Science Says, What's Happening

Sweet Land of Liberty, from Salvisa to Sanibel


Painted palms on Sanibel Island

Painted palms on Sanibel Island

Two weeks ago, while stuck at winter’s ugly intersection of “alternative facts” and grays skies, I sat patiently and watched the red light flash green.

It dried out, and the sun shone for a day.

“I think I can, I think I can,” I began muttering. In a manic burst, I dug three small trees. They were lifted and moved to life everlasting—or for what I hope will be, at least, a couple of generations of farm life in Salvisa, KY.

The deeply loved, uprooted trees were an American elm and two ginkgoes. They began life as city trees, their origins a matter of fate.

1975 Liberty Tree stamp. Photo Netfali/Shutterstock

1975 Liberty Tree stamp. Photo Netfali/Shutterstock

The American elm originated as a nontrivial, wind-borne seedling. For 15 years I’d ignored hundreds of elm seedlings in our Louisville garden. Now I wondered, where was the source of this massive elm seed bombing?

Note to Allen: It pays to look up once in awhile, instead of staring at the ground for stray weeds.

I’d never noticed the regal princess before—just two doors down the street from us. The magnificent American elm (Ulmus americana) was possibly planted in the 1930s, when our neighborhood, near the Olmsted-designed Cherokee Park, was first being developed. Hundreds of thousands of American elms were planted around the same time, all across temperate North America. The elm was promoted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the Liberty Tree. How could you go wrong planting a patriotic shade tree with the unrivaled graceful vase-shaped habit of the American elm? And then the Dutch elm disease struck, wiping out all but a tiny percentage of disease-resistant survivors.

Our Sweet Land of Liberty elm survived the Dutch elm disease and the historic 1974 tornado that tore up Cherokee Park.

The elm leans against a streetlight, creaking when the wind blows. Scattered clusters of evergreen mistletoe stay hidden in the tree’s broad canopy until the leaves fall in October.

I dug a few seedlings that sprouted in our garden and planted them in a nurse bed. Two years later I planted the pick of the litter adjacent to the black barn on a western sloping hillside above the Salt River, on our farm in Salvisa. I watered, weeded and mulched the tree for another two years before I decided it was time to move the elm one more time. The 48” skinny elm now stands staked in a young grove of blackgums, maples, oaks and tulip poplars near Vanarsdall Road.

Gingko seeds.

Gingko seeds.

My two little gingkoes started life as seeds scrounged from the base of a beautiful 150-year-old hermaphroditic beauty in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery. Hermaphroditic Gingko? Confused? Life is confusing. Let me explain.

The male tree (gingkoes are typically male or female) took years to come out of the closet.

A female witches’ broom occurred spontaneously, high up in the male tree. (A witches’ broom looks like, well, a broom without the stick.) Even though the species is extinct in the wild, Ginkgo biloba has a survival technique that can trigger a hermaphroditic response that helps protect the survival of the species when individual clones are isolated. (Try tampering with that, Alt-Right!) The species had even survived on the sacred grounds of Asian temples.

Story and Rose with the Cave Hill Cemetery Gingko. October 29, 2015.

Story and Rose with the Cave Hill Cemetery Gingko. October 29, 2015.

At Cave Hill Cemetery, the dominant male portion of the tree, a hundred years or more after its planting, began raining pollen on the pistils (sexual female receptacles) of the peculiar female flowering witches’ broom. Sweet joy of fecundity! Seeds matured. Botanically speaking: This is a HUGE evolutionary phenomenon.

Sanibel sea grape, Coccoloba uvifera.

Sanibel sea grape, Coccoloba uvifera.

Rose, Aunt Rose and I arrived on Sanibel Island, Florida late last week. It was 80 F (27 C). It was a balmy 68 F (20 C) in Salvisa, KY. (Would I feel better if it were cold and nasty at home while we were away?)

Palms, mangroves and sea grapes surround me for another week. I can’t stop thinking about the blooming snowdrops, witch hazels and hellebores I left behind in Kentucky.

And the oaks and sassafras I could have planted.




Posted by on February 15, 2017 at 7:46 am, in the category Science Says, What's Happening.

8 responses to “Sweet Land of Liberty, from Salvisa to Sanibel”

  1. Yes, Alan, I’m sure it would have been nice if the weather in Kentucky is worse. I was in Sarasota a few days and it was warmer in Kansas than Sarasota. All I kept thinking about was all the spring chores I could be doing.

  2. Joe Schmitt says:

    Susan, with your new found free time might I suggest allying with “Poultry for Foxes”? I think you will find them muy simpatico (apologies for the missing accent).

  3. susan cruz says:

    I will protect to the death your right to say, or interject, what ever wisdom, experience, or silliness that crosses your mind. But don’t delude yourself that you do not often make an ass of yourself. These days I see your name attached and have to remind myself that I get little in return for your opportunity to be offensive. I won’t make that mistake again.
    Sign me :
    Latina for Trump . Ahhhhhhhh, President Trump

  4. Stuart says:

    Thank you for this post. What a wonderful thing a tree is.

  5. Cindy Keller says:

    I enjoyed reading your post. We have a large elm tree near our street that provides a lot of shade. It is still growing strong and we love it. To be true, I also cannot help but admire that picture with the gingko tree. It looks simply majestic and towering with its big and strong tree trunks. Finally, I get to see what a gingko tree looks like. Thanks!

  6. Louise Gray says:

    Next time I get to Louisville I hope to take a Botanical tour of Cave Hill.

  7. I grew up on streets lined with elm trees – all gone now except in my memory. My neighbor had an elm which sadly suffered a split trunk when a big wind came through in 2012 and twisted it. I miss the shade it cast in my yard, so last year planted a Triumph Elm (Ulmus ‘Morton Glossy’) that will someday shade my deck.

  8. Laura Munoz says:

    I had no idea ginkoes could be hermaphrodites or that they lived so long. Looks like a magnificent tree. It’s great the mother elm tree and most likely the young elms you saved are immune to Dutch elm disease. Love elms.

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