Evergreens


Trees curbside in winter

Trees curbside in winter.

A Star is  Born

…and a Star is Born.

 

Any homo deserving of his amyl nitrate loves him some Barbra Streisand.  I personally feel a warm tingly in my nether regions whenever I catch her belting out “Evergreen”, that iconic theme song of the 1976 version of  “A Star is Born”.  I feel this even though at times the cold north wind wants nothing more than to shove Seasonal Affective Disorder straight up my, uhm, nostrils.

It is that time of year here in The District, my little Babs and Bobs.  Post-holiday, pre-spring.  Blah.  Long gone is the glitter, and every day the tepid sun rides low across the horizon.  Now is the season of winter’s sparse and still, but even in the midst of these everlasting yet shortened days, not all is lost.  In these grey hours, as one wanders about the city one senses, viscerally, the hope lurking beneath the hopelessness, like a rose under the April snow.  Kids, this is but a time, and time, we’ve learned to sail above.

I sense a new beginning stirring even as I lug about the weight of all this mid-winter drab, for here in DC these are also the days of parking strips littered with discarded Christmas trees – ageless and evergreen (or at least they used to be), fresh as the morning air (if the morning air were in the process of decaying curbside).  Every block, center block, sports a high pile of the shedding detritus of everyone’s holiday cheer.  And in them lies the hope for a new spring’s awakening.  Let me explain . . .

But first, can I just say that I have never lived in another city where such was the tree disposal procedure.  Perhaps all municipalities do this now, in these green years.  But when I lived in Seattle, where I managed apartment buildings with an iron and broom-wielding fist, it was the responsibility of the good Christian (or otherwise glitter-obsessed hanger-on) tenants to bag the remains of their Yule tree and cart it off to the “transfer station” (urban slang for what we called, in my youth, “the dump”).  Same goes for Denver, and Charlotte, and even most recently in Northern California.

Back in my faraway Wyoming youth, we had our own ritual of disposing of the Christmas tree.  With glee, some hoar-frosty evening come early-January, we stripped the thing of its ornamentation, hacked it to manageable pieces, and tossed it in the fireplace.  With a great amount of ember’s crackling and children’s cackling we immolated that Yule log, angel hair and all, bit by bit, branch by branch.  It warmed and excited us, and those memories have through the years remained my most fond recollections of Christmas tree disposal.

Until now.  Until here.

As I mentioned, here in The District one simply tosses the no-longer-wanted, needle-exfoliating evergreen remnant to the curb where it will be, sooner or later, picked up and dealt with by municipal workers.  This will most likely occur later, as this is the District with its federally-mandated inefficiency.  Don’t even get me started on the city’s DMV or Tax and Revenue Departments, which by all accounts are work retraining programs for surly, lazy, and ignorant parolees.

Still, it is the eventual “dealing with” of the discarded trees that enthralls me, for these skeletons are one day finally collected, shredded, and composted in gigantic, steaming piles in the landscape department’s lots.  Come spring, they will be spread around the city’s parks in the form of sometimes tinsel-tinged mulch.

For all of its inefficiency and dysfunction, The District government practices good earth husbandry when it comes to the poor, poor Christmas trees.

They are “poor, poor” because these dejected Firs, Spruces, Pines, and Cedars were once true, living evergreens – loosely defined as a plant that always has leaves, as opposed to deciduous plants which drop their leaves to become bare during winter or dry seasons.  Yes, our Yule trees were evergreens – until that fateful day when Johnny Lumberjack donned his plaid and hoisted his hatchet (or worse, chain saw) and struck them down.  He smote them good, and then they were hauled cross-country to be sold at exorbitant prices so they could be rigged up in our living rooms where they ever so steadily, beneath their cloak of baubles and bangles and beads, undergo the transition from evergreen to everbrown.

This, though, is probably a more humane ending than the one befalling the fallacious “living Christmas trees”:  it’s relatively quick, at least.

I speak now of those potted specimens sold in nurseries and grocery stores and even one’s corner drug store, colorfully advertised to bring joy to your holiday season and then forever beautify your little piece of earth.

Trouble is, they rarely survive, which comes as no big surprise if you can even remotely grasp the concept of plant physiology.  Just think about the process – put yourself in the little tree’s shoes.  Or should I say pot?

Imagine that you are a lovely little Fraser Fir, happily hibernating your winter away in some frigid field.  Just after Thanksgiving you are dug out of the earth, potted up in something appropriately green and red and tacky, transported, and then sold.  You are eventually displayed in some artsy but garish homo loft where, as if the color scheme itself weren’t debilitating enough, the temperature hovers around eighty and the humidity around zero.  You, little tree, awake from your slumber and your sap begins to flow, and then your next year’s tender needle growth begins to stir.  But this den of Gomorrah you have ended up in is a desert clime, not at all what a lovely little fir desires, and if that fact alone doesn’t begin to kill you outright, the humiliation of having your limbs dangled with drapery will certainly do its best to complete the job.  Should you by chance live through all of this, your next jolt is to be moved back outside to some hideous and undersized back yard which the over exuberant gay whore-ticulturist claims is simply screaming for some winter greenery.  Never mind that you have been shocked out of your hibernation only to be placed right back into winter, you will be planted, Madge.

However, because the soil is frozen solid, you end up deposited in a too-shallow planting hole and there you are left to your own devices.  It’s effectively guaranteed that, come April’s thaw, you will have fared no better than those specimens who end up in the parking strips.  They, at least, end up serving some higher purpose.  Their death is not entirely in vain.

Which brings me back to my point:  when I pass by those stacks of dead trees currently lining our city’s fair streets I realize that to a great extent, they are symbolic of this, the dark and dead time of the year.  For in them, and in this darkness, lies the beating embryonic heart of a new year’s growth.  They will return as mulch, and they will nourish next summer’s lush.  Fruitfulness, it seems, sometimes requires sacrifice.  Just as it did for Babs and Kris in “A Star is Born”.

Oscar Wilde (girl, can it get any more gay in here?) once said of this movie’s characters that the woman “is a little more than a woman”, the man “a little less than a man.”  He went on to say (and I paraphrase, quite liberally) that the woman, Esther Hoffman, portrayed by the inimitable Barbra Streisand, is ambitious to become a star but stardom is not entirely necessary.  Sure, it can make her richer and being richer can make her happier, but she could hand it all back and not be a better or worse person.  With stardom she is only a little more than a woman.  A fine, fine woman.

Her co-star, the hair-happy and yum-deli-icous Kris Kristofferon, portrays John Norman Howard, whose career is his primary defense against his own self-destructiveness, that part of himself that leads him into outrageous spells of drunkenness, drugs, love affairs, fights and the other sordid adventures that have made him a legend.  A rock-and-roll legend, and be still my quivering heart (and loins).  Back to Oscar:  he says John’s career is what provides him a sense of who he is. Without it, he is lost and confused; his demons will eat him alive. That’s why he is a little less than a man.

So says Oscar Wilde, and who am I to disagree?

Esther and John have a few coincidental meetings, and then she finally agrees to date him.  John, believing in her (immense) talent, gives her a helping hand and her career eventually eclipses his.  He’s on his way down, she’s on her way up, but at the crossroads of their trajectories they find love.  And, oh, Ki-Ki, this is no ordinary love!  Why, it’s soft as an easy chair.  Spirits rise and their dance is unrehearsed, they have one love that is shared by two, they are two lights that shine as one morning glory and midnight sun, their every day is a beginning, and time won’t change the meaning of their one love, ageless and ever evergreen.

Blah, blah, blah.  As it turns out, things don’t end well in the romance of this seven-foot, fully decorated and shapely Blue Spruce named Esther and the Charlie Brown specimen quickly shedding his remaining needles all over her career.  In this story it’s not that her success galls him, or that she has taken something away from him; the tragedy is that all her love is not enough to keep alive this man who has lost what he measures his manhood with.

Ouch.  That sounds like a mighty painful thing to lose.

The sad, sad conclusion is the final measure of this theme. John takes his own life believing that then he will not drag her down with him.  He becomes the Frazer Fir lying curbside, composting, she the recipient of his mulch.  A star is, indeed, born.

Ain’t nature something?

Here’s the thing about evergreens:  the fact that they are evergreen (in Latin binomenclature, sempervirens, meaning literally “always green”) is a direct adaptation to where they grow.   It’s all very scientific, but I will try to explain using little words.  Just for you.

Deciduous trees (you know, the leafy ones that become bare in winter or the dry season, depending on where they grow) shed their leaves annually.  Evergreen trees don’t.  They do lose leave, but not all at the same time.  As a whole, the tree looks green year-round.  This keeping of the leaves is their brilliant adaptation.  It helps these trees grow in areas where the soil has low or hard-to-access nutrient levels.  See, every time ye’ olde maple loses her leaves, she loses nutrients.  Since the evergreens don’t shed their greenery, they hold on to their nutrients as long as possible.

In warmer areas (relatively speaking, of course – the mountainous pine forests of northern Wyoming are anything but warm in February!), the evergreens are found growing in poor soils – rocky, or thin or otherwise mostly infertile.  Even in primarily deciduous forests, the evergreens – think the rhododendrons of the Great Smokey Mountains – grow in more acidic soils which are lacking in traditional nutritional value.  Moving far north to where there are extremely cold climates, the evergreen boreal forests thrive.  Here, it is too cold for the organic matter in the soil to decay fast enough to become available to plants, thus favoring those who can manage to hold on the nutrients they glean.  Hence the profusion of the very cold-tolerant evergreens.

Here’s another interesting little scientific evergreen fact that comes from a completely different climate.  In our good earth’s most temperate areas, the equatorial rainforest evergreens ensure their own dominance in another way.  Their evergreen leaf and needle litter has a higher carbon-nitrogen ratio than deciduous leaf litter.  This actually increases the soil’s acidity and lowers the nitrogen content, promoting the very conditions that favor the growth of more and more and more evergreens, and making it increasingly difficult for other plants to get a foothold.

Again, ain’t nature something?

One final evergreen fact, and then I promise to get back to the trash talk.  There is a special evergreen called Welwitschia, an African plant that produces only two leaves for the duration of its life.  These two leaves grow continuously throughout the plant’s existence, gradually wearing away at the apex – something akin to how the old Queen Gardener’s apex is gradually being worn to a nubbin.  Welwitschia’s got me beat, though:  she can live for over 1000 years.

Holy moly, Mathilda!  I plan to call it quits at about 150.

People either love or hate evergreens in the garden, and there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground.  Personally, I’m a fan.  I appreciate the touches of green in what is otherwise a brown and grey winter garden.  I like the way snow drifts on the evergreens, cloud-like.  And I appreciate the shelter they give to my little feathered friends in the midst of inclement weather.

Evergreens rose to landscape prominence in the United States beginning in about the early nineteenth century, and have been a staple ever since.  Any old gardener, or at least this old gardener, will tell you in his best know-it-all voice that a winter garden is nothing without an evergreen or two.  But there are those who would argue with me, and they are certainly entitled to their opinion.  They should just keep it to themselves.  And out of view.

That’s just me dropping my high carbon-nitrogen content ratio litter around so the haters don’t get a foothold.

Those on the other side of this love/hate divide will happily point out how many overgrown evergreens were originally improperly planted, too close to buildings or other trees, or otherwise forced to grow lopsided and leaning, one half nothing more than a bramble of barren sticks.  They will then remind you of the Japanese deciduous winter gardens, bare branches artfully pruned with winter in mind, so that the snow and ice enhances their delicate shapes.  Add in a red bird or some bright berries and you have something worthy of a haiku.  Such as this one, author unknown:

 

A mountain morning

over the red berry bush,

snow in tiny heaps.

 

I see validity in both sides of this argument, and you should, too (more litter).  Substitute “evergreen” for “red berry” in the lovely haiku and you have painted an image of my idea of a peaceful winter garden.  But I can grasp the argument against the overuse and improper planting of evergreens in contemporary urban landscape, and in that vein I encourage (probably in vain) all gardeners to consider the eventual size and space needs for all things they plant – evergreen or not.

They make small shrubs, you know.

There is a rural legend in Wyoming that it sometimes gets so cold that the trunks of evergreens freeze and explode during the night.  Thankfully, this is simply legend, and any midnight explosions are more realistically attributable to some well-armed redneck that’s had a few too many Budweisers.  Evergreens, as it turns out, are also effectively adapted to holding on to their greenery – and not exploding – during the winter months.

Photosynthesis ceases in the evergreens of these high, cold forests.  For starters, there is no water available to them – it is all frozen into ice and snow.  Water is a requirement of photosynthesis, so the trees hibernate.  Beyond that, though, in order to survive their sometimes half-year seasonal ice capades, the evergreens have developed an antifreeze-like sap which protects their needles and limbs from freezing.  Even if it did get so cold that the liquid in their cells freeze, they have specifically adapted an extra-tough cell wall.  No nighttime exploding trees here.

Another problem for all plants during the dry winter months is water evaporation, and another evergreen adaptation is a waxy coat over the needles.  This effectively seals the surface and wards off winter water loss.

While alive and green for certain, the winter evergreens are definitely not growing.  They are in hibernation.  So, shhhh, now, let’s let them sleep in peace.  And perhaps we can follow suit, as these are the short days of winter’s ennui.

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