Great Trees are part of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods and also part of our region’s rich and diverse heritage. Just imagine the history a 300-year-old oak tree has witnessed in its lifetime—and the history that is yet to be made. Trees beautify our cityscapes, cool our environment and clean the air we breathe. We honor them each spring on Arbor Day and seek refuge beneath their branches in a rainstorm. But do we really appreciate our trees? I think we do. I went in search of some of Pittsburgh’s wonderful trees to photograph for this pictorial essay and discovered so much more. Every specimen had a compelling story, lovingly filtered through the lives, words and actions of its current steward. I am merely the conduit for their stories.
Strolling through Allegheny Commons, a City Historic District, is to immerse yourself in a bit of Pittsburgh’s past. It’s a charming city park, a jewel of a greenspace set in the middle of the Northside.
A few of the trees date back to 1868 when the park was established by the City of Allegheny. Original planting plans no longer exist, but old purchase slips reveal orders for a combination of “plane trees, elms and lindens.” Some are still here, bearing witness to Pittsburgh’s early days its transition to a throbbing steel town and its emergence from that era into the Pittsburgh of today.
Many more trees have been planted in the commons through the years, and many have died. Of the Carolina poplars (Populus x canadensis) so in fashion for a time, only one survives. It’s a monster for its species, having far surpassed the life expectancy of poplar trees. The huge amur corktree (Phellodendron amurense) was exotic for its time, having only been introduced to the United States from Asia in 1856. And the bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) will go down in history as the tree that Bernd Strasser, of Germany, climbed to win the 2004 International Tree Climbing Championship, hosted by the International Society of Arboriculture.
All of these special trees and the others in Allegheny Commons are expertly tended by George Pegher (George A. Pegher Tree Service), who prunes them every few years, but visits them much more frequently than his job requires.
Venerable trees come in all shapes and sizes. What’s enormous for one species may look dwarf compared to another. A bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) becomes venerable when it grows "knees."
Knees are the almost human-looking appendages that swell slowly from the roots of a bald cypress when the tree is old enough and growing close to water. On higher, drier ground, trees of the same species will never form knees at any age.
Because knees only grew when in close proximity to water, it was assumed for centuries that knees helped bald cypresses “breathe” by poking their heads above the surface. Botanists eventually proved the theory wrong—knees don’t absorb any more carbon dioxide than regular roots. More likely, they’re used for buttressing the tall narrow trees in unstable soils. Without knees, bald cypresses growing in swampy locations would be more susceptible to blowing over in high winds.
This venerable bald cypress grows in Sewickley, where its owners estimate its age at between 150 and 200 years old, based on the property’s history.
Sewickley is home to a host of magnificent shade trees, some so special that they belong as much to the community as they do to their caretakers. Gary and Janet Kovac’s cucumbertree magnolia (Magnolia acuminata) is one such “neighborhood” tree. Generations of children have climbed in its limbs, built forts at its base and played hide-and-seek among its multiple trunks. The Kovacs have honored the tradition during the 17 years they’ve lived there.
Janet loves the tree’s sculptural qualities. Where supple branches bend down to touch the ground, one occasionally takes root, and a new tree starts. The sound of the breeze rustling through the large leaves is especially pleasing to the couple when they’re relaxing on the front porch in the summer.
The Kovacs have no record of the age of their cherished native magnolia. However, they know their home was built in the 1860s as a honeymoon cottage. A postcard from the early days depicts the house and the freshly planted tree with a cow standing next to it—house-warming gifts, perhaps, to the newly married couple?
Two “spiritual specimens” flank the entrance to St. Barnabus Nursing Home in Gibsonia. They’re Sargent’s weeping hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis ‘Sargentii’), heads and branches bowed in silent prayer.
Bill Day, president of St. Barnabus Health System, can only estimate the trees’ ages. He’s occupied the post for 42 years, and the hemlocks were well-established when he arrived. Chances are good they were planted by the founder of St. Barnabus, Gouverneur Provoost Hance. Brother Hance’s love for trees is evident throughout the peaceful grounds, where groves of pines and stately laurel oaks bear majestic witness to the religious order’s reverence for the land.
Want to impress someone with your botanical acumen? Using the scientific name of dawn redwood—Metasequoia glyptostroboides—always commands respect.
This stately specimen grows on the grounds of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland. It’s among the oldest dawn redwoods in Pittsburgh, started from seed sometime after 1947. It was that year when plant explorers from the Arnold Arboretum, in Boston, discovered dawn redwoods still living in the wild in China. The species was previously known only through fossil records and thought to be extinct. The arboretum shared seeds collected during that expedition, and dawn redwoods now populate North America.
This valuable tree was moved to its current location on Phipps’ grounds in Sept. 2005, prior to the conservatory’s renovation and building project. It took expert arborists a week to move it a couple of hundred yards, crawling no faster than one inch per hour to keep the enormous rootball intact. Claire Dusak, outdoor display foreman at Phipps, admits to still “babying” the tree, which protested the move only slightly.
John Woodruff English Oak
No chronicle of western Pennsylvania’s special trees would be complete without paying tribute to a historic specimen in Connellsville. This English oak (Quercus robur) commemorates the life and accomplishments of native son John Woodruff, who carried home a gold medal from the 1936 Berlin Olympics in one hand and a tiny oak tree seedling in the other, a gift from Adolph Hitler to each of the winners.
Woodruff’s medal resides at his college alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. A replica and other mementos from those games are available for everyone to enjoy at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. But there’s only one John Woodruff oak, and to see it, you have to attend a home football game at Connellsville High School in autumn. Woodruff planted his tree seedling at his high school stadium, where he spent so many hours training for his victory in the 800-meter race. You can’t miss it—the tree is right there near the end zone.
Amazing for both its size and its remarkable location, it’s surprising that the oak still thrives. The species is not especially fond of western Pennsylvania’s frigid winters. But it grows as testament to John Woodruff’s fortitude. It was intended that he lose the race: Other competitors boxed him in to prevent another African American athlete—Jesse Owens was already burning up the track—from winning gold. So Woodruff hung back, bursting ahead at the end to win in spite of the plot to thwart him. He was just 19 years old at the time.
John Woodruff died in 2006 at the age of 92, and his memorial service was held beneath the oak’s sheltering canopy. This special tree could live much longer, keeping his memory and his extraordinary accomplishments alive in the hearts and minds of the proud, closely knit community that embraced him so.
Cutleaf Japanese Maple
It’s not the largest cutleaf Japanese maple in Pittsburgh, but it’s among the most beautiful. And surely the most cherished.
The owner’s daughter, Stephanie Mumford, of Arlington, Va., laughs softly when she recalls how many prom and graduation pictures were captured in front of “dad’s special tree”. Stephanie was one of three siblings, so the tree was pressed into service quite often as the family reached those milestones.
Stephanie’s father, a landscape contractor, chose well when he planted the small Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum’ at the corner of their Mt. Lebanon home. But it was only after the enormous American elm tree in the front yard died of Dutch elm disease that the little maple was plunged into full sun and started to thrive. Now his grandchildren play under its branches.
The knowledgeable arborists at Bartlett Tree Experts are now charged with the tree’s welfare, carefully pruning and shaping the tree and cabling its multiple trunks to make sure the spreading limbs don’t crack in a storm.
Weeping European Beech
The gavel falls, calling to order the August meeting of Kathy Adelman’s garden club. Members are gathered in the coolest outdoor space possible in Sewickley in late summer: beneath the cathedral-like branches of the Adelman’s magnificent weeping European beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’) tree. The murmur of committee reports and occasional laughter drifts over the lawn, but the source of the voices is hidden. Later in the afternoon, Kathy’s husband, David, will relax there in his hammock.
The Adelmans estimate the tree’s age at about 110. A picture of the former Darlington estate, circa 1895, hangs in the Allegheny Country Club. On the front lawn appears a twisted stick of a tree—Dave thinks it might be their beech. The couple is more certain of the tree’s size. With a spread of more than 100 feet, the branches cover nearly a quarter acre of valuable Sewickley real estate.
“We’re just the current stewards of this marvelous tree,” says Dave, who has had to do virtually no pruning of the healthy tree in the 19 years the family has lived there.
Between dense shade and an extensive root system, it’s impossible to grow anything beneath the tree. So the Adelmans hold parties there, stringing lights at Halloween to entertain their friends and the friendly spirits of owners past.
Owners, gardeners and travel agents “extraordinaire”—that modifier fits all three—Susie and Michael Fitzgerald tend a garden of superlatives in suburban Wexford. This pair of Tanyosho pines (Pinus densiflora ‘Umbraculifera’) greets family and guests near the entrance of what is surely one of the North Hills’ most magnificent private gardens.
The couple’s home and business (Frontiers International Travel) began life as a Sears log cabin, built as a summer retreat for a Pittsburgh physician back when Wexford was truly “the country.” The Fitzgeralds adopted the Tanyosho pines when they moved here in 1969, estimating the trees to be already 10 years old at the time.
These perfectly matched white oaks (Quercus alba), standing sentinel at the entrance to the Edgeworth Club in Sewickley, are not really the same age. But at an estimated 303 years and 273 years old, what does a 30-year age difference matter?
These special oaks also made the list of Pittsburgh’s Bicentennial Trees, published in 1988 by the Allegheny County Bicentennial Commission under the direction of Judith Oliver. Knowledgeable arborists based their calculations of the trees’ ages on their height and girth, as well as their own experience with how slowly the species grows. White oaks are among the longest-lived and most enduring of all northern hardwoods.
The Edgeworth Club takes their care seriously, deep-root feeding the trees annually and pruning every couple of years to remove dead branches. “But you don’t want to stand under them in fall,” laughs groundskeeper John Markvan, who’s been keeping a watchful eye on the oaks for 15 years. Even with help from Sewickley’s squirrels, he has to collect the acorns daily—with a shovel!
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John and Lindsay Totten garden on their small family farm in Cheswick. Lindsay is the former president of the Botanic Garden of Western Pennsylvania and now the Director of Development and Communications for Three Rivers Adoption Council, Inc. John is a professional horticulturist with a small landscape gardening business; he also teaches a class on native plants in the landscape architecture program at Chatham University.