Iconic Fairmount Park sugar maple felled

A Philadelphia Parks and Recreation employee pulled the trigger on a chainsaw at 9:20 a.m. on Wednesday and sliced ​​the first of many limbs during the teardown of West Fairmount Park’s iconic 70-foot-tall sugar maple tree that has overlooked the city for decades.

The rest of the 40-inch-diameter tree, which stood alone atop a grassy slope on the Belmont Plateau, fell around noon, ending its run as one of the most photographed trees in the town, serving as the backdrop for weddings, dates, picnics, and sleigh trips. The tree had been dying for over a year and authorities determined it must be extirpated for public safety reasons.

“Belmont’s sugar maple has been a part of the backdrop of our lives as Philadelphians,” said Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of parks and recreation, at the site just before the teams began their work. . “The outpouring of love for this tree is a testament to the power that access to green spaces has on our health, our sense of well-being and our happiness.”

Lori Hayes, director of urban forestry for Parks and Rec, estimated the tree’s age at 80 to 100 years. She plans to count her rings to determine her exact lifespan, although the condition of the tree makes it more difficult to count its rings. She said they might not know the real age.

She attributed its decline to climate change, soil compaction due to large numbers of visitors, and being rocked by generations of storms.

Hayes said large, heavy limbs had already come loose from the tree in the past few weeks and months.

“It’s not sure,” Hayes said. “We would hate to have someone here recreating and being hurt by part of the tree falling.” This posed a danger to the safety of our users.

READ MORE: Iconic Fairmount Park tree featured in countless Philly skyline photos is dying – and being cut

Maita Soukup, a spokesperson for the department, said she had received dozens of requests from residents to acquire pieces of the tree in remembrance of special events they associate with it. The department, she said, plans to grind pieces usable into Christmas decorations, coasters or thin pieces known as cookies or disks used to make plates and crafts, and possibly selling them to raise money for the town’s tree program.

Hayes said three black gums will be planted around the site, but not directly above it. Black gums (Nyssa Sylvatica) are less susceptible to the state’s milder winters that have contributed to the decline of local sugar maples. She said black gums, also known as tupelo, look especially beautiful in the fall when the leaves turn scarlet. Hayes said the three trees would help protect each other. Native to the eastern United States, black gums typically grow 60 to 80 feet tall, live long lives, and have been shown to be resistant to pests and disease.

Pennsylvania forestry action plan declares that sugar maples are a vulnerable tree species threatened by losses from climate change. However, sugar maples are also stressed by diseases and pests.

As crews chopped down the tree, Belmont Mansion Drive was closed to vehicles, so local sculptor Roger Wing was on foot to see if he could get a piece of it. Wing, who has recounted warm memories associated with the tree over the years, said he had no idea what he would be carving with it and would have to wait to return to his workshop.

Photographer Brad Maule was also on the scene to take pictures for a local news agency. Maule created the old Philadelphia skyline website. He moved to Philadelphia in 2000 and said he has photographed the tree hundreds of times since.

“Like so many other people, I can say that this tree was a central part of my experience,” said Maule. “I shot the four seasons, day and night, in the rain, the sun and the snow. It has been a kind of stand-alone beacon. It offers the best view of any tree in the park.

Rachel J. Bradford