Plant an orchid tree, Bauhinia spp., in nutrient-poor soil such as hard clay, and this deciduous ornamental will struggle to survive. It might even die. On the other hand, watch the same tree thrive when the hole it's placed into contains well-drained dirt enriched with manure, peat or composted materials.
So much of a tree's development above ground depends on its underground environment. Rich, light soil encourages root expansion, and the more expansive a root system, the more energy available to produce branches, lush foliage, flowers and seedpods.
Thoughts such as these drifted through my mind while I rowed by a pink orchid tree growing a few feet back from our lake's northeastern shore. That tree has been growing — struggling to survive would be a more accurate description — for about 20 years. Yet, it has only recently begun bearing fragrant pink flowers, something most orchid trees do within a single growth season. The floral display is not as full or vibrant as it could be, but after 20 years of waiting, I'll take whatever it offers.
However, it didn't have to take this long.
If only my husband Ralph and I knew 20 years ago what we have since learned, the orchid tree could have looked very different. Before installing the tree, we should have dug a much larger, deeper hole. We should have removed the existing soil — a white clay called kaolin devoid of essential nutrients — and replaced it with a lighter, nutrient-rich mixture of manure, decomposed woodchips and peat.
Doing so would have gone a long way toward giving the roots the headstart they deserved and the boost they needed. A well-developed root system would have been able to support a flush of above-ground growth. Even without irrigation, which wasn't available at the time, the tree would have grown bigger and fuller far sooner than it did.
Instead, it spent years struggling to put down roots in the hard, white clay and because it didn't have a solid root system, the tree was vulnerable. In its early years, the few sprigs of top growth died back completely during periods of severe cold, and while the tree rebounded during warm periods, repeated losses took their toll.
However, over the last three or four years, the orchid tree finally seemed to be gaining strength. In 2013, it actually produced a flower — the first one ever — and I was so excited. Every year since, a few more flowers bloomed. This year is the best yet. A light cover of aromatic, pale pink blossoms adorns the tree, which is still small for its age. Although no one could say it's lush, to my admiring eyes, it looks mighty fine indeed.
As much as I am enjoying this long-awaited gift, I can't help but wish we had known 20 years ago the importance of essential elements. That's something trees and people have in common. We grow better in places that fulfill our needs. My fragrant orchid tree does best when grown in a partially sunny spot with well-drained soil that's neither too acidic nor too alkaline.
For people, the essential element is love. Of course, food, shelter and financial support are crucial too, but love is paramount. It's the most vital element needed to assure an individual's strong, swift and secure development into a healthy, happy and beautiful being.
Humans, like the sad little orchid tree growing along the shore of our lake, are also resilient. If we hang in long enough, we, too, can bloom. For some, it's about soil. For others, it's love. For all of us, it's about overcoming impediments and conquering obstacles.
In the spirit of Earth Day, find a tree you like and plant it. Maybe plant two. But whatever you do, don't forget the soil. Give those trees a good start in life, and the entire planet will be rewarded far sooner, far longer, with fewer worries and cares. On April 22 — and every other day as well — nurture nature and let nature nurture you