One of the dominant life forms in this neighborhood is a tall catalpa tree on the other side of the block. It’s visible from my back door, and it is in full glory now, covered in white flowers that look like a cross between an orchid and a snapdragon. Most people know this tree for its huge leaves and the long skinny “cigar” seedpods. All shade trees are flowering plants, but most have flowers that are inconspicuous. Not the catalpa. Each individual blossom looks like an oversized piece of popcorn. To my way of thinking, a 50-foot-tall tree covered in popcorn is a pretty dramatic sight, and worth the short walk to get a closer look.
Milk-white clouds hung overhead as I studied the catalpa’s flowers. A band of bluer, more ominous clouds lurked in the northwest, headed my way. I kept a wary eye on them, even though the possibility of getting soaked in a summer rainstorm didn’t trouble me. Here we are on the cusp of the summer solstice and we’re finally getting some authentic humidity to gripe about. I know this may all get old by August, but for the moment I’m enjoying this new tropical feel to the air.
Closer to home, I chitchatted with a neighbor who was tending her new garden in the back alley. It’s coming along well and it’s a joint venture with a couple other gardeners as well. Each year is different, and they have planted a mixture of flowers, herbs and vegetables. Some years I’ll grow tomatoes in pots, and until last week I’d limited myself to a pot of zinnias that could do with more sunlight.
Another dominant organism on the block is the giant American elm across the alley. Each spring it kicks out tons of little elm seeds. They look like those caps we used to pop as kids – only made of brown paper. They accumulate on the back steps and are a bit of a nuisance. So last week I pinched up about a half dozen seeds off the ground and plunked them into a tiny bonsai pot that I keep as a novelty.
For days, the tiny pot sat inside the zinnia pot, two stories above the ground and across the alley from the mother tree. Do you know that with all of these late spring rains, those little elm seeds popped? I now have four American elms occupying 1.5 square inches of terra firma. They look like over-big alfalfa sprouts, but even at this tender age, they know enough to lean towards the east where the solstice sun rises early.
Dave Coulter is a horticulturalist who lives and works in Oak Park.