I grew up playing in a back yard full of trees, and for the last 14 years, have lived in a house canopied with tall oaks and full-grown maples. So it was with much delight that I told Roberta a couple of weeks ago, yes, I’d love to take another tree walking tour.
Our first one came three weeks ago. Carol Herwig of Casey Trees led about 20 of us along the western edge of Capitol Hill. Yesterday our destination was the Frederick Douglass Home and Grounds in Anacostia. A dozen or so tree lovers gathered at the Visitor’s Center and were met by our guide Melanie Choukas-Bradley. We benefited greatly from her wisdom. A naturalist and environmental consultant, she’s also the co-author of City of Trees: The Complete Field Guide to the Trees of Washington, DC., as well as two others. As part of the price of admission, we received a signed copy of her book (Third Edition, 2008).
After the Park Ranger gave us an in-depth tour of the Douglass Home, Melanie took us on a walk around the hilly grounds. We started with the panoramic look at the city below. In addition to all the usual buildings and landmarks, Melanie pointed out a lesser-known feature of Washington that can only be appreciated from the vantage point we stood on. Circling the eastern half of the city is a forested ridge. This feature is a geological gift, its subtle beauty impressing the on-looker, and one that, along with the forts that once ringed the city, helped protect it during the Civil War.
On to the stars of the show. Melanie told us about the grand, old white oak in the front yard. Had it been a sunny day, we would have been impressed by its shade. Instead we focused on its commanding size and age. Soaring to a height of 100 feet, the Frederick Douglass White Oak is believed to be over 200 years old and the oldest tree there. Reflecting her love of trees, Melanie explained with some emotion that the health of this majestic beauty is in question. Lightning struck it last year, leaving a huge scar and the blow probably damaged internal parts.
Visitors to the Douglass House, are, of course, not greeted with “Welcome to Oak Hill.” Douglass named it Cedar Hill and for good reason. We learned about these evergreens, as well as more than a dozen other kinds, including Chestnut Oak, Northern Red Oak, Southern Magnolia, Black Walnut, Hackberry, Hickory and White Ash. (Roberta put together an excellent set of photos and notes so be sure and check it out).
Melanie’s insights included not only the physical aspects of trees, but also some historical background. This is also true of her book. In addition to the field guide sections, she provides a brief history of tree-planting in the nation’s capital. Praise is bestowed upon difference-makers from L’Enfant to Lady Bird Johnson, and she gives the most credit to Alexander Shepherd, governor of the city in the 1870s. He oversaw the planting of 60,000 trees to improve life in the District.
That beautification effort, along with other improvements, helped elevate Washington’s status. An 1889 article in Harper’s Magazine complimented the nation’s capital, noting it “exceeds in beauty any city in the world.” Exact totals are not known, but today Washington has one of the highest number of tree species in the world, if not the most.
For more information on Choukas-Bradley, visit her website. She will be conducting future tree walks in the area, as well as attending the first ever National Tree Hugger Day (October 17) at the Lincoln Memorial.
Mr. Douglass, I’m sure, would be delighted.