Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Southern Belle in New York City

It’s been a rainy and very green May.  The parks and streets are alive with new life.  And this spring we have a special treat in Riverside Park near the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.  The four American Yellowwood or Kentucky Yellowwood, Cladrastis lutea or Cladrastis kentukea, trees are in bloom with their fragrant and wisteria-like flowers. 

Photo of Yellowwood tree and Monument
I say it is a special treat because the flowers do not appear each year; they seem to be on a two-year cycle.  And this year they are in bloom. A few days ago, just before the Memorial Day commemoration that takes place in front of the Monument, I was walking my dog on Riverside Drive and saw the Parks Department trucks parked and a group of men apparently cutting the trees.  They were starting on the Yellowwoods and I thought they were going to cut them down.  I rushed over to ask them what was happening, and they explained that they were trimming the trees to prepare for the Memorial Day events.  There were cut branches with the long, droopy, exquisite flowers all over the sidewalk.  I asked if I could have one.  “Take as many as you want,” said one man. I took one home and drew the leaf and a bit of one of the flower stems.  Even though this looks like six leaves, it is just one because the leaves of the yellowwood are compound which means that the six leaflets all emerge from one leafstalk or petiole with one terminal, usually larger leaflet. They are pinnate which means that the shape of the leaf with its leaflets is feather-like.

Drawing of leaf and flowers

    “What kind of trees are these anyway?” the Parks Department man asked.  I told him “Yellowwood.  American or Kentucky Yellowwood, native to the southern part of the U.S.  Very special trees.  You don’t see them in this area that much,” I said.  “Not only that, but they only flower every other year.”  He picked up one of the branches and said, “Look.  You’re right.  The wood is yellow.  Makes sense.”  He showed it to one of the other men.  And so it was.  The actual color of the heartwood of the Yellowwood tree is yellow, especially when freshly cut.  According to the Department of Horticulture of the University of Kentucky, the root bark of yellowwood was used as a dye by people in the southern Appalachians.  The wood itself was once used to make gun stocks.  The flowers look like pea-flowers.  That makes sense because the tree is in the Pea Family, Fabaceae, it has a legume pod that ripens in the fall. 
   Just a couple of days later, my husband Alan and I went to the Memorial Day event.  It seemed especially appropriate as we stood out there in the rain listening to speakers, the playing of bagpipes and taps, and watched the laying of the wreaths, that we were surrounded not only by those remembering those lost in battles but also by trees filled with flowers and leaves that speak to both the past and to the future.

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