Saluting the Sentry

           I barely noticed the little tree out front. Like a sentry, it has stood silently upright for a year, in the strip between the lawn and the street, guarding the house. Now that the days are longer, you’d think I would have noticed it more. But sadly, I haven’t. I’ve taken it for granted, or worse than that. I’ve not seen it as distinguishable from the view Out There, beyond my front window.

            If the tree had feelings, I’d say I know how it feels.Tree out front

            But suddenly it has erupted into a frenzy of red blooms. Pink red, to be exact, like dark watermelon or some varieties of geranium. It makes me so happy I want to bury my face in it. If it were larger, I’d climb it, but it’s not big enough yet for human exploration.

            I wonder what it is? I recognize some local trees, but not this one. I snap photos and iPhone them to my gardener and nature lover friends. Do you know what this is?

            One friend who lives in Ohio and worked at a botanical garden said it looked like a plum tree, but plum trees bloom in the spring, not the summer. She said it looks more tropical. My other friend who teaches nature writing doesn’t know either.

            So I’ll break off a few leaves and blossoms and take them with me to the nursery. Now that the sentry has shown its colors, I want to fully acknowledge it. And I want to know how tall it will grow. How many years will it stand? And does it have to be protected from seasonal hazards? Bugs, traffic and fire pollution, drought? It seems to be doing fine without water, so far anyway.

Lagerstroemia indica

            According to the cute guy at the nursery (a bonus for my visit), the tree is a crape myrtle, also known in more recent years as crepe myrtle. It is an evergreen shrub, drought resistant, and often used along our San Diego sidewalks. It does well in all warmer climates around the world, having come originally from Southeast Asia. It can grow up to 25 feet tall and even taller and Blossomsmakes a nice shade tree. It often has more than one trunk. Its flower petals are crinkled, like crepe paper, thus the name. It is one of the longest-blooming trees, from July to September in our hemisphere. It is slow to grow, but can live as long as 150 years.

            In mythology, the myrtle tree is associated with Venus and is a symbol for love, peace, fertility and rejuvenation. Sounds good to me! And I salute you from now on.

I am Grateful for Trees

I owe my livelihood to trees. No, I am not a logger or a builder. But I do log experiences and build with words. And how did trees lead me to words?

Tree LagunaI fell in love with trees as a child and was lucky enough to be surrounded by them. In Montreal, looking out from my grandmother’s windows, I could see maples, oaks, 200-feet pines, weeping willows, lilacs. Her house backed into a golf course; she and my grandfather were Scottish and avid golfers. After school, my friends and I snuck onto the course and climbed trees – crab apples, trying to stay hidden from golfers, oaks with giant arms over a pond, scrambling down fast enough to outrun those sent to chase us away. We hiked through neighborhood forests, scaring ourselves with tales of hobos, building forts and letting the trees embrace us.

Trees at duskIt wasn’t just the trees I loved, but the way the sunlight danced through and around their branches and leaves. Even in winter, when the trees resembled scarecrows, there was something magical about the silvery light and shadows. Trees can be hulking, gnarly and scary, embracing and protective, or graceful and lacy dancing in the wind.

I felt compelled to capture this and so I tried drawing. The winter trees I could recreate somewhat – one bony hand after another. But trees in spring, summer, fall – flat. My drawings were average and the magic was not there. I especially saw this when one of my girlfriends started to draw, and it soon became evident to everyone that she was a gifted artist. Her trees were alive and mine were not.Tree Smiling

I then tried photographing trees, but my tiny box of a Brownie camera had limitations. Today I can do more with my iPhone camera.

So I started writing about trees. I had an ability with words. I found myself wanting to describe everything, always searching for words and new ways to combine them. When my 5th grade teacher asked us to describe a season, I was off and running. I proudly brought in my essay-poem. She didn’t believe that I wrote it. My normally reserved mother was incensed and charged into our classroom. Of course she wrote it!

Autumn Leaves
There’s a lovely picture one can form
From floating leaves,
The scarlet red mingles with orange and gold,
As they fall like graceful doves
From the naked trees.
— Linda, Age 10

The Royal Gloom and Bloom

June Gloom we call it along the coast – the marine layer that hangs over us, dulling scenery and spirits for almost all of this month’s 30 days. Even worse, it drags directly behind May Gray, thus insuring a double dose of semi-drizzle and we are not sure if spring is really happening. It’s also hard to know what to wear during this gray and gloomy time. The sky is overcast and the air makes us shiver, so we put on a jacket and a scarf and then when we drive a mile inland, we roast. Away from the coast, people are lightheartedly skipping around in sandals and shorts or sundresses.

It is Spring, of course, but evolving slowly, not at all like springs in colder climates where there is snow and then bright pokes of green and sudden riots of color. When my family moved here from Montreal, gardens were thriving and it was warm and sunny back home. In our new home, my sister and I could hardly wait to run down to the beach. We froze. It was May. There was no golden sun in our California at all.

But now that I’ve lived through many such Mays, I’ve realized that there is a purple lining in our silver skies as our coastal spring unfolds, a royal glow as purple blooms everywhere. Jacaranda trees arching over the sidewalks. Agapanthus, lantana, princess flowers poking out from gardens. Morning glories climbing fences. Sea lavender standing guard over the ocean. Sage, daisies and mountain lilacs cloaking the hillsides.Jacaranda and agapanthus

The Jacaranda tree is May/June’s crowning glory and San Diego’s official urban tree. It’s a sub-tropical tree native to South America and was imported to San Diego and Los Angeles in the early 1900s by Kate Sessions, a California horticulturalist and landscape architect, also known as the mother of Balboa Park. The jacaranda also blooms in the fall, but not with the same periwinkle blue-purple brilliance that it does in the spring. The branches bend and bow over our sidewalks, dropping little trumpet-shaped blossoms. I’ll take walking on this magical purple carpet any day over a red carpet. And just as the purple jacaranda canopy fades, it’s July and the blue of the sky takes over.

Another purple flower that blooms here in May and June is the agapanthus. They seem to appear suddenly out of nowhere, big, round, purple balls poking scepter-like toward us from front lawns. (There are white agapanthus too, but they are outnumbered by the purple ones.) The agapanthus are originally from South Africa and are also known as lily of the Nile. They grow around the world, even in gray England, where they are called the African lily and mentioned in a Harry Potter book. It’s possible to see a royal connection, resembling as they do staffs of pharaohs and monarchs. They point the way to victory – the clearing of our skies.Morning glory

In Southern California, and especially San Diego, we have one of the best climates in the world. It’s usually never too hot or too cold, so you’d think we wouldn’t complain about the weather. But of course we do, especially by the ocean during spring when we crave some tantalizing, tangible evidence that summer is around the corner. When will this gloom and doom lift? Until it does, it helps to know that the hazy gray sky has a touch of royalty, in the richest sense of the word.