W.S. Merwin is one of my favorite poets because he’s intensely connected to the natural world. He digs deep into plant love through his words. Not only did he believe in the importance of preserving the environment, he lived for years in Hawaii, gradually restoring a palm forest on Maui. It now houses almost 3,000 palm trees. Within that collection, there are 125 different tree genera, which subdivide into 400 species and 800 varieties. Botanically speaking, that’s incredibly impressive.
A Vision Early On
I also admire W.S. Merwin (as well as many poets) because he understood the important relationship between our mental health and the natural world. Decades ago, he noticed what we lose as a society when we go indoors. Here’s his thoughts from the 1990s: “We go into a supermarket and we have artificial light, canned music, everything’s deodorized–we can’t touch or taste or smell anything, and we hear only what they want us to hear. No wonder everybody wanders around like zombies! Because our senses have been taken away from us for us a while. A supermarket brings the whole thing into focus. The things that are there don’t belong there, they didn’t grow there. They have a shelf life, which is being tented, so that we can buy them. It’s only about selling things. This is a very strange kind of situation, but it’s typical of our lives.”
A Moment of Peace
Here’s a lovely poem by Merwin about a tree. Notice how the poem travels to different places and where it ends. So simple and ephemeral. I hope it gives you a moment of peace.
Place On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree what for not for the fruit the tree that hears the fruit is not the one that was planted I want the tree that stands in the earth for the first time with the sun already going down and the water touching its roots in the earth full of the dead and the clouds passing one by one over its leaves
Photo by Maria Maliy
If you’re looking for an exotic tree that offers unusual foliage but is easy to grow, try an azara in your garden. This native of South America has tiny glossy leaves, a tidy upright habit, and super cute pompom flowers. It requires little to no pruning and stays evergreen for those down to zone 7. At its tallest, it’s 15-20 feet and maybe 6 feet wide. I grow three azaras in my yard and I adore them. They all offer unique gifts.
The straight species of azara microphylla or Box-Leaf Azara is a dark green wonder. Its vertical branches grow straight up, not very sideways, and its rich color poses a brilliant contrast to my purple smokebush. It could also contrast well with a blue juniper or variegated euonymous or eleagnus. In late winter, the flowers pop out in round yellow fuzzies that smell sweet. In the rain, the miniscule leaves are glossy and deeply colored. I grow mine in full sun but in a bed that gets cold winter shade, which lowers the zone from 8 to 7. Still, it does just fine.
I love love love this azara (azara microphylla ‘Variegata.’) It’s got the same tiny leaves but they’re green and creamy yellow, making for a pretty, delicate pattern. This form is more splayed with a vertical structure and large fans branching out at angles. I’ve paired it with a contorted filbert whose curly branches and purple leaves create a stunning contrast. I grow this azara near my living room window so I can enjoy it from indoors in winter. It offers graceful privacy there, so much that I’ve never hung a curtain. It is slightly more tender, hardy down to zone 8, but with it near the house and exposed to the west, mine has always survived the occasional snow and frigid temps nicely.
Andean Gold, Saw-toothed Azara
The Andean Gold azara (azara serrata) is a relatively new introduction (see top photo for blooms) and it’s already thriving in my garden. Plant explorer Dan Hinkley brought this fast-growing tree back from Chile and arguably it feels the most exotic of all the azaras. While it still sports smallish leaves, they are serrated, which adds extra interest. Also, the pompom flowers are larger, deeper yellow, and wildly fragrant. I grow this one along my fence to screen out my neighbor’s window. Though it’s the widest of the three azaras, perhaps even rangy, it still grows in almost a flat oval, behaving in the tighter driveway bed while offering a lovely evergreen backdrop.
The drawback to azaras is they aren’t inexpensive and are sometimes hard to find, though recently I’ve seen the straight species offered more and more in nurseries. If you find one, even a small one, get it. They grow discreetly but quickly. And I haven’t met anyone whose ever regretting planting one, including me.
Did you know plants make sounds? I didn’t up until a few years ago. The idea is fascinating, and surprisingly already proven in some scientific studies. For instance, at the University of Western Australia, researchers discovered corn plants created clicking sounds in their roots as they grew. Scientists found a similar phenomenon in pine trees coping with drought. The trees’ xylem tissue made snapping sounds when moving an air bubble. In 2017, the Yale School of Forestry produced a sound experiment where they developed a device to translate a plant’s pulses into sounds. They learned that plants vary in their “signatures” or “music.”