“Sycamores are one of the prettiest trees in Sacramento,” he said.
“Most everybody feels the same way,” I told him. “The trees are all over Midtown, East Sac, Land Park and Curtis Park.”
“I think they come from London.”
“Some do. Some are native to California,” I said. “Sycamores grew along the banks of our rivers. They were here when Sutter came.”
“So they left the sycamores along the river and planted the trees from London in town?” he asked.
“Not really,” I said.
“Well what happened?”
“There were a lot of trees along the shores of the river where the people who came after Sutter settled. In 1847 a guy wrote in his diary that Sacramento was ‘a town in the woods, with the native trees still waving over its roofs.’
“But people cut trees for wood and built fires against the trunks of others. Finally in 1853, the last tree that was native to the plain came down. It was on oak.”
“Then they started planting more natives?” he asked.
“No,” I said. Actually they planted Calilfornia Sycamores in 1850, way out of town at Sutter’s Fort Burying Ground where Sutter Middle School is now on I and Alhambra.
“Sutter gave up ownership of the land in 1849 and 1850. Dr. R. H. McDonald bought the land. He named the cemetary New Helvitia Cemetery. New Helvitia means New Switzerland. Sutter came from Switzerland.”
“So Dr. McDonald planted the trees?”
“Nobody seems to know. But we know that the trees on the school’s lawn at the corner of Alhambra and I are the oldest in town. McDonald could have had them officially planted, or someone who had a loved one buried there could have planted them.
“There was a lot going on. A nursery owner named James Warren was selling non-native trees to replace the natives that had been cut or burned down in town. Over at the graveyard beyond Sutter’s Fort, the guy who bought the land from McDonald in 1857, J.W. Reeves, made a beautiful cemetery with trees and shrubs and flowers. The cemetery went all the way to H Street.
“Cemeteries were a big thing in those days. According to Gary Wills, they were considered parks where the living could go and commune with the dead, themselves and nature. Cemeteries were on the edge of town not just for health reasons, but as a symbolic meaning that death is the end of one world and the beginning of another. At the edge of town in the graveyard, the living were in a spot between both worlds looking out to the wilderness, wondering where their loved ones were and what their own death would bring.
“In 1875 the City gained ownership of the cemetery. From then on it was maintained less and less. After 1912 hardly anyone was buried.
“In 1908, the people who had moved out that way wanted to increase the value of their property. They eventually got the cemetery planted in grass so it would look better, and not so much like a cemetery.”
“And of course the sycamores kept growing?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said. “I find it interesting that somethng intended to be sacred could become an eyesore and a nuisance in just thirty years.
“While the property owners wanted walls, shrubbery and trees removed from the graveyard, people in Midtown between B and H and 21st and 23rd started planting London Sycamores. That was around 1910.
“The London Sycamores look better than the California ones. They grow taller and fuller. Nevertheless, next time you’re backed up on Alhambra waiting for the light on H or J to change, look to the trunks of the big California Sycamores on the corner of the lawn at I Street. They are beautiful. If traffic’s slow enough, you can sit through a couple of lights and really get an appreciation for the trunks subltleties.”
“So in spite of development, sycamores still stand above everything like they were planted to do?”
“A lot of them have been cut for skyscrapers,” I replied. “Even where they’ve been allowed to remain, it’s hard to notice them because the buildings are real tall.
“There is an intriguing one on the southeast side of the Wells Fargo Building. It leans way out into the street. It breaks up the orderly row of trees and the rigidity of the two tall buildings. I noticed it when I was walking from the parking lot. Even though I was going to be late for my meeting, I decided to sit on one of the benches and look at the tree.
“It got me thinking about the present – what a great city we have. It got me thinking about the future – how important it is to keep our old sycamores so we can enjoy them, and how important it is to plant new ones so they will be tall when the old ones come down.”
Copyright © 2023 by David Vaszko