Spring is in the air, which means the ash and cherry trees in my back yard are about to renew their perennial gromance.
Their affection arose nearly seven years ago, when I planted the van semi-dwarf cherry – a modest-sized tree, $30 at Walmart — a scant five feet from the ash, a slender but hardy volunteer that had sprung from the earth some years earlier. It towered over the cherry, which was then perhaps four feet tall.
It’s now easily three times that height, with a speckled trunk thick as a thigh and a graceful assortment of branches from which buds begin to emerge at this time each year. The ash – which is slower to leaf out — has grown, too, though it’s now only a few feet taller than the cherry.
I’ve noticed the cherry’s happiness – that’s the word that feels right – in part because a second cherry tree I planted carefully at the same time not 30 yards away struggled for several years and then died, though given to similar soil, sun and irrigation.
The cherries were different varieties, the second a stella. But as I watched the van thrive and the stella falter, the latter’s malaise seemed less varietal and more emotional. I perceived her as lonely. Rooted in the side yard, the stella had only a pear tree for company, and – ignorant, then, of arboreal affection – I planted them a good 20 yards apart.
This will sound fantastic to you only if you don’t know the work of forester Peter Wohlleben, whose book The Hidden Life of Trees became a sensation in his native Germany. According to Wohlleben, who worked 20 years for the country’s forestry commission, trees are social beings who form friendships, though these relationships proceed largely out of human view as roots and fungi mingle and communicate.
Yet signs of affection are sometimes visible. Years ago on my Michigan farm, I watched a spindly birch grow enfolded within a towering blue spruce, where it was visible only in the fall, when its leaves went golden. A professional gardener friend here in Colorado describes the loveliness of a pair of 60-foot trees – a conifer and a cottonwood — whose trunks grow entwined in a skyward embrace along the Frying Pan River, near Basalt. And my cherry and ash appear to be directing their thickest branches away from each other, a friendly configuration Wholleben believes is designed to avoid stealing each other’s sun.
Of course, the notion of relationships between plants presents the possibility of bad relationships. Virginia creeper will readily trellis up trees and shrubs, using its tendrils to scale their branches. Like a clingy lover, this woody vine has serious boundary issues, competing for water and sunshine; in extreme instances, it will strangle its host, unless the tree gets therapy or a restraining order. Nonetheless, the greenery of trellis trees teamed with scarlet five-pointed creeper leaves — vines loaded with deep blue berries — makes a pretty picture each fall, not unlike Brangelina before things went south.
Thankfully my ash and cherry evince no competition, despite their close proximity. They keep easy company, amiably sharing water and sun, whispering encouragement to each other in their modest tree language.
This last I imagine, but powerfully enough that I recently moved a struggling, solitary hawthorn from my lower back yard to the still-soft earth in the side yard where the stella had been. And there I planted it, near a single living offshoot of the cherry left behind when I removed her tired root ball.
Relationships are unpredictable; perhaps their closeness will make no difference. But I like the possibility that it was lack of a friend — not poor soil nor lack of water — that troubled the sickly hawthorn no less than the little cherry that died. And that this year, a new gromance will blossom in my yard, and they will be well.