Sunday, May 12, 2013


People are always asking me…well, they’re always asking me everything.

It’s true.

Every week, my mailbox spills over with letters from the fans of Philly Trees, messages from old friends, invitations for speaking engagements, requests for magazine articles, pre-approved applications for money laundering schemes and correspondences from citybillies all over Turtle Island.

So, on a particularly overcast and drizzly day, I spent the early evening sifting through the mountain of mail, answering all the burning questions sent to me from the small tribe of tree-hunters trying to make sense of this bountiful, generous, cryptic mother we call Nature.

Here’s a letter…from a Troy A. Hamilton of Marlton, New Jersey, just on the other side of the Delaware River.

Judging from the handwriting, Troy is a young buck of a student, probably one of the many fearless, scrappy Jersey devils just trying to find his footing in the humdrum rat-race of monotonous suburbia. 

Troy, I know how it feels.

I just love receiving this kind of fan mail. 

When I was a kid, I was guilty, too, of writing letters to the celebrities that really touched my spirit and fueled my inspirations, local heroes like Jim Gardner and Charles Barkley and national icons like John Glenn and George Lucas. 

And look at me now, on the other end of the fan mail cycle.

What’s that quote from Charles Fort?

You measure a circle beginning anywhere.

Looking a little closer at the handwriting, little Troy seems to be struggling with the subjects of English and Composition…but let’s see what urgent mystery young Troy is asking old Jon Spruce to solve.

Hey, Jon Spruce, my teacher made us read your blog for class.  It sucks!  Who cares what a leaf looks like.  Not me.  But I have to right a report for class about a kind of tree.  I dont care which one you pick. 

PS Nice hat dork!

Let’s pick another letter in this pile.

This one is anonymous, that’s strange.

Dear Jon Spruce, is this blog making you any money?

Real funny, Dad.

Is there a serious question here or what?

Okay, here’s one...from a local Fishtown fan.

Hey, Jon Spruce, I was cruising through the city the other day and I saw these freaky looking trees.  Here’s a picture.

Far out, right?  We need your help, man.  What kind of tree is this?

That’s a horse-chestnut, dude.

The horse-chestnut is part of the buckeye family, the pride of the Ohio River valley, known in spring for those bright and bold spires of flowers.

In the fall, it’s famous for dropping those large, spiky chestnuts…responsible for many flat tires and poisonous to just about everything else on this planet…

…but, here in spring, it’s all about those showy steeples of flowers, spinning like a drill from its greeny crown.

Good eye and great question.

Here’s another good one.

Hey, Jon Spruce, the tree in front of my house is dropping all these flowers on the sidewalk in front of my house. 

Any ideas?

That’s the native black cherry, also known as the bird cherry.

A little different than the other ornamental cherries, right?

That’s because it flowers later in the season, after it leafs out, a few weeks after most of the other cherries have already folded up their spring show.

There are hundreds of cherry hybrids out there.  Most of them blossom in early spring, growing their flowers in tight clusters up and down its branches, all around their stately crowns.

Not the black cherry.

The black cherry will blossom only at the terminal ends of their limbs in these branched, drooping clusters.

Black cherry.  It used to be one of the most sought after woods in the forest, second only to black walnut for the production of furniture, cabinets, gun stocks, carriages and bars.

Now?  Not so much.  Like black walnut, its bubble has burst, over-cut and over-harvested.

Out in the wild, it’s known as a pioneer tree, which means that it flourishes in the creeping edges of a healthy woods or it takes over in the open, sunlit spaces left in the forest after a fire or a clear-cut.

Down here on the mean streets, that means you can usually find the black cherry in places like this…

…hanging over a construction fence, usually near a Lew Blum Towing sign, pioneering the edges of a brown-lot gone to seed.

Another good find and another good question.

Let’s pick another letter here in the pile.

This one comes from a fan living way out there in the Northeast.

Hey, Jon Spruce, great blog.  I love it.  My single girlfriends talk about it all the time.  We love reading stories about leaves and branching patterns and bark.  Quick question: what’s the biggest tree in Philadelphia?

This is a great question with no easy answer.

There are a few contenders.

According to some tree-hunters, the tallest Philly tree is probably one of the tulip poplars towering over the woods of the Pennypack Creek.

If you take into consideration the height, width and crown, then there are three other contenders for the heavyweight champion of Philadelphia.

It could be the giant ginkgo located near the entrance of the Philly Zoo…

…or it could be the colossal beech in the Wissahickon woods right off Northwestern Avenue…

…or it could be that monster of a Chinese scholar tree off Elmwood Street in West Philly…

…and, someday, I really have to get out there to measure my own champion contender, the willow oak in North Philly’s Hunting Park.

But this is exactly where I diverge from the path and passions of other tree-hunters.

Don’t get me wrong.

I like big trees.  But there are sights to see at every level of the canopy.  If you spend your time hunting only for the big trees, you’re going to miss the understory.

I’m looking at you, dogwood.

The dogwood will never be a big tree.  Even the biggest dogwood in Philadelphia, according to the website PA Big Trees, is only 40 feet high with a 40 feet crown.

Not a big tree at all.

In the Philly wilds, it can usually be found right at the bend of the trail…

…easy to recognize, thanks to its distinctive bark, described in the field guides as resembling alligator-hide

…and, of course, completely distinguishable in spring thanks to those tight clusters of flowers surrounded by those panoramic white leaves.

Most people see the dogwood as an ornamental tree, planted in front lawns, cemeteries and parks.

Up close, its other notable distinction is easy to see, the way the flowers grow upright, at the end of a small stalk, as a separate tier above its droopy leaves.

It’s a small tree, and understory tree...but, big trees, beware.  During these mid-spring months, the dogwood steals the show.

And then there’s the redbud.

The redbud kind of disappears in the summer, overlooked in the background, but during the Frogs Return Moon, it rises to stardom.

In general this is but an understory tree, never over 40 feet tall, and elbowing out little room for itself, writes Donald Culross Peattie, inconspicuous in summer and winter, redbud shows us in spring how common it is.

As usual, Mr. Peattie nails it.

It’s known for those small, heart-shaped leaves…

…but let’s face it.  When it comes to the redbud, it’s all about those bright bursts of pinkish purple flowers…

…as the field guides say, growing naked on the twig.

Those flowers aren’t all show either.  They actually taste pretty good, great on salads.

Just the other day, some neighborhood fans stopped by the urban cabin.  After a few sociable cups of cider, they guided me to Saint Bernard Street, in between 49th and 50th, to show me the redbud growing in front of their house.

It was love at first sight, now my favorite redbud in the entire city.

This is a redbud gone awry.

I’ve never seen a redbud in bloom like this before…pumping out those quick bursts of flowers in these goofy, absurd, giant pompoms almost completely clothing the entire tree.

It’s almost as if this redbud has a glitch in the system, gone haywire.  My neighbors compared it to a Dr. Seuss drawing.  I thought that was appropriate.

Small trees, ladies, are full of big surprises.

And, if you’ve only got eyes for big trees, you’re going to overlook another rousing spring spectacle…

…the crabapples.

I don’t know how it happened but the streets of West Philly’s University City are teeming with ornamental crabapple trees.

Give that Planning Committee a free lunch. 

Small trees, yes, but during the Frogs Return Moon, the limelight shines bright and beautiful on the crabapple.

Out on the farm, the cultivated apple tree’s blossoms and branches are plucked, pruned and sprayed for maximum fruit efficiency.

But the ornamental crabapple is free and wild.

Here under the crabapples, I can see – and smell -- the wild fruit happening, pollinating, germinating and, on the same tree, decaying from the previous season's crop.

According to the field guides, a single wild apple tree can produce between 50,000 and 100,000 blossoms and, yet, on an average, only 3% of those blossoms will turn into fruit.

I can’t blame the bees.

These crabapple trees were buzzing with bees on that day, so many bees that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the tree itself take flight.

So, to all you ladies trapped out there in the Northeast, it’s easy to get all hot and bothered by the big trees but don’t overlook the understory. 

Dogwood, redbud and crabapple? 

Don’t these small understory runts of a tree deserve a dance?

Let’s take a few more questions here.

This one is from a Miss Joanie Goldberg of Chester Springs, Pennsylvania.

She writes, Hey, Jon Spruce, I stumbled upon your blog the other night.  You really love trees.  I’m a tree-hugger too but you?  You seem to take that love to a whole different level.  Tell the truth, just between us, which tree do you find the most sensual?

Joan, I do not hug trees.

That’s a persistent rumor here on the Internet that I’ve never been able to quash.

And yet, if I am honest with myself, there is something about the trees that quickens my heart, boils my blood and lights up my fantasies…something that arouses the senses, the true meaning of the word sensual.

It must be all this talk about birds and bees.

The right tree in the right spot can trigger every sense, trip every wire.

It all boils down to the same thing.  We all want fun.  We all want that big city romance.  We’re all looking for free entertainment.

Look no further.

The plant and tree kingdom is the greatest sight and sound show out there for the taking.

I’m not alone in thinking this way.

That great watcher of the woods, Henry David Thoreau, once wrote, All Nature is my bride…

...reality is fabulous…

…there is a certain fertile sadness which I would not avoid, but rather earnestly seek.  It is positively joyful to me…

…my life flows with a deeper current…my heart leaps into my mouth at the sound of the wind in the woods…

…we are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers.  It is reptile and sensual.

However, again, if I’m honest with myself, by all accounts, Thoreau wasn’t very lucky when it came to the ladies.

Okay.  One more letter, one final fan mail. 

This one comes from a reader all the way on the other side of the state, in the western foothills of the Appalachia, in a little town called Scranton.

What’s your favorite tree?

Come on.  That’s an easy one to answer.

My favorite tree?  The best kind of tree?

That’s the one that always steals me away from the blog itself.  The one that pushes me out the door, away from the books, away from the fan mail.  The one that keeps me on the road.

My favorite tree is always the next tree.

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