April 2012

Splendid Specimens

Cape Cod Life  /  April 2012 / , ,

Writer: Michele Morgan Bolton / Photographer: Alison Shaw and Anthony Dispezio 

On the Cape and Islands, towering ancient trees are rooted in fascinating stories.

towering ancient trees

Photo by Anthony Dispezio

Native trees like pitch pine and scrub oak are well recognized on Cape Cod and the Islands as hallmarks of our coastal landscape, providing a line of defense against the punishing winds and insatiable tides that try ceaselessly to claim our seaside world.

But in this coastal region known more for its beaches than its trees, there are also some exotic specimens steeped in history that link the present and the past through tales of sea captains, adventurers, philanthropists, and merchants.

visitors flock to Truro Vineyards to tour the working five-acre farm owned by the Roberts family and sample a range of crowd-pleasing varietal wines. But for some the real star is the massive Chinese Mulberry tree to the right of the main house that is believed to be the oldest fruiting tree in New England. People ask more questions about the striking Asian giant sticking out of the stark Lower Cape landscape than they do the wine, says co-owner Kristen Roberts.

As the story goes, Captain Atkins Hughes brought the mulberry back from China in 1830—along with a collection of silkworms and high hopes of gearing up a silk business. The silkworms, though, didn’t thrive on the trip, and Hughes gave the property to his daughter Abigail Rich and her husband, Michael, a farmer. Years later, the artist Edward Hopper memorialized the statuesque tree in his 1930 painting Rich’s Farm. Even then it was enormous. “This is truly one of the biggest trees I’ve seen outside of the redwoods,’’ Roberts says. “The arborist who comes to take care of it treats it like his child.”

towering ancient trees

Photo by Anthony Dispezio

towering over the Captain Thomas Milton House in Edgartown is an almost 180-year-old pagoda tree, the largest of its kind on the continent.

Also known as a Flame Tree, Captain Milton shipped what was then a skinny seedling in a flowerpot from China in 1833 and planted it in the front yard of his future home on South Water Street. Today, that elegant mansion is part of the Harborside Inn and the tree—now more like a monument—measures 26 feet around the widest part of its trunk, says inn manager Joe Bedot.

The pagoda has flourished in its coastal habitat, as has one of its offspring now growing on the Edgartown Public Library’s front lawn on North Water Street. “Our guests are excited to hear such a romantic story,’’ Bedot says. “And you can’t miss the tree. It takes up all the space where the sidewalk used to be.”

armstrong-kelley Park in Osterville isn’t so much known for its giant trees as it is its 29 rare and unusual species. The Cape’s largest privately owned park contains umbrella pines and large-leaf Magnolias, Japanese cedars, Stewartia, and a rare Franklinia, an 18th-century bloomer cultivated in Georgia in the 1700s and named for Benjamin Franklin.

The Franklinia flowers in late summer and is virtually unknown in the wild, says Larry Evans, the president of the Cape Cod Horticultural Society, which owns and operates the preserve. No one quite understands where it came from. “A lot of the trees here were brought in, but we have no idea where that one came from,’’ says Evans.

towering ancient trees

Photo by Allison Shaw

Evans has spent his 67 years in Osterville and is dedicated to the park he says is unchanged from when he was a boy. And that’s just fine with him. “It’s probably the only eight and a half acres in all of Osterville that is still open space,’’ he says. “[The park] is just how I remember it.”

Not all the old beauties have survived. In Orleans, a graceful linden dominated the garden of the Captain Linnell House on Skaket Beach Road for 150 years before it was blown down in 2006. After the linden fell, it was replaced almost immediately with a younger linden donated by a resident of West Yarmouth, which did not thrive. Soon that tree was replaced with another European linden from Johnson Tree Farm in Osterville. And the cycle goes on. “We have lost a lot of trees,’’ Evans says. “They are fragile things. You have to save what you can, and try to preserve what you can.”

in yarmouthport, Finn Maguire can predict the reaction he’ll get when he leads people under the 70-foot canopy of the European weeping beech tree behind the Captain Bangs Hallett House. Speechlessness. Awe. Then a sort of reverence for the sprawling 160-year-old tree that rises like a cathedral from inside a sheltered hollow on the historic Strawberry Lane site.

Under a tight thatch of branches, the tree’s massive limbs swoop along the ground and then back up into the air, serving as anchors for the elephantine gray trunk carved with a century of lovers’ names. “It is a very spiritual place,’’ says Maguire, a docent of the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth, which oversees the 40-acre property.

towering ancient trees

Photo by Anthony Dispezio

The woodsy site is a favorite for engagements and weddings, and even serves as a tender memorial for a young mother who loved to nurse her baby in the peaceful shade. Maguire says his respect for the old tree has become personal. “To me, this tree and others are like living links to the past,” he says.

Lawrence Perera agrees. He lives next door to the historic home built by his great grand-uncle Thomas Thatcher in 1840. The property only passed out of his family’s ownership for the time the sea captain lived there. Then the family donated it in 1956 to the historical society.

Perera’s great-grandfather Henry C. Thatcher, a well-to-do merchant in shipping, planted the tree along with other varieties including what is now an enormous copper beech a little deeper in the woods. Taking it a step further, Thatcher and others took on the job of replanting the Cape in the 1850s after the region was laid bare by generations of shipbuilding and other endeavors. That effort isn’t lost on Thatcher’s proud descendant.

“They wanted to live for the future,’’ Perera says. “I can’t think of anything that was a more visible sign of posterity than planting a tree that would not only outlive you, but outlive your children.”

Michele Morgan Bolton is a freelance writer and former Brewster resident now living in Middleborough. She travels over the bridge as often as possible.

Michele Morgan Bolton