Thursday, August 9, 2012


The year 2012 will go down in history as the year of broken records.

I’m not talking about the Olympics.  I’m talking about the weather.

The long-awaited annual report from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration was finally released and, to no one’s great surprise, it’s official: last July was the hottest month on record for the continental United States.

The previous record holder?  July 1936, the heart of the Dust Bowl era.

For 32 states, last July now ranks as one of their top ten hottest months ever. 

Remember that warm winter?  Well, consider another record broken, a record that’s stood for the last 117 years.  It’s been the warmest 12-month period in the United States since 1895.

Records are shattering all over the country.

Oklahoma has been suffering a heat wave that has lasted over 20 days.  Iowa had ten days in July of triple-digit heat…and that’s a state where they average only one of those days per year. Denver also has an average of one day of 100-plus temperatures per year.  Last month, seven Denver days went over 100-degrees, making July 2012 their hottest month ever…and that’s after suffering through their hottest June ever, back to back record-breaking months.  Remember July 7th?  You’d remember if you lived in Indianapolis.  That turned out to be their hottest day in history.  And Wisconsin?  They normally get seventeen days of 90-degree weather for the entire year…and one day of triple-digit heat every two years.  This last July?  It was all sizzle.  Seventeen days of 90-degree heat and three days when it broke over 100-degrees.  That’s an unbelievable anomaly.  Hottest month ever.  It’s not even a competition.

And for Philadelphia?  We fall right in line.  It’s been an average of three degrees warmer for the last twelve months and, for July 2012, it was an average of four degrees hotter, breaking the record for our hottest month ever.  Our previous record holder?  July 1947.

So take your place on the pedestal, July 2012.  The gold medal goes to you…and, thank Coyote, it’s over and done with…July 2012 is officially history.

Stay strong, citybillies.  The endless summer is almost ending…and, if you know your trees and plants, you’ll be able to see the signs of cooler weather even sooner than most.

One sign of the impending fall?  The sunflowers are starting to droop down, dry up and close.

Do you need some hope from the heat?  Then just pay attention to the trees. 

The acorns are starting to pop out their caps.  That’s a sign that fall is around the corner.

Or watch all those sycamores scattered throughout the city.  The sycamores are now dangling their fruit, those big fuzzy balls…and the sweetgum’s prickly gumballs are out too, though still green.

I always liked the dogwood’s fruit capsules. Like their spring flowers, they grow upright above the leaves.  They will eventually break open into bright red berries and be eaten up by birds…but now, still under-ripe in the summer, they look like tight, dense, alien hives…each facet with its own budding eye.

These – and much more -- are all signs of the end of summer, the foreshadow of autumn, but we still have to slog our way through August and through just one more of Coyote’s hot moons.

As it turns out, August 2012 is going to be another noteworthy month.  At the very end of this August, we’re going to get a blue moon.


What’s a blue moon?  It’s two full moons in one month and, in the case of August 2012, it just barely squeezes in.  We had a full moon on August 2nd and we’ll see another one on August 31st.  Two full moons in one month?  Blue moon, baby.

It happens once every three years, on average, which is the origin for the phrase once in a blue moon

The phrase means something rare or something out of the ordinary

Running into certain trees can also be considered blue moon experiences.  Although these kinds of trees are usually non-native, usually planted and cultivated, it’s still a phenomenon. Catching and identifying these uncommon trees can break the spell of these hot, monotonous, humdrum days of summer.

Sometimes, seriously, it’s just nice to know that these rare, extra-ordinary trees are somewhere, somehow, in the city limits.

For example, there is an American smoketree on the corner of 40th and Powelton. 

This tree is more popular down south in Alabama and Texas and it’s a rarity here in the Delaware River watershed.  It gets its name from this time of year, when its flowers drop and these long, gray, silky hairs remain on the tree, supposedly conveying the image of smoke.

You’ll run into this tree here in Philly…oh, about once every blue moon.

Now, right around the corner from that smoketree, there is a fig tree. 

The fig tree is becoming more and more popular here in Philly.  I think it’s because it’s a very easy tree to manage, one that will grow lots of tasty fruit without much care or upkeep…

…but I don’t want to spoil the surprise.  There is nothing in the world that grows like a fig, seriously, and I will dedicate a whole post to this fascinating marvel, another blue moon tree here in Philly.

On the corner of 42nd and Spruce, catty-corner to my favorite franklinia, there is a towering Himalayan pine tree.  Not too common.

Like the eastern white pine, this tree has five needles per cluster but, unlike the eastern white pine, these needles hang in a pendulant, drooping nature…plus, its cone is bigger.

In Clark Park, right next to where the farmers’ market sets up, there are two Kentucky coffee trees.   

This tree is much more native to the Midwest, especially and obviously the state of Kentucky, although the Delaware River is still considered part of its native range…but good luck finding it here in the wild.

And while we’re in West Philly…on 48th Street, off Baltimore Avenue, you can also find a bigleaf magnolia...

…only native to pockets of southern lowlands but just inconspicuously growing in someone’s front yard out there in West Philly.  

A true blue moon tree.

There’s also the black walnut tree.  When the Delaware River watershed was a primal virgin forest, it was decked to the nines with black walnut trees.  Now?  Not so common here on the streets of the concrete jungle, although I did find one in West Philly, in the backyard of a house right next to the church that was being eaten by that catalpa.

There’s an amazing, overwhelming black walnut tree in the northwest, off Germantown Avenue, on Gravers Lane, totally taking dominance in the field of some rustic Chestnut Hill mansion.

That’s a spectacular specimen of black walnut and one that shows the true nature of that tree. 
The black walnut is known as a solitary tree.  It produces a chemical called juglone that oozes from its trunk and roots and it’s absolute poison to other trees and plants…which is why it either grows in a stand of its own kind or it grows like this: solitary in a big field all by its lonesome, massive self. 

The black walnut tree used to be one of the premiere American trees for the lumber and wood industry.  It still is, in some respects, but not as much as before.  Back in the colonial and the pioneer days, its wood was used for cabinets, furniture, coffins and – most importantly – the handles of guns and rifles, a perfect wood for that purpose because no other wood has less jar or recoil, writes Donald Culross Peattie.

In every year, he continues to write, Government has made a fresh raid upon Black Walnut for gun stocks.  Unfortunately, armies are always growing larger, and Walnut grows rarer

It’s true.  You can find some walnuts growing wild in the few native woods left along the Delaware River, but most of the black walnuts out on the streets of Philly have been planted for nostalgia’s sake.  Or they are remnants of an old native woodland.

Right now, the actual American walnut is dangling at the ends of its heavy branches.  I found one black walnut tree in the woods on the border of Philadelphia and Roxborough and was able to snag a few of its fruit from off its branches.


The actual walnut is hidden inside this yellow husk.  It will take the last few long days of hot summer for it to dry out and produce the walnut we all know by sight.

American smoketree, the fig, the Himalayan pine, the bigleaf magnolia, the black walnut…all trees that are uncommon and extra-ordinary…trees that you just happen to run into on your normal tree hunts.  In other words, the perfect trees to capture that blue moon spirit.

Still, the record-breaking summer of 2012 will last one more full month and, extraordinary as it may seem, there are still trees out there flowering, just coming into season. 

Two trees right now are standing out amongst the crowd, thanks to their late, late, late flowering…two trees that just happen to have some of the coolest tree names out there.

I’m talking about the Chinese scholar tree…and the devil’s walkingstick tree. 

Cool names, even cooler trees, and yet they couldn’t be more different.  One is a graceful, ornamental beauty that is planted along winding, shady roads, the kind of tree that inspires the deepest thoughts of time and place…and the other is a menacing feature of the native understory, the kind of tree that belongs in an old-fashioned jungle movie, the kind of tree that can scare the pants off you.

Let’s start with the scary tree first.


Scared yet?

You should be.  That’s the devil’s walkingstick tree, Aralia spinosa, literally the spiny shrub, although it’s not really a shrub at all.

Each part of this tree is so fascinating that it’s hard to know where to begin…but let’s start with how to find it.

It’s easiest to find right now in August because that’s when it flowers.  If you drive down any woody, shady, windy road right now in August, you’re bound to see their bright clusters of flowers creeping up against the roads.

Their bright whitish-yellow flowers pop out of the very tops of their trunks.  In a month or so, those flowers will turn into a jet-spray of bright black berries, adored and devoured by birds. Remember that.  About the birds.  It’ll become important later.

This is an understory tree, which means that it will never be a tall tree and that it grows best in the dappled sunlight and shade of the larger trees of the forest.  My favorite place to find this tree?  The woods of the Schuylkill Environmental Center, right on the border of Philadelphia and Roxborough.  Those woods are thick with devil’s walkingstick.  Out there in those woods, they come right up to the path.

The devil’s walkingstick, when it has the room, will grow as a crowded thicket of clones.  Its roots stay close to the ground so, if it has the room, it will keep shooting up branches above the ground until it forms that dense undergrowth.

And the way it grows?  Another fascinating aspect.  It very rarely branches.  It’s usually just one long straight trunk that opens up like an umbrella at the top and that finally ends with that cluster of flowers.  Look for yourself…no branches.

I know, I know.  It looks like it branches…but those aren’t branches.  Those are leaves.   

According to many books, that’s the largest leaf of any tree in the northeast, if not the entire country. 

Look at the way the leaf just hugs and anchors itself against the branchless trunk.   

It needs that kind of anchor to support such a massive leaf.

The leaf itself is its own curiosity. The actual leaf branches into an average of eight leaf-stalks and then each leaf-stalk sprouts about ten little leaflets, which means one leaf of this tiny tree has an average of eighty to a hundred leaflets…and each entire leaf averages about three to four feet long.

I’ll show you what I mean. 

That is, botanically speaking, one leaf…full of little leaflets, yes, but really just one giant leaf…the largest leaf ever.  I took my shoe off to give it some scale.

If you dare to get close enough to a devil’s walkingstick thicket and then look up, all those giant leaves and all those flowers actually make a lovely sight against the hot August skies.

But, of course, it’s that fearsome trunk, full of stout prickles, that is its most fascinating characteristic.  Those prickles even appear on the leaf.

As you stare, dangerously close, at the devil’s walkingstick, the big question hits you: why would a tree evolve like this?

I think it has to do with the birds.  It wants to attract birds, who love those dark, juicy berries…but it wants to scare away deer and bears and other large animals.  Those sharp prickles, and its dense growing habit, deter the larger animals from eating its berries in the fall. 

It also deters people.

As you walk along the well-kept paths of the Schuylkill Center’s woods, you’ll be able to see, in the distance, large groves of devil’s walkingsticks, just blazing in a lovely patch of sunlight…but you know you can’t get too close.

This tree is not meant for you and me.  It’s not.  It’s kind of saying: thanks for noticing but just keep going, just keep driving by.

The other notable tree flowering right now, the Chinese scholar tree?  Now that tree is much more welcoming.  That tree, right now, has a much more peaceful message for all of us.


This tree actually goes by many names.  Some people call it the pagoda tree, because it is normally planted in its native country of China and Vietnam in the entranceways of shrines and pagodas.   Its scientific name is Styphnolobium japonicum.  It just rolls off the tongue.   It’s now more commonly called Sophora, in honor of its genus and the entire legion of trees in the pea family, which includes most of the bean-pod trees, like the honey locust, the mimosa, the Kentucky coffee tree.

But I first learned it as the Chinese scholar tree and the name just stuck.

It’s usually confused with the black locust tree: similar leaves, similar bark on the younger specimens…but the black locust flowers in the very early spring and this Chinese scholar tree?  It waits until now, in the tail-end days of summer, to release and sprout its white flowers.

And that’s why now, in the early days of August, it’s an easy tree to find and catch.

Drive down any tree-friendly road now and you can probably spot one of these Chinese scholar trees.  Look for the star-bursts of white flowers embedded in the high canopy of its bright green long leaves.

I found a whole row of these trees on Wissahickon Avenue, off Lincoln Drive.  

Its trunk grows tall before it branches, which is what city planners look for when planting rows of street trees.  Less damage to the cars.  Less need for cutbacks.  

Its flowers grow in what’s called a panicle, which means a light-weight spray of branched clusters.

Eventually these flowers will turn into a dangling tangle of bright green bean pods, so tight that they look like a pearl necklace.

They’re planted very frequently here in Philadelphia but, seriously, it’s silly to even talk about the Chinese scholar tree without venturing out to the industrial hoods of West Philly…to the small street named Hobson, which runs in between 67th and 68th off Buist Avenue…not a place to go to much…

…unless you just happen to be hunting for one of the most massive Chinese scholar trees in the country…which is exactly what I was doing.

Your first reaction to this magnificent, mountainous tree is probably the same as my first reaction.

What in the world is this tree doing on this street?

It turns out that this part of the city used to be the home to Buist Nursery, established in the 1850s, no longer around.  Since that time, this neighborhood was turned into the tight housing development you still see now.  This neighborhood was also the location of the old General Electric factory, up and running by the 1930s and officially turned off in the 1990s.

During all that time and throughout all these changes, this tree remained and continued to grow and grow and grow.

According to the website PA Big Trees, its height clocks in at 88 feet.

Its circumference measures out to 15.5 feet.    

It’s hard to take in all this tree all at once.  At first, you just walk around it and take as many pictures as you can…until you finally realize that your camera can’t capture the whole tree at once.  Just to even try to get the full tree in one picture, I had to walk all the way to the other side of the block and, even then, I was still in its shade.

So, the next thing you do is point your camera at specific parts of the trees.  You start thinking about those big, heavy, colossal branches…until you realize that each one of those branches could be its own separate tree.

I was particularly mesmerized by the base of its trunk and the way it just anchored itself into the sidewalk.  It makes you dizzy.  It feels like it's sucking the earth into the sky.

And then…like the group of kids who were hanging out on the stoop and ignoring me…you just put the camera away and let it tower over you.   

I had an insatiable urge to just sit down next to it and scootch my butt up to its roots and rest my back against its trunk and, well, just to ponder…just to sit in its shade and while away the hot hours…but what would the kids think of that?    

It’s a massive tower of tree and, while you’re taking it all in, there is an unshakeable notion that engulfs you, that says something like: this tree does not belong here. 

It belongs, maybe, in some giant field or it belongs in a museum or it belongs on the very top of a grassy mountain at the end of an arduous hike or it belongs on the blue moon itself…but it does not belong here on Hobson Street between 67th and 68th, between Elmwood and Buist…a place where you’ve never been before…until exactly now.


  1. I lived in the house next to that tree 2535,Hobson st for 30 years.. climbed that tree 100's if times

  2. Remember all of the storms that blew those "massive branches" through the side porch windows??? that's why it's bricked up today... Should be another insert to this story... although, those neighbors will never know OUR stories.. SouthWest Philly will never be the same... Was a great neighborhood to grow up in then! wish my kids had today what I had then!

  3. Thanks for reading. So, you lived in the house right next to that historic tree? I'm fascinated by it myself, probably because it seems so out of place, right there on a tiny alley off the beaten path. Don't suppose you have any old photos of that tree?

  4. Great Blog, great Story! Thanks for your great passionate work...

  5. Nice blog