We marvel at the antiquity of the Roman Colosseum, yet its longevity pales in comparison with the oldest living tree, which has survived more than twice as long as the venerable arena. If he really wanted to leave something for posterity, Emperor Vespasian should have planted a bristlecone pine. Better yet, he could have grown one from seed. It would have more meaning that way.
If you’ve never considered starting anything but vegetables and flowers from seed, I urge you to try trees. For one thing, it will teach you about patience. Good things do come to those who wait. Some American chestnut trees I planted a decade ago started bearing their first crop last fall. Those nuts are now sprouting in pots on my kitchen table, giving birth to a new generation. In a matter of speaking, I’m a grandfather.
Another draw to raising trees from seed is the feeling of empowerment it brings. Say you’re walking in the woods and see an acorn on the ground. Chances are, it’s either going to dry out, have its embryo eaten by a borer, or become a snack for a squirrel. Even if it germinates, it’s likely to be browsed by deer or shaded into oblivion by larger trees. Yet when you pick up that acorn, take it home, and plant it, you’re giving life to something that probably wouldn’t have survived otherwise. Now that’s something to hang your hat on.
It would be hard to find a more touching way to commemorate a milestone in life than with a tree you’ve personally nurtured from infancy. I’m talking about occasions such as births, baptisms, bar mitzvahs, graduations, and weddings. Now think how much more meaningful it would be if the tree were connected to the event — say, a crab apple that blooms at the time of a first communion or a maple that originated from a tree growing in the bride’s childhood yard. It’s not a novel idea. Generations of Japanese planted a princess tree (Paulownia spp.) upon the birth of a baby girl, then cut it down to make a chest for her dowry upon marriage.
My father was a big believer in using trees to celebrate life’s momentous events. He planted a tree in the front yard for every one of his seven children, later encouraging us to care for the trees and plant flowers around them. And whenever friends or relatives moved into a new house, Dad was there with a tree to commemorate the occasion. While he didn’t sprout them from seed, he often dug up saplings (with permission, of course) from interesting places such as monasteries and favorite vacation spots. Having a story behind each tree always made it more special.
Stories and sentiments lend significance to even the most modest of seedlings. As proof, I need look no further than a trip home a few years ago. I was visiting my parents’ grave site and found tiny oaks sprouting among the Pachysandra. The tender seedlings couldn’t have been more than 3 inches tall, so I carefully potted them up and brought them back to Iowa. Those oaks are now 3 feet tall and are among my most cherished possessions. Someday I’ll plant a memorial grove for my folks — consisting solely of trees that originated a thousand miles away on a secluded hillside in a cemetery.
Raising a tree from seed is the chance to grow a piece of history, whether it’s a slice of family heritage or a monument to the ages like a 4,733-year-old bristlecone pine in the mountains of California. It doesn’t matter whether you’re remembering a person or place from the past, or acknowledging a joyous event in the present. In the end, you’re leaving something for the future.