YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Barking Up the Wrong Tree : His 'Alders' Were a Pain, but Now That They're Maples They're Special

December 29, 1985|JACK SMITH

I am used to seeing my name in a big newspaper, but it is still a thrill to find it mentioned favorably in the neighborhood press.

So I was thrilled not long ago to read in a Mt. Washington newsletter that my wife and I have two lovely deciduous trees that add to the beauty of our hill.

The article was by Elna Bakker, the distinguished naturalist and author of "An Island Called California" (UC Press), an ecological introduction to the natural wonders of our state. Elna happens to be a neighbor of ours, and she probably knows more about the vegetation on our hill than anyone else.

Referring to our place as "Jack's corner," she noted:

"The two lovely trees, watered during the summer, that shade his house are box elders (Acer negundo) , one of the few winter deciduous trees of California. It grows along streams and rivers in many parts of the state, and it is botanically interesting as well as beautiful.

"It is a true maple, in spite of its name, and so is a rare tree type in the West. Though Eastern states have a dozen or so native maples, California has only two wild maple trees: big-leaf maple and box elder . . . . Its fruits are double-winged seeds which, caught by the wind, are carried to suitable streamside sites where they can germinate and grow. Box elder is one of only two kinds of trees that are found in both California and throughout the United States. . . .

"And it is a delightful reminder that fall is really here. About this time of year the deeply incised leaves of Jack's box elders change from rich green to a handsome brocade of bronze and yellow before they fall to become the care of Denise and her gardener." (Denise, of course, is my wife.)

"Incidentally, I wonder if the little box elder that has sprung up in my garden could have come from a seed that drifted downwind from Jack's corner to my waterfall. I'd like to think so!"

I hardly dare to tell Elna that her timely eulogy may have saved those lovely box elders from extinction. My wife, as Elna suggests, has had to sweep up the leaves every fall, and she has begun to wonder whether the trees are worth the effort.

I have never helped. It is my opinion that the leaves look lovely in the street--a handsome brocade of bronze and yellow--that they are not a traffic hazard, and that there is no reason to sweep them up. They are light and organic; in time they will blow away and be returned to the earth.

But my wife's old-fashioned ideas of tidiness compel her to sweep them up, year after year. Actually, I love the light scraping sound of her rake on the street, and this annual ritual is not altogether unpleasant for me.

Until Elna identified the trees, we had no idea that they were box elders. We had called them alders .

They have a rather sordid history. It began more than 30 years ago when an old colleague of mine at the Herald-Express, Wallace X. Rawles, invited us out to his place in El Monte one Sunday afternoon. Wally had about an acre of jungle, including several of what he called "alder trees." They were prolific. Numerous seedlings had just popped up out of the ground.

After several beers, Wally insisted that we dig up half a dozen seedlings and take them home in our convertible. I don't care about digging, but my wife loves digging and she loves trees, so she dug them up and put them in cans and put them in the convertible while Wally and I drank some more beer. By the way, my wife drove home.

She got home with four seedlings, which she planted inside the sidewalk on the north side of our house. They grew. And grew. Finally they were crowding each other, and we had to have two of them removed, at great expense.

Today, the two remaining trees are enormous. They not only shade the north side of the house, which doesn't need it, but also overhang the street, dropping sticky leaves on any car that happens to be parked there.

So I am delighted to know that they are box elders, and one of the few winter deciduous trees in California. Our place seems to be a haven for rarities (it is the only place west of the Mississippi River where the common grackle has been sighted).

What excites me about this discovery about the box elders is its verification that we in Los Angeles live in an Eden. Almost anything dropped in the soil will grow here, and our ordinary streets, lined with relatively inexpensive houses, become botanical gardens, almost automatically, with little or no effort by the tenants.

I'm sure that Wallace X. Rawles would be proud to know that one of his seedlings had fathered a seedling by Elna Bakker's waterfall.

Los Angeles Times Articles