The tulip trees are flowering
In the back yard of my family home back in Germany stands a large tulip tree. My mother planted it sometime in 1994 after seeing one bloom in the US while attending my sister’s graduation in Iowa. So, this year, the family tulip tree is 27 years old – the same age as my oldest daughter. My mother’s love for all things flower and tree related found expression over the years in planting orange, lemon, and fig trees in our arid garden of Windhoek, Namibia, learning the Japanese art of Ikebana while we lived in South Korea, and then from time to time planting beloved trees back in Germany at the family home – including one tiny slip of a Gingko tree, that traveled the skies in a handbag and now takes pride of place in the family home front yard.
A tulip tree needs fifteen to twenty years of growth maturity until the first blooms arrive, and ours would have barely started blooming before my mother died – ten years ago. And just two years ago, on a visit to see my father in Germany, my aunt regaled me with a memory of him calling her one evening and raving about the surfeit of blooms on the tulip tree, in some way a message from my mother, and that she just had to come see it quick! I really had no idea – I imagined large trumpet like blooms, much like the Beaumontia grandiflora or Herald’s trumpet that grew as a large creeper all along the courtyard wall of our home in Namibia – what tulip tree flowers looked like. The year of the fabulous blooms, was the year my father died, shortly before the pandemic began. I am told that the past two summers, the tulip tree has not flowered. Perhaps even trees grieve.
Imagine my joy at discovering a number of tulip trees, and gingko trees, growing in the park near our home here in western New York State. A soothing balm for my soul whenever I feel a little low – a walk through the park, and visit with the trees, lifts my spirits and returns a feeling of belonging, family and home. The tulip tree is native to eastern North America and goes by the botanical name of Liriodendron tulipifera which originates from the Greek: Liriodendron, meaning lilytree, and tulipifera which means “bringing forth tulips”, alluding to the resemblance of its flowers to a tulip. Regular tulips, also a favorite flower, I’ve planted multiple bulbs of into our garden here this past year.
I have been feeling a little out of sorts and homesick lately, and especially tired these past weeks as the academic year grinds to an end, after eighteen months of constant engagement since the sudden abrupt move from in person to online teaching that included a summer graduate coursework learning online course development followed by an intense year of online teaching. An out of sorts that also ebbs and flows with the rhythm of my natural melancholia. Feeling into the newer rhythm of making a life for myself on this strange continent. A life and home far away from the other homes I have had. Away from my children – two of whom live on continents too far away to visit because of the pandemic. And away from my parents who have both passed and I can no longer ask the multitude of questions I find myself having these days. And of course, the tulip tree.
So, this morning, as the humidity of yesterday broke into gentle ground soaking rain overnight I took a walk in the park. A brief loop before my first morning zoom meeting of the day. As I rounded the last corner before heading down the last loop home, I discovered a tree alongside the road I had not fully noticed before. The tree caught my eye as it was covered with greenish yellow and orange flowers resembling short tulip cups. The large four lobed leaves with the top notch identifying this tree as a tulip tree. A wave of joy and recognition broke over me, and I imagined my parents smiling and nodding and agreeing with me that indeed this was a beautiful tree. A tree worthy of planting, of watching grow, of being overcome with joy and excitement when it blooms. Excited enough to go out for a second walk after my meeting, in the pouring rain, to find the other tulip trees in the park and commune with their blooms, and with feeling at home once again.