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.