When we moved from Woodside, Queens to this first-ring suburb of Rochester, we were smitten with the idea of having a yard. A place to grow food! Feed birds! Put up a hammock! Play with a dog! Plant a tree! We did all of those things, and in short order. At this point I cannot even remember which thing we did first. But I do remember when the tree went in: September 2006. We bought a young purple-robed black locust and had it delivered and planted.
It was a memorable event, in part because of the miniature earthmoving equipment that squeezed through our, at that time, only gate to the backyard. There were four or five guys doing the work of tree planting. At least one had a shirt on that said “Ask me!” on the back. And so I did. I asked him about the lilac and the forsythia and the dogwood. I asked him about the rudbeckia and the euonymus and the spiraea. I put my faith in his shirt and in his ability to answer my every plant-related question. And some unrelated-to-plants questions. He was kind and informative.
However, he neglected to warn me about the tree we had bought, and he wittingly had planted in our yard. In all honesty, I probably did not ask the right questions. I remember asking how often we should water it and for how long. Every day and until the heavy frosts, said he. I remember asking how long it would need the stakes and cables to hold it straight. You can remove them in a year, said he. I remember asking if it would grow quickly and provide a little welcome shade for an upstairs room that can be the hottest in the house in summer. Oh yes, but not too quickly, and its shade will be dappled and cool, said he. I remember asking what we should do if the tree did not seem to be faring well. Call this number, describe the problem, and we will take care of it, said he.
The crew left, the tree thrived, and we grew to love it. Its shade was dappled and cool. Its blossoms were beautiful, smelled sweet and attracted pollinators. We named it Loki and planted a ring of tulip bulbs around its base. It nearly doubled in size the first year, and each year after we would look at it and marvel that just a few short years ago it had traveled on the back of a truck, through our little gate and into our backyard. How could that be? It was so very big. And last August, just as the fifth anniversary of its arrival approached, a windy thunderstorm split it into three big pieces and we had to cut it down.
We were sad about that. Grieved, even. Over the winter we talked about what variety we might plant in its place. I found a volunteer tulip tree in a flower bed, and in the autumn I moved it near to the underground stump of Loki. In mid-January a rabbit found it and ate its tender self to the ground. During this stressful spring with all its time-sucking demands, I occasionally stole in a tour of the perimeters of the yard, looking for other volunteer trees. It is an odd year when there are no black walnuts coming up, but this is one of those years.
Then, to our wonder and surprise, a volunteer! Right where Loki had been. A black locust poking up through the mulched remains of its parent. We quickly cordoned it off to keep the dog from defiling it. A few days later, another one appeared. And then a cluster of three, all within the confines of the little fence. Then two more, just outside the fence. I began to be suspicious. Would these survive? Were they worth nurturing? Or were they going to be a nuisance? And so I turned to the research tool of convenience: Google and the internet.
Here is what I learned. The black locust is more than just a beautiful tree. It is a pernicious, invasive weed. It is some of the hardest wood available. Farmers have used it as fence posts for years, using cedar as rails. The cedar must be replaced periodically. The black locust posts? Sometimes grow roots and sprout leaves. If we were to let the little trees grow and flower, they would probably put out white blooms rather than the purple-pink we enjoyed. And wherever Loki’s roots run, there will be suckers. Until we dig up the roots in their entirety, there will be suckers. I am daily (daily!) astonished at how far the roots run. Well past the circumference of the reach of its branches. I can feel some of them just under the surface when I walk on the lawn wearing my well-worn canvas shoes. And as I trace them underfoot, I am finding suckers. Everywhere. I hear there’s one born every minute!