What could be more beautiful than a sunrise? A majestic favorite tree, perhaps, reaching skyward? To some, the branches reaching upward seem like tendrils, delicate and intricate extensions of the plant stretching upward to the universe. A few trees have been mythologized as being earthly treasures.
One of these treasures grows at 19 Wight Street in Medfield. If you haven’t seen the unusual Buttonwood Sycamore tree, then you’re missing a very special sight. This tree may be over 200 years old and may have been planted as a seedling in celebration of President George Washington’s inaugural on April 30, 1789. To embellish the story even more, earlier historians claimed that the tree may possibly have been growing here in Medfield when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
According to Barbara Cronin, there is some folklore about the tree that she would never choose to dispute. She and her late husband, Michael owned the property which included the stately Georgian house, barn, and tree. Barbara Cronin mentioned that her husband never let his work interfere with caring for the tree.
This celebrity tree is an immense yet gentle presence. The proud owners were happy to talk about it and answer questions. When the Cronins first moved into their home on Wight Street they routinely received phone calls from friends after severe storms. Friends would first ask both Mike and Barbara how they were both doing – but immediately thereafter, they would ask about how the tree had weathered the storm. It didn’t take long for the Cronins to realize, to their amusement, that the concern was more for their tree than for them!
The Cronins diligently kept up the maintenance of their prize tree. Before long Mike Cronin became an armchair arborist, reporting that the tree was fertilized and pruned every three years. Barbara was a curator for the Medfield Historical Society. She mentioned that Ellis Allen, Medfield’s long-time tree warden, now an arboriculture specialist in Mashpee, supervised the fertilizing process of the tree. Ellis inserted a jackhammer-like instrument into the ground to a depth of about five feet in order to reach the complex root system below.
Barbara also spoke of the extensive cross-sectioned cabling that had be kept up all the time. (At this time of year, as the tree doesn’t have any leaves, it is easy to see the cabling that appears to be hidden among huge limbs.)
The trunk and main stem of the tree extends upward to the height of about ten stories. It is from various points in the main stem where the branches below are anchored to reduce the stress of damaging winds and the harsh New England winters. The idea is that when the tree blows in the wind, it moves and bends all at once, and at the same time. There is an equal distribution of energy flow, a practice and cultivation that has undoubtedly added to the tree’s longevity and beauty. The cable network is truly remarkable and must be seen to be fully appreciated.
The tree sprouts its first leaves in the early spring. A second batch of leaves arrive in May. After every wind storm small branches inevitably come down, a process the Cronins affectionately called “God’s pruning.”
According to Ellis Allen, the only real problem that the tree has experienced is a fungal disease called Anthracnose which sometimes attacks the foliage and the twigs of sycamores. Water and nutrients are blocked from reaching the leaves. Ellis said that the disease tends to come and go.
Over the years, the Cronins enjoyed having visitors come down to see their great tree as well as the smaller, younger sycamore located 50 feet back of the main attraction. Both trees are distinguished with a dappled bark, which peels off as time goes on, replacing itself naturally in a process called exfoliation.
One fascinating feature about the Buttonwood Sycamores is that as the trees mature, they eventually become naturally hollow. Centuries ago, the settlers of the Ohio Valley used these sturdy, yet luxurious trees to live in. The Buttonwood Sycamore tree at Wight Street is partially hollow and has been known to have a happy pair of loving wood ducks living inside the trunk. Eventually Buttonwoods tend to split apart and fall down…but at 19 Wight Street, there’s a younger sycamore slowly growing into a majestic presence like the celebrity in front.