Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Lady Bird Johnson; or, yet another mystery tree

One of the roads I take to get to and from work is lined with distinctive-looking trees. They're slim and sinewy, with a high, spreading crown, and rough gray bark. Here's what they look like:


And up close (a view of a knotty joint):


Their most distinctive feature is their leaves, which are dark, glossy green on the top, and bright, matte copper on the underside. When the wind blows and they turn over in great waves, the tree looks like it is made of beaten metal. Here is a view of the leaves which shows the contrast between the velvety underside and the smooth top of the leaves:


My former landlady Virginia (z"l) once told me that these trees were an African variety, planted during the Johnson administration under Lady Bird Johnson's beautification campaign, and chosen because they do not drop their leaves and thus create less mess. I don't know how true this is: for one thing, the trees do drop a purplish-black, olive-shaped fruit, which creates a mess of crushed fruit on the sidewalk. For another, these trees don't look big enough to be forty years old, unless the variety in question is extraordinarily slow-growing. In the tropics we are used to fast-growing tree varieties like the monkeypod and other leguminous trees, which can grow to immense size in a hundred years or less, so that giant trees around the city, which look as though they must be four or five hundred years old, are actually considerably younger. This must be a very slow-growing type. But of course, I don't have any idea what kind of tree they are. Do any of you?

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