Recycling Old Portsmouth Tree Tales
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Page 1 of 2
The recent demise (some might say “assassination) of the century-old copper beach at South Church on State Street has saddened many. Trees are mortal, and the death of a stately old friend reminds us of our own brief passage. We measure our lives against them and stories sprout like fruit from their branches. (Continued below)
Sometimes the tree itself is famous. This writer remembers the copse of trees at the high-water mark of the Confederate forces at Gettysburg, when our family camped near the Civil War battlefield half a century ago. And I was once reverently introduced to the “official Pooh tree” in the woods of East Grinstead in Sussex, England. Whether that exact tree was the haunt of young Christopher Robin and inspired the writings of A.A. Milne has never been proven, but I remember it all the same.
Portsmouth historian Charles Brewster (1802-1869) wrote frequently about his favorite city trees. When he was a child, Brewster wrote, he stole the sweet fruit of a bergamot pear tree that once stood in the yard of Daniel Webster’s home off Vaughan Street. That area has been a parking lot since the 1970s.
Brewster also recalled a handsome Linden tree, planted in 1750 near the Wentworth-Gardner Mansion in the South End. In Brewster’s time it was 60 feet tall and 12 feet in circumference at the height of a man’s head. The ancient linden was still standing – though 10 feet taller and seven feet wider -- when local artist Beatrice Pearson sketched it in 1910. Each July the fragrance of its yellow blossoms scented the entire neighborhood and the blooming event made newspaper headlines. Today it too is gone.
Feeding the Whipple tree
Barbara Ward sympathizes with the plight of the South Church. As director and curator of the Moffatt-Ladd House and garden on Market Street, she is responsible for what is likely the most historic tree in New Hampshire. The towering horse chestnut, legend says, was planted by General William Whipple in 1776 when he returned to Portsmouth after signing the Declaration of Independence. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Trees.
“There are trees we have lost over the years,” Ward says. “There used to be two big elms in front of the house. And we’ve already been told by the arborist that one of our larch trees is very close to the end of its life.”
Two years ago the Moffatt-Ladd House also had problems with a tall ash tree. Its roots were intertwined around the corner of their 18th century warehouse building. A decision was made to remove the tree rather than cut away so many of its roots to protect the building that the tree was at risk of falling and endangering museum visitors.
“You can’t save every one. When I read what the Unitarian Church was doing, the first thing I thought was – that’s exactly what happened to us,” Ward says. “We had to cut it down and it broke my heart. But we milled the tree into boards that are now the floor of the restored warehouse. We had no choice, but we wanted to give the tree another life.”
Having lost elms, larches, ash, and pine trees, the stewards of the nonprofit Moffatt-Ladd House know that eventually the Whipple Tree too will die. There has been discussion of planting a new horse chestnut and each spring seedlings from the Whipple Tree are sold to visitors as part of a spring fundraiser.
“We work with Northeast Shade Tree and really go to a lot of trouble to keep our tree alive and healthy and well-cared for,” Ward says. “It is fertilized every year.”
“As the horse chestnut grows,” Ward explains, “it naturally hollows it self out. So all of the nutrients come up through the tree very close to the bark. So the tree remains very healthy – lush and lots of horse chestnuts and leaves – but you have the problem that the weight gets to be too much for the tree. So that’s why we have extensive cabling in the tree and we redid a lot of it last year.”
“We think about our tree every single day,” Ward says. “To me it’s very intimately connected to the house.”
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