White mulberry witness trees at Washington Monument: why withhold when they’re withering?

The two gnarly white mulberry trees (Morus alba) in the photos below don’t look like much, and they certainly aren’t much aesthetically—at least if one’s aesthetic standard for a tree is something tall and strong and sturdy and proud.  Not these guys.

The tree in the foreground is a wee bit tilted; it needs a crutch, and that crutch isn’t subtle.  It’s nearly half the length of the tree, and judging from the root system, the crutch is essential to keep the white mulberry from completely tipping over with a strong wind.  Incidentally, it’s in the better condition of these two trees.  The neighboring white mulberry is considerably older and taller, even if it doesn’t look that way.  And it doesn’t appear shorter simply because it’s at a lower point on a slope.

White mulberry tree about to fall over

It’s basically lying nearly prostrate, clinging to life through the 60% of the root system that remains tethered to the ground.   An arborist would probably quantify this level of tree trauma: if an upright tree is perpendicular to the ground, is the correct label for this tree a 160º or 20º angle? 

It doesn’t seem to matter, at least to the powers that be, which determined to keep it alive.  Notice how prominent that crutch is.

So what’s the deal?  What makes these two white mulberry trees so special?  Context is critical.  Here’s another angle, from slightly higher on the same slope, whose very incline no doubt has compromised these two trees’ long term stability.

This photo reveals that there aren’t really any other trees in the area, but there’s quite a bit of low-rise urban development in the background.  And what about all those flags in the foreground?  If the photo above isn’t a dead giveaway, this next should will be.

White mulberry trees on the National Mall

Yes, that classical building in the background is an important American landmark: the Lincoln Memorial.  The Reflecting Pool spans the area in front of it, and then the World War II Memorial in front of that continuing to the righthand margin.  These trees are the exception to the rule on the mostly treeless National Mall in Washington DC. 

As for those American flags…

White mulberry trees--the only ones outside Washington Monument
White mulberry trees outside Washington Monument

They are the closest trees to the Washington Monument.  For all intents and purposes, they’re the only trees.  And from many angles, they provide an interesting backdrop.

White mulberry trees outside Washington Monument

The taller tree—the one that is now nearly horizontal—might have actually appeared strong and sturdy and proud at a certain point in the not-too-distant past.  Specifically, it was a perfectly respectable white mulberry tree until May 2019, when an unusually sodden couple of days (in what is typically DC’s wettest month) destabilized the soil, while strong winds snapped the buttress root.  It fell largely into the position which these recent photos capture, leaving the National Park Service (NPS)—the caretaker of National Mall property—figuring out what to do with it.  In the immediate aftermath, NPS workers hosed the roots to keep them damp; many of the feeder roots remained thoroughly enmeshed with the soil.  White mulberry trees have a tendency to survive even at these jaunty angles.

But why are these two trees even here?  Anyone who has been to the National Mall knows that, outside of select places in the perimeter, the central green expanse is generally devoid of trees.  The vast lawn allows for uninterrupted views from between the Lincoln Memorial (to the west), the Washington Monument (in the middle), and the US Capitol (to the east).  A panoramic view from the curved pathway that encircles the Washington Monument shows no other trees in the area.

And an aerial photograph confirms this.

The two trees stand a bit to the southwest of the monument, at seven o’clock within the prime circular pathway.  Really no other trees are present nearby, aside from a few to the east (at three o’clock) flanking the Washington Monument’s visitor/ticketing center.

So, for whatever reason, these white mulberry trees have survived.  Considering what outliers they are, the history on them is surprisingly spotty.  The taller one (now almost horizontal) might date from the 1890s, shortly after the 1885 dedication of the Washington Monument.  Or it might predate the monument’s completion, as another source surmises, but was a mere sapling and escaped anyone’s notice.  It then aged and grew, along with its smaller neighbor a springing up a few decades later.  One NPS arborist speculates that four mulberry trees stood at this site, all part of a conjoined root system and the only naturally occurring trees; all other trees on the National Mall were a deliberate landscape architecture effort.  To the best of my understanding, the other two white mulberry trees in this cluster suffered a natural demise quite some time ago. (The most recent Google Street View on the nearby path, from January 2016, indeed shows a cluster trees, but, not being an arborist, I cannot really tell where one ends and another begins.  It might be four, or it may be the same two but with many more healthy limbs.)

White mulberry tree outside Washington Monument

These two surviving white mulberry specimens are apparently perfect examples of volunteer trees, a euphemistic term growing in salience, which refers to any tree that has grown on its own without any intentional planning—exactly what characterizes these two white mulberry trees.  Other terms: self-sown trees, wildlings, or weeds (weed trees).  Whether borne to this by the undigested droppings of a bird or an herbivorous mammal that burrowed in the hillside, the trees grew and matured and created a striking visual contrast to the treeless nature of the remainder of Washington Monument’s slope.  Why neither the NPS nor any other groundskeeping entity chopped these volunteer trees down is anyone’s guess.  Perhaps they looked good when they appeared structurally sound.  Regardless of their compromised appearance, about a week after the big May 2019, the NPS hoisted the taller white mulberry about 10º—enough to ensure feeder root generation.

The tremendous efforts to preserve the trees are likely to give the average visitor pause.  White mulberry is not indigenous; it originated from Asia where it feeds silkworms.  The export of the silk industry most likely brought white mulberry trees to North America.  The seeds take root easily and grow quickly, making them common volunteer trees.  Sure, these two at the Washington Monument might have been healthy until recently, but why keep them when Mother Nature is sending such strong signals that their time has come?  The answer that NPS representatives is that they are witness trees, historically significant because they are among the only naturally occurring flora that witnessed all the significant events from the 20th century: the Million Man March, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech”, any presidential inauguration with crowds that stretched from between the US Capitol and the Washington Monument.

Witness.  Volunteer.  Preservationist and arborist terms (respectively) to help justify investing money into these interesting but unlovely trees.  The presence of those braces on each tree will no doubt prolong their lives, but to what end?  They “witnessed” important events of the past but remain frustratingly mute on what they saw.  The neighboring roads and sidewalks also witnessed many important events from the past, but nobody poses such an argument for retaining them.  The District or NPS maintains roads and sidewalks because of the functional purpose they serve.

In the end, these braces on the trees can’t help but remind me of an article I wrote many, many years ago, on South Louisiana’s signature Oak Alley Plantation: one of the most famous antebellum houses surviving and a major tourist attraction, remembered less for the architecture of the house itself than for the landscape: a colonnade of majestic live oak trees perfectly spaced on either side of the drive leading to the house—14 on each side.  These 170-year-old trees are quite mature and create a year-long verdant tunnel that has lured artists and filmmakers over the decades.  It’s a deliberate aesthetic gesture that captivates many visitors.  But they are creaking with age and the strain of enduring the region’s high number of hurricanes.  In their defense, live oak trees are indigenous to the Gulf Coast and evolutionarily adopted to the hurricane-force winds.  They rarely get toppled.  But age nonetheless takes its toll.  Almost all the trees need similar braces, or crutches, or what I called “scaffolding” to survive, but without that oak allée, this plantation loses much of its visual allure.  The caretakers of Oak Alley Plantation thus have an incentive for keeping the trees healthy and intact.

I rarely take such a strong stand, but I feel the witness tree argument is not compelling enough to justify the expense.  Earlier I asserted that “context is critical”, but is the context really that powerful of an argument?  At some point, these trees will have to go, and they will likely fade from memory as quickly as the others in the putative “cluster” that already bit the dust.  Nobody can agree when they first sprouted, an indication of how indifferent both the caretakers and the general public were toward them.  Besides, even without the trauma they endured through thunderstorms, they’re already surviving on borrowed time: white mulberries rarely exceed a century and often have the same life span as the average human.  They are unusually short-lived trees.

Someday the live oaks that line the drive to Louisiana’s most famous plantation will die, either from age or a lightning strike. They took a real beating in 2021 from Hurricane Ida  I’d wager that caretakers of Oak Alley are prepared for the last rites of at least one tree (and then another) and may even have nursery trees ready for replacement.  No such plan exists for the volunteer, witness trees at Washington Monument.  These white mulberry specimens are idiosyncratic and trigger perplexity among the few who notice them, but the verbiage contrived to assert their importance only translates to tens of thousands of dollars, just to postpone the inevitable.  The white oak tree outside Mansfield, Ohio, made famous through the final scenes of The Shawshank Redemption, achieved far more emotional resonance through fans of the movie.  But strong winds took it down in 2017.  And New Hampshire’s defining rock formation, the Old Man of the Mountain, collapsed overnight back in 2003.  Witnesses and volunteers may deserve protection, but they won’t live forever.

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12 thoughts on “White mulberry witness trees at Washington Monument: why withhold when they’re withering?

  1. Chris B

    We have a different term for white mulberry trees out here in Flyover Country:

    Non-native and invasive.

    🙂 (that is probably too straightforward a description for the heart of DC)

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      That sounds about right. Here by the National Mall, they are a curiosity and an anomaly, since there are hardly any other trees around. They interrupt the redundancy of a vast turf grass field.

      But beyond that, why keep them? There’s very little historic interest in them, since no one can agree on their age, or how many there were, or why they grew to maturity apparently without anyone noticing enough to take them down. The one argument I could swallow, at least an argument that would have persisted for 75 years, is there was no point in ending the life of a healthy tree that caused no other problems. But they are now both compromised and no longer really healthy. This is an unwise use of money.

      Reply
  2. Melissa Crane

    It looks like they need to go. They may be naturally occurring but they are being kept alive now, unnaturally.
    They should plant an area with native species and rebuild the past landscape if they want that connection to the ecosystem of the past at these sites. Two sad trees are not doing much!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      My thoughts exactly. A B&W photo of them might make a good cover for a college literary magazine, but that’s about the only real function they serve. And two gangly trees are pretty easy to come by.

      As for what you’re suggesting, they should definitely do something more like that–and they probably have already (to some degree)–elsewhere on the National Mall, over by the Botanic Garden.

      Reply
  3. Allison Guindon

    My conclusion is that arborists are sentimental softies at heart. My college campus doubled as an arboretum, and had (still has) some gorgeous, giant old trees standing on the quad. One Christmas break, one of those trees was catastrophically damaged in a storm and needed to be taken the rest of the way down for safety. The arborists sent out an obituary email to all students and faculty complete with written eulogy for the tree

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I get it…it’s hard to take down a beautiful old tree, even when storms have already felled about 60% of it. Growing up around beech trees (that were great in a forest, but exposed and easily lopped off once development took the majority of the adjacent trees down), it was sad when a storm would lop off a massive bough, leaving the tree lopsided and that much more exposed for the next storm. Usually the trees had to get felled even if the surviving portion was perfectly healthy. It was sad to see them go. Not quite obituary-level sad (at least not to me), but I understand where they’re coming from.

      Unlike the beech trees, the two near the capital are ugly and invasive. But I recognize beauty is subjective–invasive not so much–and groundskeepers probably still form an attachment to these trees that I just find unrelatable.

      Reply
      1. Allison Guindon

        I was surprised that they are unintentional. I had assumed they either predated the monument and were intentionally preserved as part of the original landscape or were planted with some direct meaningful tie-in – propagations from the historic trees of George Washington’s family home, etc

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          That was my thinking as well, Allison, and since we’ve both been past these trees dozens (hundreds?) of times, I decided to do a little digging (pun intended). It made good sense that they might be historically significant or predate the construction of the Monument–those would be two strong arguments for why they have been left standing (and passionately protected even as they’re ready to fall over), even when no other trees are permitted to grow in the area.

          So that makes it much goofier when I learned: a) the big one only grew to visible size after construction (they might have germinated during construction) and b) they’ve been left to mature all these years for no particular reason (no cultulral significance) and c) there’s an active campaign keeping them alive even when the big one is mostly certainly approaching the end of its life, since white mulberries are among the shortest-lived of trees. And they’re an invasive species to boot! Keeping them alive just makes no sense.

          Reply
      2. Chris B

        One of the worst parts of my job as a redevelopment specialist is being forced to remove mature, healthy, native, contributing trees whose trunks or root systems are substantially within the foundation footprint of a new home we’re building. (Often we’re building in-fill homes on former side-lots or long-vacant land.) But trash trees? Never a second thought.

        (oops, I guess “trash trees” might nowadays be a pejorative term unacceptable in polite company, such as a gathering of university presidents 😉 )

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Even my research acknowledged that “volunteer trees” is another name (read euphemism) for “weed trees”. The distinction, of course, should come with which weed trees exist naturally within that ecosystem and can confer lasting benefit. It goes without saying that such native trees should get preservation priority over, say, a white mulberry.

          I’m sure you note that, even among the healthy, contributing trees adjacent to a redevelopment, many will still die within a few years even if they aren’t within the foundation footprint and thus don’t need to be felled. Growing up on the south side of Indy, an old-growth forest was converted into a subdivision in the late 80s (early 90s) that was specifically marketed for its forested quality. Throughout development, the goal was to salvage as many trees as possible, yet even the “saved” ones often died a few years later. I think particularly of one homeowner who configured his home at an angle to minimize the number of trees taken down, opting instead for a long curved driveway. His goal was to salvage 22 trees, if I recall correctly. Within five years, only 4 survived. It’s a tough trade-off.

          Reply

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