Cambridge Trees

By Lois Lilley Howe

Read January 25, 1950

This article originally appeared in the Cambridge Historical Society Proceedings, Volume 33, pages 94-99

In the records of The Cambridge Plant Club I find that on February 25th, 1901 “Miss Prince of Boston,” no further identified than this, read “an Interesting paper on Trees in our neighborhood.” This was a report of the investigations of herself and friend in the town of Brookline in which they found 214 different kinds of trees — native or exotic.

I do not know, nor do I care to know, how many kinds of trees there are in Cambridge, but I am amazed to find myself constantly identifying a new one or finding a new specimen of an old one. I want to tell you of the pleasure I have had in studying, very superficially, the trees in a little bit of Old Cambridge.

Winter is a good time to study trees. Then we can get some idea of their typical shapes, their sturdy trunks, their picturesque, sprawling boughs (which have always had a fascination for me), especially when seen against the sky, with beautiful halos of interlaced twigs.

The best shaped trees are those which grow in gardens or inside fences. They are not so crowded and pinched as the street trees.

An expert knows trees by their barks as well as by their leaves. I do not aspire to this, and the wonderful knowledge of “winter buds” is too high in more than one way for me to grasp. In this brief space I cannot say much about their families or inquire too closely about their private lives.

My first thought of the trees in Cambridge was that they must be mostly elms. This probably arose from two reasons: because my nursery window looked out on a magnificent old elm, the kind whose humped-up roots form a good base for it; then, in my early years, I was frequently in the College Yard with its lovely elms and I remember how the canker worms ate all the leaves off them just at Class Day time one year and how in the cycle of canker-worm life the creatures came down to earth in such quantities that they lay in unattractive heaps along the fences. The answer to this, by the way, was the introduction of the English sparrow!

The elm suffers a good deal in being used as a street tree for although we appreciate the beautiful arch of its boughs across the street, it really needs room on all sides to develop its beautiful wine-glass shape.

The Washington Elm originally must have had this shape although the earliest photographs show that it had begun to “go back,” as the saying is. It stood in its glory one hundred feet in height, its trunk six feet in diameter, and its spreading branches ninety feet.

To quote from “Cambridge in the Centennial” (the Centennial of 1875), “Tradition says that when the surrounding forest was felled by the axe of the woodsman this tree had already attained so great a size that it obtained an immunity from the fate of its neighbors and kin.” If we knew the age of the Washington Elm we might find out if it came after the Common was cleared or was indigenous.

But, the elm is not a forest tree. It grows in meadows and is fairly solitary. Is it possible that when Governor John Winthrop and his company on that chilly December day of 1630 came down from Mount Auburn to find a site for a fortified city they may have been favorably impressed by a large open space in the forest with many springs about it and with only small scrubby plants upon it which they could not know were blueberry bushes, wild roses and other plants such as William Blaxton found on Boston Common?

There was also the Whitefield Elm near the Commander, and some of us remember a huge elm which took up the whole sidewalk on Linnaean Street, and which may have come up by the ditch around the second palisades.

The old oak, on the contrary, which stood near the Holmes Place gate, was, they say, “probably a full grown and magnificent tree when the Washington elm was but a sapling.” An oak is a forest tree and is able to grow in the forest to a great size and live to a great age. There are many kinds of oaks and I do not pretend to know much about them. In the Norton’s Woods region are many fine young red oaks undoubtedly set out there. There is a large red oak in Lowell Street, a magnificent pin oak on Highland Street, and several at Elmwood.

But the prevalent street trees are elms, maples, and ashes. A maple, like an elm, needs a whole field to develop its fine bold head, such as I have seen in maple sugar groves in New Hampshire, and, like the oaks, there are many kinds of maples — more than can be told about in such a small space as this.

We all recognize the maples with their early spring blossoms and their interesting bunches of keys or samaras, as the botanists say; also their wonderful fall coloring. How many of us know the little green blossoms of the ash and the lovely colors of their bunches of samaras? These trees all have flowers exquisitely designed and delicately tinted but so minute that they are scarcely noticed, although they bloom profusely in the spring. They scatter their seeds most extravagantly and prolifically.

If the Russians commit genocide and remove all the citizens of Eastern Massachusetts to Siberia or some such place, the explorers of sixty years after will find a forest of maples, oaks, horse chestnuts and other trees. I have in my small lot four seedling oaks, one at least twenty feet high, some horse chestnuts, a honey locust, an ailanthus and countless maples on which I wage continual war.

It is interesting to note how many trees have either been planted or have planted themselves more or less in groups. Such a group is that of honey locusts. Beginning with those picturesque, gaunt, witch-like trees by St. John’s Chapel, they stretch across to the other side of Mason Street and down Ash Street.

At the corner of Ash Street we begin to find the remnants of old gardens on Brattle Street where trees are not so much crowded as are the street trees.

There is a fine horse chestnut back of the Vassall House which must be a relic of that Old Garden of which Mrs. Gozzaldi has written; and on Acacia Street, which is back of it, is an unusually beautiful wine-glass elm which has had enough room to develop characteristically. There are several other fine elms, but none so perfect as this. There is a large one at the old entrance to the Botanical Gardens, one on Reservoir Street, and two or three others I could mention.

Did Andrew Craigie, like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, intend to keep open the view of Charles River from his front windows? There are only lilac hedges and young trees there now; farther on by the site of Craigie’s, or Worcester’s, Pond is one of the largest and finest catalpa trees in Cambridge.

There are beautiful trees all along here. Beyond comes Mr. Thorwald Ross’s garden — not one of the old Revolutionary gardens but at least eighty years old and wisely and discriminatingly planted. The largest magnolia, beech trees, and a cladrastis or virgilia are here.

Craigie Street has many fine maples, a magnolia, an ailanthus, and the remnant of an old laburnum which once had a mate, in the yard of the house on the corner of Buckingham Street — a mate whose place is now taken by a handsome exotic cut-leaved maple.

I was not in Cambridge at the time of the 1938 hurricane. When I read in the next morning’s paper that there were “seventy-five trees down in Brattle Street, Cambridge,” I visualized a treeless street and thought more particularly of the old Lechmere (or, I said, Brewster) lindens. I was agreeably disappointed when I came home to find how little seemed to be missing.

Many of the lindens did go and that made us realize that they were originally set out to form a courtyard to the old Lechmere Mansion. I remember when the sidewalk there was high above the street as it is in Elmwood Avenue. This was cut down when the brick sidewalk was laid — about 1890.

James Russell Lowell says in “Sunthin’ in the Pastoral Line”: “The lime-trees pile their solid stacks o’ shade An’ drows’ly simmer with the bees’ sweet trade.”

The limes or lindens, from which Linnaeus got his name, blossom after the leaves are out. Their cream-white clusters of blossoms are extraordinarily sweet and beloved by the bees, and the little white fruits which follow are fairly noticeable.

The street trees opposite these lindens are ashes and in back of them are those two magnificent copper beeches which originally stood in front of the old Hubbard house (now destroyed) for almost all of this block between Sparks and Lowell Streets was another old garden — or place — still called Hubbard Park; and here at the corner of the street which bears that name is a large group of tulip trees spreading back into the Park and originally also onto the old Choate or Thomas Lee place. These are fine tall trees with soft yellow and green blossoms shaped like tulips with red spots on them and followed by curious inconspicuous upright fruits.

Not far from this group come the sassafras trees with their queer mitten-shaped leaves, inconspicuous flowers and fruit, but gorgeous autumn coloring.

Now we come to the glorious horse chestnut trees in front of the old Thomas Lee House (known for many years as the Charles Choate house and now occupied by Mrs. Arthur Jackson). These trees the Lees must have planted, for there is a further row in front of the old Lee-Nichols house. They are not native trees but come from Southern Asia by way of Greece. They were introduced into Europe in the seventeenth century. When we read in the paper that in London crowds are going out to Bushey Park to see the chestnut blossoms, they mean horse chestnut blossoms, for the English never knew our chestnut trees, now gone forever.

But these big horse chestnut trees, we know, begin to be of interest as soon as spring is really here. To quote Lowell again:

Then gray hossches’nuts leetle hands unfold Softer’n a baby’s be at three days old. Thet’s robin-redbreast’s almanick; he knows That arter this ther’s only blossom-snows.

And a few weeks later comes the great parade of blossoms among the leaves, and in the fall the fruits, which the botanists call coriacious capsules, holding the shiny mahogany-colored nuts which small boys and girls love and which many people still believe will keep away rheumatism if carried in the pocket.

After the horse chestnuts come the virgilias, or cladratis; I object to calling them “Yellow Wood.” It is such a mean name for such beautiful trees. They blossom only every third year, in long white drooping pannicles like white wisteria blossoms. This is said to be the rarest of the trees of Northern America, coming from Kentucky and Tennessee, but it thrives mightily in Cambridge. The largest is in the Thomas Lee place. It is now “going back” but still blossoms bravely.

Then the catalpa, rather an irritating tree to watch for it seems so dead until at the end of June it bursts at once into leaves and blossoms, the blossoms almost hiding the large leaves. There is one at the corner of Brattle Street and James Street, like a Victorian bouquet. Finest of all is that of which I have already spoken, at 121 Brattle Street by the site of Worcester’s Pond.

In Lowell Street there are pines and a copper beech, a good tree to have near the house for it is never struck by lightning, whereas the ash is evil (although snakes avoid it). The old couplet says:

Beware the oak, it draws the stroke;

Avoid the ash, it courts the flash.

Creep under the thorn, it will save you from harm.

There is a mulberry tree in Channing Place. Two fine tall sycamores are on Elmwood Avenue, and also the stiff, but beautiful English elms. Since writing this I have found two very handsome sycamores between the end of Berkeley Place and Brattle Street.

But the time to walk up Brattle Street is in May, when all the way from the Judas tree (or red Bud), looking shyly over the fence opposite the Vassall Home, up to Channing Street and beyond are the glories of the early flowering trees and bushes — cherry, dogwood, flowering crab, hawthorn, magnolia, and fruit trees. Turning down Channing Street you will come to the gem of them all — the Japanese bell tree (or snowdrop tree) which forms a tent over the backyard of the house now occupied by a grandson of William James.

And then on Appleton Street at the top of the hill are the scattered remnants of the old Read gardens: an apple orchard back of Mrs. Platner’s house at 89 Appleton Street; an old apple tree on Highland Street, one half of which blossoms one year and the other half the next; virgilias, or cladrastis; the tallest tulip tree in Cambridge; beeches, plain and copper; a buckeye (western cousin of the horse chestnut); and other trees in the yard of the tree-loving Hubbards. The climax is a really fine American holly.

Down on Brewster Street is a rare tree, the Sophora Japonica, blossoming in great white bunches in the month of August. There is another in the yard of the Longy School on the corner of Follen Street.

There are not many willows — a large one on the corner of Vassal Lane, Reservoir, and Walden Streets; two weeping willows on Lakeview Avenue; and an unusual and very large one in Gray Gardens West, overhanging Huron Avenue.