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Posts Tagged ‘Pine Trees’

Spring caught me by surprise again. It does this every year. Winter in Florida is predictably unpredictable. It can be 80 degrees in the morning and plunge into the 20’s by midnight. Although the blooming of the Dog Fennel last fall predicted frost before Thanksgiving (and Dog Fennel’s predictions are more accurate than the almanac), Jack didn’t show his hoary head until January. Fruit trees that know no better began to bloom and set fruit. Then Winter skated in. Not a hard winter, as winters go, but enough frosts and freezes to nip those sassy buds and precocious peaches. Plants that know better, Yellow Jasmine and Wild Azaleas, knew to wait.

A thousand miles to the north, Punxsutawney Phil, that famous groundhog, predicted an early spring. I had my hopes, but didn’t bank on it. My misgivings were correct. I won’t be surprised if they fire that groundhog and replace him with another who can predict more accurately. But maybe it’s not his fault. Remember, my Dog Fennel was wrong, too.

Fortunately, we didn’t suffer the backlash of winter that hit our northern neighbors. No blizzards, but we did get a little snow, a few flurries that only the more adventurous caught before they melted to nothing. I missed the snowfall because it’s warmer in the woods where I live. If a few flakes drifted as far as the tree canopy, they never hit the ground.

Plants that hadn’t been fooled by our fickle weather stayed huddled in winter dormancy. When I gave my talk on Wild Eating to a neighboring garden club, the only thing I could find to eat was a pine tree. The usual weeds prudently remained in hibernation. At least we were able to enjoy a delicious pine needle tea.

Among leafless gray trunks of the woods and swamps, the Red Maples ignored warm days, cold nights, and the predictions of other species and blazed deep scarlet at their usual time. They’ve lived in Florida long enough not to be influenced by the uncertainties of what we call winter. You see, in Florida, seasons are backwards. Here, maple trees turn colorful in spring, not so much in fall. Soon their little helicopter seeds rained down into yard and flower pot alike and I have little maple trees coming up everywhere.

Then came March. Warm days of sunshine and short sleeved shirts, pollen from oaks and pines coating everything yellow, sending sensitive people to the doctor. I entered my best houseplants in the county fair. When I brought them home afterward, they begged to be left outdoors. They love the heat and humidity of summer. It reminds them of their jungle origins. In summer, they thrive on fresh rainwater and ask for no fertilizer. But they complain about the cool dry air of the winter house and need much coaxing to keep up appearances until fair time. It was the Ides of March. Was winter over? Against my better judgement, I left my tropical babies outside. Guess what—another cold front, nights in the 30’s. I brought the most vulnerable into the house and left the more hardy out. They weren’t happy, but they survived.

When I heard the first Whippoorwill, I knew spring had finally arrived. These aren’t really whippoorwills but that’s what we call them. They are actually Chuck-wills-widow, a cousin of the whippoorwill. Their song is not musical (Marjorie Rawlings described it as, “Chip hell out of the red oak”) but it’s unique and most welcome in March.

I love the light the sun sends in late winter—bright, unencumbered by foliage and haze, intense, almost silvery. It surrounds everything, leaving no shadows. Maybe that’s the cue. Buds began to plump. My Wild Azaleas bloomed, filling the woods with their sweet bouquet.

Then literally overnight, everything burst with color. A few trees tentatively put out green leaves. When no harm came to the early bloomers, other trees followed suit. Wildflowers have began to blossom. Yellow Primrose now decorates the dirt road from evening till noon. Phlox carpets the sunny roadsides and Lyre Leaf sage has turned the shady areas blue.  Before I knew what happened, my sunny yard transformed into a shady forest. Birds of more species than I can describe wake me with their morning songs.

I don’t know why Spring surprises me with its arrival. It happens this way every year. One day the oaks are bare, the next they are attired in spring green. Soon, the green will darken, the shade in my yard deepen, and heat and humidity will come home to stay. My tropical house plants will flourish, as will mosquitoes, and my human neighbors will wilt and hibernate in their air conditioning.

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Almost all my life I have been fortunate to live in the country where wild trees are available for Christmas. The area I lived in as a child used to be dairy country. Once there must have been a dozen small dairy farms within a mile of our house. Through the years, one by one, they went out of business. Today, I doubt any remain in operation.

Back in the day when houses were heated with firewood, farmers maintained wood lots to ensure a steady source. My grandparents had more trees on their farm than many – havens for climbing grandchildren and shady places for the cows in summer. Most farmers seemed to begrudge the few square feet under trees where grass and crops would not grow and kept their pastures and hay fields cleared. Hence the importance of wood lots. When my father was a boy, he planted a corner of the farm in trees as a 4-H project. By the time I was old enough to play in the woods, his trees had attained some size, but young trees, just right for Christmas, grew from seeds they dropped.

There was no thought of buying a Christmas tree. We went to the woodlot and cut one of suitable size. A variety were available: pine, spruce, fir, and hemlock. As my brothers and I grew big enough, we would harvest the tree without adult assistance.

One year sticks out in my mind. I must have been twelve or thirteen. Grandma and Grandpa Masters lived over the hill in Finch Hollow. Grandpa hunted in the woods behind their house. That year he spotted several perfect trees on their property and offered us one. We had hiked cross-lots to their place in summer and thought it would be no problem to haul a tree over the hill on a sled.

But this was winter and snow was knee deep. We got over the hill OK and up to Grandpa’s woods where we selected our tree, cut it, and tied it on the sled. We warmed up in Grandma’s kitchen, sipping hot cocoa, before we pulled the sled down through the hollow and tackled the big hill. Wading through grass and brush in summer is one thing. Struggling through snow tangled in grass and brush is another. Cold as we were, asking for help was out of the question as we could not lose face. Besides, we were a good distance from any road and no one had snowmobiles. We made it over the hill and through the fields to our house, tree and all,  frozen to the bone, but proud. And happy once we warmed up and put on dry clothes.

Our first Christmas in Florida, we lived in the Ocala National Forest where sand pines grow. Not as nice as fir or spruce, nevertheless, with their short needles and dense growth, the young ones make suitable Christmas trees.

Then I grew up and moved on. Today I live in pine flatwoods, too wet for sand pines but host to other varieties: long leaf, loblolly, and slash pine. While these grow into beautiful adult trees, they have long needles and their branch whorls are at least a foot apart. The saplings look like Charlie Brown Christmas trees, but when dressed in lights, ornaments, and tinsel, they are as pretty as any store-bought.

A few years when I had the money, I bought fragrant fir trees from a lot at a friend’s church. After they went out of the Christmas trees business, I resumed cutting trees from my woods or a neighbor’s. Occasionally we had cedar trees. They are very pretty with dense foliage to rival any spruce, but the branches are prickly. You almost need gloves to decorate them or your hands end up looking like you’ve been picking blackberries.

This year, my son Joel and his family spent Christmas with me. Did the children want me to buy a tree? No. The Spirit of Christmas Trees Past spoke to them. They remembered previous Christmas times when they accompanied me to find a tree. It was fun. It was tradition. That was what they wanted.

I was so busy with holiday preparations, Joel took the children out to the abandoned pasture behind my house. They were gone a long time, tromping through marsh and blackberry brambles, but fortunately no snow. They brought back the perfect tree. Almost perfect. One side had few branches, so we set it against the wall. The children helped me trim it, and I believe it is the prettiest Christmas tree I’ve ever had.

Is it the commercialization of Christmas that drives us back to old practices that have little place in modern life? What practical purpose does a Christmas tree serve? Besides the time and expense, I’m required to rearrange furniture to make room for a place to pile gifts. A table would do as well. Boxes of ornaments are hauled from the attic and hung on the tree. Not to mention the mess, tinsel and pine needles all over the floor. After Christmas, everything must be undone and put away. And why cut a living tree? A tree-hugger like myself should shun the practice, but I have never been drawn to artificial trees.

If only a fresh tree will do, I can afford to buy a pretty, well shaped fir which was grown for this purpose and whose scent is unequaled. But like my grandchildren, I am drawn to the woods this time of year, to bear the cold and brambles, to harvest a tree and bring it into my home. It has meaning beyond the large decoration crowding my living room. It is a connection with the Earth, with my roots. It keeps me centered and gives life a meaning that cannot be expressed in words.

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