Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Happy anniversary, Philly Trees.

September marks the sixth month anniversary of the Philly Trees blog and, in honor of that anniversary, I agreed to sit down for a one-on-one interview with Philadelphia’s favorite meteorologist, Cecily Tynan.

Cecily Tynan has been studying, and reporting on, the movement of the Medicine Wheel here in Philadelphia since 1995…no one understands the Philly seasons and their totems better than Ms. Tynan.

She’s seen it all…the highs, the lows, the scattered thunderstorms, the hot and humid summers, Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and the big daddy of them…Snowpocalypse 2010.  Nothing on the never-ending Wheel escapes the notice of Ms. Tynan.

Our interview brought back a lot of memories, especially from the beginning of the blog…and, to think, here we are at the beginning of Brother Grizzly’s first moon of autumn…the Ducks Fly Moon…six months down the line from Wabun the Golden Eagle and his Budding Trees Moon fever.  Six months and two seasons, from flowers to leaves to fruits and now back to leaves, from blossoms to acorns, there’s always something happening, always something worth watching when it comes to the Philadelphia understory…talk about your action news.

The broadcast date of the interview has yet to be announced…so we’ll celebrate the big six months right here on the blog…a candid, sentimental, sappy look back at all of my triumphs and all of my failures, my missed opportunities, my bold declarations, even my blunders and bloopers...the outtakes and the deleted scenes…a rare and privileged look behind the screen of Philly Trees.


Might as well get this out of the way from the get-go.

In the last six months, I’ve made my fair share of misstatements, mistakes and bold declarations that never came to fruition.

It didn’t take me long to put my ambitious foot smack dab into my big mouth.  In fact, it happened right away in my second post.

Remember the giant willow oak in Hunting Park?

Back in the beginning of March, I made the following bold declaration: With this blog as my witness, I hereby declare that I will successfully register this willow oak as a Pennsylvania Champion Tree as recognized by the PA Big Tree SocietyI’m lazy, I’ll admit.  I’m addicted to bad TV and Sportscenter.  I’m prone to just sit around and do nothing, even though I’m a restless and antsy person by nature.  It’s a horrible combination but I promise that, by summer, this willow oak will be recognized as a Champion Tree of Philadelphia.

Well, here we are, past spring and past summer, and I have yet to actually go back there and measure this tree, let alone submit it as a candidate for a Champion Tree.

I’d like to say, right here and right now, that I will finally get back out there and measure the willow oak but, citybillies, it’s football season and I’m feeling lazier than ever.

I wish that was my only blooper…but it didn’t take me long to make another slip of the tongue.

Back at the end of June, I found some golden rain trees in the parking lot of the new Barnes Museum and I found one outside my friend’s house in West Philly.


I snapped a few pictures of that golden rain tree, I wrote, because, one, you don’t see it very often and, two, it’s always interesting to see trees that flower later in the summer.

Well, that was another misstatement.

Right after I published that post, I started seeing the golden rain tree everywhere in Philly: along Frankford Avenue, in the highway islands right at the end of the Ben Franklin Bridge, in front of schools and banks and warehouses…heck, there’s even a golden rain tree right on the street corner only a few feet away from my urban cabin.


Sometimes, that’s just the way it is when it comes to tree-hunting.   

As soon as you identify a tree for the first time, you suddenly see it everywhere.  It turns out that the golden rain tree is planted in huge numbers here in Philadelphia, a very popular and very common street tree...and when its papery capsules are in season, when those golden lanterns rain down from the top of its crown, it really is a beautiful tree.

But, by far, my biggest blooper…my giant boner…has to be from back in the middle of April, when I went to the Historic Wyck House on Germantown Avenue to catch the blossoming of the pawpaw flower.

Time to come clean.  I took pictures of the wrong tree.


That’s not a pawpaw flower…that’s a magnolia.

Hey, that can happen to any tree-hunter…well, not really.  It’s a serious mistake and I’ve often thought about going back into the blog archives and deleting those photos…like the poets say, the only thing we can change is the past.

In the end, though, I let the blunder remain on the blog as a constant reminder to double-check my Dendrology Library before publishing my posts.

And speaking of pawpaws, it’s time to release one of Philly Trees deleted scenes…


Not every tree-hunting expedition becomes a Philly Trees post.

Back in September, urban forager David Siller invited me to tag along while he hunted for ripe pawpaws.  I never wrote about it before now.

According to his website, Yosoybean, and his blog, Earth Artisan, David Siller is a farmer, naturalist, primitive skills practitioner, fermentation enthusiast and yogi.  He’s also a professional forager for many of Philadelphia’s top chefs and restaurants.

Pokeweed, spiderwort, nettles, cherry plums, crab apples, ramps, juneberries, Japanese knotweed shoots and the pawpaw…if you see these wild and seasonal foods on a menu in a Philadelphia restaurant, most likely it was found and foraged by David Siller.

In the beginning of September, David and his buddy Teddy and I drove down to Maryland, to a sleep-away camp closed for the season, to hunt their woods for the pawpaw…the prairie banana…the only tropical fruit to grow this far north.  

The exact location?  Yeah, right.  The one condition to joining Siller’s expedition?  I had to promise to never, ever reveal the exact location of this pawpaw patch.

Out there in the underbrush, David and Teddy showed me how to harvest the pawpaw.

You find the patch of trees…you look for the fruits way up there in the branches…


…you give the tree a good shake…

…then you listen for the thumps…and then you scour the ground for fallen pawpaws.


In the end, we foraged about three flats of pawpaws…though, by the end of the day, it was probably a lot more.

I left early to drive back to Philly to catch the opening kickoff of football season.

Why did this pawpaw harvest never make the blog?  I thought it would be cheating.  I thought it was beyond the scope of Philly Trees.  After all, we were in Maryland, not Philly.

I want to keep this blog centered in Philadelphia.  I want it to be about the Philadelphia understory…the treeline under the skyline…and Maryland?  Well, it just didn’t feel kosher.

Somewhere here in Philly, I just know there are some wild pawpaw patches, somewhere out there, and I’ll just have to bide my time and keep on looking for them here in Philly before writing an official post about pawpaw picking…another bold declaration, I know, but this one I’m keeping, I promise.


There was only one other time, way back in the beginning of the blog, that I even considered writing about something beyond the Philadelphia boundaries. 

Sure, one day, I’ll take myself and the blog on a vacation…and I wouldn’t mind if we had fellow citybillies from other cities writing about their own urban understory…but, for me, it should be all about Philly. 

Nothing but Philly trees…well, except for this one idea I had…my biggest flop.  Serves me right for even thinking of taking the blog outside of the Philly limits.

Don’t get me wrong.  There have been plenty of missed boats and missed opportunities, even here in Philadelphia.

Take the horse chestnut. 

Come late May and early June, the horse chestnut is one of the most distinctive, one of the most beautiful, one of the most dazzling trees out there on the mean streets.

I have a whole folder of photos of the flowering horse chestnut trees…

…yet I never got around to writing about them.  I mentioned them once during the Harvest Moon post but they deserve their own spotlight. 

Why did I miss this boat?  I don’t know.  The tulip poplar was flowering at the same time, the farmers’ markets were just starting up again…before I could even catch my breath, the horse chestnut and its flowers just fizzled out and some new thing was happening with the trees.

There’s just always something happening with the trees.  It’s hard to catch up with really got to be on your toes, ready at a moment’s notice…I wish they wouldn’t move around so much. 
And one false lead, one wrong turn, one dead end…and you walk away with zilch.

Like this one time…back in early September…coming home from work, I parked my car down the street and, while walking to my urban cabin, I stumbled upon this tree…

What in the world?  No!  It couldn’t be.  Not here.

Was this an American chestnut?

I was ecstatic, exhilarated, transported, absolutely rapturous.

Way back around the Fourth of July, I had found two American chestnuts growing on the lawn behind Independence Hall.

The American chestnut was once the king of the northeastern forests, I wrote back then, until the chestnut blight ravaged their population beginning in the early 1900s…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.

You can imagine my excitement.  Don’t tell me that there’s an actual American chestnut growing in somebody’s front yard…healthy, tall, magnificent, just bursting with fruit…a long forgotten king of yore…just a few houses down from my own urban cabin.

An American chestnut?  By the time I made it to my urban cabin, I was sure that I had found a real, genuine, bona fide American chestnut growing large and unsuspecting right in my neighborhood. 

I’d have to call the press.  I’d have to alert the media.  Tree-hunters and citybillies from all around the tri-state area would soon be swarming the streets around my house.  Fame and fortune, interviews, national acclaim, a book deal, the cover of Tree Hunters magazine…all mine.  This would be my big break and, from here on out, it’ll just be champagne and caviar…Jon Spruce living it up in Fat City.   

It didn’t work out that way.

With the help of fellow Philadelphia tree blogger David Hewitt, we confirmed that this would have to be a Chinese chestnut, impervious to the blight that dethroned the old forest king.

There really aren’t too many traits that tell the difference between the Chinese and the American chestnut.  The big one?  The leaves of the Chinese chestnut have a hairy underside to them.  This tree?  I detected a light fuzz, nothing that distinctive but still…the very fact that it was so healthy determined that it was a Chinese chestnut.

That’s really, really sad.

It was one of my biggest fizzles…but that’s nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to my biggest fizzle and flop of all time…I’m talking about Walt Whitman’s grave.


Here in the Philadelphia tri-state area, all nature writers work under the shadow of Walt Whitman.

In New England, it’s Henry David Thoreau and Robert Frost.  In the Midwest, it’s Aldo Leopold and Jim Harrison.  Out there in the American desert, it’s Edward Abbey and, way out there in California, it’s John Muir and Gary Snyder.

But, here along the Philadelphia bend of the Delaware River, between the Poconos and the Jersey Shore, it’s that old, wise, happy graybeard, Walt Whitman.


I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars…

Earth! you seem to look for something in my hands…what do you want?

I tramp a perpetual journey, my signs are a rain-proof coat and good shoes and a staff cut from the woods…

And as to you corpse I think you are good manure…I smell the white roses sweetscented and growing, I reach to the leafy lips…I reach to the polished breasts of melons.

No other nature writer is so complete, so entire or so loving.  Nothing, and nobody, is a stranger to Walt.  His song is an illuminated ring...a giant, heartfelt bear-hug that grabs everybody, from the politician to the farmer to the slave, and everything, from the ocean to the trees to the littlest blade of grass.  He must’ve really been something.

And he’s buried, just a few miles away, in Harleigh Cemetery, in Philly’s sister-city of Camden. 

I had planned to visit his grave, take some pictures and publish a post with one mission in mind: free Walt Whitman!

After all, it was Walt Whitman who wrote: I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, if you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.

In fact, that’s the exact quote inscribed on the plaque next to his grave.

So just what in carnation is Walt Whitman doing buried in a tomb?

Sure, it’s a rustic, pastoral final resting place…I love the old beech tree sidling up to his tomb…all that writing scratched into the beech bark as messages to the great bard…but c’mon. 

Walt Whitman is buried in a tomb?  Above the grass?

This has to be a mistake, an anachronism, the ultimate cosmic joke…and me, Jon Spruce?  I was going to lead the campaign to free Walt Whitman and put him in the ground, in the grass, where he belonged.

I even went on-line and made bumper stickers…

…but then I learned one true and strange fact: Walt Whitman actually wanted to be buried in the tomb.

At first, I couldn’t believe it.  I even called the cemetery and spoke to somebody in charge.

Of course he wanted to be buried in the tomb, the Man said.  We don’t bury people in tombs without their permission.

I was dumb-founded and stupefied, not to mention a little disillusioned.  Was it all a ruse?  Was it all a lark?  The whole Song of Myself, the whole bequeathing to the grass?  What does it all mean?

And then, a few days later, after burying the bumper stickers deep in the mess under my bed, I ran into this mural, another Whitman quote, located at 40th Street and Powelton Avenue…

The Zen masters say it like this: water that is too pure contains no fish.

So Walt Whitman is buried in a tomb, just like he wanted.

I don't know yet.  That’s a pretty big fish.


What’s in store for the next six months?

Leaves.  The autumn show is about to begin and it’s going to be dazzling.  It’s already begun…you can see it in the edges of the red maples and the dogwoods and the poison ivy.

Apples, pears and quinces.  There’s still a lot of fruit that’s got to fall and be eaten…including the acorns…and I’m still on the lookout for a Philadelphia pawpaw patch.

I’ve yet to really tackle the Wissahickon…or the Tacony Creek…or the entire Northeast, really.

I want to explore gourds and pumpkins…I want to celebrate Halloween as the agricultural holiday that it really is.

I’m saving the winter to go hunting for all the evergreens and conifers and yews and hollies.  I’ve neglected a gigantic branch of the entire tree kingdom.  I think I’ll hit a few graveyards in the winter too.

I’d also like to shine the spotlight on certain trees that don’t get enough attention, the small trees that never grow big and giant, but ones that are still important characters to the whole Philadelphia understory.

I often think of the time I went hunting for the devil’s walkingstick tree. 

Now that’s a native tree that doesn’t get a lot of fanfare but it’s a common and often neglected tree here in Philadelphia, along the scenic highways and in the woods that still grow wild here in the city.

I’ve neglected my fair share of small trees.

Like that time I went hunting for the champion beech tree in the Wissahickon, off Northwestern Avenue.  While tramping through the woods near that tree, I found a lot of winged euonymus.

These are native trees that often grow along the edges of well-kept trails.  It’s even used as an ornamental bush in landscaping.  Its fall color is a vibrant, blinding red…which is why it’s also called the burning bush.

And it’s got these really strange, corky growths along its thin branches…

…those are its wings…and it really is something to talk about.

I’ve also ignored the button bush, even though I found it in the swamps around Morris Arboretum and all up and down willow country.

Wherever there is natural water flowing, there will probably be a thicket of button bushes growing somewhere nearby.  

Those small globes that bend off its branches…those buttons…they drop and then they float in the waters…that’s the way they spread their seed.

This is a fascinating tree that only true and tried tree-hunters like myself are bound to find.  Nobody really plants this tree on the streets or as an ornamental or in a park or in a highway island…and yet, here in Philadelphia, we are surrounded by it.

So, yeah, I’ll hit the big spots and I’ll hike the big woods and I’ll watch the big waters and I’ll get to all the big trees but…and here’s yet another bold declaration…I’m also going to shine the spotlight on the neglected trees, the forgotten treasures, the disregarded, the overlooked, the ignored and the underdogs.

That’s the Philadelphia way.  That’s always been the Philadelphia story.

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