The Perfect Tree

By Jesse Eastman

Late last year my wife and I welcomed our first child into our lives. This will come as no surprise to any of you who have children, but this has us questioning many things. You’ve got the great big keep-you-awake-at-night things – can we provide her with ample opportunities? Can we keep her safe and happy in a sometimes unsteady and unsettling world? You’ve also got the overthinking-inane-details category of questions – which of our dogs does she like better? Can anything ever satisfy her as much as banana mush? Why does she find one particular section of the ceiling in her room so fascinating?

Sitting between these two extremes, however, are some of our most meaningful explorations of who we will be as a family. Most recently, this revolved around selecting the perfect tree to plant in our front yard. This will come as no surprise to any of you who have shopped for (or are planning on buying) a new tree, but we are utterly unprepared for what a complicated process this is.

I sell trees for a living. I make it my business to guide customers through this process of considering what they truly need from a tree, from how it will fit their particular landscape to if it will serve their purposes to whether or not it will truly make them just a little bit happier. It’s a process I’ve guided thousands of people through, but when I turn it inwards, I’m stuck.

Russian Hawthorn

First I have to let go of those things I’ve always told myself I couldn’t live without. I’ve always loved irregular multi-stemmed trees. A gnarled Russian Hawthorn with three or four kinked and knobby trunks  is one of the most delightful trees I can imagine. Problem: my wife and I both strongly agree that we need a tree we can hang a swing from for our daughter. Eventually a Russian Hawthorn might barely reach a size to make that feasible, but it’s simply not a large enough tree to expect that any time soon. Cross that one off the list.

So now we need something that will get big, and preferably do it quickly. Cottonwoods and Hackberry spring immediately to mind, but the available location is very near the street, our driveway, and our house, and while I’d love a massive native tree anchoring my front yard, we don’t care for the idea of one of those massive native limbs crashing down on our roof in a spring snowstorm. It has to grow fast, but not so fast that its soft wood is likely to lead to big falling branches.

Flowers are an important piece of this, too. Over the past few years, more and more of our veggie garden has transformed into shocks of bright fragrant color. The more color we add, the happier we seem to be. This way of thinking has us considering what trees might provide a boost of blossoms, and if we’re talking large trees, that narrows the field considerably. I’ve always found Tulip Trees intriguing. They’re big, they grow quickly, and they’ve got understated but gorgeous flowers. They can be a bit picky about soil, though, and we’re not sure that’s a battle we want to fight.

The other obvious candidate at this point is a Catalpa. These thick-trunked trees put on an incredible show when they bloom. Their broad, soft,  heart-shaped leaves are almost exotic in a region where small glossy leaves are the norm. But the clincher is their branching structure. Broad sweeping branches extend out from the trunk at an angle that just begs for a swing. A drive around the city viewing mature specimens, and we have a winner!

Of course, this may all be for naught. Catalpa is not the fastest growing tree, and there’s no way to know for sure that the particular tree we plant will produce the perfectly angled branch in time for our daughter to swing beneath its leafy green canopy. She may not even like playing on a swing. That’s not really the point, though, is it? It’s about envisioning the future we want and taking action now to get there. So much can change along the way. That future we think we want may look quite different when we arrive. But then again, maybe it will be even better than we imagine, and in any case, why worry about the unknown? We get a new tree!

Originally published on May 6th, 2020.