I can’t say that it started with a photograph, but the image soon grew clear in my mind after we rambled out from the grounds of Stephen F. Austin University. Two weeks prior, my partner Ben had pulled up an old black-and-white photo as we dreamed of our trip to Mexico. Twenty school children loosely clasped hands before what looked like a few dozen tree trunks squeezed all together. “The Arbol del Tule,” he explained. “The widest girth tree in the world. Until recently they thought it might be three different trees.” I tried to imagine the awe I’d feel, standing by a trunk that measures forty-two meters around. “That’s definitely going on the list of things to see!” I vowed. In the end, it didn’t make it. Located outside of Oaxaca, six hours south of Mexico City, it was fifteen hours out of our way.
A couple weeks later, it wasn’t even on my mind. Ben and I spent Labor Day weekend camping in Hank’s Creek, a campground nestled between the piney forests of east Texas and Sam Rayburn Lake. We visited nearby towns and dropped in on a tiny farmer’s market before deciding to explore the rich, four-hundred-plus acres of nearby Stephen F. Austin University. We found to our dismay that they’d finished their bi-annual plant sale just a day before. We passed the morning in the beautiful gardens of the Mast Arboretum, and walked the trails of the Gayla Mize Garden, before ambling around to the Stephen F. Austin Native Plant Center.
As the truck pulled in, we could clearly see the sale had taken place here the day before. It was a little wistfully, that I looked out on the remaining three and five gallon buckets housing small trees and shrubs. A couple of gardeners tidied up on the grounds. Ben spoke the words that were on my mind. “Had we just come one day sooner…”
Maybe not, I thought. What’d be the harm in asking if they might make a last minute sale? I rolled down my window and summoned a passing gardener who gave a regretful no, “The University only lets us sell on two days of the year.”
When I expressed my disappointment, mentioning Ben’s work and his passion for gardening and trees, the gardener paused. “Well, I can’t sell you anything,” he repeated, “but would you guys be interested in a rare tree?” I learned very early in my life to never say no to a question like that. “Of course!”
But a few moments later, Ben and I stared in confusion when he brought over a little cypress and sat it at our feet. “It’s a Montezuma Cypress.” The gardener must have noticed our confused expressions as he asked, “Have you guys ever heard of that tree in Oaxaca?”
The gardener, it turns out, was Dr. Creech of Stephen F. Austin University, one of the foremost experts on Cypress trees, who has traveled to China and Mexico to consult on the tree. China, Dr. Creech explained, is leading the way, taking a proactive approach to protecting their lands from the changes to come. Dr. Creech has worked directly with experts in China cultivating hardy Cypress whose roots will prevent erosion to the coastal dykes. And what hardier tree could there be than the “Arbol del Tule,” estimated to be between 1400 and 1600 years old? Dr. Creech along with Chinese, Mexican, and other American researchers, brought back saplings from the “Arbol del Tule.”
A cutting from one of these saplings named “Oaxaca Child” sat at our feet, an incredibly generous gift that left us with a single problem: where do you plant the child of an ancient, gargantuan tree?
Many thanks to our NeighborWoods Field Assistant Ben Bertram and his partner Hannah L. Harkey for providing the photo and writing respectively.
Interested readers can check out Dr. Creech’s blog post on the ‘Oaxaca Child’ here. NeighborWoods occasionally offers the Montezuma Cypress; no guarantees it’ll be as big as the Arbol del Tule.