Now is the Time for Planting Trees of Memory and Thanksgiving

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

In Austin, autumn is the time for planting. Trees and shrubs planted now settle into their new homes, spreading roots that will help them survive the heat and droughts of the coming summer. This year, following the events of September 11, many people are choosing to plant trees in memory of those whose lives were lost and to mark lives forever changed. Planting trees as memorials is an ancient practice. For countless generations, trees have symbolized the enduring, regenerative forces of nature. They mark time in their stately fashion offering us not only the coolness of their shade but the assuredness that the cycles of life will indeed continue.

A tree should be chosen carefully, especially one intended as a memorial. We should look for varieties that will last and not create problems for someone else down the road. For years here in Austin, most of the trees sold in the chain nurseries were fast growing weedy species intended for our quick gratification culture. Homeowners around the city are now dealing with the literal fall-out of these poor choices as diseases, insects, and windstorms take their toll. The following list of trees features only species that are disease resistant and likely to be long-lived pleasures.

Choosing the right tree means picking one that is right for the site. Most city and suburban lots are not well suited to towering giants that will dominate house and garden. Instead, in these limited space times, we should look to varieties that will attain a moderate height and yet still provide the kind of stature one expects from a real tree. Three of my favorites for smaller settings include the bigtooth maple, lacey (or blue) oak, and Chinese pistache.

The bigtooth maple is the maple of Lost Maples State Natural Area fame. This plant is an ice-age survivor that has held on in the canyons of the hill country since the retreat of the glaciers. Well adapted to caliche soils, big tooth maple also performs well in clay if the site is slightly elevated or the drainage has been improved. Bigtooth maples grow to about 30 feet tall and often provide spectacular fall color. I have seen the colors range from yellow to a purple-red. Choosing these trees now will help ensure getting a color that will please you.

Lacey oak is another hill country survivor. Its native range extends from the Lost Maples area all the way down to Central America. This slow growing little tree (twenty five - thirty feet tall) often has multiple trunks, but can be trained as a single trunk specimen. Lacey oaks are tough as nails and can survive on as little as twelve inches of rain per year. Resistant to the dreaded oak wilt disease, lacey oaks exhibit very few pest or disease problems. The foliage of the lacey oak is its big payoff, the leaf buds are red when they emerge in the spring and then turn a beautiful blue green color. The fall foliage can be spectacular, so again, try to select yours at this time of year.

The Chinese pistache is another tough customer, able to withstand Texas' worst weather. Folks say the leaves of this tree resemble those of a miniature pecan, I say it looks like a big sumac. Either way, it is an attractive plant that has a moderate rate of growth to forty feet tall. Chinese pistache can go through an 'awkward' phase when young and look a little spindly, but it matures into a tree with a solid form. The fall color of the Chinese pistache is a dependable red.

For folks with larger sized lots and a desire for truly grand trees, three native oaks are among the best choices- bur oak, chinquapin oak, and Monterrey oak (also called Mexican live oak.) All three of these trees are oak wilt resistant and are rarely troubled by pests. The bur oak has huge, deeply-lobed leaves and acorns that could choke a squirrel. When someone coined the phrase 'stout as an oak' this had to be the tree they were imagining. Bur oak is a stately giant well suited to areas with clay soils. The chinquapin oak can grow in either caliche or clay, and is my favorite of the big trees for Central Texas. I love the diamond shaped leaves and branching structure of the chinquapin. It is moderately fast growing and more upright than the bur oak, which tends to spread as far out as it grows up. Monterrey oak is the fastest growing of the big boys and is usually evergreen in our mild climate- I've seen it do well in caliche and clay. In cold years, it can turn a beautiful red before it loses its leaves.

Over the years, I have planted many memorial trees. I find the act healing in a very meaningful way. After they are in the ground, I step back and imagine their out-stretched branches filled with birdsong or the laughter of children climbing up to the top. I look at them as thanksgiving offerings for the person or event I wish to remember- even the most difficult person and the most troubling event, for in every passing or tragedy there is a hidden gift.

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