Birney Imes: Speaking of trees

November 20, 2010 10:39:00 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


Thursday afternoon Spencer Smith is standing under the chestnut tree next to the parking lot of Covenant Life Ministries on Yorkville Road. Smith, who has worked with plants for more than half of his 28 years, reaches down with a pair of pruning shears and picks up one of the spiked brownish burrs that enclose the nut. 


"The American chestnut used to be a standard tree," he says. "They were wiped out by a blight from imported trees. Now you don''t see them." 


On this overcast fall afternoon, Smith is taking two hours from his daily regimen of lawn maintenance and planting for his family''s business, Smith Landscaping, to take me on a tree tour. As we ride and look, I have the sense the trees he''s introducing me to are old friends, an oddball group appreciated by few. 


Before the chestnut, Smith drove me past a row of sugar maples in front of Trudy Gildea''s house on Third Street South ("one of the prettiest trees in town"); pointed out a Chinese fringe tree in Annis and Bill Cox''s yard ("That''s a great tree, a version of grancy gray beard.); and, on the way to Friendship Cemetery, spotted a bright red sumac growing in a ravine behind Wil Colom''s house. 


At the cemetery we stood under the giant Southern magnolia. The tree''s broad, low-hanging branches create a cloistered room. "This is a great tree, the biggest in town would be my guess," Smith said, pointing out the resurrection fern and moss growing from its trunk. 


A lean, bearded man with a wide-eyed, but affable intensity, Smith says something clicked with him when he was in his mid-20s. He''d always worked with plants, even when he went to Millsaps to study philosophy -- in Jackson he worked with a landscaper -- and then on a tree farm in Michigan where he earned his masters. His answer to, why philosophy? "I thought they were good questions." 


Since then Smith has focused his inquiry on the natural world. 


"I like a plant that knows the seasons -- that changes throughout the year -- rather than one that is static," he says. "One thing that is not often appreciated is a plant that does different things throughout the year." 


As examples he mentions viburnum, a shrub that flowers in spring and summer, gives good fall color and makes fruit for wildlife. 


"A native azalea ... you find them in the woods. They lose their leaves, but when they flower, you know it''s the end of winter." 


Same with the redbud, he says. 


On the way back toward town, Smith points out a cowcumber in front of a small ranch-style home on Idlewild Road. A member of the magnolia family, the tree has leaves up to three feet long and a fragrant bloom that can be one foot across. 


For every tree he shows me, he mentions two elsewhere -- "the giant catalpa in the neighborhood behind Bullet''s" and "the really nice China fir by the Baptist Church." 


We pass the jail and he points over his shoulder at a Chinaberry peeking over a wall, plotting its escape. 


"The best tree in town is the cypress in Burns Bottom," says Smith. "I show that to folks who come in from out of town." 


He''s referring to the ancient one at the edge of a drainage ditch on the corner of North Second Street and Fifth Avenue. 


Smith and a friend have dubbed it "The Miracle of the Valley." The name comes from a nearby church, The Miracle Valley Holy Ghost Temple of Deliverance. 


"We call Burns Bottom Miracle Valley," he said. 


At Mississippi University for Women, Smith parks his truck and we get out. The W''s front campus with its labeled specimens is a good starting place for a self-directed study of trees. 


Smith walks over to the giant deodar cedar in front of Painter Hall. With its bent top and barrel-shaped, spiral cones, the tree has a prehistoric look and feel. The foliage is bluish green. 


Native to the Himalayas, the name of the tree comes from a Sanskrit term meaning "wood of the gods." Among Hindus it is worshiped as a divine tree. 


"These are unlike anything around here," says Smith. 


As we stand in the timeless gray mist, he reaches up and takes one of the tree''s spiral cones and slowly begins to pick it apart. 


Birney Imes is the publisher of The Commercial Dispatch. E-mail him at [email protected] 




Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.