Back to Our Roots: John Hershey and His Trees

Along the far eastern border of the borough of Downingtown exists an ever-dwindling grove of nut trees. Nestled in and around Woodbine Road, the historically significant “Hershey trees” were planted circa 1921, by John W Hershey, a botanist enthused by concepts of sustainable agriculture. Hershey owned a nursery in Downingtown and it was in Downingtown where he synthesized what many call the Nation’s largest food forest.

Taking an early interest in sustainable agriculture, it was during his time at the Tennessee Valley Authority where Hershey began rethinking the way American’s should be and could be farming. Instead of mindlessly planting acre upon acre of a single crop; such as wheat, barley, or corn; farms could grow their crops in tandem with trees. The trees would serve a couple of functions for the farm. He proposed It would keep the topsoil in place, provide shade for the growing crops to escape the harsh summer conditions, and in certain scenarios provided fruits and nuts the livestock could feed off of to lessen the financial burden of farmers buying feed.

Being a pioneer in permaculture, Hershey created and grafted many nut-bearing trees that scatter the eastern borough’s treescape. Among them are the hickory, pecan, hican (pecan + hickory hybrid,) and burr oak. While Hershey originally theorized that the fruit would feed livestock, everything his hybrids produce is fit for human consumption. From juicy persimmons to the sweet honey locust pods, for the culinary inclined, there are limitless options for tasty foraged meals!

Recently Downingtown has reinstated their Tree Commission, dedicated to protecting the historical legacy of Downingtown’s Hershey Trees while maintaining the horticultural sanctity that Downingtown has maintained for a century. The Tree Commission meets the second Tuesday of each month.

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