Monday, September 30, 2013

The Hickory and the Tupelo

The Hickory and the Tupelo

I must admit I don’t actually know that the hickory and the tupelo ever left Halibut Point. I’m conjecturing from accounts, paintings and photographs of several centuries of occupational enterprise that devoured the woodlands of Cape Ann.

First came the coastal trade in lumber and cordwood that helped fund early colonial settlement. Gradually agriculture took hold on arable acres, culminating in the 19th century clearing of even marginal land for sheep pastures. And then the steam-powered quarry engines consumed firewood ravenously. How could there have been a tree standing on Halibut Point when the granite industry closed by 1930?

Yet the quarry rim today is vegetated, including the hickory and the tupelo. These are plants to be especially enjoyed now in the fall, the tupelo an early rich claret, the hickory coloring later to sunny yellow. You have to make their acquaintance in the wild. Since their tap-rooted natures make them difficult to transplant or grow in containers, they aren’t going to find their way to your home landscape through the nursery trade.

If horticulture didn’t restore them to their old domain, how did they regain that ground? Not by tossing seeds to the wind. And not, surely, by a tedious process of branches extending by inches, dropping fruit, which over the decades might extend more branches to drop fruit a bit further. Crawling forestation couldn’t give us today’s legacy in less than a century.

Last week while I was looking at the litter of nuts beneath a hickory, several more bounced down through the canopy to the scolding complaints of a red squirrel busily liberating them from upper branches. I was standing in his harvest, which he evidently planned to stash in distant storerooms below ground. Aha. A barter in the making. Hundreds of calories for red squirrels, but if the tree got even one nut to germinate over yonder, the hickory advance accelerated.        
Shagbark hickory nuts
The tupelo wasn’t advertising its dispersal technique to my casual eyes. In the manner of modern inquiry I went online for answers. Come to find out that the tree produces drupes, which appeal to certain birds, and that this is the season.

Drupes? I balanced the potential for nuisance and pleasure at the encounter with a new word en route to my primary quest. I downshifted, diverted to take Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (inscribed to me by Aunt Ruth in 1964) down from the shelf. Drupe: from the Greek for olive, by way of Latin, “a one-sided indehiscent fruit having a hard bony endocarp, a fleshy mesocarp, and a thin epicarp that is flexible (as in the cherry) or dry and almost leathery (as in the almond).”

Since drupes are supposed to be there now in the fall banquet for birds, I postponed further temptations of vocabulary and etymology to return to the realm of the treetop with my telephoto lens. Oh joy, there they were, little blue-black productions wreathed in burgundy leaves against a fortuitous sky whose color, to save further research and argument at the moment, I will just call celestial.

Tupelo drupes
My mind hurtled back to the Costa Rican farm Albergue Río Savegre where Kay and I watched quetzals swallow miniature avocados in the treetops. That’s the way their systems and sphincters evolved. Tupelo drupes seem less daunting. I have a new quest to see who will come to dine.

September 30, 2013

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