The Garden Gate: Trees in a category of their own

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Weeping willow trees here and there along the lake are beautiful with their graceful cascades of yellow-green leaves twinkling like strings of stars in the bright sunshine.
Most of us have at one time or another placed a sprig of mint or a small branch of ivy in water until it grew some roots and we could plant it in the garden.
But how many of us have thought of using this same technique on a larger scale and growing our own weeping willow tree?
All you need is a small branch from an existing tree. Put it in a bucket of water for several weeks until it grows roots.
Then plant it away from water, but water it frequently. Be sure to plant it away from water intake or sewer lines, because the water-seeking roots will clog pipes and drains. Put it near a stream or the lakeshore.
In 15 or 20 years, your willow tree will be a towering giant, and you can then give branches of it to your grandchildren to start their own willow trees.
It could become a family tradition.
The ornamental Babylonian Willow is the one usually seen in Chinese paintings. It not as cold-hardy as most of the other willows, especially the Thurlow Willow, which thrives in more rigorous climes.
It is hard to think of trees as plants. They seem somehow to be in another category, perhaps because they are such large-scale plants compared to African violets or even sunflowers.
To distinguish one species of tree from another is a matter of training.
They are not all just a mass of green on green. There are vast differences of leaf form, branching, bark textures and general outline.
When some of these are learned, certain trees can be recognized wherever they are seen and can be regarded as friends.
Just as in human relationships one friendship often leads to others, so identification of one species of tree can lead to another and the unknown can gradually become familiar.
There are some trees, however, which are so unique that they are instantly recognizable from pictures, even if one has not actually ever seen them. The giant redwoods of the West Coast, weeping willows and royal palms are good examples.
Trees are the oldest living things on Earth. Sequoias and redwoods live to a ripe old age, and the famed cedars of Lebanon are still just as the Bible describes them.
But the oldest trees to be found anywhere are the bristlecone pines, which grow only in the American Southwest. In the Inyo National Forest in California is the ancient bristlecone pine forest, a stand of trees documented as being more than 4,600 years old.
Imagine a tree alive today which was germinated when the great Assyrian kings ruled Babylon and Nineveh, before Egypt had emerged as the most powerful nation of the civilized world.
When the pyramids were being built, these trees would have been well more than 1,000 years old. After another 1,000 years, Christ would have been born.
Empires rose and fell, and this tree still kept on growing.
When the Crusaders set out to liberate the Holy City of Jerusalem, this tree was more than 3,000 years old.
It was still growing
more than 800 years later, when men walked on the moon, and each year a new paper-thin layer of wood is added to the tree trunk.
Bristlecone pines are not giants like sequoias or redwoods.
They rarely grow more than about 40 feet high, but their trunks are immense and gnarled.
Their habitat is the high cold, rock-strewn ground of the mountains, where nothing else can grow and they withstand extreme cold and winter storms.
Trees’ growth rings tell us many things about the world, in addition to the age of the tree in question.
Periods of extreme drought or severe cold or great rainfall are recorded by trees. Earthquakes which damage the root systems of trees are reflected in their ring patterns. Tremendous forest fires with great heat are recorded.
A fairly new science called dendrochronology, based on the study of tree rings, is revealing more and more about trees and the world in which they and we live.
The University of Arizona is one place where the study of tree rings and of the trees of the American Southwest have resulted in the establishment of a calendar which goes back almost 7,000 years.
This helps archeologists to date remnants of ancient civilizations and provides climatologists with a complete record of a given area’s precipitation.
It is not necessary to cut down the tree to study its rings. A core sample is taken with a drill-like bit that extracts a rod-like core of wood from the bark to the center pith and provides a sample of every growth ring of the tree.
Readings of the tree-ring calendar tell us, for instance, that in 1290 B.C. a catastrophic 24-year drought began in the American Southwest, and there is reason to believe this drought caused the abandonment of the ancient cliff dwellings and pueblos of that area.
No one can tell what more we will be able to discover from the records kept for us by the trees.
It all makes it easy for us to understand why trees were worshipped as deities by early man. They were not only the largest living things he knew about, but they seemed to be so permanent.
The same tree would be as familiar to him when he was a boy, a youth, a man, and an elder, and he knew that the same tree had been familiar to his father and his grandfather before him.
He knew it would still be there for his children and his grandchildren after him. Trees are the perfect symbol of strength and eternity.
It is believed that the concept of the Tree of Life began in ancient Chaldea, a section of south-west Asia bordering on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
One of the oldest sacred tree symbols dates back to ancient Assyria and is a stylized ornamental depiction of a tree. This symbol was known also in Arabia, Egypt, Asia Minor, and through central Asia into the far East and thence to South America.
It would indeed seem that the poet had it right who said that only God can make a tree.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.