The first summer after I moved to Milton Freewater I embarked on an ambitious campaign of yard beautification. Since money was tight and I like the idea of encouraging native plants I nursemaided along anything that wasn’t overtly a dandelion or thistle. One of the things I was delighted to find in my yard were some lovely little seedlings. I fell in love with the deep green leaves and red stems. The love affair was consummated when I spotted the grown-up versions of my seedlings–tall, graceful trees crowned with yellow, orange, and red blossom and seed clusters.
To say that I was unprepared for my neighbor man’s reaction to my beautiful seedlings is an understatement. “Pull’em out NOW,” he said. “You’ll never get rid of’em otherwise.”
“So they’re pretty hardy?” I asked happily. “It takes a lot to kill them?” I had long ago learned that I do best with plants that take a lot of killing.
“You can’t kill’em,” said the neighbor man. “And they’ll take over everywhere. Where’s your shovel? I’ll dig’em out.”
Throwing my body in front of my precious seedlings I said. “Over my dead body. I love these seedlings. They’ll make beautiful trees. And look. they’re growing fast.”
Without another word the neighbor man reached around me and snapped a branch of a seedling. “Smell,” he said, and poked the branch under my nose.
That was all it took. I got the shovel and the beautiful seedlings went into the trash. They reeked. That’s the only word for it.
A few months later one of my mother’s gardening friends told me that my beautiful seedlings were young “Trees of Heaven.”
I finally got around to googling them. Here’s what I learned:
Trees of Heaven are native to midland China. They were imported to America by gardeners and sold in nurseries until somebody got a good whiff of what they smell like when they lose their leaves. But by then it was too late–Trees of Heaven had become Trees of the United States, colonizing the Southeast and spreading, yea, even unto the Pacific Northwest. They grow in broken ground and along roadbeds, in bad soil and good–in fact, beside the dictionary definition of “hard to kill” there is a picture of a Tree of Heaven. I also learned that Tree of Heaven is only one of their names. These trees are also called “Stinking Sumac.”
It’s sad, really. As I drive around the countryside I see groves of Trees of Heaven, weighted down with their beautiful blossom and seed clusters. The trees grow as much as eighty feet tall, and make beautiful, elegant silhouettes. Every time I see them I think how lovely they are–and how sad it is that, beautiful as they are, I devote a great deal of ongoing effort to ensuring that Stinking Sumac never takes root on my property.
I think there’s a metaphor in there somewhere–maybe something along the lines of “pretty is as pretty does.” Or maybe it’s “familiarity breeds contempt.” Or maybe it’s about how names shape our perceptions–I love Trees of Heaven; I ruthlessly dig up and destroy stinking sumac. Or–what do you think? What’s the metaphor in these trees?