BY KATHERINE STATHIS
There's something about the strong, silent type. Perhaps it's the air of mystery, or maybe it's the reassuring calm. When autumn air gets crisp and lasting daylight more elusive, seeking what endures may even satisfy a primal urge. For that, we need look no further than our remarkable trees. Given the acreage of forests and mature parks in the area, there is no limit to what we can explore. Here are just a few of the notable trees of Rochester:
Stand by the horse chestnut tree at the Susan B. Anthony House on Madison Street and consider that it may have been here waiting for Anthony's arrival to her new home in 1866. It stood with the suffragist until her death 40 years later, and still stands there today. Anthony stood by it, too, saving it from the city's plan to raze the trees and pave the dirt street. The House's fascinating 1891 photograph of a front-yard gathering (spot the easily distinguishable Elizabeth Cady Stanton) shows the horse chestnut to be the most notable among the notables. More than a century later, the tree earned a formal distinction as one of the nation's "Heroes of Horticulture," a program by the Cultural Landscape Foundation to honor the plant kingdom's living witnesses to human history and calling for their stewardship. Suitably, the George Eastman House on East Avenue answered in the spirit of preservation with a photographic exhibit of these subjects in 2008.
Imagine the East Avenue of the 1920's, its opulent mansions and the "grandeur of the unbroken archway of elms stretching eastward for three miles from Alexander Street." So describes former city historian Blake McKelvey in his detailed 1966 retrospective, "East Avenue's Turbulent History." Within the decade, the landscape changed sharply; mansions vanished (HH Warner's was a particular loss, including his observatory, now the site of the Rochester Museum & Science Center's parking lot) and the automobile threatened a complete takeover of air quality and street character, eventually forcing the notorious widening of East Avenue past Winton Road, cutting short that once-fabulous archway of elms.
The 1950's and 60's brought East Avenue its greatest trauma, foreshadowed decades earlier by the appearance of the Dutch elm fungus. City Forester Brian Liberti doesn't hesitate to estimate the damage to the Avenue's elms: "It was 100 percent loss." In fact, 20,000 American elms came down in Rochester as a result. An inundated Nunda Boulevard saw total loss as well, and the horticultural practice of monoculture --plantings of a single species of tree -- was soon abandoned. Still, while monoculture is clearly vulnerable to blight and invasive species, the sensory effect of the collective mass is striking. Stroll the London plane sycamores lining Crawford Street in the Highland Park neighborhood, where shimmering light casts over camouflage-patterned bark to create a surreal aura.
Reforestation of diverse species replaced Rochester's doomed elms. Maples, ash trees, and large oaks combined with older plantings from Vick Nurseries (now Vick Parks A and B) to populate East Avenue's urban arboretum of public and private trees. The attention grabbers are still the enormous beeches and their enveloping canopies. Most recognizable of these is the copper beech on the property of 1600 East Avenue, framed by the uniform backdrop of 1958 brick and glass. Another terrific beech -- a well-worn European -- greets visitors at the parking entrance of the George Eastman House, the grounds of which are a study in historic trees, many selected by Eastman himself, who did not live to see the loss, and subsequent replacement, of his own elms.
The film and photography museum is home to all sorts of interesting collections, so including trees among them seems only fitting. But to hear Monroe County Superintendent of Horticulture Mark Quinn describe the "collection" of trees at Highland and Durand Eastman parks is, for an ordinary citizen, an empowering concept. These "arboretum parks" have an abundance of rare and exotic species, offering new experiences throughout the seasons, even in winter, when the 100 or so species of evergreens offer both oases of color from the drab greys and soothing swishes of sound from the wind.
A popular standout among the deciduous varieties is the katsura tree behind the pansy bed at Highland Park. The katsura, native to Asia, was one of Highland's original plantings in Frederick Law Olmstead's design more than a century ago. Kids especially love to play in its netherworld of low-hanging branches and serpentine roots, while each perspective under the massive spread offers dramatic views to the receptive visitor. The zigzag funhouse pattern of bark hypnotizes more deeply the further up you look from the trunk.
At nearby Mount Hope Cemetery, more trees stand ready to inspire. Edward Olinger leads the fall foliage tours of the cemetery but bristles at the thought of picking a top choice among what the cemetery calls its "fascinating sylvan melange." "It's like having to pick your favorite kid," he says. But the "granddaddy," as he calls it, is a European beech along Hillside Avenue near the North Gate entrance, an original 1848 planting from the famed EllwangerGarden. It is huge, with tombstones precariously close to the trunk. Its size warrants standing back a bit on Hillside for the best view, as it dwarfs nearly everything nearby. That is, until you walk even further along and see just how deep the valleys are cut in the park's glacially formed topography. You can explore the many aspects of this cherished cemetery through a variety of tours led by the Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery (fomh.org), including Victorian-era symbolism on grave markers.
The oak, for example, has ties with strength, endurance, and is often referred to as the "tree of life." But in Rochester, there is only one Tree of Life, known as such even after its death in July 2010, most likely from it burden of its own weight. This bur oak near Elmwood on the east side of Genesee Valley Park was a sort of giving tree, with its branches stretching so wide that dozens could climb and sit in it at once. Its nurturing shape may have been a result of early damage, and, in the end, may have caused its own collapse. The 120-plus-year-old tree has now been immortalized as a portal, with two major parts of the tree flanking both sides of the nearby bike path.
Oaks are native to this area, and we are endowed with some beauties. Impressive oaks in PowderMillsPark and others at Mendon Ponds age up to 300 years. In Canandaigua, the trails at Finger LakesCommunity College will reward the adventurous with the thrill of discovering a lone white oak, itself nearing 200 years. (Consider: it was standing at this spot before Rochester was even a city). College president Barbara Risser was only given the cryptic instructions "you'll know it when you see it" when she set on the journey to find it. "I kept saying to my husband, 'Maybe that one is the white oak,' or 'Maybe that one is the oak.' Then, we turned a corner and before us was the most spectacular, majestic oak tree I had ever seen. We were awestruck." And so, somewhere through the trails along Marvin Sands Drive, tucked behind the arboretum and the newly dedicated SerenityGarden, sits what the accompanying plaque calls "a nut that held its ground." You'll know it when you see it.
Awe and inspiration are limitless resources with these trees around. Do you have favorites of your own? Share your comments on this article at rochestercitynewspaper.com.