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*@#% soils aside, the occasional sugar maple brightens autumn


Not far from where I live there is a large sugar maple tree, set amid towering pines, bathed in gleaming gold from tip to base — it ain’t New Hampshire or Vermont, but nonetheless a glorious sight in the bright autumn sun.

Sugar maples aren’t native to these parts; they don’t  much care for our heavy clay soils and blistering, humid summers. There are other varieties of maple native to the area, one of which, smaller-leafed, is an equally brilliant yellow in the fall, and commercial red-leaf cultivars that do fairly well.

But thanks to determined homeowners two or more generations ago, it’s a treat to see the occasional magnificent specimen sugar maples in yards as I drive about in autumn, and I always offer silent appreciation for their contribution to today’s landscape.

In an earlier lifetime, at the first house I ever bought in the red clay hills of northeast Mississippi, at a time when I was enamored of all things botanical, I’d seen postcard-gorgeous color photos of New England autumns, masses of dazzling golden sugar maples blanketing mountain vistas, and was determined to have one for my yard.

Down the road a piece, at the then hole-in-the-wall town of Ingomar, noted for its championship high school basketball teams, was a nursery run by a transplanted Iowan, George Prescott, a burly guy with a hearty  laugh, an infectious eye-crinkling smile … and a vocabulary that was, shall we say, “colorful.”

How George came to be in rural Mississippi I don’t now recall, but in addition to the usual nursery offerings, he had plants and trees that were, in that time, not so common, and I spent many an idle hour poking through his place and carting away things that appealed to me (immaterial that many of them promptly curled up and died in the horrible soil that was my graded-down subdivision yard).

When I asked George if he could find a nice sugar maple for me, he laughed uproariously: “You’re just throwing your @#$%* money away — it will never live in that %#*% rock-hard ground. Why don’t you just asphalt the place and save yourself a lot of *%$#** grief?”

But that fall, on one of his buying trips somewhere, he got one for me, about as tall as I was, and I planted it according to his instructions, babied it through the following summer, and glory be!, it lived!

Thirty years later, when I sold the house following my mother’s death, the tree was a good 30 feet tall and had brightened decades of autumns with its splendid cloak of gold.

George is long gone from this earth, his nursery only a memory for a diminishing few, but to this day, when I see the occasional golden sugar maple in autumn, I think of him and the *@#$* tree he said would never grow in that @#$%* Mississippi red clay.

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