Steven Foster’s Favorite Trees

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When Odysseus returned from Troy after a twenty-year absence, he found his aging father planting trees around his home. Odysseus asked, “Being so advanced in years, why would you put yourself to the fatigue and labor of planting trees whose fruits you are never likely to enjoy?” The old man, taking him for a stranger, gently replied, “I plant trees for the benefit of my son Odysseus.”

Trees have always played an important role in human affairs–one so intimate that these living giants are often neglected. Like the air we breathe, trees are just there. They provide humans with shade, shelter, materials for an incredible array of objects, fuel, food, medicine, and the oxygen on which we depend for our very breath. They make not only our lifestyles, but our very lives, possible. They also provide a gift for coming generations, because most trees long outlive our biblical lifespan of three score and ten years.

Approximately 2,500 tree species thrive in North America; more than 600 are native. If you don’t have a clue what to plant, seek professional advice. As Elder Frederick Evans, a Shaker leader, said in 1867, “A tree has its wants and wishes, and a person should study [trees] as a teacher watches a child to see what he can do. If you love the plant and take heed of what it likes, you will be well paid by it.”

The following are classic trees, and also some of my favorites.

Basswood: With a straight, pillar-like trunk sometimes reaching more than 120 feet in height, the American basswood or linden tree has long been appreciated for its deep shade, fast growth, pliable wood, and medicinal flowers.

Beech: One of the largest trees of eastern North American forests, the American beech is usually 70 to 80 feet tall but can stretch to 120 feet. Its sinewy trunk, standing like the leg of a giant elephant, is often 3 or 4 feet in diameter. The majestic American beech provides deep shade and excellent shelter against wind and sun.

Maple: The maple is the quintessential New England tree, responding to autumn’s first frost with an explosion of fiery raiment and unifying the countryside in a symphony of color. Maples are strong, easy to grow, generally free from disease, and most are hardy in the northern states.

Oak: Long held sacred, sometimes worshipped, by ancient peoples throughout the Northern Hemisphere, the oak projects strength, endurance, beauty, and permanence. Plant oaks away from the house because they tend to hold their leaves in winter and block the sun.

Pine: When European sailors first caught sight of North American shores, one of the more awesome sights must have been the glorious stands of tall white pines (Pinus strobus) covering the coastal and inland forests. White pines thrive in a variety of soils but prefer an acid, sandy, fertile, well-drained loam.

Redbud: Blooming just before dogwoods, redbud is one of the best signals that winter is on its way out. The Kiowa Indians of Oklahoma welcomed the blooming redbud as the dawning of spring. The common Eastern redbud will survive in most places in the United States. It likes a sandy loam, slightly acid to limey, and prefers sunny locations.

Spruce: The soft, pyramidal spires of spruce trees dominate cool forests of the Northern Hemisphere. Providers of food, shelter, medicine, and material, spruces are extremely hardy (except for Sitka spruce) and will grow in a wide variety of situations. However, they are not very tolerant of heat or drought. They do best in a moist sandy loam and are usually not happy in a very dry or very wet soil with poor drainage.

Sycamore: The magnificent sycamore sends serpentine roots along creeks and rivers to anchor gracefully towering arches. Pliny the Elder claimed that no other tree protects so well from summer heat and tells us that in his day (a.d. 23-79) Athens’s public schools planted sycamores for shade. Sycamore thrives in moderately rich, moist, but well-drained soil, under full sun or partial shade. It is fairly tolerant of dry soil.

Willow: The willow is a symbol of the changeable human spirit and immortality. The willows’ genus, Salix, is itself a symbol of change with more than 300 species. Willows prefer rich, moist soil but are fairly tolerant of poor soils.

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