Brandywine Park as we know it today will not exist for our great-grandchildren 50 to 75 years from now unless something is done to stem an invasion relatively few people realize is happening.

That is the studied opinion of Charles Newlon, a retired forester who probably knows more about the Wilmington park's principal asset -- its trees -- than most other folks who enjoy spending a summer afternoon relaxing in its serene ambiance.

The problem, as he sees it, is that the Norway maple are taking over. They already account for nearly a fifth of the some 6,000 or more trees which not only provide human visitors with cool shade but also make up the habitat for a wide variety of small-animal wildlife.

And, he adds, fast-growing Norway maple, with its fibrous root system,  is among the most invasive species in treedom.

If its spread isn't checked, "the deciduous forest that now stands here will someday be no more," he said. That would mean a loss of the only long-standing urban forest between Fairmount Park in Philadelphia and Rock Creek Park in Washington.

City-owned Brandywine Park, now a unit of the state-administered Wilmington State Parks, was established more than a century ago as part of the open-space vision of William Bancroft. Before that and from Colonial time, the banks of the swift-flowing Brandywine harbored mills which harnessed its power to produce flower, paper, textiles and gunpowder. The oldest, which ground barley, has been documented to 1654. There were 22 in and near Wilmington in 1822.

Ironically, the coming of the steam engine and the industrial revolution, which rendered waterpower obsolescent, coupled with some Quaker vision, provided Wilmington with a green oasis within walking, and jogging, distance of its business section.

While a layman might think a tree is a tree is a tree, a professional views it much differently. The survey Newlon and his colleague, Duane Green, took at the behest of the

Charles Newlon sits by the restored Josephine Fountain in Brandywine Park.

Friends of Brandywine Park in 1997 identified 108 species in their sampling of selected representative areas of the 174-acre park. Variety not quality, is what makes a forest, he explained.

Reduced to non-technical reality, that is what accounts, for instance, for the various colors of the leaves in autumn. If  Norway maple held exclusive domain, green would yield way to yellow and that would be it, he said.

The survey raised a warning flag in that it found 59 non-native species, he said.

Imports are great -- people flock to both Brandywine Park and the Tidal Basin in the nation's capital to see the Yoshino cherry trees from Japan in the spring -- but the natives are what gives a place its basic character.

A man who admits to never having met a tree he didn't like -- he teaches and surveys in retirement after a career of  27 years in the U.S. Forest Service and 11 years before that with Colorado State Forests -- isn't down on Norwegians or their maples. "It makes an excellent curbside street tree," he said.

That, in fact, is probably the genesis of the current invasion. In a forerunner of today's interest in 'streetscaping', city fathers initiated a beautification project during the 1920s which saw the planting of shade trees along streets in the area between Delaware and Lovering Avenues east of what is now Trolley Square. Those trees were Norway maple. Nature and the winds since carried their seed northward to the park.

Newlon not only advocates a counterattack, he is helping mount one -- participating with volunteers who have been pulling seedlings and small trees for the past few years. "We've been making things like hiking staffs and flowerpot holders out of them," he said.

Cautiously he recommends going after the bigger maples. "I say that quietly because I know what happens when you say to cut down trees," he said. The furor over removing trees from along Rattlesnake Run when New Castle County renovated that area off Clayton Street a few years ago has only recently subsided.

Still, with state control of the park, Newlon said there is hope that the cause is not lost. Forest management is part of the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control's mission, he explained. State parks are also under the jurisdiction of that department.

"We've seen what they have done with safety in the park since they took over," he said. "When we were doing our survey, there were parts [of it] where we were afraid to go. That's not the case anymore."

Posted on August 2, 2001

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