Saturday, April 21, 2012

Plant a Tree

The last day in April is Arbor Day, which gives me an excuse to talk about trees.  Of all the plant categories – vegetables, flowers, herbs, vine, shrubs, trees – my favorite is trees.  My happiest moments in childhood were those spent climbing trees,  sitting on their sturdy branches surveying the world below and eating their luscious offerings of plums and cherries.

I inherited my love of trees from my mother, who planted them as compulsively as a dog buries bones.  When I was in college I heard a commercial on the radio advertising a Mother’s Day bargain – 200 tree seedlings for $5.95. Knowing my mother’s tree mania, I ordered them without a thought of the job I was handing my mother.

I rarely did anything that pleased my mother, but that present was a fantastic success, despite the agony that resulted from Mom’s marathon race to plant them all.  She was thrilled with all the varieties – tulip tree, smoke bush, yellowwood, ironwood, many of which still grace the family property.

Planting a tree on Arbor Day was started by J. Sterling Morton in 1872 in a state with a scarcity of trees, Nebraska.  There it is a legal holiday so everyone has time to dig a hole and plant something in it.  Here in the East we don’t pay much attention to Arbor Day.  My husband’s family preferred a different tradition, the custom of planting a “Life Tree” for each child the spring after it was born.

Watching a foot-high “whip” turn into a strong-limbed giant is almost as satisfying as raising a child, and far less work.  Trees have very few childhood diseases and don’t move away when they’re full-grown either.  Of course you may move way, as we did, leaving the life trees of our three daughters behind.

Hank’s mom and dad planted a butternut tree to celebrate his coming into the world.  Hank and Butternut grew up together, both breaking limbs frequently, and both looking pale and sickly from October until June.  Each in his own way was extremely untidy; Hank trailing clothes and toys in his wake.  Butternut dropping oily nuts covered with thick sickly husks in August that made the lawn mower shudder each time it tried to gobble them up.

A butternut tree’s compound leaves are similar to those of sumac, but they turn a spotty, washed-out yellow in the fall instead of the vibrant crimson of sumac.  They fall to the ground early, usually leaving a poorly shaped skeleton to decorate the landscape. 

When Hank and I moved into his family guest cottage after we were married, we inherited Butternut,  as it resided on our front lawn.  Unfamiliar with the life tree tradition, I suggested to Hank that we get rid of this homely free.  Since Hank had forgotten it was his life tree, he got the axe.

Young George Washington probably chopped down the cherry tree as gleefully as we did the butternut, but his father’s wrath couldn’t have been as hard to face as my mother-in-law’s anguish when she saw little Hankie’s life tree lying dead on the lawn.  Fortunately Mosie was a marvelous mother-in-law, soon admitting she’d never liked the scraggly old butternut either.

When we moved to Locust Hill we left behind all three daughters’ life trees.  The farm had few trees in the yard other than locusts when we moved in.  There was a weeping willow that we discovered had a hollow heart when it fell over in a big snowstorm our first winter here.  There was a very large Norway spruce which blocked all winter sun from the bedroom.  We cut it down when the little silver maple we’d dug up from the woods and planted under it got to be 15 feet tall and began to bend over to get some sun.

The third tree in the yard was a young sugar maple, its trunk about as big around as a gallon jug.  It grew as fast as the current national debt in the first years we were here because, unknown to us, our septic system did not include a septic tank and suddenly a family of five was feeding the maple tree on a daily basis.  Now that beautiful tree is dying and no tree specialist knows why.  My plan to have them cut down the poor thing this past winter, but the pond, where it had to land, never froze sufficiently

As you can see, I planted a replacement, a silver maple, to take the sugar maple’s place.  It’s just starting its third year, but is living a hazardous life as branches, bark and even big limbs come crashing down whenever there’s a little wind. 

I was planning to recommend a variety of trees you might plant on Arbor Day, but as usual, I got waylaid with my personal experiences.  There are dozens of reasons to plant a tree besides commemorating a child’s birth.  Plant a beautiful Kousa dogwood with its layers of white blossoms each spring.  How about a fruit or nut tree to provide September edibles and spring blossoms to make bouquets for the house? 

The locust pictured above was the only photo I had of a tree and even though it fills the air with perfume in May when its white petals resemble a small snow storm as they drift down to the ground, I wouldn’t recommend planting one.  Its limbs look positively tortured in winter and it provides very little shade in summer.  Its one virtue is that its leaves disappear each fall without needing to be raked. 

I hope you’ll look around your hard and realize there’s a perfect spot for a new tree, then pour over the catalogs (  tel 800-64739893 is a good one), and picture what a graceful weeping willow or a white pine, or…  whatever you decide.  There’ll be a nice reward as you watch it grow.


  1. I LOVE the idea of trees to commemorate births. They work at the other end of the journey, too. When our well-loved dog Mulligan (whom you may remember from his 15 years of service in the Norfolk Library) died, friends chipped in and gave us - of course! - a dogwood. Hard to leave it behind when we moved. When Barbara Allyn died, the staff of the Library planted some lilac trees on the Library lawn in her memory. Taking a page from your book, I'm going to start giving trees when the innumerable nieces and nephews produce more children. Great article, Hatsy. Sorry to hear the old maple is dying.

  2. I have always thought of locust trees as desirable for all the reasons you mention, and I love the inimitable outline of their branches - so evocative! Where I live now has no more room for new trees. I enjoy blooming apple trees, crab apples and redbuds. Most of the trees on the property are evergreen but they are not so close as to block sun and the birds find protection in them. Large messy cottonwoods mark the end of my driveway, but I love them too and have named my home The Alamo after them!

  3. Timely, thanks. We're going to a friend's 86th birthday on Arbor Day (coincidence). Also coincidentally, we're giving him some maple syrup. Yesterday, I saw a 6" maple sprout coming thru the pachysandra. It is now planted in a small metal can (to catch the sap?) and together they will make his present. (He lives in an assisted living place - I hope they'll find a spot for his tree!)

  4. I remember Mulligan the Library Dog!

    Last week, to commemorate the birth of our son Twain, we planted a 'Palo Rosa' at a park across the street from our apartment here in Cordoba, Argentina. It seems that the neighborhood has already adopted 'twain tree' as it always appears to be recently watered and a small edging of stones has been constructed around it. It will be fun to come back in a few years and see how if it has survived!

    We have one other small potted tree that has lived in our balcony for the last few months; Arbor Day will be a perfect day for relocation.

    Thanks for the terrific column, I loved the butternut and Sir growing up together - untidy and oily! Did you have a life tree of your own?