Mary GrayThe optimism of tiny trees

I have a vivid memory of eating a Red Delicious apple when I was seven years old and, afterward, regarding the dark seeds embedded in the core. I asked my dad if I planted one of the seeds would we get apples on our own tree next year? No, he said. Not next year. Then when?

Dad guessed it would take about seven years.


White oak tree


I would love the next part of the story to be that I planted a seed that very afternoon, that I grew up with the sapling that emerged, that I was married under that tree twenty years later and that I make pies from the fruit every fall.

But what I actually thought when my dad told me that was:

“seven years – that’s forever!”

I would be fourteen before the tree got big enough to produce apples (never mind that its apples would probably be more like sour golf balls since it wouldn’t come true from seed).  The idea of waiting so long for the payoff of planting an apple seed was inconceivable. I couldn’t even conceive of myself seven years into the future.

To plant a tree from seed, even a modest one like an apple, is no small thing. To plant the seed of a grand shade tree, like a white oak, now that is a real leap of faith. Knowing you’ll never see its ultimate grandeur, knowing that it will outlive you, your children, maybe even your grandchildren – to plant that seed is a gift, an act of sheer optimism.

To this day, I’ve never planted a tree from seed, though I’ve planted many small saplings, and I’ve found that even the saplings require an abundance of patience, an ability to delay gratification that I’ve only acquired in mid-life.

I’ve had a tiny paw-paw, a volunteer transplanted from a client’s garden, growing in my backyard for the last three years. I’ve got it planted in the shade and it’s taking its time. Each year it puts out about five pretty green leaves. This year there might be six. I’m losing patience, but I really want those Zebra Swallowtail butterflies, whose larva feast on paw-paw leaves. For now it stays.

Last summer I planted another baby tree, a wee Cornus ‘Cherokee Brave’ dogwood that’s now about thigh-high. It leans a little, and its broad leaves are way out of proportion to its spindly trunk.  It has the same comical look as those skinny teenage boys you see who have huge feet and hands. It hasn’t grown into itself yet.

One day it will reach fifteen, maybe twenty feet, with rosy blooms arrayed along its stretching limbs. I can see it. One day I will look up at it instead of down. Will that take longer than seven years?

In seven years I will be forty-nine.

No sweat.



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2 thoughts on “The optimism of tiny trees

  1. Lovely post, Mary and very true about patience and waiting for results.

    A Moreton Bay fig tree that we brought here 24 years ago in a pot, is now a massive shady, buttress-rooted paddock specimen. That may sound like a long time. The tree actually was huge after about 16 years – probably helped by its proximity to our grey water/septic trenches, into which its thirsty roots sped and multiplied. From the age I am now, 24 years looking back seems like a heartbeat. I can recall everything about days and events in that year, so 1989 seems very close. I can still feel the softness of my ( then) toddlers’ arms. But you’re right, looking years ahead, especially when you are a child, is impossible to calibrate. I too in the past have rejected trees like avocado and macadamia because I was told they took seven years to bear.

  2. Thanks, Julie. Time is so strange, isn’t it? It clearly accelerates as you get older. Last year I planted a tiny paperbark maple in my parents’ backyard….they are 77 and 78. If they are still around once that tree reaches maturity it would be a blessing indeed, but they were excited to have the little tree planted either way. I’ve noticed that since my parents have gotten older they don’t fret about time nearly as much (or about anything else for that matter.)

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