A new dress for an old tree

It's a dilemma: What to do with a bare tree in the backyard that a neighbor thinks is ugly?

"What are you going to do about that tree?" my neighbor asked. Her eyebrows arched over the lilac hedge that separated our yards.

During a dozen years of living in the city, my most pressing horticultural concerns had been some cactuses and a pothos plant I set out on the fire escape during warm summers.

But with the move to a rustic country abode, I had acquired a sizable yard framed by forsythia hedges and other shrubbery.

Although my tools were shiny and new, my gardening skills felt rusty. I needed to brush up on my pruning techniques and figure out the right time to prune the various overgrown bushes. Hours spent snipping, trimming, and taming left me with a new appreciation for topiary gardens.

But I had neglected advice to spray the cherry tree. It had been planted for Barbara, the former schoolteacher who had raised her family in this house. She must have been fond of white, as spring and summer not only ushered in the cherry blossoms but also two giant white azaleas out front, white roses in the side garden, and a white hydrangea lurking behind a shed.

The cherry tree suffered its lack of attention in silence until one day in August. In a sudden fit, the foliage turned stark brown and the tree unceremoniously dropped all its leaves.

Hmm, untimely shedding is a symptom, I thought. Guilt flickered as I walked around the bald specimen, but my lazy side murmured: Let nature take its course.

The truth was, birds always greedily harvested the fruit (I didn't wrap the tree in protective netting, as I had been told). And its position at the front edge of the vegetable patch blocked my view. I also hesitated to spray chemicals so close to the tomatoes and herbs.

Now the bare tree looked as though it were an intended sculpture. I could appreciate its aesthetic form, its intricacy of knobs, and the weave of its branches.

One day, I noticed that the naked tree glinted and shined in the sun. Upon inspection, I found it covered with the woven filament strands of spider silk. I imagined a troupe of arachnid trapeze artists performing all night.

At other times, the tree came alive with color when a tableau of birds assembled, as if posing for a formal Audubon portrait. Blue jays, a cardinal, a crow, and robins all would perch fleetingly together, causing my cat to stare transfixed out the porch window.

Then, when I was browsing at an antique store, I encountered a metal tree sculpture complete with small metallic birds cast on its bare branches. I laughed out loud.

After that, I started envisioning my own unused prop at home. A friend related that – inspired by nature – he had once painted a dead tree in vibrant colors. Tree theater of sorts.

Then I hit upon a grand floral idea.

I love the Heavenly Blue morning glory, which I always recall being entwined on rural fence posts. Along with the sweet perfume of honeysuckle, the sight of this flower conjures up thoughts of open fields, bird sounds, and the background hum of insects on a warm day.

My first spring at the country house, my friend's son, Jack, pitched a ball of twine over the side portico facing east to make a trellis, and we placed pots of robust morning glories on either side of the doorway.

But before long the bower grew so densely, I could no longer open the door.

The tree, however, offered a perfect scaffold. A garden stake helped start a tiny morning glory vine up to the lowest branch, and soon the naked tree had a new dress to wear.

The rapid speed that the vine climbed astonished me. Each day, over my morning coffee, I saw progress. And the blue trumpets gloriously matched the sky in color.

Now that it's winter, the tree is bare once again. I imagine its shape as ornate as a candelabrum, snow-etched and stoic.

Or maybe, I suddenly think, it's a promising candidate to light up the neighborhood – aglow with twinkling lights.

I'd better go check for an outlet.

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