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Some Common trees of Capitol Hill

(Five articles, published in the Capitol Hill Times during August and September of 1981.)

    (1) HOLLY; Ilex Aquifolium; from Europe.
    The beautiful Holly is a tree greatly appreciated during the winter months. For its bright glossy, spiny and tough leaves are evergreen, and are accompanied by lots of colorful pea-sized scarlet berries. Indeed, a number of people in the Northwest are employed in the commercial growing of holly for sale as Christmas decorations.
    The name Holly is possibly derived from "Holy" and there are legends surrounding this tree's role in religion. But there is more to English Holly than its symbolic or ornamental holiday role.
    The tree is often used with great success as a thick hedge, and its bark is capable of being made into birdlime to catch birds. The leaves have been recommended by herbalists as efficacious remedies for certain disorders.
    If a tree is desired, but only a shady spot is available, the holly will grow just fine, may even live several hundred years, and attain heights of 50-80 feet. If you wish to attract birds to your yard, you will find that robins, chickadees, jays, pigeons and others love to eat the holly's bright berries.
    Holly wood has been used for piano keys, veneer, mathematical and scientific instruments, coffee-pot handles and other things. Once I read that holly makes good walking-sticks. Being a connoisseur of walking-sticks, I tried one, but found it nowhere near as satisfying as a Bigleaf Maple stick.
    Besides English Holly, there are many other kinds of hollies. Most are evergreen and shrubby. Some, like the English Holly, are trees. A few drop all their leaves each winter.
    Many peoples and cultures make use of the various hollies. The trees are very well-represented in folklore. About 60 different beverages are made from hollies. One of these, Mate, is quite famous and consumed in great quantity in South America. Several kinds of holly leaves have been used as human and animal food. Certain insects also feast on them.
    On Capitol Hill the very common and notable species is the English Holly and its varieties. Originally from Europe, it has grown in the Northwest now for more than a hundred years, and pops up wild all over the place. I don't know the biggest holly in Seattle, but my guess is that few are much larger than the 35 foot tall one in my yard. Most of the trees seen are the plain strain, but its varieties are plentiful too. For example, there are kinds with white or gold-margined leaves, and others with few or no spines. A common hybrid, the "Highclere Holly," has much larger leaves.
    The reason that only some of the trees yield berries is that the trees are either male or female, like us. This is to say that some hollies have male flowers, and the rest have female ones. The male flowers pollinate the females, thereby allowing crops of berries. Some wiseacre female hollies form fruits without the help of male pollen, but their seeds then won't germinate. Anyway, when all is done the straight way, the berries each contain several viable seeds. Birds eat these berries, but the seeds pass through them and land on the ground wherever the birds drop them. Too bad the berries are poisonous to humans.
    When the seeds sprout in spring, the little holly seedlings have a pair of very fat little seed-leaves, and above these soon arise the typical spiny ones. The trees, as mentioned before, can tolerate the densest of shade, so you can find lots of holly seedlings in places too dark for most other trees. In fact, holly bark is susceptible to sunburn, it is so thin and weak. An algae often grows on the bark, which when rubbed, covers one's hands with a powdery green color.

street-tree hawthorns

    (2) COMMON HAWTHORN; Cratægus monogyna; from Europe.
    There are more different kinds of hawthorns than any other tree. God only knows the exact number; the tree specialists among us differ in their estimates. But all of them agree there are many, whether hundreds or thousands.
    The trees themselves are rather ambiguous and are apparently still rapidly changing, for the hawthorn group is a relatively young one in an evolutionary sense. Not big tall forest trees, but small sun-loving field dwellers, most hawthorns are found growing in Eastern North America; our Pacific Northwest has only one native species, the black-fruited Douglas Hawthorn -- very rare in Seattle.
    Capitol Hill has many Common Hawthorns, some of which have been planted and some of which now grow wild and so are, in a sense, natives of Seattle. Or are these "transplants" still to be called foreigners? "A man is no more Irish because born in Ireland than is a human a horse when born in a stable!" said the Duke of Wellington. Guess it depends on your point of view. The fact is that now Seattle is home for many hawthorn trees, though they are relatively recent introductions.
    If any readers are unsure about identifying the Common Hawthorn, let us remedy that situation right now. To begin with, realize that while you may not know the hawthorn by its name, you cannot help having seen many unless you're blind, for they are very abundant and distinctive.
    They are those small thorny trees which are so often cut back yearly, making them 90% trunk after pruning. Then they send out new skinny, thorny shoots in spring, and by May are covered by thousands of little white or pink-red flowers. These flowers are visited by insects and then turn into small apple-like red fruits, which look ripe long before they actually are. They hang on the branches even after the little shiny and indented leaves drop for winter. Birds and some people eat these fruits, but only the birds get drunk on the fermented ones and disseminate the seeds.
    That many people keep their hawthorns cut back as maimed dwarfs was mentioned. I honestly do not know why. Dripping "honeydew" from aphids is a possible reason, and a certain esthetic ideal may be sought. Whatever the reason, relatively few hawthorns can be seen around town which have never been pruned, and many are literally pruned to death. Yet if not forever being hacked at, the trees can eventually grow into rather impressive sights, over 40 feet tall and with trunks 10 feet around. It is rare to see hawthorns of such size surely, and none in Seattle are anywhere near that large.
    It is interesting that animals such as horses, deer and oxen "prune" hawthorns by eating the leaves. You may wonder if the animals don't get a face full of scratches from the sharp little thorns. But they don't, since they go after the leaves in early spring, when the shoots are moist, sweet and tender, and the thorns non-hardened or not even evident. Indeed, many kinds of animals eat hawthorn buds, bark, leaves and fruit; but humans find only the fruit edible.
    The old Greek name of the hawthorn, Cratægus, refers to the formidable toughness and strength of the wood. When you look at a hawthorn trunk, notice that its form resembles corded, tensed muscles. The wood has been used for various small items, like clogs, hammer handles, mallets, walking-sticks, and rake teeth.
    The trees are grown as hedges in Europe. The fruits have been considered good medicine for heart problems.
    If you wish to learn to distinguish the several different kinds of hawthorns beside the Common one, that grow on Capitol Hill, get a good, color-illustrated book on ornamental trees.

tall European White Birch in Interlaken Park

    (3) WHITE BIRCH; Betula pendula; from Europe; Betula papyrifera; native here.
    When most people think about "birch" they have in mind the graceful tree with peely white bark. "Bark tree" is the appropriate way ancient Anglo-Saxons described their birch, using the terms beorc, birce, or birk. The Germans say birke, the French bouleau.
    There are two kinds of extremely abundant and widespread white-barked birches: one in Europe and one in North America. In addition there are several dozen other kinds, of various appearances and ranges, though all birches are Northern Hemisphere, cool climate trees (or shrubs). Most birches are relatively small and short-lived. Their flowers are wind-pollinated.
    The birch tree most common to Capitol Hill is the one from Europe. It is called Silver European Birch or European White Birch. To most of us, however, it is simply The Birch. During winter its white trunk and dark drooping branches make it a landmark. The white would be whiter still, except that algae, lichens and city dirt coat the bark and darken it. In autumn its leaves turn yellow and then light brown.
    The birch's male flowers are tiny affairs in ragged little strings several inches long, very similar to those of its relatives: hazel and alder trees. The female flowers are never noticed by the casual observer, since they're so small and inconspicuous. In early spring when the winds of Seattle have blown the pollen over to the receptive female flowers, then the seeds begin to form. Since the trees can grow 80-90 feet high, it is easy to imagine how strong winds can blow the ripe seeds a great distance away, and this is what happens. Thus the tree now grows wild all over Seattle.
    Besides being extensively used as ornamental shade trees, birches have been employed in other interesting ways. Birch rods have had a history as whips for disciplining mischievous brats. The wood has been used for the soles of clogs, barrel staves, skis, wooden wheel rims, toothpicks, conductor's batons, furniture, and -- in the days before plastic -- for automobile decor. The bark has been fashioned into many kinds of baskets, boxes, mats and boots. Brooms have been made from the twigs. Medicinal uses for the birch have been found too.
    Perhaps the most fascinating of all is the possibility that the common white birch of Europe is the tree that holds the distinction of having been the most eaten of temperate-zone trees. Out of the many trees I investigated, this birch was the one most thoroughly eaten. Though closely rivaled by the maples and pines, the birch won on technical grounds. It has had the following parts used for human food: leaves, inner bark, leaf-buds, immature male flower catkins, sap, and even its wood, in the form of sawdust flour! I have found the very young and tender leaves tasty enough to be added to mixed salads. Aphids and other insects and animals also enjoy eating birches.
    So much for Capitol Hill's common kind of birch. Now let us turn to a little-known fact. The same well-known white-barked North American birch that grows all across Canada and the northeastern United States, is native to and can be found growing wild right here in Seattle. Technically it is a variety, the Western form of the common Paper Birch. The Paper Birch is the one from which so many Indians made watertight containers and canoes. In fact, many people call this the Canoe Birch. It is the one Robert Frost wrote poems about.
    Our Western variety of Paper Birch represents the biggest birch on Earth, having reached 120 feet in height with a trunk 4 feet thick. On Capitol Hill very few birches are taller than 40-50 feet. Yet in Interlaken Park (the wooded northern flank of Capitol Hill) there stands a native Paper Birch about 70 feet tall (wrong. It is really a naturalized European White Birch, Betula pendula; shown in the photo above). Smaller ones can be found there, too. These Paper Birches are rare in Seattle because we seem to be near the very end of its southernmost range. It is much more easily found as one moves north towards Everett. the best place in Seattle to see many kinds of birches is Foster Island in the Arboretum.

    (4) CHERRIES and kindred; Prunus spp.
    Cherry trees are members of the Rose Family of plants. The genus Prunus includes not only cherries, but also plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, almonds and two evergreen trees very commonly grown as hedges on Capitol Hill: the English and Portugal Laurels. If that is not confusing enough, realize that in addition to the natural species of cherries there are hundreds of hybrids and cultivated varieties grown for their decorative flowers or luscious fruits. For example double-flowered trees, dwarf ones, weeping ones, autumn-flowering ones, and so on.
    On Capitol Hill the most common and easily recognized kind is the purpleleaf Cherry Plum tree. Of the various cherries, this one is among the very first to flower in early spring. It turns completely pink from its thousands of flowers, and then sends out its bloody dark purple leaves. Its plump fruits are the same dark color as the leaves, and are edible and delicious.
    The various kinds of cherries are almost all rather small and short-lived trees. I am aware of three kinds that can reach or exceed 100 feet in height, however, and two of these three grow wild in Seattle. The first is native to our area, the Bitter Cherry. The second is originally from Europe, the Sweet, Gean, or Mazzard Cherry. Both are very common in wild places throughout Seattle, and specimens 60 feet tall with 1 1⁄2 foot thick trunks can be seen. They prefer top grow in sunny spots, but also grow in the shade, even under the Freeway. Tent caterpillars love to build their big beautiful webs in these trees.
    First of the two kinds to flower in spring is the Mazzard Cherry, usually in April. Its thick covering of bright white blossoms makes it very attractive and visible from afar. Its fruits are commonly gobbled by rats, squirrels, and birds before they're even fully ripe (dark red and juicy).
    On the other hand, the Bitter Cherry's fruits seem to be disdained by most animals, so if you would like to taste them, you will have no trouble locating whole tree-loads of ripe fruits in late summer and fall. Its cherries are pea-sized and quite translucent, and not very sweet. If you develop a taste for them you can eat them with pleasure.
    Everyone knows that cultivated orchard cherry trees bear a choice edible crop. But not all Prunus species do, and some bear poisonous fruits. With the many kinds of fruits known to be edible, excellent jellies, jams, pies, ciders, brandies, wines and pickles can be made. One of the better known medicinal uses is the employment of dried plums (i.e., prunes) as a laxative.
    Millions of cherry trees are grown commercially in orchards of the United States. Washington state alone produces over 20,000 tons of cherries each year. Certain trees have consistently yielded over 1,000 pounds of fruit per year! The variety familiar to most of us is the 'Bing' -- a type that originated in Oregon in 1875 and was named for a Chinese laborer.

Volunteer Park Bigleaf Maple

    (5) BIGLEAF MAPLE; Acer macrophyllum; native here.
    Probably the most common and familiar tree to Seattle's people, this large tree is native to our Northwest coast. Oregon Maple is another name for it, but it is usually called the Bigleaf Maple because of all of the world's 100 or so kinds of maples, this one has the biggest leaves. In general it is also the largest.
    Most Bigleaf maples on Capitol Hill are thick-trunked, old and huge. Many are partly rotten or have been cut down so that only their stumps now remain. Even when the trees are cut down their stumps continue to send forth vigorous young shoots, which of not stopped will eventually grow rather tall.
    Although more abundant in some neighborhoods than in others, the tree is still probably the most common tree on the Hill and in Seattle, a fact due to its prodigious reproductive success. If we all left Seattle, very soon after there would be Bigleaf Maples by the thousands growing in every available spot.
    Such isn't the case in Northwest wilderness areas where the giant conifers dominate. Maples are encountered there less frequently, they are skinnier, and send up several slender trunks instead of just one big central bole. The largest maple on earth is probably a Bigleaf Maple in Oregon, measuring 35 feet in trunk girth. Seattle has a couple of mammoth ones too, at about 24 and 30 feet in circumference. The biggest leaf that I have seen was nearly 16 inches long, 17 1⁄2 inches wide, with a stem of 13 1⁄2 inches.
    Seattle has about 90 kinds of mosses, and a fair number of these love growing on the maple's bark, as do lichens, liverworts, fungi, algae and the licorice fern. Other plants sometimes seen growing out of old maples are hollies, hawthorns, mountain-ashes and ivy. Plants grow just about everywhere.
    During March and early April the Bigleaf Maple flowers, producing thousands of long bright yellow-green flower clusters. Bees pollinate the flowers in their search for sweet nectar. As a result they get food, and the flowers turn into the familiar dry, winged, U-shaped fruits of the maples. The following February the ground is carpeted with countless little maple seedlings.
    Some of these seedlings bear 3 leaves; most have 2. Certain ones have the 2 leaves united into a tube, or are born albinos -- white. These freaks fail to survive, as do most of the normal seedlings for that matter. People step on them or mow them down or eat them (they're edible just like bean and alfalfa sprouts; so are the flowers, young leaves and sap) or the dryness of summer or coldness of winter prove too much for them. But since so many are produced, many do manage to survive and grow into big trees.
    Northwest Coast Indians found a great many good uses for this tree, as do we today, whether in the form of its wood, or in admiration of its spacious shade and grandeur. Certainly birds, squirrels and other animals appreciate the maple. Perhaps its only foes are those fussy homeowners who hate raking up its leaves in autumn, and find no pleasure in watching their sidewalks slowly being cracked to bits, and so murder it with their chainsaws.
    It is my feeling, and I am sure that many people agree with me, that one of the best things about a neighborhood is the presence of lots of big old trees, even though their roots may play games with the sidewalks. Fussy people can go to tree-less places and mow their bland little lawns.
    Besides the Bigleaf, other kinds of maples also can be seen on Capitol Hill. Some are rather common. There are at least these: Norway, Sugar, Red, Black, Silver, Sycamore, Boxelder, Japanese, and Vine maples. The Vine Maple is somewhat shrubby, and like the Bigleaf is native to the area. Most of these maples are easy to distinguish from one another.

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Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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