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'City of Trees': The Book

April 25, 2009

(Kathryn Pyle is producing a documentary film about the post-conflict period in El Salvador. This is the third installment in a five-part series that explores the growing movement to recover and maintain the urban canopy in the Northeast. In her last post, she wrote about tree planting efforts in Washington's Anacostia neighborhood.)

Casey Trees_Choukas-Bradley An earnest-looking crowd, admitted tree-huggers, filled a room at the Botanic Garden earlier this year for one of several events organized by Casey Trees to launch the re-issue of a beloved field guide to Washington's urban canopy, City of Trees, by Melanie Choukas-Bradley, with illustrations by Polly Alexander.

First published in 1981 and re-issued in 1987, City of Trees is all about Washington, with lots of stories specific to the city's history, monuments, and characters. The trees included in the book, on the other hand, are an eclectic lot, thanks to the city's mild climate. The book lists more than a dozen different types of magnolias -- their outrageous flowers and egg-shaped fruit, evergreen leaves, and lemony fragrance are distinct elements of the city -- and sprinkled among the many native species are trees from other countries -- including arboreal gems such as the cherry trees gifted to the city by the Japanese government in 1912.

The book is a treasure, though a bit hefty for hiking about. The illustrations are clear and detailed, the descriptions thorough, the writing lively and informative. The introductory text gives a colorful history of trees in the city and the personalities linked to them. We learn, among many interesting details, that the tulip poplar is the city's quintessential park tree; it's native, and it thrives in an urban environment. There are sections on tree viewing by location -- the Mall, the Capitol grounds (where Frederick Law Olmsted, the visionary behind New York's Central Park, insisted the trees be labeled, turning it to a spacious arboretum), the memorials -- as well as places just outside the city like Theodore Roosevelt Island, where the pedestrian visitor comes upon a great peaceful Art Deco plaza.

In her talk at the Botanic Garden, Choukas-Bradley mentioned some important changes to the city's canopy since the first edition, such as the grounds surrounding the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened a few years ago; the surrounding gardens are sprinkled with trees common to North American Native habitat, including witch-hazel, sassafras, and tulip.

Alexander, who made three hundred life-size drawings for the first edition and added fifteen for this one, described the process of collecting hundreds and hundreds of leaves and fruits, which she pressed and dried -- and still has. She showed some of the cones from thirty years ago, tagged with tree name and location. "Many of the historic trees are gone," she said. "But I"m encouraged that there"s renewed interest in trees: for their beauty, for their role in the environment, and as wildlife habitat."

There are some good stories in City of Trees, but the best cherry blossom story isn't in the book (at 450 pages, you sense there was a lot of competition for space). Choukas-Bradley helped me track it down from a reference I'd found. When Franklin Roosevelt commissioned the Jefferson Memorial, the design required the removal of the cherry trees along that side of the Tidal Basin. Ambiguous reports in the Washington Post and New York Times only contribute to the uncertainty of what happened next, but a photograph was published (in an era when you could still trust a photo) showing a group of women apparently chained to the trees. 

Back to Anacostia: The Trees of Cedar Hill

The women who chained themselves to those cherry trees were the forerunners of today's tree-sitters who protest development at the expense of nature. A more subtle form of community activism on behalf of trees was evident in the turnout for the tree planting in Anacostia. Just a few blocks away, on the grounds of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site at Cedar Hill, Choukas-Bradley is leading a tree walk. It's one of several walks she's done through Casey Trees to highlight City of Trees, and part of the organization's monthly program of tree walks throughout the city.

"Our goal with the tree walks," said Sue Erhardt, director of education for Casey Trees, "is to get people to stop and really look at trees, and see them as important as the Washington Monument." In fact, according to Joan Serby, one of the locals on the walk and a member of the association of professional tour guides in the District, so many visitors ask their guides about the trees at historic sites that the guides have requested a special tour this fall to learn how to incorporate the city's tree lore into their work.

The tree walks are just one of the educational programs operated by Casey Trees. Announced on the organization's Web site, the walks are limited to twenty participants, and they are always oversubscribed. Podcasts of the walks are planned for the future, Twitter and Facebook are already being used by the organization to spread the word, and the Casey Trees Web site features interactive maps and tools that let you calculate your carbon footprint, learn about green sites in D.C., and identify your street's trees.

Casey Tress_Cedar-Hill01 The Frederick Douglass historic site, fifteen acres of grounds with a view across the river to Capitol Hill, is an example of a local attraction that appeals to visitors both because of its history as well as its trees. The famous abolitionist named the spot Cedar Hill because of the number of cedars growing there when he bought the property in 1877, and he lived in the house for almost twenty years, until his death in 1895. The house is now a museum filled with furniture and personal items belonging to the great man, and the grounds are as much a reflection of Douglass, an avid gardener and naturalist, as the home. According to Julie Kutruff, a guide with the National Park Service, NPS employees inventorying Douglass' books discovered among their pages many pressed leaves that Douglass had collected during his travels.

A giant white oak near the front door is the only tree remaining from Douglass' time -- it was already a large, mature tree when he bought the property -- but the grounds are dotted with many fine examples of younger, mostly native species: tulip trees, white ashes, black locusts, hickories, and several different kinds of oaks, as well as magnolias.

"The combination of this remarkable American and this collection is really astounding," said Choukas-Bradley as she ushered the group from an allspice shrub to a grove of trees on a rise in the back section of the grounds. Several walkers had brought binoculars: Washington, with its extensive green canopy, is a migratory bird stop and many were stopping by Cedar Hill on a day that was impossible to resist being outdoors.

Tomorrow: Philly's 'Green' Awards

-- Kathryn Pyle

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