Home & Design

Green Acre #98: Magnificent Magnolias, Clever Crabapples

TIME WAS, a flotilla of ballerinas danced down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol—magnolias they were,  flamboyant and graceful and laden with the palest pink petals for a few days or weeks, depending on the weather.  

Crapapple trees now flourish where magnolias once ruled, on an avenue leading to the US Capitol. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

There are still plenty of gorgeous magnolias around the Capitol Hill neighborhood, and each is a splendid sight, with canopies of pink spreading over the brick sidewalks. But 25 years ago there was block after block of these beauties, maybe eight on each side of every median strip, stretching out 14 blocks or so from the Capitol.

And then, one day, when the trees were at their absolute peak, they went down.

Boom, boom, boom, they fell, and the screams of the neighbors were tragic to hear. People spilled into the streets grabbing at the men hacking as the neighborhood treasures dropped to the ground, petals crushed beneath work boots. It was a massacre.

I was working across the street from one long block of trees, gazing out the window and cringing, even though I had been warned that this was to happen. Running the local business association, I was privy to such news—and attempted to keep people informed, though they rarely listened, never mind read my dispatches, which is neither here nor there.

So most of the neighborhood was unaware that the trees were dying. With no watering system, the Metro, which runs under the median strip for many blocks, had so baked the earth that the trees were being frizzled from the roots (that’s a technical term).  

Skittering downstairs, I gathered armloads of branches, sticking them in whatever containers came to hand—pencil cups, trash cans, coffee pot. . . .  The office, and later my house, were filled with them, an extraordinary mortuary of flowers. Heavenly melancholy it was.

New trees were planned, I knew, a variety of crabapple that was extremely drought resistant, and while a flowering sort, it did not set fruit, which would have been a horror of another sort.

The business community was charged with the watering: No sprinklers were being installed. That was the deal. The city would plant if we tended. Oh yes, of course, we swore up and down, looking innocent as pie but without any idea how this would be accomplished. There was no Business Improvement District in those days, able to pick up the tab, just the contributions of shopkeepers. Watering cans was a thought.  

Somehow, the crabapples survived, and are now fully grown. Flowering each April, and again (less vociferously) in the fall, they frame the Capitol dome at the end of the long corridor and are a sight to rival the Tidal Basin cherry blossoms.

Consider visiting this weekend—the buds are about to pop.* Go early in the morning when the dew is still sparkling on the grassy strip between the rows. Get in there, between the trees, and say hello to the dandelions that dot the path. Walk slowly—the city noise is muffled and the traffic disappears from view, your face is in a billow of white flowers, and your mind wanders years from here.   

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

*If you need an additional incentive to visit, browse the crafts at Eastern Market and line up for dinner at around 3 pm at Roses Luxury (they take no reservations and the lines are an event of their own).

LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” explores her leafy corner of Washington DC every Thursday.


2 thoughts on “Green Acre #98: Magnificent Magnolias, Clever Crabapples

  1. Selective memory on my part, Michelle. They were in full bloom when Baby was born — 34 years ago this tuesday! — and then I recall the day they came down… which was about a decade later. Never thought I’d live on this strange island long enough to see the crab apples perform. But they are spectacular. Worth the wait.

  2. Stephanie, I recall those years with the Japanese magnolias down the middle of Pennsylvania, too. What I also remember is that at least 50% of the years, we would get a late frost in early April, which would kill off the buds, so we had no flowers at all. It was a real tragedy when this happened – to wait all year to see the beautiful row of trees in full flower, as you describe, then nothing but big, brown buds that never open. It has taken a few years but they new crab apple trees are a dependable alternative to the magnolias.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.