Among at least 100,000 species of trees in the world (no one seems to know exactly how many there are): Salix x sepulcralis, Salix babylonica, Salix alba, Quercus bicolor, Quercus palustris, Populus sargentii, Picea pungens, Citrus x lemon, Citrus x sinensis, Ginko biloba, Prunus persica, Ficus carica, Acer negundo.
–Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
My sixth grade homeroom teacher was Mrs. O’Neill, a tall redhead with impeccable, albeit matronly, style. I had a bit of a boyhood crush on her. OK, more than a bit. Never mind that she was going on sixty and had been married for an eternity to the town’s Fire Chief, or that I was only eleven and already the seething embers of flamboyancy sparked. Crushes happen, period. It’s a fact that they don’t always make sense.
I blame my unquestioning acceptance of her poetry choices on this youthful infatuation, for it’s another truth of crushes that they make one turn a blind eye. Although I was only eleven years old, I possessed a prescient knowledge of who I was to become in the years ahead and there are certain key images contained in Mr. Kilmer’s infamous tree poem that directly conflicted with that foresight. A less enamored boy might have resisted.
Lets talk boobs. Knockers, hooters, bazooms. Your mammary glands, ma’am.
Mammals have them – Mrs. O’Neill had just taught us this fact, shocking us with the new knowledge that we were thusly defined. However, even a recently-illuminated eleven-year-old can intuitively understand that boobs aren’t his thing. Further, any farm boy worth his weight in oats knows that trees don’t have them. Burls? Sure. Boobs? Never. After all, the country cliché is “colder than a witch’s teat in January”, not a “beech’s teat”.
Reality check aside, had I not been blinded by my adoration of Mrs. O’Neill, I might have allowed myself to be rightly repulsed by the references to bosoms and flowing breasts (my sincere apologies to my lesbian sisters and my heterosexual brothers, but just imagine if your sixth-grade homeroom teacher had subjected you to poetry describing penile imagery, flowing or not).
Still, Kilmer’s classic was the poem that Mrs. O’Neill tucked into my tiny mind as she led the class out of homeroom and into the neighborhood one stunning autumn day in Basin, Wyoming, early October, 1969. And in my state of total adulation, I simply followed. Like a love-struck, wagging puppy.
The sharp October sky was a perfect backdrop for the radiant autumn leaves, and the twin steeples of the First Baptist Church punctuated the postcard-perfection with white exclamation points. Norman Rockwell might have wet his knickers had he witnessed the wholesome American goodness of it all.
Our assignment for this idyllic amble through our hometown? Look at the trees – really look at them. Make sketches. And when we returned to the classroom, we were to produce, using watercolors, a greeting card with our favorite autumnal tree on it.
In retrospect, I think Mrs. O’Neill had her own reasons for this afternoon stroll. Thirty rambunctious sixth-graders just back from summer vacation corralled in a stuffy afternoon classroom might drive even a saint like Eleanor O’Neill a bit batty. Bless her heart; I now believe she just needed some fresh air and some wide-open space to absorb our considerable communal noise. But it was a beautiful walk, and one that is still with me all these many years later. I can clearly remember the sun warming my ruddy face and glistening off the Aquanet in Mrs. O’Neill’s bouffant. I can recall the smell of someone burning leaves in the distance; I can recall the smell of the Aquanet beginning to melt.
But most importantly, it is the first time I remember really looking at the trees.
And I have never stopped.
I chose to study for that sixth-grade assignment a Weeping Willow (Salix x sepulcralis) which was still turning color, the leaves partially the translucent summer tint of green lemons, but overlaid with the bright yet pale autumn tone of ripe lemons. In the brilliant glow of mid-afternoon, the effect was as though it had been stripple painted, ripples of yellow and green cascading down from a heart-shaped crown in elegant, citrus-hued arches.
If I dare say so myself, my card was the best of show. It was the only one that Mrs. O’Neill chose to send to the county fair the following summer, along with the best of the best art projects produced by our small school district’s students throughout the academic year. It probably didn’t hurt that it was in her front yard that said Willow weeped. Regardless, I won a blue ribbon
The Weeping Willow also painfully reminds me of one past torrid incidence wherein I was tossed to the curb by a cowboy paramour. This was during the years I lived in Denver, the Mile High City where hats and boots and country music reign supreme. We’ll call my caballero Crazy Bill because, well, he was crazy (probably still is) and his name was Bill (certainly still is). That crazy, crazy cowboy fool. No blue ribbon in that one.
After the dumping ritual, I couldn’t get enough of Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight”. I listened to it obsessively. In fact, the endless repetition of that song gave the depression more legs than it had right of. That song kept the heartache walking long, long after midnight. Seems the sustenance of the blues is an outcome particular to listening to sad country music, a fact I was clueless about at the time. Funny, isn’t it, how youth prefer self-flagellation to moving on? Yes, funny. I can’t stop laughing..
To this day I can get misty when I hear the song and imagine a heartbroken Ms. Cline singing it (that sad, sad movie didn’t help). Perhaps it is late one evening after she and Charlie Dick have been fighting more virulently than usual. Maybe he left with another woman. Patsy is wearing tight, black, fitted pants and a red country-girl jacket with white fringe. Her bouffant is shellacked with Aquanet. She is walking and wailing – after midnight! Eventually she ends up in front of Mrs. O’Neill’s house and when she sees Mrs. O’Neill’s and my tree, she suddenly stops. And then sings, “I stop to see a weeping willow, crying on his pillow, maybe he’s crying for me. And as the skies turn gloomy, night winds whisper to me, I’m lonesome as I can be.”
To this day, the Weeping Willow, which is a hybrid of the Peking Willow (Salix babylonica) from China and the White Willow (Salix alba) from Europe, is one of my favorite trees. I say “one of” because, well, I am a fickle Queen Gardener. I have many favorite trees.
In the spring, I love the Maples as they burst forth with their tiny (some say nondescript), red-pink flowers, soon followed by their helicopter seeds, a fascinating example of seed-distribution evolution at its best. At my advanced age of cough-cough, I still enjoy playing with them, tossing them to the breeze and watching them spiral hither and yonder.
During the summer months, my favorite tree may very well be the lone historic Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) lording over the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and T Streets in Washington, DC, in a tiny fenced park that was commissioned solely to protect the health of her root system. This tree is billed as the oldest and largest living Swamp Oak in The District, and she is certainly a stately specimen. It is no wonder there are plans afoot to install four-hundred Swamp White Oak trees in the newly constructed September 11 Memorial Plaza in Manhattan.
When fall blows in, I can’t seem get enough of the other Oaks, with their leathery bronze leaves and the falling acorns that ping off car hoods and thunk to the ground as I wander the city. Acorns are abundant here in The District, as many of our streets are lined with Pin Oaks (Quercus palustris). No mystery there: the Pin Oak is native to this area and seems very well adapted to the rigors of city life. They are numerous and pedestrian in the city I love, but still I never tire of them or their acorns: because Mrs. O’Neill taught me to really look at the trees, I understand.
Every autumn I gather a few of the fallen nuts to arrange in the cracked white marble ashtray with a bronze squirrel relief that I snatched from my mother’s house after she passed. Squirrels and acorns: a match made in heaven.
During the winter months it is often the barren Elms that catch my attention. They are the contortionists of the tree world, their rough-barked grey limbs swerving above in uncontainable loops and curves. They are particularly romantic when coated with a topping of freshly fallen snow or dangled with the million sparkling crystals of an ice storm.
And of course a list of my favorite trees would be incomplete if I didn’t mention the Wyoming State Tree, the Plains Cottonwood (Populus sargentii), those rough-skinned mammoths who watched over the western-migrating settlers, showed them where water was to be found, provided shade in the heat of summer, gave logs for the building of cabins, and provided wood for heat and light in the darkness of the long Wyoming winters. Not to mention their waxy, heart-shaped leaves which in the evening breeze produce a most unique, soft rustling sound. Those leaves murmur and I can identify their love song long before I have spotted the tree. It is a melody that settles my psyche better than chicken soup. Or Xanax.
One friend (who is known for his love of Xanax, oddly enough) is slightly obsessed with the Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens). He is slightly obsessed with many things, but that is not the point here. Regarding his desires for a Colorado Blue Spruce, although the Arbor Day Foundation website says the tree should grow where he lives in Virginia, two have been planted and two have met their demise in his back yard. I will not go into the tale of how the one theoretically romantic mid-winter planting, a couple’s holiday activity, nearly ended in a battle to the death, one partner armed with a shovel and the other’s only defense a locked door, but rest assured that twenty-five years later, both remain alive and they are still coupled.
I am certain that the trees’ untimely deaths were not due to lack of care; when my friend is obsessed, Xanax or not, he does not take his task lightly. Rather, his back yard must be a sort of micro-climate, too hot or wet or dry or windy, something fatal to the Colorado Blue Spruce. My friend swears he will never again plant one – it is too heart wrenching for him to watch them die.
Micro-climates are fascinating. They are unusual, sometimes tiny spots or locations where something that shouldn’t grow, does, simply because some topographical or geological or even manmade feature provides what it needs (or conversely, something does not grow for one reason or another even though statistically, it should, like my friend’s Colorado Blue Spruces).
When the former Mr. Perfect trundled me off to California’s Bay Area, we landed in a locale that was deemed “just a little too far north” for citrus trees to flourish. However, in the micro-climate of my back patio, both a full-sized Lemon tree (Citrus x lemon) and an Orange tree (Citrus x sinensis) thrived. They were planted on the south side of the house and grew over a concrete slab, thusly warmed in the winter months by the reflected sun. I was provided with lemons year-round, and more than enough oranges that all came ripe at once, causing me to stretch my limited culinary prowess to include orange pie, orange cake, orange sherbet, orange vodka, orange everything.
Orange you glad you now understand micro-climates?
Setting those aside, should you find you have a slot itching to be filled by a tree (everyone, get your collective mind out of the gutter), the Arbor Day Foundation website is an excellent resource (www.arborday.org). You can review photos and stats of all sorts of trees, which should help you settle on which specimen your little heart desires most – depending, of course, on what qualities you are primarily seeking: fruit? shade? color? flowers? bird haven? This selection process should be carefully undertaken, as trees are undeniably the most permanent installation in our garden. Their planting should not be taken lightly.
The Arbor Day Foundation’s site can help you determine which species will meet your needs, fit the space you have available, and which varieties thrive in your hardiness zone. You can even order the sapling of your eventual choice at a ridiculously low price. Trust your old Queen Gardener: if you are looking for a tree, this site is worth a look. Just be mindful of your micro-climes. And avoid planting the tree with your partner. Or at the very least, ensure that he has taken his Xanax first.
If I had acreage, I would have one of every kind of tree possible. But therein lays my problem. Until the current Mr. Perfect’s ship comes in, my “acreage” is more “footage”, as I garden on an eighth-floor balcony. Still, I grow trees. I tend an Orange tree, an unidentified evergreen (oh, Lord, how I have tried to identify), a Ginko tree (Ginko biloba), a Peach tree (Prunus persica), and a fig tree (Ficus carica), all potted. I grow them in a variation of bonsai, not the twisted little souls you see at table-top, but larger, up to eight feet tall or so, but maintained so that they are manageable in limited space. I stunt them. As I write, I am looking at my beautiful stunted Peach tree with its thirty-some peaches slowly ripening in the July summer heat.
This stunting is not an easy process, and not one that is advised for the gardener who eschews labor or doesn’t care to glean an elementary understanding of the process of plant growth. This is because it is not entirely a simple process (is any worthwhile process simple?), and it does require some physical work.
The problem with potted plants, trees in particular, is that they become root bound. Their roots grow continually until the pot is filled with roots, not soil. When that happens, the roots strangle themselves and the top of the tree suffers and eventually the whole thing dies.
Just remember this: from infancy onward, a potted tree must be moved to a larger pot each time the top begins to appear oversized compared to the container. It’s that simple. You see, like all things in life, this is a matter of balance. The top and the bottom must be matched
Again, all of you – minds out of the gutter.
Most potted trees grow to this unbalanced/root bound state about every two or three years, unless there was an unfortunate and inappropriate container choice to begin with. Hint: when you first obtain the tree, repot it into a container (one with drain holes) that is two-or-three inches wider and taller than the pot it came in. And then repot again, as I said (repeat after me) every time the tree’s top seems to outsize the container. And repeat again: for most trees, this is about every two or three years. Once a tree reaches roughly the size you would like her to remain, you will begin the semi-bonsai (stunting) process.
Again about every third year, your stunted tree will require three things to stay at her same size and in her same container: to be repotted, to have her roots pruned, and to have her top pruned (the top may be pruned as necessary between repottings to maintain shape and size). It can all be done in one fell swoop, often best accomplished in the early spring before there is any show of leaf activity, but possible during any phase of the growth cycle except active fruiting or flowering.
Carefully remove the tree and root ball from the container. This is where the “labor-intensive” part plays out. An eight foot tree in a twenty-plus-inch container is heavy. Very heavy. You may need help. Muscular help.
Just imagine . . .
Back to task: shake off any loose soil, and then carefully remove at least half of the more stubborn soil from the root ball, being careful not to overtly damage the roots. Then, take a deep breath and prune the exposed roots back to about three-quarters of their original mass (use a standard hand-held pruner). You will also prune the top of the tree back to a (repeat after me, again) c-o-m-p-a-r-a-b-l-e size. Go slowly and pay particular attention to shape. Remove first any crossed or damaged limbs, then evaluate. If the tree is shrub-like, it is usually best to open the middle of the tree to allow for air circulation and new growth. If the tree is more of an upright, single-trunked variety, the usual configuration is Y-shaped.
Then repot. Note that these planting instructions also apply to a new, free-range sapling being planted in an out-of-doors location as well as for the routine repotting of a growing sapling as you wait for her to attain the size you desire so you can begin the stunting process.
First, pour one or two inches of pea-gravel in the bottom of a pot with good drainage (if planting a tree in the ground, just dig an appropriate hole and forego the gravel). In the center, on top of the pea gravel, make a mound of soil. Spread the roots over that mound, positioning so that the portion of the tree’s trunk that should be at ground level will be at ground level when the pot is filled with soil. Use a high-grade commercial potting mix and fill around and over the roots, tamping gently to compress the new soil. Water thoroughly, after which you may have to add more soil due to settling.
If the tree is not dormant when you undertake this stunting process, she may wilt and pout for a day or two. She may drop a few leaves. Just keep her moist and spare her from direct sunlight and, presto, she will survive. When she does you can name her Gloria Gaynor and drape her in sparkly disco gear. Hey, hey.
I love my potted trees, but when Mr. Perfect procures the proper acreage for me, I very well may love my full-sized trees even more. One specimen I know I will plant is a Box Elder (Acer negundo), which is actually a mid-sized, quick-growing Maple species. In my youth, oh those centuries ago in prehistoric Wyoming, a lone Box Elder tree jutted at an angle out of our farm’s pig sty and loomed above the barnyard. The Box Elder is known to prefer wet, fertile locations, and that fairly well sums up a ditch bank pig sty. This tree’s angle of growth and the placement of its lateral branches made it a perfect climbing tree, a veritable ladder. At about thirty feet above the ground there was a fork in the main trunk, creating a seat that perfectly cradled a young boy’s body.
Look, Ma! No hands.
There, solitarily suspended in the leaf-cooled, green-filtered air, watching the multitude of black and red Box Elder bugs go about making baby Box Elder bugs, I whittled away many a disappointment, heartbreak, and punishment, but also reveled in my youthful accomplishments. It was my secret, lofty place, and while not quite a tree house, it was at least a tree lounge. I adored it.
Children, especially the urban children I am witness to these days, grow up differently that I did. I sound like my father in saying that, but in this case what he said has been proven to be true. Times change, children change. They grow up faster now-a-days, and this instills in me a certain sadness about them. By all appearances, they have never been taught to really look at the trees, have never found their private tree to climb. They are not afforded an opportunity to experience what it is like to have no more expectation than to lounge, young and free and in a tree. More’s the pity.