leaves in the winter to conserve its energy and resources, an evolutionary survival tactic for the cooler climates and shorter seasons that happened after Pangaea split up and the continents drifted apart. 

And that stinky nut?  

It’s actually a cone, but thanks to the ginkgo, we can see how trees started protecting their seeds in a fleshy, aromatic shield – an evolutionary tradition that would eventually lead to such classic fruit as the cherry or the apple or the walnut.

Just about everything about this tree represents the small, tight pathway between trees like the pine and trees like the oak.  The ginkgo biloba is a living fossil, right before your ever-loving eyes, if you care enough to stop and watch it, which you should.

Sir Albert Seward once wrote: It appeals to the historic soul: we see it as an emblem of changelessness, a heritage from worlds too remote for our human intelligence to grasp, a tree which has in its keeping the secrets of the immeasureable past.

Well said, Sir Albert Seward.

And, come to think of it, there’s another heirloom tree out there, flowering as we speak, that also appeals to the historic soul -- with a root much, much closer to Philadelphia.


Recently, I wrote about the long, lost history of the franklinia, Philadelphia’s own heirloom tree.  It has a story very similar to the ginkgo, though not as old.

Philadelphia’s most famous tree-hunters, the Bartrams, discovered this unidentifiable tree in a very singular grove on the banks of the Altamaha River in backwoods Georgia.  This was back in the 1700s.  Curious shrubs, they called it and they brought it back to their gardens in West Philly.  No one had ever documented or named this tree before, although the Bartrams determined that it was a member of the tea family, probably related to the camellia. 

Eventually, they classified it themselves, naming it after their father’s friend, Ben Franklin.

The exact location of that original curious grove, where the franklinia was first found, is under dispute – mostly because the original stand of franklinias is no longer there.

In fact, there is currently no known franklinia growing in the wild.

It is a tree without a country, saved from extinction by the Bartrams. 

All known franklinias growing today are direct descendants of those few trees captured in Somewhere, Georgia and saved from extinction in the wild-lands of West Philly. 

The Bartram’s Garden franklinia is extremely notable for its historical importance but my favorite franklinia is actually located on the corner of 42nd and Spruce Streets.

This might be the largest franklinia in the entire world, seriously.

And mid-summer is a great time to go hunting for it.  It doesn’t start flowering until the high heats of the summer…and what a great looking flower.

It has those bright white petals and that eggy yellow center, just the perfect totem of the Strong Sun Moon.

I’ll be back to this street corner come late fall.  Those flowers persist through the whole long slog of summer, even as its leaves turn a purplish red in the autumn.

This is another heirloom tree, saved from the destructive, heartless spinning of the never-ending Wheel by true tree-lovers.  Much like the ginkgo, this tree could’ve been lost to history, confined to the fossil record, unknown and unnamed forever.

Franklinia at 42nd and Spruce Streets

It’s important to go hunting for these heirloom trees, no matter where the hunt will take you. 

Franklinias? They are far and few between.  Ginkgos are more common and you can probably find a good one in any half-mile in this city…but I had the insatiable urge to go hunting for the largest ginkgo in the city, even if it meant venturing into the very heart of darkness itself.

Oh, citybillies, this blog has taken me to many new, unsuspecting, wondrous places.  From the treeless tundra of South Philly to the wooded landscapes of West Philadelphia to the hallowed halls of Independence Hall to the wild lands of Pennypack Park but never, ever did I think that I would have to go to one of the most depressing, one of the most heart-breaking, one of the most agonizing places ever found on Spaceship Earth.

I’m talking about the Philadelphia Zoo.


Just to make it clear: I hate the zoo.

I mean, look at this. 

Just what in carnation is a zebra doing grazing in a dusty lot next to a caged-up honey locust?  This is an animal that belongs in the grassy savannahs of Africa…and I guess everything in the zoo needs to be caged up, even the trees.  Can’t have those honey locusts wandering off, right?

I know.  The zoo does a lot of good.  The zoo saves animals.  The zoo is for the children.  But c’mon.  Do I really want to see some gorilla, bored in some concrete playground or sleeping in a hammock like Gilligan, playing with plastic toys and dummy ropes?

I looked that gorilla right in the eyes, I swear to Coyote, and you know what he said to me?  I’m not the primate who decided to live in a city.

He said, I'm locked up in here, fine, but if I was free like you, do you think I'd go watch you in a cage?

He was right.

Still, it’s hard to not be enchanted by the menagerie, even if they are locked up, over-fed, docile, tame and preserved for the paying public.

If you know your natural history, you can actually find some enlightening scenes.

For example, here is a flamboyance of flamingos standing under a giant bald cypress tree, both flamingos and bald cypress being two species that belong, and are adapted, to a wetlands environment.   

Just too bad both of these species are land-locked a few blocks away from the highway 76 entrance.

I also found a real crooked catalpa on one of the bends of a path.   


There was something about the wide maw of that hollow knot that completely enchanted me.  Something about finding a deep and bottomless darkness of a hole in an otherwise blazing hot day.

I found a stand of Japanese cedar, a very interesting tree that grows clumps of needled branches in a strange pattern up and down its straight trunk.

Too bad it was right outside a restroom.

I also found two lacebark pines, two trees I’ve never seen before.  These are native to China.  They have drooping, undulating branches and they grow their clusters of needles in rhythmic whorls along its thin branches.

But its most notable feature is their multi-colored, camouflaged bark.  Never seen these colors on a pine tree before.

Near the penguins, I came across what looked like a very old tree – wrinkled in the best way, with weeping branches of double-winged samaras. 

Turns out this a Chinese wingnut tree.  Never saw one of those before.

The biggest surprise, though, was right near the entrance.  For years, I’ve always seen this kind of tree in field guides and tree books, but I’ve never met one, face to face.  I recognized it right away: the monkey puzzle tree.

This is the national tree of Chile, which is its homeland.  It’s almost as old as the ginkgo, its first recorded fossils document at about 120 million years ago.

Absolutely fascinating tree, with those reptilian leaves growing like shingles along its cactus-like branches.

Its weird name?  Oh, it comes from some story, probably false, when some white man first came across it and he said: it would probably puzzle a monkey to climb that.

Did this joker even realize that, technically, he was a monkey too?

I promised myself I wouldn’t get angry.  I promised myself I would avoid the gift shop this time.  To be honest, I walked around the zoo with this real guilty feeling, guilty that I was enjoying the freedom of a random Tuesday afternoon at the expense of all these caged animals.  I kept waiting for a group of zoo staff to find me, corner me, surround me and say, All right, Jon Spruce, you’ve had your fun but we don’t want any trouble here.  How about we just validate your parking ticket and show you the exit? 

I wouldn’t have put up much of a fight either.  Fair is fair.

Truth be told, Jon Spruce had a good time at the zoo but I had to ignore the animals in order to do that.  I kept my eyes on the trees, and there were a lot of interesting trees.  If you want a new place to go tree-hunting, it’s a worthwhile place to go…and I might even be back.

But here’s a secret.

The best animal lurking in the entire Philadelphia zoo?  My favorite animal that day?  Go to the entrance of the Rare Animal Conservation Center, right after the infuriating monkey playground, and walk off the path into the little garden right before the doorways.

Look up.  You’ll see a giant hornet’s nest in a crabapple tree.

Ain't that just like Coyote? You cannot stop the wilds, man.

Oh wait, what was I doing at the zoo at all?

The Philadelphia Zoo is home to the city’s largest ginkgo tree.  It’s located right near the entrance, right near the giant fountain, right before the Orange Julius and Soft Pretzel stand. 

And it’s worth the trip alone.  Look at this magnificent, this fascinating, this massive, immense, gargantuan heirloom tree. 

It’s a leviathan, as big and as mighty as the dinosaurs that used to share its landscape, the ones that didn't survive.

So, yeah, Jon Spruce went to the zoo.  

Go ahead.  Laugh it up, fuzzballs.

Largest ginkgo tree in the entire city of Philadelphia?  You damn right I’ll go to the zoo. 

But, citybillies, I’ll be in disguise.

1 comment:

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