People plant fruit trees because the blossoms are beautiful. They bloom in the spring about the same time as the early flowers such as daffodils and tulips. Fruit trees frequently make up a portion of formal plantings that bloom in sequence. Think of the cherry blossoms that adorn Washington, D.C.
As a child I learned how to identify plants by their leaves and trees by their bark in nature studies classes. I would spend hours hiking in the woods marveling at the diversity of species in my area. I retained these skills into adulthood and at some point became a gardening enthusiast. Although I lack a garden now, I enjoy looking at other people’s plantings. I like seeing how each apartment building distinguishes itself from the next in the foot-wide strip of soil between it and the pavement. Hence, I stop to “smell the roses”—or Rose of Sharon—whenever I can.
There are few fruit trees in Washington Heights. It is a Jewish custom to say a particular blessing over a blossoming fruit tree in the springtime, in the Hebrew month of Nissan (approximately mid-April to mid-May). Since most New Yorkers can’t identify fruit trees by their leaves and bark, lacking the nature studies classes I enjoyed, some Jews took it upon themselves to publish a map identifying the fruit trees in the certain neighborhoods! Some people even hang a placard from fruit trees with the text of the blessing to aid their fellow Jews. There is one such tree on Bennett Avenue across from the Mt. Sinai Jewish Center. I visited that tree and said the blessing at the appropriate time last spring.
I knew about this particular tree on Overlook Terrace without seeing it on a map. I’d espied it and watched the fruit all summer. It’s unusual to see fruit tree blossoms that actually come to fruition in the city. It’s even more unusual to see one of these trees smack dab up against a building, adjacent to a fire escape, hiding behind a hedge of exuberant Rose of Sharon. Peering at the tree, I spy little blushing peaches emerging from under the leaves! It lives! It is growing!! Next to the subway station yet!!!
There used to be farms in this part of Manhattan. Oh, it was long ago, but it is indeed documented. What would those farmers say about their acreage now? How could this tree happen to grow precisely here? Did an opportunistic peach pit grow between the hedge and the bricks? Not likely. Unsprouted peach pits that are hundreds of years old have been excavated from the trash heaps of Old New York. These hard hearts don’t sprout easily. Could someone actually have planted this tree? Maybe. There is evidence it is cared for: it is tied where it intersects the top of the ground floor window. There’s a scar where it had been pruned.
Will these peaches rot on the tree, get pecked by birds, or be plucked by the person whose window they cover? Someday I expect I will emerge from the subway station and see some nouveau urban farmer climbing a ladder to harvest the peaches. Straw-hatted and overall-clad, he will set each booted foot carefully on the rungs as he climbs. He will test the ripeness of each with a little squeeze. He will pluck each one and lay it in a wicker basket depending from his arm like in an old-timey painting. Thus he will reanimate the ghosts of long ago farms in this part of the island. A fanciful dream, but what a dream!