Boston's `Tree Lady' Keeps Back Bay Green

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FOR the past 25 years, Stella Trafford has planted, watered, and nurtured the trees of Boston's Commonwealth Avenue mall.

The Paris-style promenade, which runs through Boston's gracious Back Bay neighborhood, is one of this city's most picturesque features. The towering elms, ornamental iron fences, and statues of this eight-block-long city park stand here, in part, thanks to the efforts of Ms. Trafford.

This gracious woman volunteers 30 to 40 hours each week to raise funds and care for trees and greenery in Boston's parks, a task that the city says it lacks sufficient funds to do itself.

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``She has raised a great deal of money from the community to help plant new trees and take care of old trees,'' says Richard Heath, director of Boston Greenspace Alliance. ``[And] she watches out for the care of the [Commonwealth Avenue] mall in a very personal way.''

For her efforts, she has been recognized by two Boston mayors. Recently, she received an award for her work from Historic Massachusetts, a private preservation group. And this summer she was named state winner of the ``Master Planter'' environmental contest sponsored by MasterCard International and American Forests, a nonprofit conservation group.

``I've been interested in gardening, green space, and outdoors all my life,'' Trafford says, seated in her outdoor Back Bay garden. She grew up in Mississippi but moved to Boston in the late 1960s. She and her husband, a Boston lawyer, first lived in New Hampshire. But when he tired of commuting, they moved to the city. As a lover of green spaces, she was drawn to the Commonwealth Avenue mall.

``That was the biggest green space in the area and I lived next to it. And also it needed help so desperately,'' she says.

During that time, the elm trees of the mall were succumbing to Dutch Elm disease. By the early 1970s, 200 of the old trees had been lost, some of them planted as far back as 1865. So Trafford and other city conservationists kept busy spraying, pruning, and fund-raising to save the elms and restore the troubled park.

To oversee the effort, she established the Commonwealth Avenue Mall Committee, a branch of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay and Friends of the Public Garden, a private conservation group.

Soon, new trees were planted - hardier species, like maple, sweet gum, and green ash.

But new and old challenges remain. Trees and fountains continue to be vandalized. Dog owners don't always clean up after their pets. And this year's drought took its toll on more elms.

In fact, of the 600 trees envisioned for the Commonwealth Avenue mall created by 19th-century Boston architect Arthur Gilman, 500 are now standing. Of those 500, 137 are the original elms, all of them more than 100 years old, says Margaret Pokorny, member of the Commonwealth Avenue Mall Committee.

But Trafford, now a widow, keeps on working toward her goal of planting 50 more trees on the mall.

She brushes aside any thought of retirement, ``I'm interested in what I'm doing,'' she says. ``Working is more fun than loafing.... [And] I certainly would rather do it than play bridge or go out to lunch.''

Those who know Trafford say her work has had a significant impact on the community.

``Had it not been for the work of her committee, you would have had an entire block of the mall utterly treeless today,'' says Henry Lee, president of the private conservation group Friends of the Public Garden. Adds Jennifer Rooks, coordinator for MASS ReLeaf, a tree-planting group: ``She's very concerned with Boston as a city and her neighborhood, not just for herself but for everybody.''

Besides her work on Commonwealth Avenue, Trafford helped in the reconstruction of another city park at Boston's Copley Square. The former park - built in the 1970s - was set below street level originally. It became littered and unappealing.

``It was not at all popular, except with the drug dealers,'' Trafford says.

But the renovated park, completed in 1989, has been a welcome improvement. This lovely city green space provides unobstructed views of three historical buildings: the Boston Public Library, Trinity Church, and the Copley Plaza Hotel, as well as the new John Hancock Tower. In 1991, Trafford established the Friends of Copley Square.

Weeding is one of Trafford's specialities, particularly at the Copley Square Park. Outdoor work also includes keeping a steady watch over her trees.

As a sort of unofficial park warden, Trafford is not shy about scolding dog owners who let pets stray too close to the trees' fragile roots.

To foster peace between dog owners and tree guardians, Trafford's group sponsors an annual ``pooch parade'' on the Commonwealth mall. Dog owners parade their pets, and awards are given. The occasion is also used to educate dog owners about cleaning up after their pets.

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