Joys and Sorrows of Weeping Trees

Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum)

Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum)

It is late afternoon, and the rain that has been falling for two days without interruption has stopped. My son and I drive to the Van Nuys-Sherman Oaks Park to play basketball. No one is there except for a few joggers. The air is clean and warm.
I recall the saying that God withholds rain because he especially cherishes the prayers of the righteous; when rain does not fall, the righteous are duty-bound to ask for it. For several years now, our winters have been reasonably wet, allowing the righteous to forget about Los Angeles – at least in the precipitation department; I hope this doesn’t mean they will forget us altogether.
My favorite tree in this park is the Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum). Its name is misleading since, botanically speaking, it is not a cypress. Look at its leaves and you will be reminded of a redwood, to which it has a familial relationship.
In its native Mexico, the Montezuma cypress may live for hundreds of years, reaching a height of 170 feet with a trunk diameter of 20 feet. Magnificent specimens of this tree are located on the southern stretch of Woodley Park that runs east to west just below the Tillman Water Reclamation facility. The oldest Montezuma cypress in the Valley is on display in the Pierce College Arboretum.
The Montezuma cypress – which I like to think of as a weeping redwood – is notable for its pendulous habit of growth. Pendulous, weeping trees are famous for sending plant lovers into paroxysms of “where-can-I-get-one” glee.
One of the most interesting weeping trees, since it can take a fair amount of shade, is the mayten (Maytenus boaria). Native to Chile, it is a slow grower, reaching a height of 20 feet when it is 10 years old. When it is young, its lower side branches are typically removed. Otherwise, it will develop multiple trunks and lose its shapeliness. It is an evergreen tree that may be grown in lawns.
The classic positioning of weeping trees is next to water. Such placement can be found at the Japanese garden in Woodley Park, where an exotic, weeping cherry tree is reflected in the artificial lake over which it hovers. The ornamental peach, also represented in this garden, has leaves which hang down vertically, giving it moderately weepy look. The weeping mulberry (Morus alba `Pendula’) is a 6-foot tree with edible, if somewhat insipid, blackberry type fruit. The tree should be pollarded every year, since its annual shoot growth is nearly 6 feet. Avoidance of pruning means that shoots will soon be trailing along the ground.
The most popular weeping tree is the European white birch (Betual pendula). Three or five birch trees planted on a mound with a few boulders here and there – the arrangement is a staple of Valley residential landscape. However, birch trees are not particularly long-lived. They are thirsty trees and cannot survive our summer heat without abundant water. It’s not a good idea to surround birches with aggressive ground covers such as ivy, whose roots will take water from the birch, producing a drought-induced stress, which opens up the birch to lethal fungal infections.
When most people think of a pendulous tree, the weeping willow comes to mind. Salix babylonica, the weeping willow’s botanical name, is somewhat misleading. It comes from Psalm 137, which describes how the Jewish people, taken captive to Babylonia, were so unhappy at their exile from Zion that they refused to play music. Instead, they wept and hung their harps on willow trees.
The psalm says nothing about drooping branches. Much later, a legend put forth the idea that these willows previously had erect branches but, once harps were hung in them, they became weighted down had have held that appearance ever since.
The problem with identifying the weeping willow as Babylonian – or Iraqi by today’s maps – is that Salix babylonica is native to China. There is no evidence that the Chinese and Babylonians even knew of each other’s existence 2,600 years ago, much less planted each other’s trees, when the events described in Psalm 137 took place.
The weeping willow is not an easy tree to grow in Los Angeles. It needs excellent light on all four sides but is sensitive to dry summer heat. It needs consistent pruning and thinning; otherwise it will become top-heavy and fall over. When denied adequate light and air circulation, it becomes infested with scale insects, leaf beetles and borers. It is also susceptible to fungal and bacterial diseases.
Three dry climate pedulous trees deserve mention. One is the rocky mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum), distinguished by sagging, silvery blue branches. Nichol’s willow-leafed peppermint (Eucalyptus Nicholii) is a slender, weeping species and the bower wattle (Acacia subporosa) makes an uncannily graceful 29-foot tree.

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