Thinking About Trees

I began thinking about trees, initially because they were absent and later because they were large. Bruce and I took a summer holiday in the UK in the course of which we walked around the Cornwall coast, an area notable for its rocky grandeur and spectacular views of the sea. What it doesn’t have, it may be fairly asserted, is trees among the bracken, stinging nettles, and grasses that line the walking paths. In addition to our West Coast Walk we visited significant public gardens where the trees are so large and old they tested my imagination. Kew Gardens have five they call their ‘Old Lions’; trees over 250 years old still doing what trees do. The Pagoda Tree (Sophora japonica) captured my imagination particularly, bent over arthritically and propped up with steel beams but still proudly showing off its white blooms as is has been doing since 1760.

We can only guess how long these ‘Lions’ will persist but the question of age is an interesting one. In the world a few have remained firmly persistent like the Dr. Seuss character, ‘Horton,’ who hatched an egg in a tree through thick and thin. The title for the oldest living clonal tree belongs to a Norway Spruce that has been living on a mountain in Sweden’s Dalarna Province for almost 10,000 years.

As evidenced by the collective passion displayed when a fine specimen is harmed, trees have always exerted power over people. Ancient rulers used them as a measure of influence in the way dictators use presidential palaces; the more you have the more of a looming presence you become among your people. A bellicose king of Mesopotamia, Tiglath-Pileser (1114-1076 B.C.) exerted his might by bringing trees home from his many military campaigns. In his writings he boasted of ownership of the cedar, the box tree, and an oak.

Trees have also been closely associated with benign intentions. Western philosophical thought was born in an olive grove outside Athens when the Greek philosopher, Plato, established an Academy about 387 BC under the shade of the trees. In the east, the parasol tree Sterculia platanifolia simplex often features in the Chinese landscape art of scrolls. Usually an intent scholar is depicted seeking cover from the sun while he applies himself to his study under their expansive club-shaped leaves.

Along with shade trees offer great gifts that have literally saved lives. In 1535 the dapper Frenchman, Jacques Cartier and his crew was socked in in the St. Lawrence River in the maw of winter. In mid-February Cartier noted in his journal that ‘out of 110 that we were not ten well enough to help the others’. The culprit was scurvy. In desperation Cartier appealed to the scurvy-free Iroquois who surrounded them. The reluctant hosts (Cartier had wanted to take their land for France after all) taught the sailors to boil up the needles of the White Cedar, Thuja occidentalis into a tea. In eight days the improvement in the health of the men was dramatic as the needles contain five times the amount of vitamin C of lemons. A century later an Augustinian monk, Antonio de Calancha, published a work in 1630 about a ‘fever tree’ growing in the forests of the Andes Mountains. Calancha was describing the cinchona tree whose bark contains quinine, long used successfully against malaria by the indigenous people of Peru.

It is inevitable there are also many associations with trees in folklore; the aforementioned parasol tree is one. It is the perch of the legendary Phoenix. This bird appears in China only when reason prevails in the country and two are never seen together. Pine trees have happier associations. As evergreen and unbowed by winter they stand for steadfast friends. Alas, the elder suffers in the west. This tree was a symbol of grief to medieval English who believed that both Jesus and Judas were hanged on an elder. As a result woodcutters would frequently have nothing to do with these trees. Neither would people burn the wood or use them as a switch to discipline children since such an act would prevent further growth.

More contemporary associations of trees are typically with their impact on the urban modern life – most notably how much oxygen they produce. Obviously there are many factors associated with output but Environment Canada, Canada’s national environmental agency states that “On average, one tree produces nearly 260 pounds of oxygen each year. Two mature trees can provide enough oxygen for a family of four.”  An article I intuitively agreed with in the July edition of ‘The Economist’ edition reported that ‘scenicness’ – the perception of how scenic a place is, is closely tied to health and well being. While ‘scenicness’ is difficult to pin down, higher levels in the landscape are linked to contours and trees.

We have no sure idea of how many trees we have at the Dunn Gardens and likely have no ‘Old Lions’ in the Kew sense, given the property was logged before being purchased by Arthur Dunn in 1915. But, about 50 of the trees can be counted as heritage. Some, like the Douglas firs Pseudotsuga menziesii) on the great lawn were saplings when the Olmsted’s and Arthur Dunn were planning the garden. Others were listed on the original planting plan: the Sugar Maple, Acer saccharum and the European Beech, Fagus sylvatica to name two. Other trees we count as heritage, not because of age but they can make other claims. Two, Sargent’s Magnolia, Magnolia sargentiana ‘ robusta’  and Cucumber Magnolia, Magnolia acuminata hold state champion status. 

For that reason the Dunn Gardens can claim to have high ‘scenicness’ with our many contours and majestic trees across our 7.5 acres. And that is indeed a blessing.






Inventory of Heritage Trees









Common Name


Acer saccharum

sugar maple



Fagus sylvatica

european beech



Liriodendron tulipifera

tulip poplar



Magnolia acuminata

Cucumber magnolia


State Champ

Magnolia sargentiana ‘robusta’

sargent’s magnolia


State Champ

Pseudotsuga menziesii

douglas fir



Quercus coccinea

scarlet oak



Quercus palustris

pin oak



Quercus rubra

red oak












DunnLateSummer 57 copy