On Arbor Day, iconic Philly tree replaced with three new ones

Students from W. B. Saul High School and Samuel Gompers Elementary School helped the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation plant black gum trees on the Belmont Plateau on Arbor Day, April 29, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Students from W. B. Saul High School and Samuel Gompers Elementary School helped the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation plant black gum trees on the Belmont Plateau on Arbor Day, April 29, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A trio of black gum trees now ring the spot where an iconic Philadelphia sugar maple stood for nearly 100 years.

On Friday — Arbor Day — groups of students from W.B Saul High School and Samuel Gompers Elementary School helped plant the new trees, which in time may grow to be 80 feet tall.

“The fall colors rival the sugar maple. It provides some wildlife support — there are some berries there. And because of the winds and the climatic conditions here on the hill, the nyssa [sylvatica] is key,” said Lori Hayes, director of Urban Forestry for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, after a brief news conference.

Lori Maple Hayes, Director of Urban Forestry for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, poses with a newly-planted black gum tree on the Belmont Plateau, on Arbor Day, April 29, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
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The huge maple naturally framed the city skyline from a grassy slope on Belmont Plateau in West Fairmount Park, making it the perfect background for countless photos, as well as a popular spot for picnics and outdoor naps.

But during the pandemic, the beloved tree showed tell-tale signs that it was dying, making it a safety hazard that compelled the city to cut down the 70-foot maple. It took hours during a December day last year.

Janes Miller, 10th grader from W. B. Saul High School does a thumb test for proper alignment of a black gum tree planted on the Belmont Plateau on Arbor Day, April 29, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
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Hayes said the gum trees were planted with reverence and spirituality in mind.

“Because of the years that tree was here as an icon, I don’t think it would be fair to put one [tree in its place]. And I thought of a trinity. And that’s why they’re planted in that pattern,” she said.

Spring growth on newly-planted black gum trees at The Belmont Plateau in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Black gum trees do not grow quickly, adding just one to two feet each year.

The trees planted on Friday are eight or nine years old. They may grow up to be 50 feet.

Students from W. B. Saul High School and Samuel Gompers Elementary School helped the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation plant black gum trees on the Belmont Plateau on Arbor Day, April 29, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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