Last season my Oxydendrum arboreum was pronounced unequivocally dead. The tree had shown warning signs of terminal illness for a couple of years. But I doggedly postponed the reckoning by pruning out defunct limbs, piecemeal, as they succumbed. Now, finally, I had to bid goodbye to a cherished companion of three and a half decades.
This native American’s common name is sourwood, or sorrel tree, but most gardeners I know use the botanical name. I had planted mine in 1978 on the front lawn, in prominent view from both the street and the window of my home office. Its graceful, arching posture was admired by all. Its marvelous show of cascading white blooms in midsummer and glistening red foliage in fall more than compensated for its late leafing-out in spring. Michael Dirr, the gardener’s guru for woody plants, calls it “truly an all-season ornamental; excellent specimen plant. . . many gardeners feel, among native trees, this is second only to flowering dogwood.”
To me the Oxydendrum wasn’t just a prized performer in my garden. It became an integral part of my family. Losing it was like saying farewell to a beloved pet dog or cat or horse, whose faithful presence rewarded the household for years.
Most experienced gardeners, I suspect, have similar reactions to the loss of a venerable fixture in the landscape. The loss of a short-lived plant can usually be shrugged off with minor regrets (more financial than emotional). The dud can be unsentimentally replaced, either with a fresh sample from a better source — try, try again! — or with an untried new specimen that seems more promising.
But parting with old-timers is genuine bereavement. The Oxydendrum joined a few unforgettable predecessors: a Cornus mas (Cornelian cherry dogwood), a Rhododendron schlippenbachii (Royal azalea), a Cornus alba elegantissima (variegated Tatarian dogwood), a San José holly (Ilex x. aquipernyi), cluster plantings of Charisma and Betty Prior floribunda roses, and an entire deer-ravaged border of multicolored hydrangeas.
Will I try to repeat any of these? Never! No more than I’d want to seek out a clone of a much-mourned animal as a “replacement” pet. I’ll value their memory, along with a few snapshots, as I try my luck with some unfamiliar novelties to fill the vacancies. That, indeed, is a major consolation: Each loss of a long-resident woody plant opens up a chance to experiment.
Another comfort is the persistence of some other golden oldies which so far have survived at least a quarter-century in my garden. I still cherish the majestic birches, the huge spreading apple, the sprawling weigela, the stately Viburnum sieboldii and wonderfully fragrant Viburnum carlesii, the brilliant Hino Crimson and Klondyke azaleas, the twice-blooming Syringa microphylla superba (littleleaf or daphne lilac), the gleaming Nelly Stevens hybrid holly, the imposing Persian parrotia. . . .
Yes, they’ve all survived. But will they still thrive? At this stage of life, they’re due for Medicare. Just like aging gardeners themselves, and older pets, plants benefit from more professional attention in their senior years.
So, to start off the new season, I set up a consultation with a tree-care specialist and ordered some therapeutic prescriptions. Now the frail, elderly denizens of my landscape can look forward to a bit more tender loving care than they were favored with in their boomer years.
Susan M. Seidman writes and gardens in
East Hampton; her most recent book is
“Cat Companions: A Memoir of Loving and Learning.”