Saturday, May 29, 2010

Salix discolor and Everyday Miracles

Willows, according to Douglas Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home, are second only to oaks in supporting faunal diversity in New World ecosystems. That is, like oaks, they are highly important sources of food, shelter and nesting sites for a large number of insects. You know, the insects that otherwise pollinate everything that grows and that act as food for birds, bats, small mammals and other insects. Willows are a particularly important node in the web of life that is the ecosystem.

And yet they are also on the list of prohibited trees for the City of London- willows are among the trees that cannot be planted on City owned boulevards. I don’t yet know why they are on that list- it may be because they are considered ‘dirty’ (my neighbor believes this, though has no evidence from ours). Some tend to be weak and flexible and so big ones often drop limbs in storms (but you can just site them carefully). Some can spread rapidly and extensively. Of course, as it seems to be going with our naturalizing, I have planted five willows, each a Salix discolor, each a descendent of the willows native to Southern Ontario. None, however, is on City property, and so they are protected.

But discovering that they are outlaws when planted outside the bounds of our property makes me think again about how we compose the landscapes that we are constantly creating and recreating in urban areas. What shapes these decisions?

I chose Salix discolor for two reasons. First are the qualities of the tree itself. I wanted something that could break up compacted soil, because they are planted where there used to be a laneway. And I wanted something with exactly the profile of a mature Salix d.-much taller than it is wide with long un-branched stems reaching upward- and that could thus be planted in a row to shade the exposed west side of the house. And I wanted something that would not too heavily shade the plants beneath it- large clumps of Asters- Aster novae-angliae, Aster laevisJoe Pye-Eupatorium eutrochium maculatum- and Echinacia purpurea. While willows provide shade, they are all characteristically open trees that move freely and elegantly in the wind. And I think the light green house complements their grey-green leaves.

The second reason I chose these salix d. is that they are the descendents of the very tree that is my very first memory of a tree, and one of my very first memories at all. It was Easter Sunday when I was four and I remember standing in the breeze beside my grandmother who had taken me to the neighbor’s house to see the pussy willow in bloom. I remember her hand holding mine, and looking up to see the bright white catkins on smooth grey stems, each stem frosted with a bright green blush. I could only look up at it, which meant I had to take it all in against the bright blue sky.

I can still feel the stems the neighbor cut for me clutched in my hand as we walked home. My grandmother was a devotee of plant life- she had a green thumb, as they say- and so she put them in water in a vase on the kitchen windowsill rather than let them dry out to become decor. Later, when the catkins sagged and fell off, my despair again gave way to wonder as fresh shoots of leaves appeared on the branches.

The tree my grandmother grew for me from those stems – in her own flower garden no less- later provided a new tree for our next family home on Hill Street. In 1988 that second generation gave new stems for trees at my mother’s new home, and now my mother’s trees gave up some stems for the five at our home. I guess there is something to the wild abandon with which Salix spreads.

And something to the miracle that is Salix come spring. This year ours had visitors before the blooms had even burst, checking early and often for the right time. One bumble bee also seemed to be preparing a nest beneath one of them. The bees even seemed to be waiting around, clinging to the near-by decorative and non-native Muscari blooms like they were clinging to buoys, sleepily adrift at sea, buffeted by spring winds, waiting. When the Salix began to bloom, early and ahead of even spring ephemerals like Bloodroot, it was as if the entire bee neighborhood heaved a huge sigh of relief, and spent every sunny afternoon along the willow path.

The obvious benefit of these five trees raises some questions for me about the systems we use to order and determine the adequacy and appropriateness of all of the growth we do encourage and allow in our shared landscape. And I can't help but conclude that these decisions have been and maybe continue to be limited, severely constrained by the logic that landscapes are showcases of our consumerism. The long chain of events that brought our Salix to our home never once included a commercial nursery, a marketing firm or a catalogue. These trees were passed hand to hand, and very likely were started from cuttings taken from a natural swamp that was painstakingly destroyed for a housing development in the early 1980s, about 10 km away from here. These trees are part of the circulation of ideas, values, information and attachments that are put at risk when our decisions begin and end as individual consumer choices. It seems harsh to make this conclusion, and it is indeed overly pedantic, and a little self-congratulatory. But it isn't meant to be- I am just struck by the sharp contrast between the gardener my Grandmother was trying to teach me to be and the gardener that it is 'easier' to be.

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