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The Orphan Tree

Rescued as a sapling and now guarding my home, this blue giant stands resiliently against climate crises.

Diana Beresford-Kroeger 23 Dec 2021 |

Diana Beresford-Kroeger is an Irish botanist, medical biochemist, filmmaker and bestselling author living in Merrickville, Ontario.

There is an orphan Christmas tree in my arboretum. It comes from the mountains of British Columbia where it once protected the valleys below from flooding. The blue giant dwarfs my house sending a steeple into the sky.

Every year this tree lives, it presents me with a botanical surprise.

I wait for the shedding of a polka-dotted apical skin that litters the tree from top to bottom reminding me of the delights of spring. The skins float freely on the canopy like a million butterflies.

My orphan fir came to me in the strangest way. About 35 years ago I got a phone call from somebody in the village of Merrickville, Ontario, close to where I live. A unique nursery lay on the outskirts of the village. It was in danger of being destroyed. The Dominion arborist who lived there did not take his lithium. He got on his tractor and was ploughing his crop of trees back into the ground. Something must be done?

The villagers decided I was the “something.” I arrived with my botantical collecting bags and a shovel. The man on the tractor was in the grip of some powerful emotions. He saw me and shouted above the turmoil. “Take what you want. I have no use for this anymore.” Then he aimed the tractor at me going full tilt.

I had minutes to save myself, and only seconds to scan the field with its newly ploughed rough trenches. In the distance two tiny evergreen trees seemed to show themselves to me somehow. There was something strange about their anatomical form and colour to my botanical eyes. I lunged towards them with my shovel in one hand and the bags in the other. I literally ripped the trees out of the ground before I could smell diesel coming for me. Then I ran for my life holding dear the two trees.

Weeks later, the smaller of the two trees died. The tap root was too damaged for it to survive. I was left with one tree, an evergreen. My orphan began to grow on the poorest of soil. The roots lifted themselves up and plunged downwards to give themselves purchase into the underlying rock. The orphan was like a young pup whose feet were enormous and just as you knew that the dog would grow into its feet, the tree did exactly the same thing.

Not too long afterwards the head forester from Russia visited me. He had as little English as I had Russian so we relied on Latin. I introduced my orphan tree to him. He nearly had a fit. His eyes bulged into envy. “This is a very important tree. It must be propagated. You must do this.”

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Rescued young, this tree has grown to majestic size on the Ontario property of Diana Beresford-Kroeger. It belongs to a white fir species common to BC and considered to be the bluest of conifers. Its seedlings (middle) are being propagated by the author (bottom). Top photo for The Tyee by Colin Rowe. Middle and bottom photos supplied.

The Abies concolor candicans, possibly crossed with Abies grandis, is a wonder of nature. The blue colour makes it one of the first adaptors to climate change because the leaf cuticle is extra thick. The tree is fire and drought resistant. It guards the waterways of the mountains of the western seaboard. It holds the soil in place with its plunging roots. This tree happens to be one in 100 million fir trees that can make the difference for the people who live in the valleys of B.C.

What a gift of nature, a natural genetic variation, to fit a new habitat to get us through climate change.

The upright cones are royal purple by the way, for a conifer king.  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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