by Jeremie Fant
That I chose a species I once hated for my first “Plant love Story” was a surprise even to me. However, given the thin line which separates love from hate, maybe it was to be expected. Yet it was clear as I was thinking of a subject for this story, the one image I keep returning to was a small tree growing in the thin strip of garden which separated our driveway from our neighbor’s. This tree stood around 40 feet tall, straddling the two sides of the property. It was unfazed by the harsh concrete environment that surrounded it. You would think I would admire the stamina and resilience of such a tree. Yet, the more this young botanist uncovered new fascinating aspects of the plant world, the more I found this tree (Callistemon citrinus, or crimson bottlebrush), planted on almost every street corner in Australia, to be overly vulgaris – common, and therefore unworthy of my affections.
I was not the only one who disliked this tree. My neighbor, who was after the non-existent award for the cleanest driveway, spent many hours in vain, sweeping all the dead leaves and seedpods that spilled onto his side. Yet the ones whose passion-fueled fury exceed both of ours was the pandemonium of parrots which descended on its branches annually. Every year for a couple of months, the tree was filled with gaudy red flowers that clashed with the light blue Australian sky. It taunted these small green parrots, like a flag to a bull and filled them with rage. Heralding their arrival with a deafening battle cry, they would gather en masse before they tore at the tree, shredding the flowers, sucking up nectar, and sending debris in all directions. They would work for hours, crying out with their ear piercing cries as they attacked the tree. Once the flowering ended, the parrots would leave, and the ravaged tree, now flowerless, would stand tall, and proud as always, and continue to grow a little more, building its reserves to do it all again the next year.
As I grew as a botanist, I began to value the significance of this tree and its rituals. The more I appreciated the wonders and complexity of pollination, the more I admire this tree. The effort it goes to ensure reproductive success is nothing short of amazing. Angry parrots, disgruntled neighbors, a conceited young botanist and the concrete jungle are nothing to this tree and its biological imperative to reproduce. Those proverbial birds and the bees are mere pawns in its evolutionary game. This tree is no longer with us, although I am sure its progeny are scattered throughout my childhood suburb, yet it is firmly embedded in my memory and there is nothing more I can do than love this tree I once hated.
Jeremie is a botanist working at the Chicago Botanic Garden. He teaches Conservation Genetics as part of Plant Biology and Conservation Program at Northwestern. He was born in France but raised in Adelaide, Australia, which was where his love of the natural world developed. He attended Waite Institute of the University of Adelaide (B.Ag.Sc), Cambridge University (Ph.D./Postdoc) and Michigan State (Postdoc) before starting at the gardens. He loves all things plant related – eating, cooking, hiking, drawing and gardening.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons