When I set out to write the Pegasus Quincy mystery series, I knew the first one, Death in Copper Town, had to take place in a mining town on the slopes of the Verde Valley. To make it realistic, I had to include the Ailanthus trees ubiquitous to that part of the Valley.
Apple trees in the old pioneer orchards make a surprise appearance in an upcoming Pegasus Quincy mystery, Silence in West Fork, to be published later this year.
Two trees on opposite ends of the Verde Valley bring together the spirit of the Verde Valley. One, the Ailantus altissima or Tree-of-heaven, populates the hilly streets of Jerome in the foothills of the Black Mountains to the south. The other, the humble apple tree, grows wild on the upper banks of Oak Creek Canyon to the north. Both have become a part of my life in Sedona.
First, the tree of heaven. If you travel up the mountain to Jerome in the spring, you’ll catch the “burned peanut butter” fragrance of golden blossoms. In the summer, the lacy green of the leaves frames the view across the Verde Valley like a Victorian lady’s parasol. Later in the fall, you’ll be surrounded by the crimson, sumac-like leaves drifting down to the worn limestone cobblestone streets of the old mining town.
The tree first became popular in eastern cities, because it was easy to grow and survived almost any kind of pollution. It became the title of Betty Smith’s book about family life in the tenements at the turn of the century, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
The air in the mining towns of the West was just as polluted. During the heydays of the copper mining, the smelter smog killed just about every living plant in Jerome. With the local pine and juniper decimated to shore up the mines, nothing remained to hold the soil and hillsides eroded. The town was endanger of slipping down into the Verde Valley below.
The “Tree of Heaven/Paradise Trees” that abound throughout the Upper Verde were part of a “re-greening” of the Verde Valley by Phelps Dodge when mining operations ceased in the 1950s.
Enter the ailanthus. It is an alien tree, first arriving in America from China in the 1700s. The tree is a survivor, thriving in the sulfur dioxide-infused soil of Jerome. It is also a selfish beastie, secreting a substance in its bark and leaves that, like the black walnut, inhibits growth of any other plants in the area. But the ailanthus likes the crumbling soil and arid conditions of Jerome, and it gives life-sheltering green to a town that was barren and dark after the mines left.
That being said, it’s not without drawbacks. According to Jeff Schalau, head of the master gardener’s program in the Verde Valley, “Most people start out liking the tree of heaven. It grows with little water, tolerates alkaline soils, and it creates shade. Most trees of heaven begin to produce seed at about 10 years of age. Male or female flowers are usually produced on separate trees.
“So, the after the 10 year honeymoon period, seedlings begin to come up everywhere. In addition, if the tree is damaged or cut down, then it begins to sprout from the roots. The tree of heaven also produces allelopathic chemicals that preclude other plants from successfully growing nearby.”
The second, the apple tree also came from China, arriving in America in the 1600s. It hitched a ride with the pioneers to Sedona a hundred years ago. Here it thrived on the banks of Oak Creek canyon in small orchards planted by early homesteaders. They would harvest the crops and trek wagon loads of apples up the steep canyon to Flagstaff to satisfy the hungry timberland workers living there.
Some years ago I helped my sister-in-law locate and map all of the old homesteads spread throughout the canyon. We found almost twenty old orchards, together with old trails once used by mountain lion and bear crossing the canyon.
The big predators are gone, but the trees remain. Many are on the outskirts of the tourist camp grounds: Manzanita, Pine Flats, Banjo Bill. You’ll see the cracked cement footings of an old cabin, some renegade lilac bushes, and these old craggy trees. If you look sharp you’ll spot them, interspersed in pine and fir stands near the water or tucked in at the edge of a penstamen-filled meadow.
Some have reverted to native stock, producing small sour apples, but others are loaded with green fruit, already ripening with a dusting of red. Come late September, they produce the best eating apples in the world, crisp and juicy, with a sweet snap as you bite into them.
Well almost the best. I think that distinction has to be the ones I stole from the neighbor’s orchard next door in the small South Dakota town where I grew up, a descendant of Scandinavian immigrants.
And in a way, these two trees, the apple and the ailanthus, are pioneers, too. They came from the other side of the earth and have adapted to surroundings very different from their native soils in China.
They are a legacy that makes the Verde Valley a very special place for all of us.