Wednesday, April 01, 2009

City of Trees Reviewed


City of Trees
by Melanie Choukas-Bratley
Review by Jim Dronenburg

As a general rule, guidebooks are not entertaining. This one was, but for all the wrong reasons.

Primarily, you expect a guide to be used in situ, and therefore it should be of a size which allows one to carry it. This seems a little large and heavy for long carrying, but that may just be me.

Reading the first part of the book, about the founding of the city, which explains much of why Washington is called “city of trees” in the first place, has nothing to do with what is here now. Although it must be admitted that the story about getting Martha Washington down out of the elm tree had me in stitches.

In the second part, which is stories about various individual trees at selected locations, we get a little more meat on the bones. Sites all over (and surrounding) DC proper are covered, and although no book can cover every square inch, this sometimes does a good job.

Lastly, and comprising at least two-thirds of the book, comes the guide to tree identification. This is arranged by characteristic, which makes sense when you don’t know the name of the tree. The illustrations are line drawings, which is all you need for a lot of the weedy, common sorts, and the average user of this guide probably won’t find or notice the rarities anyway, so there is no need to bother with more in the way of illustration for those.

Finally, there is an index section, which is useful primarily for those of us who DO know trees in the first place, as it allows us to go through and chuckle at the descriptions of whatever tree is in front of us at the moment. Tree habits, leaf types, and the like, are contrasted and explained.

Of course, there are some photographs, in their own section of the book, mostly of flowers. I still haven’t figured out the criteria for inclusion, the one that comes to mind is the flower of a tulip tree which tends to be forty-feet-plus above eye level, and never noticed to begin with until long gone and the resulting cones drop.

On the whole, I have to say that the author has gone to excruciating detail to make sure that your landscape services are well informed. What she should have included is a section on planting trees, so that one can see that the crews do it right.

Lastly, if you would like to add to/embellish my views of the book, you can post your comments online here or directly to me at

Jim's REAL review of Melanie's wonderful City of Trees book will be in the May/June 2009 issue of Washington Gardener Magazine. Have a wonderful April Fool's Day!


  1. Anonymous12:29 PM

    Hi Jim,

    Well you “got” me! As the author of City of Trees, I look forward to the “real” review!

    This day is perfect for tree viewing! I spent yesterday afternoon at the Tidal Basin and those flowering cherries never disappoint. I was enchanted to see flowers springing not only from the trunks of the original 1912 trees, but also from their gnarled roots. I think the Tidal Basin cherries would be even more stunning today, in this soft gray light. I’ve been swooning over the way the early magnolias and cherries look in my neighborhood this afternoon.

    After visiting the cherry trees I wandered around the southern perimeter of the White House and along the Mall. I was happy to see that the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden next to the Smithsonian Arts and Industries building is recovering nicely after getting trampled on Inauguration Day. Adrian Higgins reported on this in a recent column in the Home section of the Washington Post. In the Enid A. Haupt Garden behind the Smithsonian Castle, the saucer magnolias were almost obscenely beautiful. They will be even more incredible when the petals start falling around them, maybe today.

    On April 18th I’ll be leading a tree tour at the Frederick Douglass home (Cedar Hill) in Anacostia for Casey Trees. If you’ve never been there, it’s a scenic and historic destination. From Cedar Hill you get a panoramic view of the “City of Trees” across the Anacostia River and up past the National Cathedral and Catholic University. Frederick Douglass was not only a leading 19th century abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. He was also a tree lover and at least one of the trees on the grounds dates to his lifetime. I think there are still a few spots open on the tour ( but it’s a National Park Service property that is open to the public during regular hours.

    Happy April rambles around the city and beyond!

    Melanie Choukas-Bradley

  2. Anonymous2:25 AM

    Wow....nice blog
    Thanks for sharing the informative with us..

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