This Old Tree with Doug Still
The Katsura at Dumbarton Oaks (Transcript)
Season 1, Episode 14
Published April 11, 2023
Doug Still: [00:01]
I've got to admit, I hadn't heard about the old Katsura tree at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC. I knew that Dumbarton Oaks was an estate and museum with one of the great gardens of America, designed by Beatrix Farrand, although I'd never been there.
The Katsura came to my attention when landscape architect, Ron Henderson, invited me to tag along with him early this spring to see a project, he coordinated with the top-notch horticultural staff there. Along with him and his assistant, Hans Friedl, Ron recruited a special guest from Japan named Kurato Fujimoto, a Master Gardener from Kenroku-en, one of the three great Japanese landscape gardens. Mr. Fujimoto, or Kurato as I came to know him informally, was leading a team effort to install a series of crutches and braces under the big Katsura, an indigenous Japanese propping technique to promote the long-term health of old trees and to support long, aging branches. This was not an opportunity to be missed.
Tree lovers, I'd like to bring you along to Dumbarton Oaks with me, where you can join me as a fly on the garden wall, so to speak. As we go, you'll learn more about this project and meet several interesting people, like Jonathan Kavalier, the Director of Gardens and Grounds, as well as Abner Aldarondo, a humanities fellow who dug through mounds of documents and photos to research the origins of the Katsura. Best of all, you'll get to know this lovable unique tree that holds its own as an unplanned cast member of Farrand's magnificent garden. It has a bit of mystery about it that relates to the burgeoning 19th-century fascination with Japanese trees and plants. I know you'll need to go see this tree when we're done.
I'm Doug Still, and this is This Old Tree.
[This Old Tree theme]
Doug Still: [02:22]
I left my hotel early on a Monday morning to meet up with Ron, Hans, and Kurato at Dumbarton Oaks, which is in the Georgetown section of Washington. We were to meet at the guesthouse where they were being housed along the northwest edge of the garden. It was not an easy spot to get to by public transportation, so I decided to walk because it was such a beautiful day. Bad idea. Like a rookie, I thought I could cut through the US Naval Observatory area to the north of the garden but hit a dead end and had to walk all the way around. I was late. Ron texted to just walk in and around the building to the maintenance garage, where they were already hard at work with Jonathan Kavalier and the entire garden crew. I said my hellos and then started asking questions.
So, Ron, what are we doing here?
Ron Henderson: [03:18]
Kurato Fujimoto and Marc Vedder are putting the cross piece on one of the posts. This is the first one that we're [drilling sounds] They've just countersunk the crosspiece for lag bolts to connect the crosspiece to the pole. Installing two of those and we'll also be installing two kasugai, or kind of C-shaped nails to the outside that will also help secure the crosspiece to the post.
Doug Still: [04:01]
They were constructing eleven poles with T-shaped struts at the top, all exactly measured according to their planned placement along selected branches of the Katsura tree. They were working off a diagram that Ron had created on-site with Kurato Fujimoto hand-drawn and ink with enfolding sketchbooks called “orihon.”
Ron Henderson: [04:21]
We measured the tree on Monday, a week ago. Fujimoto identified the locations for the supports, they are known as “hoozue.” And we measured the dimensions from the underside of the branch to the ground so that we know the length for all of the poles. And then, we acquired the orchard poles that we'll be using for the supports this week and now we're going to be fabricating the poles this morning, maybe into this afternoon, and then we'll be heading out to the tree to begin to install them this afternoon. It's probably two days of work.
Doug Still: [05:11]
Apparently, there was a bit of a scramble to find the right type of supports locally and get them to the shop in time to conduct the project, but Jonathan and the crew pulled it off.
So, you got all these poles a week ago?
Jonathan Kavalier: [05:25]
We did. We got them on Wednesday last week.
Doug Still: [05:28]
And they were barked. You had to debark them?
Jonathan Kavalier: [05:31]
No, these were actually pressure-treated arbor poles. We sent a staff person out to Madison, Virginia, to pick them up. It was like a full-day road trip, and she came back with them in the afternoon. And then, we had to sand them down to expose the grain and remove kind of the--
Doug Still: [05:46]
Make them look nicer and more interesting.
Jonathan Kavalier: [05:49]
Doug Still: [05:51]
So, these are telephone poles?
Jonathan Kavalier: [05:52]
These are basically-- well, arbor poles. I guess they're used in arboriculture. These are white pine that have been pressure treated.
Doug Still: [06:00]
And you worked on this all Friday?
Jonathan Kavalier: [06:03]
Yeah. Thursday and Friday. The garden, all hands-on deck, sanding.
Doug Still: [06:10] [laughs]
What was your role?
Jonathan Kavalier: [06:11]
I was one of the sanders. Yeah.
Doug Still: [06:13]
You're a sander?
Jonathan Kavalier: [06:13]
I'm a good cheerleader. [laughter]
Doug Still: [06:16]
This wasn't my first experience installing hoozue, as they are known in Japanese. Kurato and Ron were retained by the Parks Department of the City of Providence a year ago to work with the Betsey Williams Sycamore, the 240-year-old tree you may remember from episode one. It has a 57-foot-long branch that stretches out at eye level, a very special feature, but it needed support. Kurato and the parks crew installed two props below it, that time using reclaimed black locust trees that have very durable wood.
That's when I first met Kurato. By the way, Kurato only speaks Japanese, and none of us do. So, we communicate by using the translation feature on our phones. It works pretty well although we sometimes have some amusing mix-ups. Anyway, he and Ron had also propped a cherry tree on the campus of Penn State University several years ago and developed a relationship with the managers at the US National Arboretum in DC.
The week before our Dumbarton Oaks visit, they installed hoozue for two itosakura cherry trees at the National Arboretum. Later, I paid a visit. The work is gorgeous. The technique is most associated with cherry species as well as pine, both very important to Japanese culture. In the US, you won't see tree supports very often, except perhaps in orchards to preserve productive old branches on fruit trees.
In general, our practices resort primarily to pruning branches and cabling large trunks for support. Ron and Kurato would like to see propping used more often here, and they're promoting the technique wherever they can. In this case, apropos to their Japanese style of propping, this installation is for a tree native to Japan, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, a Katsura tree.
But you knew you had a goal, which is the Katsura tree.
Jonathan Kavalier: [08:13]
Yeah. Yes, we knew we wanted to work on the Katsura tree. We think this is one of the oldest Katsura trees in the country, and we actually have a research fellow doing some work on that part of it right now. Just having met Kurato at the arboretum a couple of years ago and having a couple of years to digest what they were doing at the arboretum and more thinking about the trees here, there's a couple of other candidates here that lend themselves particularly well, I think, to this technique that we're interested in doing in the future as well.
Doug Still: [08:43]
I've yet to see the tree, so I can't wait.
Jonathan Kavalier: [08:44]
Okay, yeah, it's a great tree.
Doug Still: [08:47]
Obviously, I was dying to meet the tree we'd all been talking about. After another hour or so of work at the shop, I finally got the chance. Though it was Monday and the garden was closed, Jonathan ushered us into the museum's entrance lobby, then out a side door onto the grassy south lawn, the grand estate's sweeping front yard. It is largely open, framed by mature shrubs, oaks, and tulip trees, as well as a stunning grouping of cedar of Lebanon defining one edge. We walked across the entrance drive and down a short slope, and there was the Katsura along the front wall, separating the property from our street.
While it isn't hidden, it isn't highlighted either, standing within its border with other trees and shrubs. But this old tree reaches out with charm and life, quite literally. The first thing you notice are the multiple trunks, thick and sort of on top of one another, emanating from nearly the same point on a wide, weighty central trunk that sort of leans out across the expanse of lawn. Eight or nine twisting, undulating branches make the tree look as if it were about to wriggle to a new spot. One of them lays right on the ground.
There are numerous cavities at the base of most branches and at the trunk, the tree is showing its age. Almost every branch was pruned at the end, making it look somewhat amputated, a result of die back at its outer reaches. But wispy new sprouts surround each cut. There, I picked up my conversation with Jonathan and Ron.
And does this tree have a name?
Jonathan Kavalier: [10:29]
We refer to it as “The Katsura” even though there's more than one Katsura tree here. Actually, behind you is the other Katsura that Farrand added. When Beatrix Farrand came to design this garden, this Katsura tree was here, and she worked her design around it. So, it's a pretty iconic tree for us.
Doug Still: [10:47]
It's fantastic. What's your guess on how old this tree is?
Jonathan Kavalier: [10:52]
We're working on that now. We think it was planted probably in the last decade of the 1800s, but we're not 100% sure yet. We're still working on that. We have a research fellow named Abner Aldarondo that is working on that very question.
Doug Still: [11:09]
How would you describe this tree? Just looking at it.
Jonathan Kavalier: [11:15]
To me, it's like an octopus, kind of. It's crawling out onto the lawn. It's situated along what we call the R Street border, which is a little narrow brick path that leads around the interior perimeter wall of the front entrance of the garden. And this tree just kind of climbs out into the east lawn, which is a large expanse of lawn.
Doug Still: [11:38]
Yep. There's no escaping it. The tree looks like an octopus. I try not to anthropomorphize trees too much, although as human beings, we naturally all tend to do it. In this case, however, we get to octopomorphize it?
Yeah. This one branch in particular that's coming, follows the ground.
Ron Henderson: [11:59]
Mm. is it a root or is it a branch? Almost-
Doug Still: [12:04]
Hard to tell the difference.
Jonathan Kavalier: [12:05]
Yeah. So, two branches. Rego, one of our crew leaders, who's been here 35 years, remembers when that branch was much longer and had foliage on it. And even this second branch that's only a couple of feet off the ground, used to come out much further and had another upright coming off of it.
Doug Still: [12:25]
So, was there a point where that branch was off the ground?
Jonathan Kavalier: [12:28]
I don't know. I've only been here five years. [laughter]
Doug Still: [12:32]
Ron Henderson: [12:33]
It's interesting that you call it “The Octopus tree” because Kurato Fujimoto, the Japanese master gardener that we're working with to conserve the tree, calls it “Tako no Katsura no Ki,” which is the Octopus Katsura tree.
Doug Still: [12:50]
Yeah. We're obviously about to start work, so we hear chainsaws in the background and vehicles and lots of workers here.
Don't worry. Those saws were only there for fine-tuning the size of the poles before installation. But we'll use this moment to take a break. When we return, we'll learn more about how these supports benefit trees and theories on how The Octopus Katsura was planted at Dumbarton Oaks in the 19th century. I'm Doug Still, and you're listening to This Old Tree.
Tako no Katsura no Ki, or in English, The Octopus Katsura. That has a nice ring to it. We'll see if it sticks. But back to the day's mission.
So, what's the goal of our project today and tomorrow?
Jonathan Kavalier: [13:56]
Do you want to explain that, Ron?
Ron Henderson: [13:58]
The goal is to situate the conservation of this approximately 130-, 140-year-old tree with a series of supports that are being installed in the tradition of the Japanese techniques which both support and prop branches that may be in danger of some kind of physical damage because these are incredibly low horizontal branches with a lot of very long fulcrum lengths. But also, the situation and the positioning of the poles known as hoozue or a “chin cane,” like when you put your palm under your chin on a table, that kind of support.
Doug Still: [14:55]
So, it's hoozue?
Ron Henderson: [14:56]
Doug Still: [14:57]
Ron Henderson: [15:00]
That's right. H-O-O-Z-U-E. And most of these poles will be put toward the ends of the branches and that will support growth at the extremities of the branches, which will then produce more branches and more leaves, which will then be able to bring energy back into the tree. So, the conservation process is both structural support as well as promotion of new growth at the extremities.
Jonathan Kavalier: [15:34]
What really is interesting to me, the difference in approach between the Japanese approach and our Western approach, and learning about Fujimoto's technique, it's just such a different perspective in how we look at the trees. And in Western culture, we're looking at the crown of the tree, we're doing a lot of retrenching, we're doing a lot of heading back and trying to promote growth from within. From the Japanese perspective, they're looking at the branch tips as being the most active points of growth and so trying to keep the growth there and give it the support that it needs in order to keep the growth there. It's just a completely different approach than we use in Western culture.
Doug Still: [16:15]
And it seems with this particular tree, most of the branch tips have been cut back in the past. Almost all of them, from the top to the bottom.
Jonathan Kavalier: [16:24]
Right. That's likely in response to die back and that's how you would typically handle a tree according to ISA standards, is you would prune back your deadwood and try and make heading back cuts and produce lateral branching, which you can see. This has been done over the years. This particular tree, Katsura don't compartmentalize, as well as other trees, as hardwoods and so every time you're making pruning cuts, you're potentially opening yourself up to a decay situation and so especially--[crosstalk]
Doug Still: [16:58]
Especially cuts this large.
Ron Henderson: [17:00]
Jonathan Kavalier: [17:02]
Yeah, it's just a completely opposite perspective, which is really interesting.
Doug Still: [17:06]
Has there been a lot of research on-- or comparative research I should say?
Ron Henderson: [17:13]
There isn't a lot of research that's been done through the lens of Western arboricultural or horticultural science to look at the performance of the Japanese technique. Of course, the evidence of the Japanese technique is trees that are 1000 years old that have been supported in this manner.
Doug Still: [17:39]
Right, the proof is in the pudding.
Jonathan Kavalier: [17:41]
Ron Henderson: [17:42]
The proof is in the pudding.
Doug Still: [17:44]
Jonathan had mentioned that this is one of the oldest Katsura trees in the country. And we got on to talking about who planted it, where they got it, and when. Beatrix Farrand started her work here in the 1920s, hired by Robert Woods Bliss and his wife, Mildred. It was Mrs. Bliss that Farrand collaborated closely for decades. A partnership that developed the garden into what we see today. More on that later. But by the 1920s, this Katsura was already a mature tree.
Jonathan Kavalier: [18:15]
For us, the goal is to keep this tree here because it's one of the few really old trees left on the property and it helps tell a really interesting story about this property pre-Bliss. Because we always talk about Bliss and Beatrix Farrand here and there's a lot of history before Bliss and Farrand and we're starting to dig into that. We have some fellows that are looking into enslaved labor practices here pre-Bliss. So, it's just neat to kind of round that out with some of the horticultural knowledge of some of these trees, where they came from, when they were planted? And then, do our best to keep them here for another 100 years plus.
Doug Still: [18:57]
According to Jonathan, it is a mystery as to exactly when the octopus Katsura was planted. Katsura, along with many other plants from Japan, can trace their introduction to North America to the mid-19th century. In the fall of 1868, the new Meiji Restoration ended Shogunate rule, opening the doors for interaction with the West in the rest of the world. Through certain diplomatic figures, this led to an almost immediate botanical interest in sharing Japanese trees and plants, mostly in the form of seeds.
Ron Henderson: [19:32]
Yeah, and if you look at it within larger historical patterns, Perry's ships arrived in Japan in the 1860s. So, within clearly 30 years or so, this tree was already here. That nursery trade must have been one of the most advanced or first things that began to be imported from Japan, all these amazing plants that we all know now, including the Katsura.
Doug Still: [20:10]
Was Washington DC a center of that early nursery trade just because it was our nation's capital perhaps?
Ron Henderson: [20:19]
Well, they're certainly the center, the seed of diplomatic envoys who may have been either supporting or promoting or funding that kind of trade. Or maybe a few snuck a few seeds in their diplomatic pouches as they headed back, perhaps. [laughs]
Jonathan Kavalier: [20:38]
Yeah, it would make sense.
Doug Still: [20:42]
The Arnold Arboretum in Boston has a wonderful Katsura tree in their collection dated to 1878 and I had to go view it this past weekend when I was in Boston. It has precise documentation. Seeds were sent by an American from Massachusetts named William Clark, who was invited by the Japanese government in 1876 to assist in the establishment of Sapporo Agricultural College, now Hokkaido University. Is it possible that the Dumbarton Oaks Katsura was planted earlier? If so, there was only a slim 10 years or so when seeds could have been shipped, germinated, and grown in a nursery and planted. Would some targeted research uncover the answer?
I had the pleasure of being introduced to Abner Aldarondo, a humanities fellow at Dumbarton Oaks and a recent grad of Amherst College. He had been digging deep in the files within the research library.
What is your name and what's your role here?
Abner Aldarondo: [21:43]
Yeah, my name is Abner Aldarondo, and I'm a humanities fellow at Dumbarton Oaks.
Doug Still: [21:47]
And where are we right now?
Abner Aldarondo: [21:49]
Right now, we are on the third floor of the main house, right by publications.
Doug Still: [21:55]
And how many of you are there up here?
Abner Aldarondo: [00:21:58]
Yeah, for humanities fellows at least, there's five of us total. And then there's an intern who's doing like an exchange program, and then there's the publication folks in the cubicles right there.
Doug Still: [22:16]
So, you're a humanities fellow?
Abner Aldarondo: [22:17]
Doug Still: [22:18]
Could you describe what that is?
Abner Aldarondo: [22:20]
Yeah, humanities fellow at Dumbarton Oaks typically have graduated within the past two years from undergrad, and I graduated from Amherst College, where I studied Spanish and Latinx and American studies.
Doug Still: [22:36]
And are you all doing the same type of project or all different types of projects?
Abner Aldarondo: [22:40]
All of us are doing pretty different kinds of projects, yeah.
Doug Still: [22:44]
And what's your project?
Abner Aldarondo: [00:22:44]
Yeah, I'm working on two. So, one are tree biographies, essentially.
Doug Still: [22:52]
Abner Aldarondo: [22:53]
Doug Still: [22:54]
I love it.
Abner Aldarondo: [22:55]
Much like what you're doing, right? [laughs]
Doug Still: [00:22:56]
Yeah, that's right. [laughs]
Abner Aldarondo: [22:57]
Yeah so, basically just taking stock of this oldest tree on the property and then giving some horticultural information, some of the specific tree history behind them. And yeah, stuff like that.
Doug Still: [23:13]
Did you ever think you were going to be a tree biographer?
Abner Aldarondo: [23:16]
[laughs] No, I did not. No.
Doug Still: [23:19]
[laughs] I didn't either. [laughter]
Abner Aldarondo: [23:21]
No, it's for sure.
Doug Still: [23:23]
We got right into it. When did the first Katsura seeds come to the US?
Abner Aldarondo: [23:28]
It was introduced in the US 1864,1865. Though this isn't a true introduction because Thomas Hogg, Jr.-- That says Hoggs, but supposed to say Hogg. Thomas Hogg, he wrote this letter and this like monthly gardeners-- what do you call it like a magazine, like some sort of like thing-- [crosstalk]
Doug Still: [23:52]
Sure. A journal?
Abner Aldarondo: [23:53]
Yeah, journal. It was a journal, exactly.
Doug Still: [23:54]
And who was he?
Abner Aldarondo: [23:58]
He was part of this family, the Hogg Family, and they had their own nursery. His dad established the New York Horticultural Society in 18-- I believe it was 1822.
Doug Still: [24:10]
The Hogg family, originally from Scotland, were well connected and owned a florist and nursery business in Manhattan, first at 23rd Street and Broadway and later at 79th Street at the East River. They played a prominent role in the horticultural life of New York City and in fact, the entire Northeast. Abner learned about Hogg and other early influencers in a fascinating research article written in 2017 by Peter Del Tredici in the Botanical Review, the journal of the New York Botanical Garden. Its title is The Introduction of Japanese Plants into North America.
Abner Aldarondo: [24:48]
Abraham Lincoln appoints Thomas Hogg, Jr. to the Japanese Consulate in Kanagawa, and he was there until 1869, but he does return a few years later.
Doug Still: [24:57]
Interesting. Why do you think he was appointed to the Japanese consulate?
Abner Aldarondo: [25:01]
I honestly don't have much an idea as to why he was appointed.
Doug Still: [25:06]
And that's an interesting year right in the middle of the Civil War.
Abner Aldarondo: [25:10]
Doug Still: [25:11]
Thomas Hogg must have been like, "Fine, I'm out of here because way too much going on here."
Abner Aldarondo: [25:17]
Yeah, "I don't want to deal with this right now."
Doug Still: [25:20]
The appointment of Thomas Hogg, Jr., as US Marshal to the Japanese consulate was a big deal because despite the Civil War here in America, our government was trying to open diplomatic relations with Japan. Commodore Perry had already made inroads with the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854, and horticulturalists and agriculturalists were always part of these missions. Del Tredici also writes of another man, Dr. George Rogers Hall, who was in East Asia and was sending seeds and plants back to the US as early as 1862, specifically to a nursery in Flushing, New York, owned by Samuel Parsons. No mention of Katsura in the records though. But back to Thomas Hogg, Jr., in the public letter he wrote.
Abner Aldarondo: [26:06]
This year, there's a little funny story behind that bit right there, 1864 and 1865, because I was just telling you, he wrote to his journal, and basically this other person said that they introduced Katsura tree to North America.
Doug Still: [26:25]
That person was Charles Sprague Sargent, the first director of the Arnold Arboretum.
Abner Aldarondo: [26:32]
That they were the one who introduced it. He was like, "No, actually, I was the one who introduced Katsura." And this is why it's 1864 or 1865 because he doesn't even know when he sent these seeds to his brother.
Doug Still: [26:44]
I see. So, there's documentation that in 1864,1865, he claims, "I brought Katsura tree seeds to the US."
Abner Aldarondo: [26:55]
He mailed them to his brother.
Doug Still: [26:57]
Okay, so they were in the form of seeds.
Abner Aldarondo: [26:59]
In the form of seeds. He was like, Yeah, if you go to my brother's garden, you'll see that there are Katsuras there."
Doug Still: [27:07]
Thomas's brother, James Hogg, was also a horticulturist, and he had a private garden at 84th Street at the East River. It obviously no longer exists. Here's how Del Tredici describes Hogg's point of view, and I quote, "The only articles that Hogg himself published about his Japanese plant collecting activities appeared in 1879, four years after he returned home. Hogg was motivated to write these articles to correct an erroneous statement by Professor C. S. Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum that credited William S. Clark of the Massachusetts Agricultural College for introducing Cercidiphyllum japonicum, Sciadopitys verticillata, and Schizophragma hydrangeoides--", oof, "into North America. Hogg emphatically refuted Sargent's statement by noting that he had sent all three of these species to his brother in the 1860s, well before Clark arrived in Japan.
Well, if anyone truly cares about who brought the first Katsura seeds to the US. Looks like we have a controversy. Could James Hogg's garden be where the first Katsura was germinated and planted? Maybe. And it's unclear that any of the plants Hogg sent back were ever sold, but it's possible that some of the seeds also made it over to Parsons Nursery in Flushing.
Abner Aldarondo: [28:30]
Mm-hmm. Samuel Parsons Nursery. Yeah. Then, it starts to make an appearance in 1874 at Parsons. There's mention of the Katsura tree, though if I recall, it's not called Katsura. It's called the Japanese Judas Tree.
Doug Still: [00:28:47]
Abner also found a reference of Cercidiphyllum japonicum making an appearance at the Vienna World's Fair in 1873.
So, it was at the World's Fair in Vienna in 1873. It was in Parson's Nursery by 1873.
Abner Aldarondo: [00:29:05]
Yeah, by '74.
Doug Still: [00:29:07]
Was that an offering for sale?
Abner Aldarondo: [00:29:09]
Yes, offering for sale.
Doug Still: [00:29:10]
So, they received it prior?
Abner Aldarondo: [00:29:12]
They definitely received it prior, yeah.
Doug Still: [29:14]
Growing it for a few years.
Abner Aldarondo: [00:29:16]
Doug Still: [00:29:18]
Well, we were hoping to find some evidence that showed that the owner of Dunbarton Oaks in the 1860s, Edward Linthicum, purchased and planted a Katsura tree before his death in 1869. Actually, the estate was known as just the Oaks at that time. With his gardener, J. H. Small, Linthicum purchased plants from Joshua Pierce, who owned Linnaean Hill in Washington, DC.
I wonder if there are any letters from Hogg to Joshua Pierce just to show that they worked with each other.
Abner Aldarondo: [29:53]
Doug Still: [29:55]
It wouldn't surprise me if they knew each other. I bet it was a small world.
Abner Aldarondo: [00:29:59]
Oh, for sure.
Doug Still: [30:02]
[laughs] I had a follow-up conversation with Abner after he did some further sleuthing, and unfortunately, we weren't able to find any documentation for Linthicum acquisitions or Linnaean Hill sales. Abner searched high and low. But overall, he did find that the Katsura tree was beginning to circulate around the East Coast in the 1860s and early 70s in multiple ways, and horticultural networks were tied together. But our guesses, it seems, will need to remain conjecture.
So, this is a fun mystery. It could have been planted within, say, a 30-year span.
Abner Aldarondo: [30:46]
Doug Still: [30:48]
I think for most people, that would be good enough. But we're tree biographers, and we've got to know.
Abner Aldarondo: [00:30:55]
Yeah, we've got to know exactly when this tree was planted. [laughs]
Doug Still: [00:30:58]
That's right. After I met with Abner, I was treated to a tour of the famous Dumbarton Oaks Garden. Whoa. Even in March, it is stunning. It is after all, the gravitational force that makes this a world-class site and brings tens of thousands of visitors each year. Without understanding it, we don't completely understand the symbiotic importance of the octopus Katsura. After the break, I chat more with Ron Henderson to get a sense of Beatrix Farrand's vision.
Ron Henderson: [31:40]
Beatrix Farrand was a woman who grew up on the East Coast in a fairly literary and, one could say, slightly wealthy family and situation.
Doug Still: [00:31:53]
She was upper crust, right.
Ron Henderson: [00:31:55]
Yes. She's the niece of Edith Wharton, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote about the Gilded Age. So, she certainly was exposed to that group of people and then she was also involved with several universities. Her husband, Max, was a professor and the first director of the Huntington Library. So, she grew up in quite literary and educated friends and family.
Doug Still: [00:32:32]
How would you describe her aesthetic and what were her influences?
Ron Henderson: [00:32:36]
I think she came into landscape architecture or what she may be preferred to call landscape gardening through plants. I would say her early mentor was Robert Sprague Sargent from the Arnold Arboretum in Boston and affiliated, of course, with Harvard. Her work was largely launched through estate work because, in part, women were not leading landscape architecture offices at that time in America's history or anywhere in the world.
As her skills and reputation began to grew really through a remarkable circle of clients and friends and family, she was able to extend her work beyond estates to college campuses and other institutions, from the National Cathedral to the White House.
Her work kind of grows out of, I think, a really kind of remarkable understanding of plants and the orchestration of space across topographical changes. At Dumbarton Oaks, it's particularly strong. The house of Dumbarton Oaks sits up on a ridge. So, her work is largely to the north and to the east of the main house. So, kind of away from the south lawn and away from the Katsura. And her work negotiated a fairly steeply sloping site with a series of terraced gardens that step down the hill. As the slope gets a little more steep, the walls become further apart. And one could say even the garden transitions from something that's highly cultivated, such as a rose garden, to the wildness of Cherry Hill at the back and then all the way down into Rock Creek, which was more of, one would say, a more naturalized garden that was originally part of her work as well.
Doug Still: [00:35:01]
Yeah, it just sort of blends into and becomes woodland almost around the edges.
Ron Henderson: [00:35:07]
It is, and it does. So, it's a kind of classic garden strategy of building a series of garden rooms. Hers are incredibly deftly organized around the topography. The north lawn, the space is kind of telescope in narrowness until you get at the very end of the north vista overlooking that wilder valley. So, I think there's a lot of spatial innovation and allegorical and commemorative aspects of the garden in tablets and sculpture and fountains, but largely in a way that we might expect gardens to transition from being more formal, nearer to the house, to wilder, further away from the house, as well as I said, this really, really accomplished sense of terracing.
Doug Still: [00:36:12]
I love the sense of scale walking through those rooms and how your eye is taken in different directions depending on where you're standing and where you're moving. But she definitely shapes your experience that way and what you see and what the views.
Ron Henderson: [00:36:32]
She does, and I think there's some unexpected vistas that come from that kind of stacking or layering of these spaces.
Doug Still: [00:36:44]
What I felt walking through the garden for the first time and that was the first time I'd ever been there, was that there was a cohesive sense of whole and it didn't seem like there were specimens that were highlighted. Maybe a few, maybe the European beech or some of the others. But for the most part, it was a broader vision than a collection of plants per se.
Ron Henderson: [00:37:10]
Yeah, I totally agree. Although she was a consummate designer of landscapes with plants, there are very few instances where a specimen is the focus of a garden room. Like you said, the European beech is one of those. Otherwise, she was quite effective in working with plant mass, often of the same genus, maybe sometimes even the same species. Things like Cherry Hill, which was in its splendor just as were finishing the work on the Katsura tree, was a plant-based room in the garden, but it was of multiple specimens, not a single specimen. And then, things like the mass planting in the Forsythia Dell or other locations in the garden where she's using plant mass or kind of plant typology. So, there's the rose garden and there is the perennial garden and there is the potager. There are a series of rooms that are plant-based but rarely are those based on a single specimen.
Doug Still: [00:38:35]
But when just getting started in 1922, Beatrix Farrand found an unusual single specimen on the south lawn. And in likely coordination with Mrs. Bliss, she let the mature Katsura remain just as it was. Almost.
She did plant the Katsura across the lawn so that it wouldn't be alone and had a matching pair across the lawn.
Ron Henderson: [00:39:00]
That is true. It's kind of interesting how potent that is now to be able to have that dialogue of two trees of the same species kind of talking to each other across the space.
Doug Still: [00:39:18]
And their branches really do sort of extend towards each other, don't they?
Ron Henderson: [00:39:23]
They do. I think Mildred Bliss also deserves a lot of recognition in this entire enterprise. She wrote, and I quote, "Gardens have their place in the humanist order of life. Trees are noble elements to be protected by successive generations, and are not to be neglected or lightly destroyed."
Doug Still: [00:39:53]
I think it's wonderful that the people now at Dumbarton Oaks were willing to bring this Japanese technique to the tree. It's not an aesthetic you see in the garden now or very many places in the United States at all. But it just seems right for this old Katsura tree.
Ron Henderson: [00:40:17]
It does seem right. The specific technique and proportioning of the supports and the manner in which the crosspieces that support the branches are scaled, the way that the branches are wrapped to protect themselves, to protect them from the branches, and the way, of course, that the rope is lashed in order to secure the branch and the support together, that expert technique is not common at all. So, it's been a real joyful enterprise to spend some time working to conserve the Dumbarton Oaks Katsura tree.
Doug Still: [00:41:16]
On the second day of the project, Kurato Fujimoto gave a short presentation to fellow staff and other invited guests in front of the Tako no Katsura noki with translation help from Hans.
Hans Friedl: [41:29]
Want to thank everybody for being here. Thank Dumbarton Oaks for letting us be here. Thank you staff that we've been working with. It's been so much fun. Okay, yeah.
Kurato Fujimoto [41:45]
Hans Friedl: [00:42:21]
My name is Kurato Fujimoto. I'm a master gardener (and I am not Kurato Fujimoto).
Quick second. My name is Hans Friedl. I am from Chicago. I am a [unintelligible 00:42:32] student at the Illinois Institute of Technology. I also was just lucky enough to receive the Hope Goddard Iselin fellowship in public horticulture to help support this work and some of the ongoing research that Ron is talking about. But I'm going to go back to being Kurato now.
So, 10 years ago, I was invited to help preserve and support a large maple tree at Penn State University. What I learned there is that there are many trees in America that need support. Bye.
Doug Still: [00:43:02]
While there, I cornered Thomas Cummins, the Director of Dumbarton Oaks, which altogether is a Harvard University research institute, library, and museum, as well as a garden. He was kind enough to let me ask him what he thought about this tree.
How important is this tree to Dumbarton Oaks, the Katsura tree?
Thomas Cummins: [00:43:24]
Well, again, I'm not the expert on this, but this is one of our oldest trees, if not a tree that precedes by far Dumbarton Oaks as a Harvard entity and even before the Blisses created Dumbarton Oaks. It is one of those landmark pieces that belongs to Dumbarton Oaks. That's how important it is. [laughs]
Doug Still: [00:43:54]
When do you think it was planted?
Thomas Cummins: [00:43:57]
We're doing the dating now, and it's not clear. Thaïsa Way, who is working with one of our interns to get-- [crosstalk]
Doug Still: [00:44:10]
I've been speaking to Abner about it too. I just wondered if you had an opinion to it.
Thomas Cummins: [00:44:14]
No, I don't. I go with what they say. They tell me. I just work here.
Doug Still: [00:44:19]
Thomas Cummins: [00:44:21]
I love these trees though. I mean, they're just spectacular.
Doug Still: [00:44:24]
Yeah, it's one of my favorite trees. That beautiful heart-shaped leaf.
Thomas Cummins: [00:44:29]
And it is just-- I don't know, the way that-- I've always watched it because I walk with my dog here-
Doug Still: [00:44:37]
Thomas Cummins: [00:44:37]
-around. We always walk around, and I always just marvel at the tensile strength of something like this. It just holds itself.
Doug Still: [00:44:47]
Right. It seems to be propping itself up with these branches right on the ground.
Thomas Cummins: [00:44:51]
Doug Still: [00:44:52]
Do you call it the octopus tree?
Thomas Cummins: [00:44:55]
Doug Still: [00:44:58]
We're trying to start a trend.
Thomas Cummins: [00:44:59]
I will if you want.
Doug Still: [00:45:06]
All right. That sounds promising. The octopus Katsura is clearly in excellent hands at Dumbarton Oaks. Everyone I met, from top to bottom, is super talented and also extremely friendly and welcoming, I have to say. Thanks for your hospitality. And you should see the tree now, decked out in its Hoozue. It is somehow even more stunning than before if that's possible. And we're going to see it thrive. I'll be posting pictures.
I'd like to give my thanks to Ron Henderson, Kurato Fujimoto, Hans Friedl, Jonathan Kavalier, and Abner Aldarondo for appearing on the show and for teaching me about Katsura. And, listeners, thank you for tagging along with me on this garden journey. I really appreciate each and every one of you.
I hope you'll join me again in a couple of weeks. I'll give you a teaser. The Katsura at Dumbarton Oaks wasn't the only story I got out of my trip to Washington, DC. So, stay tuned. I'm Doug Still, and you've been listening to This Old Tree.
[This Old Tree theme]
[Transcript provided by SpeechDocs Podcast Transcription]