Here in Philadelphia, there are trees and then there are trees.
On this particular day, I was hunting for the first kind of tree.
It goes by the name of mountain laurel. It’ll never be the biggest tree in the woods. It’ll never be the kind of tree that shows up on the nightly news but I’ve been on the lookout for mountain laurel for weeks now.
I’ve been trying to catch its flowering, which I’ve heard is spectacular.
I already knew where they were growing. They were up there, off the trail…
…typical of the mountain laurel, sprouting up on a steep and rocky hillside called a ravine.
That’s French for a violent rush of water and it describes the type of land that makes the shape of a vee, the landscape that forms around a narrow valley cut deep with a running stream.
That’s exactly where I was, on a trail called the Ravine Loop.
Away from the path, up the sharp banks of the stream?
That’s mountain laurel country.
That’s why they’re so hard to find. They’re off the trail.
They’re way up here…
…growing on the pitched and slanted shores of the Ravine Loop.
It’s hard to get up here, rough going and slippery with rotting compost. I had to keep my eyes to the ground and so I noticed the small leaves popping out of the woodland carpet.
These are the other kinds of trees. Big trees.
Here’s a chestnut oak…
…and here’s a tulip poplar.
The big trees, they are a-coming. Some of them are already staking out their claim.
Once they take over, they can choke out whole fields of sunshine, drowning out the understory with their high green canopy. They don’t leave much room for the smaller trees like the dogwood and the redbud, the crabapple and the hawthorn.
And, of course, my prey for this afternoon…
…the mountain laurel…
…that small tree with the dark evergreen leaves and the crooked trunk.
Its bark has a very stringy and shaggy texture, like an old frayed rope that’s been too many days out to sea.
Its flower would be a real boon to my blog. For starters, it’s the state flower of Pennsylvania…
…usually depicted next to our state bird, the ruffled grouse.
Their flowers grow in groups of twelve or more, they say, at the terminal ends of the branches, upright above the leathery leaves.
From what I’ve seen in the field guides, the flowers are bright and showy, resembling little cups. Something found in a child’s tea party. They’re white or pink and each flower has ten long pistils, purple at the tips, that clamp down on the petals and push the flower open.
Even more remarkable, they’re supposed to be a very action-packed bloom.
They are spring-loaded, wrote John Eastman in his field guide for forests and thickets, and they actively bombard an alighting insect with pollen.
You can test this mechanism yourself with a pin or grass blade. The slightest touch…
..and he goes on and on. I wanted very badly to test this mechanism myself…
…but I was too early. They were just barely budding.
I’ll come back here next week to catch them in bloom but, by that time, this whole story called Philly Trees will be over.
This is the final post, the last adventure. This is the big finish and this is exactly where I want to end this blog…
…off the trail.