May 31, 2007
A few months before Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, I visited author Anne Rice's house in the Garden District neighborhood of New Orleans. During Mardi Gras, people throw strings of beads out of windows and off of balconies, covering everything including street lights where the beads remain for weeks to months.. A sculpture in Rice's garden of a young goddess (flora?), was wearing several strands of shiny beads. (left) I found it an especially touching coincidence, in the aftermath of the flood here in New Jersey, to see a young tree with a string of silver beads caught amongst the debris at its base. (below, right)
Things are settling down, but as of this writing, there are still two-foot-high sand dunes on the open circle of cropped meadow.
The day before the flood, I planted 13 trees. One was a sapling from a mail-order nursery. 12 were transplants from a "splinter nursery" bed where I had been holding them since they were seedlings. Four were paper birch (Betual papifera) that went to high ground by the driveway, and eight were sweet birch (B. lenta), the source of birch beer. I planted those trees by the path, so that when I pass this spot with visitors, I can snap off a twig and share the sweet birch's aroma -- a blend of wintergreen, cherry and the dominant aroma we think of as root beer - it even smells fizzy.
Root beer has its origins in what is referred to as "small beers." Small beers are a collection of local beverages (some alcoholic, some not) made during colonial times in America from a variety of herbs, barks, and roots that included: birch beer, sarsparilla beer, ginger beer and root beer. Ingredients in early root beers included allspice, birch bark, coriander, juniper, ginger, wintergreen, hops, burdock root, dandelion root, spikenard, pipsissewa, guaiacum chips, sarsaparilla, spicewood, wild cherry bark, yellow dock, prickly ash bark, sassafras root, vanilla beans, hops, dog grass, molasses and licorice.
Charles Hires, a Philadelphia pharmacist, added carbonation to an herbal tea made from a recipe containing twenty-five herbs, berries and roots. He introduced his brew to the public at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exhibition. A & W Root Beer, now the number one selling root beer in the world, was founded by Roy Allen, who began marketing his concoction in 1919.
to my thirteen, newly planted trees: During the flood, I ventured out
into the downpour to check on the trees. Two of the four paper birch
were knocked over by the wind and rain. I managed to right them, stake
and tie them. I looked for the little tree from the mail order nursery,
but couldn't find it. Just for the heck of it, I plunged my arm into
the rushing water where I had planted the tree, and low and behold, it
was there, on its side, stuck in some dried weeds. (My neighbor Jill
was yelling at me to get the heck out of the flood waters.)
As for the sweet birch, planted right in the wake of the rushing water, two remained where I planted them. One was held in place by a nearby rock that also diverted the force of the water. A second one remained in place because a concrete block, delivered over the stone wall by the flood, settled at its base. I discovered a third, fourth, fifth and sixth stuck in shrubs and covered by debris. One week later, I found the tallest, an eight-foot tree, inside the limbs of a young dawn redwood. I planted it at once and it is alive, leafing out and about a week behind the others.
But, you win some and you lose some. One of the birch trees seems to be gone, forever, perhaps nestling into a pocket of soil - sweetening some other piece of land downriver. I am afraid the nursery-bought tree is not looking good - it's looking dead.
Some times one has to just grin and bear it, kick back with a nice cold birch beer, and wait to see what nature has in store for the future. (Have I mentioned the profusion of bugs?)
Until next time,
P.S. You can purchase Boylan's Birch Beer and/or some really good ginger beers at the online store The Soda Shop or The Soda King.