The June Tree

By Alice Darlington

Last summer, a client of my husband’s offered him a tulip poplar sapling from her yard in Portland, a volunteer from the magnificent tulip tree her father had planted years before. I have admired those trees ever since I first saw one in Virginia, but was surprised by the offer because I have seen very few tulip trees here in Maine and thought they needed that warmer climate.

Indeed, tulip poplars aren’t poplars at all, but belong to the magnolia family, definitely a more southern tree, but we visited the parent tree and its offspring and of course accepted! She insisted her tree man do the transplant in the fall, and we anxiously awaited its arrival. But fall was closing in on winter before it came. We returned home one day just before Thanksgiving to find it there, like a delicate princess in the garden, branches outstretched almost doing a pirouette. I immediately named it the June tree in honor of its donor and then found a small wooden cardinal ornament to hang in it through the winter, as a warning to the plowman and anyone else that there was now a sapling where previously snow could be piled.

There certainly was snow! I had to keep adding reflectors to warn the plow off, and we worried that so much snow might be too much for our southern belle. Finally, the snow was gone and we waited and waited. The parent tree and siblings in Portland put out leaves, but ours just showed plumping branch tips until pretty much this month, June. How appropriate that the June tree should put on its pretty saddle-shaped leaves in June! Two branches seem dead, but otherwise it is looking good. We visit it every day and encourage it to be happy where it is.

Curious how trees become such friends, and we worry over them like family. Not far from the June tree is our sugar maple, planted just before we got married 20 years ago. Each year, we have wondered how much longer until we could reach out and touch its branches from our deck. It has been our shade now for many years and the favorite vantage point for a hummingbird to survey the yard. However, now I notice many more dead branches around the hummingbird perch, a whole section, and although there are plenty of samaras, there are hardly any new leaves coming out. Why? I worry! Around to the side of the house, a beautiful blue spruce that had been put in 24 years ago finally had to be taken down as so many of its lower branches had died that to continue cutting them off would have left a lollipop spruce, totally demeaning for such an elegant tree! Spruce spider mites, the culprits we were told, pretty near invisible as they are about the size of this period.

Last year, the apple trees and even the cherries were infected with cedar-apple rust, as best I could determine. I sent samples of the yellow-spotted leaves to the orchard specialist with the Cooperative Extension in Monmouth. This year, the leaves are again becoming spotted and I don’t know what to do as I haven’t seen the growths or galls on either junipers or cedars in order to destroy them. Another worry.

Obviously, life is precarious, our own, and all those lives around us. I didn’t think much about this until I came to live here in Maine, but now that I actually see and appreciate my visible and invisible friends, I miss and I wonder about those that are gone. This year, for instance, American toads are missing from my deafening frog chorus. They used to start their long musical trills shortly after the peepers had followed the wood frogs. This year, I strain to hear toads among the gray tree frogs that have joined the peepers, but I haven’t heard them or seen them around the cool house foundation at night. Where are they?

Other missing friends are the American bittern, at least 15 years absent, and the three flute-like thrushes, the wood thrush, hermit thrush and veery. When I first came to Maine, the wood thrush was the only one I heard; a few years after, it was joined by hermit thrushes and last, veeries. It almost seemed as though wood thrushes faded into hermit thrushes and hermits into veeries — to fade out altogether for this year I haven’t heard a one.

Perhaps it’s just my ears but I know that change is inevitable. Populations move and change and displacement happens. In my lifetime, I have seen the same with human populations so I can’t be too surprised that other lives move around, change and die. I have a new example right now in our garden, the pretty tulip tree, the June tree, that seems to be settling in just fine a good deal farther north than was its range, a symbol of new life — and hope.

Alice Darlington is a resident of Casco.

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