City of Trees: The Complete Field Guide to the Trees of Washington D.C.
By Melanie Choukas-Bradley. Illustrations by Polly Alexander.
3rd edition. 2008. University of Virginia Press. 438 pages.
For the challenge: 2010 Biodiversity Challenge (Backyard)
In both high school and college, I enjoyed studying field biology. Forget Bunsen burners and lab goggles – get me out into the woods and fields where I can examine plants and identify bird calls. Since college, however, I have not picked up a field guide on my excursions into nature. Prompted by the Biodiversity Challenge to find a field guide for my locality, I picked up City of Trees from the public library.
Washington D.C.’s most famous trees are arguably the cherry trees that spectacularly blossom in the spring. However, Choukas-Bradley’s introduction to City of Trees describes an arboreal legacy that goes beyond the cherry trees, a legacy that began with President Washington and continues to this day. Many people throughout history have sought to improve the nation’s capital with the addition of trees. I found the guide’s history of the White House landscaping and successive presidential involvement particularly interesting. Today, Washington D.C. showcases a wide variety of trees, many of them cultivated trees from other parts of the world.
City of Trees is divided into two main parts. The first part is the Site Guide to the City of Trees. The Site Guide describes the types of trees one may view in at particular D.C. sites: places in and around the National Mall, such as the U.S. Capitol and places beyond the Mall, such as Rock Creek Park and Dumbarton Oaks. The second part is the Botanical Guide to the City of Trees. Each tree’s profile includes their range, identifying characteristics of leaves, flowers and so on, as well as the sites where they can be found in D.C. Polly Alexander’s illustrations accompany the descriptions. City of Trees also includes a glossary, a bloom calendar, and an index.
I have used City of Trees only once and that was today. I had the day off from work as it is Veterans’ Day. Afflicted with a sore throat, I had been planning on staying in, but the day was so beautiful, I spontaneously decided to take the metro down to the city for the last couple of hours before sunset.
I got off the train at Foggy Bottom and walked to the Mall. I stopped by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial first. A ceremony was just concluding and “Taps” floated through the air as I made my way to the glossy wall, which was adorned with flowers and mementos. Veterans in uniform or other identifying clothing were all around.
After walking through the memorial, I fished out City of Trees from my bag and set to work on the maple trees above my head. Conclusion: sugar maples. My field biology knowledge was rusty, else I would have been able to identify that one without help. I identified a couple of other trees before heading to the Lincoln Memorial.
Climbing the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I sat on the top step and contemplated the reflecting pool. The dying light was golden. I wished I had thought to bring my camera. City of Trees explained that the pool was lined primarily by elms. Due to the ravages of Dutch Elm disease, efforts have been made to find and plant elms resistant to the disease.
I walked then toward the World War II Memorial, passing by Constitution Gardens and its pond full of ducks and a very still heron. There were several beautiful weeping willows around and I also confirmed one tree’s star-like leaves as being that of a Japanese maple. After visiting the lovely World War II Memorial, I set off for home.
Though I did not spend a lot of time with this guide, I was impressed by its organization. I especially liked the site guides, so that I could know what kind of trees to expect around a given area. Due to its coverage of cultivated trees often planted in urban settings, Choukas-Bradley pointed out that the guide has been useful in other cities, not just Washington D.C. That said, I enjoyed City of Trees‘ specificity to this area, and I feel that I have gained a better appreciation for the city because of it.