The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 30, 2010


Trees on the Common

A Norway maple leaf (left) and a sliver maple leaf (right)
(Photo by Kay Fairweather)

Today, the last Friday in April, is National Arbor Day. It is a time to spare a thought for trees, to say nothing of being a traditional time to plant a tree. As John Wright said “every time you breathe in, thank a tree.” It also seems like a good time to get to know the trees on our own Town Common. They are in no way representative of Carlisle’s natural biodiversity. Rather they are trees that people at different times have considered worthy of a spot on the Common for a variety of reasons. There is no single place in town where we keep records of what was planted or when and why but every tree has a story. Some are still secrets but others are known. Not counting the shrubs, there are 17 trees of 13 different species on the Common today.

The oldest: As best as I can piece together the scraps of information, it seems as if the oldest tree is a Silver Maple planted “with ceremony” on Memorial Day in 1924 (or 1923 in a conflicting document) and referred to as the Clara Barton tree. As of March 1925 there were only six trees on the Common – a pine, three elms, a cedar, and the Clara Barton maple. The elms have long since succumbed to Dutch Elm disease. The pine which had been planted by Selar Simonds and the cedar by Warren B. Chamberlin are gone to unknown causes. Only the maple remains. (I am assuming this maple is the same Clara Barton tree since it appears to be old enough and it is in the right location.)

In 1925, 15 additional trees and ten shrubs “were set out on the Common under the direction of Mrs. Benson P. Wilkins” according to an item in Old Houses and Families of Carlisle, Mass. by Martha Fifield Wilkins with Contributions and Compilations by Old Inhabitants and Other Interested Persons. This record explains that there was a $15 surplus in funds raised for “recognition of the soldiers of the World War” and it would be spent on trees which “in time would add enjoyment to all the outdoor events in Carlisle Center.” The record includes a map of where the trees would be planted. The bill of sale from The New England Nurseries Company is dated March 25, 1925, with a ship date of April 23, 1925. It shows that the following 15 trees were purchased for $14.75: three white pine (now gone), three canoe birch (now gone), two Fraser Fir (one remains), two Norway spruce (both remain), two cut-leaf maple (both gone by July of the same year), one Norway maple (unfortunately it remains), one sugar maple (still there) and a Colorado spruce (still there). The Colorado spruce was noted at no charge and is considered a gift from John Kirkegaard of the nursery company. An additional $4 covered the following ten shrubs: eight Spirea vanhouttei which were planted around the flag pole and two Forsythia Fortunei which were planted at the top of the steps on the Concord Road side. Not one remains today.

The newest: In 2002, on the initiative of Eunice Knight and the Carlisle Garden Club, three American elms were planted along the Concord Street side and a Zelkova was planted on the Church Street side. The elms, Ulmus americana ‘Princeton’ are native to eastern North America and have resistance to Dutch Elm disease. Sadly, they are not resistant to vandals and only two of the three remain. The Zelkova, native to Europe and Asia, is in the elm family, has Dutch Elm resistance, and is deemed a suitable replacement for elms lost to the disease. It is our virtual “hedge” against the American elms not being sufficiently robust. Its main trunk is a welcome habitat for many species of lichen living cheek-by-jowl.

The in-betweens: Between 1925 and 2002 the following trees were planted: another Silver Maple, another Norway Maple, a Northern White Cedar, a Nikko fir, and three small to medium flowering trees. Of these I have a date only for the Nikko fir. Thirty years ago today, on April 30, 1980, it was planted as the official town Christmas tree. The cedar (of unknown heritage) which had served in this capacity lost its top and was no longer the desired shape for a Christmas tree for traditionalists. The Nikko is a native of Japan and has grown into a suitably-proportioned tree. It fulfills its seasonal duties very well. The cedar recovered from its injuries and appears healthy. Its greenness, I think, has more to do with chlorophyll than envy of its neighbor. Two of the flowering trees are crab apples and both are in flower now – one white and the other pink. The third flowering tree is a plum and is almost certainly Prunus cerasifera ‘atropurpurea’. If so, it has an average life span of around 20 years. It is recognizable by its pink blossoms which come before the reddish-purple leaves open. It has a short bloom period but it was considerate of those who planted it to choose something with an earlier bloom time than the crab apples. The species originated in Iran (or Persia).

Maples: On Sunday morning I walked the Common with George Bishop, maple man, and learnt about maple identification. Today, it is unthinkable that we would plant Norway maples, which are listed near the top of most invasive alien plant lists so I wanted to be sure if that is what we have. We do. They have the traditional maple leaf shape but if you break a leaf you will see a milky sap coming from the veins. Other maples have clear sap.

There is a large Norway maple at the corner of School and Concord Streets which was among the trees planted in 1925. There is another smaller one whose history I couldn’t find but it clearly dates back to a time when their invasive nature was not understood. Underneath both of them are dozens of seedlings. It is possible that some of the Norways around the Unitarian church are the offspring of these trees. The Norways attempt to compensate for their aggressive habits by giving a glorious splash of gold in the fall after the red from the native maples has passed. The silver maples are natives and are identifiable by their more finely cut leaves. The solitary sugar maple on the corner of Church and Concord is from 1925. The leaf shape is similar to the Norway maple but narrower, relative to its length.

Evergreens: There are six evergreens on the Common; one cedar, two firs and three spruces. There is a spruce at each corner of the Common, all of them from the 1925 planting. Like all spruces, the needles have four sides. At each Church Street corner is a Norway spruce recognizable by flatter needles than other spruces, cones up to seven inches long, and an overall droopy habit. At the other corner is a Colorado spruce with slightly longer needles and cones up to four inches long. The two firs have flat needles typical of firs. One is the Nikko fir (Christmas tree) and the other is a Fraser fir (from 1925). The Fraser fir is a native. Its needles are relatively dense on the twig.

Poetry month: In consideration of National Arbor Day and the last day of National Poetry Month, I have chosen a prose poem from Dom Helder Camara in his A Thousand Reasons for Living. “I love looking at you, hundred-year-old tree, loaded with shoots and boughs as though you were a stripling. Teach me the secret of growing old like you, open to life, to youth, to dreams, as somebody aware that youth and age are merely steps towards eternity.”

Sources: Tree Identification Book, George W.D. Symonds; Sylvia Sillers of Church Street for historical documents and topographical plan of the Common; Bill Neill for help with the plum tree; George Bishop for help with the maples; Alison Saylor for help with the 2002 plantings. ∆


Map location Common name Genus species When planted
1 Colorado Spruce Picea pungens 1925
2 Norway Maple Acer platanoides 1925
3 Silver Maple Acer ?
4 Nikko Fir Abies homolepis 30-Apr-80
5 Norway Maple Acer platanoides ?
6 Northern White Cedar Thuja occidentalis ?
7 Crab Apple Malus ?
8 Silver Maple Acer 1924?
9 American Elm “Princeton” Ulmus americana 2002
10 American Elm “Princeton” Ulmus americana 2002
11 Plum Prunus cerasifera ?
12 Norway Spruce Picea abies 1925
13 Sugar Maple Acer saccharum 1925
14 Zelkova Zelkova 2002
15 Crab Apple Malus ?
16 Norway Spruce Picea abies 1925
17 Fraser Fir Abies fraseri 1925

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