Two weeks ago, while stuck at winter’s ugly intersection of “alternative facts” and grays skies, I sat patiently and watched the red light flash green.
It dried out, and the sun shone for a day.
“I think I can, I think I can,” I began muttering. In a manic burst, I dug three small trees. They were lifted and moved to life everlasting—or for what I hope will be, at least, a couple of generations of farm life in Salvisa, KY.
The deeply loved, uprooted trees were an American elm and two ginkgoes. They began life as city trees, their origins a matter of fate.
The American elm originated as a nontrivial, wind-borne seedling. For 15 years I’d ignored hundreds of elm seedlings in our Louisville garden. Now I wondered, where was the source of this massive elm seed bombing?
Note to Allen: It pays to look up once in awhile, instead of staring at the ground for stray weeds.
I’d never noticed the regal princess before—just two doors down the street from us. The magnificent American elm (Ulmus americana) was possibly planted in the 1930s, when our neighborhood, near the Olmsted-designed Cherokee Park, was first being developed. Hundreds of thousands of American elms were planted around the same time, all across temperate North America. The elm was promoted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the Liberty Tree. How could you go wrong planting a patriotic shade tree with the unrivaled graceful vase-shaped habit of the American elm? And then the Dutch elm disease struck, wiping out all but a tiny percentage of disease-resistant survivors.
Our Sweet Land of Liberty elm survived the Dutch elm disease and the historic 1974 tornado that tore up Cherokee Park.
The elm leans against a streetlight, creaking when the wind blows. Scattered clusters of evergreen mistletoe stay hidden in the tree’s broad canopy until the leaves fall in October.
I dug a few seedlings that sprouted in our garden and planted them in a nurse bed. Two years later I planted the pick of the litter adjacent to the black barn on a western sloping hillside above the Salt River, on our farm in Salvisa. I watered, weeded and mulched the tree for another two years before I decided it was time to move the elm one more time. The 48” skinny elm now stands staked in a young grove of blackgums, maples, oaks and tulip poplars near Vanarsdall Road.
My two little gingkoes started life as seeds scrounged from the base of a beautiful 150-year-old hermaphroditic beauty in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery. Hermaphroditic Gingko? Confused? Life is confusing. Let me explain.
The male tree (gingkoes are typically male or female) took years to come out of the closet.
A female witches’ broom occurred spontaneously, high up in the male tree. (A witches’ broom looks like, well, a broom without the stick.) Even though the species is extinct in the wild, Ginkgo biloba has a survival technique that can trigger a hermaphroditic response that helps protect the survival of the species when individual clones are isolated. (Try tampering with that, Alt-Right!) The species had even survived on the sacred grounds of Asian temples.
At Cave Hill Cemetery, the dominant male portion of the tree, a hundred years or more after its planting, began raining pollen on the pistils (sexual female receptacles) of the peculiar female flowering witches’ broom. Sweet joy of fecundity! Seeds matured. Botanically speaking: This is a HUGE evolutionary phenomenon.
Rose, Aunt Rose and I arrived on Sanibel Island, Florida late last week. It was 80 F (27 C). It was a balmy 68 F (20 C) in Salvisa, KY. (Would I feel better if it were cold and nasty at home while we were away?)
Palms, mangroves and sea grapes surround me for another week. I can’t stop thinking about the blooming snowdrops, witch hazels and hellebores I left behind in Kentucky.
And the oaks and sassafras I could have planted.