Ever fallen in love with a tree?
Maybe it was the one offering the gracious shade you played under as a child, the strong, sheltering branches you climbed in to hide, or the sweetly forbidden fruit you strained to reach. You may have carved your initials in a tree or two as a young adult, or slowed to admire one of the many huge elder statesmen along the road on the way home from work.
Something in some trees speaks to us humans, captures our attention and attaches us to them in ways we may never understand. But when it happens to you, you know it.
The Blue Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica) in a grassy island at the top of the very steep hill on which I live has captured the attention of my neighbors. The tree sits at the apex of two quiet streets in Silver Spring’s Sligo Park Hills, with its low branches and delicate, lacy fir. And it’s slowly dying.
The agonizingly slow death has pitted neighbor against neighbor.
Trees have always been a very important part of the character of this neighborhood. In 1933, Sligo Park Hills developer E. Brooke Lee required his personal approval before a tree could be cut down, according to the Washington Post. Then in 1936, homeowners planted 164 crabapple trees, giving this Montgomery County neighborhood a distinctive blush of bright pink blooms in the spring.
The Blue Atlas Cedar’s earliest records go back to 1972, when the National Arboretum installed a bronze plaque at its base, dedicating the tree to long-time avid amateur horticulturalist Stuart Armstrong. President of the American Horticultural Society from 1957 to 1960, Armstrong hybridized azaleas as a hobby. Together with his friend, former National Arboretum director Benjamin Y. Morrison, Armstrong developed an azalea named “Takoma.” Armstrong died in 1970.
A resident of Sligo Park Hills, Armstrong frequently gave his gardening advice and his azaleas away. In fact, many of his plants still decorate gardens throughout the neighborhood. I like to think he started a tradition. Even today, my neighbors trade help and plants like others share recipes and advice.
For the past 15 years, the area beneath the Blue Atlas Cedar has been consistently mowed, planted, weeded and mulched by a group of caring neighbors, including one who doesn’t even live on the intersecting streets. Given the amount of rain we’ve had this year, it’s been no small amount of work.
When she noticed that the cedar’s fir was not as lush and some branches lacked any greenery at all, another concerned resident called in several arborists to see what could be done to save it. The prognosis was not good. The slow death continues.
What to do next caused much consternation in the neighborhood. Some wanted the tree taken down and replaced immediately. Others fought to keep it, and enjoy it, until he end comes …
Since the cedar’s 1972 dedication, generations of children have climbed up into its branches. Neighbors who live around it have watched through their windows as the tree welcomed the seasons.
For now, it remains. The traffic island the cedar sits on has been once again lovingly weeded and mulched. Neighbors have decorated the area with a small tree trunk table and chairs for the neighborhood children. A bright orange cloth has been attached to the tree offer them additional shade. Some worry that the new amenities will beckon kids to cross the streets unsupervised.
Two towering oaks commanded the front of my house when I bought it nearly 15 years ago. Now there is one. The morning I saw a branch as big as my house broken off and resting between two supporting limbs, I decided. That tree simply had to go before another huge branch ended up in my second floor bedroom.
I don’t know what Sligo Park Hills developer E. Brooke Lee or Stuart Armstrong would have said to me about cutting down the oak. And because I feel safer, I’m not sure I care. I do, however, wonder what they’d have to say about the last days of the Blue Atlas Cedar and how the tree has come between neighbors.