Succulent Trees (July 2016)

By Don Lesmeister (July 2016)

PhotoAs a young kid, I didn’t understand the simple beauty of a poem. In grade school, one of the few poems that caught my attention was the popular limerick whispered among the boys. It started with “There once was a girl from Nantucket.” We all giggled while looking for a nun, hoping no one heard our shared moment of silliness and thinking that poems were funny and silly.

Then I came across another poem, Trees, by Joyce Kilmer. Not funny or silly. “I think that I shall never see … a poem lovely as a tree.” Poem? Tree? What did that even mean?

As I grew older, I understood it was a poem about the beauty of nature. Now when I look at a tree, I get it. That wonder and feeling Kilmer was writing about – although the Ogden Nash parody is worth mentioning:

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I’ll never see a tree at all.

It would have made a great Burma Shave sign, although a bit self-defeating for those of you old enough to remember seeing them. The signs broke up the monotony of what seemed to be never-ending rows of cornfields along the highway.

Back in the ’50s – with no Internet, video games or even much T.V. – climbing a tree was a way to have some fun. It was an adventurous time to reflect on the stuff of life. It was a unique time when you sat still, watched and thought up there with the birds and squirrels. You sat quietly, becoming an observer of the neighborhood from a different perspective.

Contact with trees … their strength and size, and the feel of being out on a limb had a calming effect. And at the same time, the thrill of the risk that one false move meant gravity could take its toll. Let’s hear it for trees!

PhotoI had a favorite bursera when I was a small child. Many memories are connected to this tree. When I was 7, I fell in love with an older woman under it …

Dottie, who was 9, lived in the house behind mine. She told me she would be my girlfriend if I ate one of her mud pies. Suspicion, distrust, humiliation: out of my way! I still remember the pie’s awful, grainy taste. She laughed and ran home.

As I was spitting and wiping my face, a friend walked up to me and suggested we bury our stash of treasured comic books in a metal chest under the tree. The comics were priceless to us then and, ironically, remain so even now.

We left the treasure under that tree for many years, planning to retrieve it later. We tried. Long story short, no girlfriend, and we never found the chest. The many holes we dug really upset the adults, though. Ah, the growing pains of youth.

For the next 40 or so years, the wonder of trees took a back seat to the workaday routine until I retired and wandered into a nursery that had some bonsai trees. My love of trees and the memories connected to them were rekindled, although after a brief time learning some of the techniques of bonsai cultivation.

I realized at my age I was not in the right hobby when I learned many of the more coveted bonsais had been in training for generations. Fortunately for me – and quite by accident – I found I was much more at home with cactus and succulents, which now provide me great joy.

I again found trees … succulent trees! In particular, the Burseraceae family, sometimes called torchwood. The family represents around 17 to 19 genera and over 500 species.

Since DNA analysis has now all but replaced earlier methods to test origin and other identifying traits of these Burseraceae trees, it has been found they had their early beginnings on the North American part of the Gondwanan land mass. Gondwana was part of Pangaea.

Around 480 million years ago – long before cable T.V. or even Elvis – Earth was a molten mass of volcanic activity. But after it started to cool, land masses formed, broke up and formed again to create Pangaea. Remember staring in boredom at the clock or out the school window, when your eyes would land on the big map of the world every grade school classroom had? Did you notice that South America and Africa looked like they would fit together? You had the idea then and didn’t know it!

For the next few million years, the Burseraceae family spread throughout Pangaea, and all was peaceful in the land until – you guessed it – more upheaval.

About 200 million years ago, the Pangaea supercontinent began to break up. A large piece called Gondwana (what is now Africa, South America, Antarctica, India and Australia) first split from Laurasia (Eurasia and North America). Then about 150 million years ago, Gondwana broke up.

India peeled off from Antarctica, traveled north and banged into what is now Eurasia so forcefully it formed the Himalayas. Africa and South America rifted, and around 60 million years ago, North America split off from Eurasia.

Point is, ancestors of the Burseraceae started to morph into Bursera on the North American continent, with Boswellia and Commiphora in Africa, Madagascar and throughout Southern Asia.

PhotoBursara, Commiphora and Boswellia are similar in that many plants in these genera have a very fragrant sap that has for thousands of years been used for incense and healing. In the West, Native Americans have used copol (incense) for religion and healing. In the Middle East and Africa, myrhh was extracted since before Biblical times from commiphoras, and frankincense came from species of Boswellia.

Among the most succulent of the Burseraceae are species found in the most arid locations. They are opportunistic. To conserve energy, they grow slowly and remain leafless much of the year, just waiting for a good rain to sprout leaves, feed and grow.

Unlike the hardwood trees with which we are familiar, these trees have peeling bark that reveals trunks that can continue photosynthesis during leafless periods – a great adaptation. They also evolved another handy trait: They store water in times of drought.

They are tough, forgiving and easy to grow and admire. They have few needs. They are not picky about soil, as long as it is fairly porous. They do best with a winter rest period and need to be kept from freezing. They all love a good rain in the spring and summer, and in turn prosper.

Please try growing some of these wonders. Just remember, they are trees and not delicate, picky plants. They have been around for a long time and have done all the hard work for us. All you need to do is enjoy their beauty, aroma and healing properties. A natural trifecta of nature.

Although some of these trees are rare or unknown to us, this does not mean they are difficult to grow. If you follow the few simple guidelines mentioned, they will reward you with many years of enjoyment and memories.

By the way … Dottie was a natural blond and the girl closest to Marilyn Monroe I could swoon over in person at the time. Also, I could see her window from my roost in the tree and dream. I was putty in her muddy, little hands. Surely someone as pretty in childhood aged horribly, so I probably dodged a big mud pie. Dottie, I wish you well, wherever you are …