Learning to Look Up
The legendary, massive peepul (Ficus religiosa) with its lushly curvaceous drip-tip leaves, and the regal gulmohar (Delonix regia), an exploding cloud of vermilion in the summer, were some of the first trees I learned. Native and exotic, they rubbed boughs in front of my childhood home in the multi-ethnic city of Bombay. Along with the banyan (Ficus benghalensis) at the corner, they heaved the pavement and graced the sidewalk with a generous, spreading shade. A banana vendor surrounded by her lunchtime office crowd, parked cars, two cobblers, and today, a bus stop and a candy vendor all find refuge beneath them.
In the cool and tranquil Nilgiris, or “blue mountains” in South India where my family vacationed, I skipped along hushed and fragrant pathways under towering blue gums (Eucalyptus globulus), collecting their old-fashioned coat button–like fruit.
I continued my arboreal explorations in California when I moved into a house with a garden. As he trimmed the looming brush cherries (Syzygium australe) off my roof, a friendly arborist from around the corner told me about guided tree walks here in Palo Alto. The monthly neighborhood walks are led by Canopy, a local urban forest non-profit, and are a gift to the community much like architecture or historical district tours, except that we learned about trees and their stories.
Through Canopy I learned of El Palo Alto, the giant 1,000-plus-year-old coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) under which the Portolà expedition camped in 1769. We marveled at the discreet misting pipe running up the trunk, just out of sight, and other conservation efforts that began in the 1880s. The oldest local planting of its deciduous cousin, the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), spreads its buttressed roots by the Hamilton Avenue Post Office. Planted in 1949, it was one of the earliest to be brought from China after the re-discovery of this species long thought to be extinct.
I learned of the long-standing love affair this city has had with the native oaks (Quercus agrifolia and Q. lobata) that overhang our streets and homes. We observed tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), smiling and shaking our heads as the arborist leading the walk pointed out how it quickly colonized surrounding areas, grew through cracks in the cement, and how flowers on male trees reeked to high heaven. (Secretly, I admired the showy clusters of salmon samaras that bedecked the female trees in late summer.)
I learned to appreciate the grand pageant of the trees around us as they marched through the seasons. We noted the late and long-lasting fall color of our liquidambars (Liquidambar styraciflua) and learned that the Saratoga Horticultural Research Foundation introduced the ‘Palo Alto’ cultivar in 1954, a selection propagated from the parent tree that used to stand on Pitman Avenue.
In subsequent decades, ‘Palo Alto’ has been credited with introducing the first reds into the Santa Clara valley fallscape. The roundly denounced seedpod litter of most liquidambars—aptly described by the Sunset Western Garden Book as “spiked balls resembling tiny medieval maces”—are another matter.
These Canopy walks, led by arborists who volunteered their time, have inspired me to delve deeper. My friends and family have started noticing trees more, simply because I don’t hold back my enthusiasm when we walk down the street together (yes, conversations are interrupted—or they morph into conversations about the trees). A simple stroll around the block becomes an opportunity to relish the ever-changing arboreal tapestry – and to connect with who I am with, one observation igniting the next: birds nesting, bark peeling, leaves turning, fruit swelling.
Whom can you inspire today to look up? It’s never too early to start sharing what we’ve learned.