This past weekend I spent an hour or so browsing (digitally) through Eugène Grasset’s La plante et ses applications ornementales (1896) and then stepped outside to see that my lady’s slippers were in full bloom: no competition, they win hands down. There are nineteen this year: every year I seem to gain one slipper. Other spring plants are enhanced in Grasset’s “applications”, but for the most part I think I prefer nature at this time of year. Yet has things that I don’t have so I think I’ll showcase both, as this was a man that could even make a dandelion look beautiful!
My trillium are finally in bloom about two weeks behind everyone else’s; the lady slippers!
The PEM’s Peirce-Nichols garden has a veritable sea of bleeding hearts, but I was too late for the Solomon’s Seal and Columbine so I give you Grasset.
Irises and Roses from the PEM’s Ropes Garden, and Grasset’s versions.
There are no trees in La plante et ses applicationes ornementales but Salem has one of the most beautiful trees/shrubs in bloom right now: the Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), a southern native that can be found in many cemeteries up here, but also notably in front of the grand Wheatland-Phillips house at 30 Chestnut Street. I’ve always thought that this tree suited the exterior embellishment of this house perfectly, but it looks lovely in the Harmony Grove cemetery as well. Even its shadow is beautiful.
Salem’s Fringe trees and Grasset’s dandelion design.
Every day, I’m thankful to live on my street because of its amazing architecture: I wake up in the morning, look out the window, and feel both wowed and grateful. But I’m also thankful because about halfway down Chestnut Street there is an elm tree: a graceful survivor, one of a handful in Salem. I walk down and touch it every day. Elm trees are touchstones for us now because they are so rare, of course, but I think it is useful to remember that even before the dreaded Dutch Elm Disease elms were always BIG: majestic, legendary, historical. I have a particular Massachusetts point of view here–the American elm is our state tree–but elms seem to have been held in high esteem wherever they have flourished and perished. Massachusetts had several George Washington elms and an assortment of “Great” elms and it was duly noted whenever they came down—in storms of 1876, 1923 or 1938–well before the tree plague came to our shores. The archives are full of stories about these trees, as well as prints and photographs: I particularly like those captured by international plant hunter Ernest Wilson on his Sanderson camera in the 1920s, part of the collection of the Arnold Arboretum. The first picture below is relatively rare; Wilson preferred to take pictures in the late fall or winter to reveal the trees’ “architecture”, and often posed his wife and/or car–or some nearby boy–in proximity so we can see their great scale.
Great Elms in Lancaster, Holliston, Hingham (+sign) and Framingham, Ernest Wilson, Arnold Arboretum Collection.
There were two notable “George Washington Elms” in Massachusetts, one in Cambridge and the other in Palmer. Both were captured by Wilson as well as many other photographers: these were famous trees, even though there does not seem to be much verifiable truth behind their legends (particularly the Cambridge tree–whose remains or “relics” were scattered about after its death in 1923: you can read much more about it here). The Palmer tree came down in the Hurricane of 1938.
“George Washington” elm trees in Palmer and Cambridge by Ernest Wilson; the remains of the latter, Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library.
An elm tree didn’t have to have Washington or Revolutionary connections to become “great” in Massachusetts: every town seems to have its beloved tree with an “ancient” name or association: the great “Queen Elm” in Lancaster (a town famous for its elms), the “Gulliver Elm” in Milton, the “Winning Elm” in Chelmsford and many “big” and “old” elms, like the stately elm on Boston Common which came down in 1876. In Salem we had the old “Bertram Elm” in front of the Salem Public Library (the former home of John Bertram) and many, many, more–now sadly gone, except for a few singular survivors, like our Chestnut Street tree. I believe there were a few new elms planted this summer, though–so things are looking up.
This is not to complain–I know lots of good Salem people are working on this–but rather to offer some perspective: Salem’s grand boulevard Lafayette Street needs some trees (and some love). This is the route on which I walk to work nearly every day, and I crave the protective canopy it once had. I’m also tired of picking up trash, and hoping that the commitment to the future that tree plantings represent would also instill a bit more stewardship for this once-grand street. Lafayette Street was laid out a bit later than the rest of Salem: over the course of the nineteenth century following the erection of a bridge to Marblehead and the partition of the vast farm of Ezekiel Hersey Derby. The earliest photographs I have seen are from the 1870s: they show a boulevard of mansions, and trees: elms of course, but also other varieties. We have very precise dating for the planting of the elms of upper Lafayette Street from a wonderful book, John Robinson’s OurTrees.APopularAccountoftheTreesintheStreetsandGardensofSalem,andoftheNativeTreesofEssexCounty,Massachusetts,withtheLocationsofTrees,andHistoricalandBotanicalNotes(1891): It has been said that the trees on the upper portion of Lafayette Street were planted within the line of the Derby estate, on account of some opposition to placing them in the street itself. The street was laid out in its present magnificent width at the suggestion of Mr. E. Hersey Derby in 1808. Mr. David Waters informs me that his father, but a short time before his death, while passing these trees, said that when a boy he was called by Mr. Derby to assist at planting them, holding the samplings while the workers filled the earth in about them. Mr. Waters, Senior, was born in 1796 and would have been twelve years of age when the street was laid out. The date of the planting of these elms, thus corroborated, may, therefore, safely be placed at 1808. In addition to a few images of the entire tree-lined street, we also have several photographs of the “wooded estates and pleasure gardens” (a phrase from an 1873 guidebook to greater Boston) of Lafayette Street before the Great Salem Fire of 1914. When you compare these lush images with those taken in the days after the Fire, it’s painful.
Shades of pre-fire Lafayette Street: a very popular postcard c. 1910; Frank Cousins’ photographs of the very verdant street (1876) and the Old Derby Mansion (1891), demolished in 1898, Duke University Library; Gothic Revival and Victorian houses on upper Lafayette, still standing, while the McIntire-designed Josiah Dow House (built 1809) in the lower-right hand corner is gone (Smithsonian Institution collections and Cornell University Library); rendering for the Lafayette Street Methodist Church, American Architecture and Building News, 1884.
The Fire laid waste to half of the street (from Derby to Holly and Leach Streets), and later on many of the surviving mansions of the other half–rather massive Victorians, Queen Annes, and Italianates–became subdivided and commercialized. After the replacement of some of these structures by some truly terrible mid-century apartment buildings, the Lafayette Street Historic District was created in 1985. Trees will really help Lafayette Street, but other challenges remain: chiefly the constant traffic which seems to grow worse and worse with every passing year and the incremental though persistent expansion of Salem State University (my employer) at its upper end. Students and staff have turned this end of Lafayette into one big parking lot, a trend that has not been mediated by the construction of a large campus parking lot in my estimation. I think a new South Salem train stop would help with the parking, but I’m not sure about the traffic: I watch it every day on my way to and from work and the majority of it does not seem to be university-related: this is also the only route to Marblehead, after all.
Traffic is tough, but more trees will shield and shade Lafayette Streets residents…and walkers. And as I said at the top, there are plans for more trees, and better maintenance of existing trees, throughout Salem. Just last week the City Council formed the Leaf-oriented Resiliency and Arboricultural Expansion Taskforce with its associated acronym, LORAX, for just that purpose (yes, you read that correctly: LORAX). The plans for the major new development at the corner of Lafayette and Loring Streets also have lots of provisions for trees. I’m not really a fan of the new building (which will totally dominate the view from my office) but I’m really happy to see plans for all these new trees, including some disease-resistant elms (there is one Elm still alive on Lafayette–I think? See below!)
Upper Lafayette in 1908 and today; the 1914 fire was so devastating, in so many ways, and all of the reports reference the lost trees almost as much as the lost buildings: the Rebuilding Commission Report specified many trees–some of which are visible in the 1917 photograph above: if trees were a priority then, they should be a priority now! Lafayette’s surviving Elm, near the corner of Fairfield Street.
I suspect that most of my colleagues who teach American history dislike Thomas Jefferson. I don’t really get into it with them; I prefer to play naive and impressionistic when it comes to American history (because I am), but I have heard and seen disparaging words and glances on more than one occasion. Their opinion was shared by Salem’s Federalists over two centuries ago, who cast Jefferson as a licentious Jacobin even before the disastrous Embargo Act of 1807. But there was one Jeffersonian “policy” that was popular in Salem, at least for a while: the planting of (Lombardy) Poplar trees on the Common and along several streets. Jefferson loved these stately trees, and had them planted not only at Monticello but also in Washington, along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. His poplar advocacy spread north, and in one of my favorite Salem paintings (actually it’s everyone’s favorite Salem painting), George Ropes’ Salem Common on Training Day, the newly-planted poplars are very prominent. Apparently they were also planted along the Newburyport “turnpike”, now Highland Avenue, and a few other new streets.
Poplars lining Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., early nineteenth century, Library of Congress; Poplars in Rufus Porter’s “Boston Harbor” wall mural from the Prescott Tavern in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; George Ropes, Jr., SalemCommon onTrainingDay, 1808, Peabody Essex Museum.
As attractive as they were (or as Ropes made them), the Common poplars would soon be gone, replaced by maples and elms and more pedestrian trees. Was their disappearance due to nature (the “Great September Gale” of 1815 or their unsuitability to Salem’s climate and/or soil) or politics? I ask this question because of a provocative little passage in one of Sidney Perley’s early articles in the Essex Antiquarian (1911): Political feeling was so strong in the old Jeffersonian days that these poplars were condemned by the Federalists on account of Jefferson having been instrumental in producing them. Some of the Republicans planted these trees in front of their residences to show their allegiance to Jeffersonian principles, and the enraged Federalists were guilty of injuring and destroying them. This was true in Salem in 1801 in several instances, the mischief being of course done under cover of darkness. Captain Samuel Very, who lived at Buffum’s Corner, offered a reward of twenty dollars for the conviction of the person or persons who injured the trees before his house. Very interesting! It sounds like poplars were conspicuous targets, and the grove on the Common must have been offensive to Salem’s Federalists: did they mount an attack? To answer this question, I turned to one of Perley’s contemporaries and the authority on horticultural Salem a century ago, John Robinson, who wrote a great little book on Salem’s trees titled Our trees : a popular account of the trees in the streets and gardens of Salem, and of the native trees of Essex County, Massachusetts : with the location of trees, and historical and botanical notes (1891). A man of science, Robinson discounts political explanations for the disappearance of Salem’s poplars in favor of botanical ones: The stiff Lombardy Poplar (Populus dilatata) once grown everywhere, is now but rarely seen except in a state of decay. Our Common was originally planted with these trees in 1802 from nurseries on the northern side, in the vicinity of Winter Street. But, fifteen years later, the trees were found to be of little value for ornament and they were replaced by elms. There are wrecks of Lombardy poplars on Loring Avenue, beyond the Marblehead branch railroad crossing, near the Willows, and on the Newburyport turnpike in various places……….it turns out that Lombardy Poplars just didn’t “take” in Salem’s soil. There are certainly no Poplar “wrecks” on the Common today, but I think I found a few relics in the Howard Street cemetery, still standing guard.
Apparently NOT a poplar, but an upright English oak!