A book to help you see the forest in D.C.
Washington — She thinks that she will never see a poem lovely as a Schneider's zelkova.
She is Melanie Choukas-Bradley, who has tracked down the rare Chinese elm known as Schneider's zelkova on the US Capitol grounds as part of an offbeat book well worth leafing through. The book, "City of Trees: the Complete Botanical & Historical Guide to the Trees of Washington, D.C." (Washington: Acropolis Books Ltd., $24.95), is a gypsy moth's tour of the 300 Species of trees here which are native to Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. Among them: the dove tree, the winged euonymous, the downy serviceberry, the katsura, the Serbian spruce, the Manchurian maackia, and the clammy locust.
Mrs. Choukas-Bradley and co-author Polly Alexander spent four years slogging through snow, mud, cherry blossoms, and acorns to produce their definitive book. In Washington's unique climate, on the line between North and South, species of both can survive. The book came about, Mrs. Choukas-Bradley says, when she moved to Washington and began hunting for the book she wanted to read. "The first thing that impressed me when I came to towm was the trees -- there were banana trees growing right down the street in the Botanic Garden. And we were living near the Capitol, which has been described as one of the finest arboretums in the world.
"I had been living in New England and suddenly found myself surrounded by magnolias, hollies, all kinds of trees. I wanted to find a book to identify all these treasures around me but found there was no such book. So I got in touch with a friend in Vermont, Polly Alexander, a botanist and botanical illustrator, and the two of us began researching a book. We took courses at the National Arboretum and the US Department of Agriculture graduate school, we built up a plant library, called a herbarium, for each tree. . . "
At the start, it was as hard as shinnying up a redwood. For one thing, the city was full of learned tree people, those with doctorates in botany and a lifetime of tree expertise behind them. And here were these, well, saplings of girls, brash enough to write the book none of the experts had done yet.
Melaine Choukas-Bradley perches on a chair in our Washington office and explaines with a roll of her eyes what they were up against. Even now, four years later, she still looks like a college kid with her long gold hair, the color of willows in the winter, a pretty, open face with high pick coloring and round blue eyes. She is wearing a black cotton skirt with a twig and flower motif of pink and blue and white, a cream blouse, black linen jacket, and olive sandals.
"We were very young, 25, when we started out. . .but we convinced them we were serious. It's real tribute to the botanical community that they accepted us as they did. When we saw the head of the National Arboretum, we sat down for an hour's talk with him and he realized how dedicated we were." He later wrote a gracious forward to the book. "Also, we knew when we didn't know something," she explains, and worked to overcome that.
"The fact that we were young and didn't have PhDs made us work harder to make sure we were really standing on firm ground," she adds. "With every tree I wrote up, it was like being a cook -- I had all the ingredients spread out in the kitchen. Say I was writing about a pin oak. I had a color-coordinated notebook with 10 different sources of information, and all the herbarium species , and similar species like scarlet oak, around me. Also, Polly and I kept journals for two years that were all indexed, and slides, so I'd be surrounded by a wealth of information. It took me six months to write the book, working seven days a week for the full time. It was a very intense period."
Barbara Walter's familiar interview question, "If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?" makes her grin. No hesitation: "I'd be a white oak tree. They live a long time, they have spreading branches that provide shade and shelter for animals and acorns for squirrels. Also, I grew up in Vermont and my interest in trees began with one particular white oak which grew near where we lived in Saxtons River. . .It was very old, and I used to climb it as a child."
"City of Trees" contains more than 275 botanical illustrations and 32 pages of color photographs. Some of them are as lovely as impressionist paintings. The covor shot, also used for a separate color calendar, is of a green swath of hill at Dumbarton Oaks, in the Georgetown section of Washington, photographed in the rain. The tangled limbs of the Japanese cherry trees are a dense black from the rain, the blossoms a mist of white and pink with smudges of yellow forsythia in the background.
To work on "City of Trees," Mrs. Choukas-Bradley quit her job as an investigator, writer, and editor for a congressional oversight committee and began schlepping twigs. She had been an English major at the University of Vermont, later taught creative writing and worked as a news writer at a New Hampshire radio station.
For her husband, Jim, a lawyer, the book meant a car full of mulch. "If we were driving down a street to a party and I saw a tree I didn't have yet, he'd screech to a stop and I'd get out and collect a specimen. My husband got used to driving around with a lot of acorns and pine cones and branches filling the car."
This is the third book of illustrations for collaborator Polly Alexander, who graduated from the University of Vermont with a botany degree and now is art director for a Burlington, Vt., advertising agency.
Their book is not only full of trees, buds, catkins, berries, drupes (fleshy fruit like peaches), and bracts (leafy plant parts below a flower), it is also full of history. Reading it, you learn how District of Columbia governor Alexander Sheppard planted 60,000 trees in the 1870's, ran up a dept of $10 million, and turned the capital from a fetid, lethal swamp in the summer into a green oasis.
Or how President John Quincy Adams tried to encourage a national silk industry by growing white mulberries at the White House while his wife, Louisa, tended the silkworms. Or that some of the trees George Washington planted at Mount Vernon, as Mrs. Choukas-Bradley points out, are still living.
She and Polly Alexander have done a little planting themselves: a 14-karat gold acorn, worth $1,000, for the person who solves a complex series of riddles written to identify 28 trees and the specific place they can be found in Washington. If that sounds to you a bit like Kit Williams's "Masquerade" treasure hunt for the golden rabbit that recently turned the British Isles into one hudge dig, you're right. There's no digging involved here, though. Anyone who can identify all 28 species of trees wins the golden acorn, which is on display at a local bank. To date, 10,000 copies of the riddles have been snatched up, but, as Mrs. Choukas-Bradley smiles, "No one's even close" to winning.