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By Bob Sandidge


Dr. Bass   Premier Theater       Last Picture Show      Eleven Stores
China Trees           John Appman         Grayville '61       Last Day Of School

Yes Dad, Those Trees Did Come From China
 By  W.F. (Bill) Werzner   

There used to be quite a few of them years ago, they were unique trees that grew behind the downtown business district along the alleys in the Gray and Negley blocks. My dad, the late Art Werzner, thought they were the most fascinating tree that he had ever seen. What fascinated him most about these particular trees that he called “the Chinese Heaven Tree” was their incredible growth rate. It was not uncommon to see a sprout only a few inches high in early spring, grow to a height of fifteen feet or more by fall. I can still remember him sitting on the back steps of our restaurant telling me how I could get rich if I could find what made them grow so fast. His theory was, find out what the chemical or material is, and use it to stimulate growth in other plants such as crops, etc. He told me that back when he was a youngster, (around 1915) the story around Grayville was, that a member of the Blood family had brought those trees from China. The date was uncertain, but was thought to have been in the late 1800’s. That story was disputed by one or more professors in the biology department at SIU Carbondale a few years later. At least one professor felt they were a native of Southern Illinois and several surrounding states, and the China origin story was dismissed as a local folk tale. Remember how the world was back in the 1950’s and 60’s? Those were the days of the cold war and nearly everyone felt that a nuclear confrontation with Russia and China was imminent. Information about trees in China was about the last thing that I wanted to be concerned with and my dad’s prodding me to do library research proved fruitless. Lacking the tree’s scientific name, no doubt led to my overlooking what little information was available at that time anyway.  Back then, I never dreamed of ever meeting someone from there,  traveling there, or possibly marrying someone from “Red China!” No way!

As time passes on, people change and so does the world around us. Around 1980, after my transfer to Houston, I became good friends with a Chinese neighbor who converted one of his buildings into a restaurant behind my home. Mr. Chang and his wife immigrated to the US from Taiwan in the early 60’s. Their families moved there following the fall of China to the Communists in the late 1940’s. Over the years our friendship grew, and on occasion I inquired about the Chinese Heaven Trees that seemed to grow only around Grayville. Mr. Chang knew much about the restaurant business, but wasn’t much help when it came to trees. Down here in Texas, a fast growing shade tree would truly be a valuable asset and there were few if any of those trees left in Grayville. Over the years, most had fallen victim to CIPS chain saws and I didn’t have a clue as to how to propagate the darn things even if  I found one. As Chinese - American relations began to thaw, a number of exchange students began to arrive here and later some families were allowed to emigrate as well. One of the émigrés was Mr. Chang’s distant cousin Dali, from near Beijing (Peking); and we too became good friends. One day Dali took it upon himself to play matchmaker and introduced me to a beautiful Chinese girl from near Shanghai.  It was love at first sight! That was ten years, two sons ago, and the rest is history.

My wife, Mingqi, was a music teacher when we married and I asked her about the “Heaven Trees” on several occasions. She knew allot about music and quite a bit about plants, but had never heard of a tree with that name. So, I began to think the professors in Carbondale were probably correct and the tree story was nothing but a folk tale. Shortly after our marriage in 1988, we flew to Beijing, Shanghai, and my wife’s home town of Wuxi. It was around midnight when we landed in Beijing so I couldn’t see much in the darkness as the lemo sped to our hotel. On the way I wondered, if just maybe, I would get lucky and actually see a Heaven Tree growing somewhere in China. I awoke early the next morning in our sixth floor room, suffering from a severe case of jet lag. Then I walked over to the window  to see  a place that I never dreamed that I would ever visit. The early morning June sunshine came streaming in as I opened the drapes and looked down on the street below. Then I saw them, not one, but dozens of them, everywhere!  The streets were lined with them. “The Trees, The Trees!” I yelled. My wife woke up thinking that I was either dreaming or had lost my mind.  “What’s so important about the Fortune Trees along the street that you have to wake me up? she asked. Those trees grow all over China, they’re everywhere.”  Later,  my sister-in law forever ended the question of the tree’s nomenclature with a visit to the  City of  Wuxi’s library. Call it a Heaven Tree, a Fortune Tree, or some names that Tom Bradshaw chose when one sent roots into his sewer; but its real name is Paulownia tomentosa. With that information in hand I began researching the history of a tree that I once thought was unique to Grayville.

For those of you whose interest I may have tweaked, go to your nearest computer that has an internet connection. Type in the name Paulownia tomentosa under one of the internet carriers such as Alta Vista, etc. and read about this fabulous tree and why some call it the tree of the future. One tree can produce up to 20 million tiny seeds annually. Perhaps it was the prevailing winds that seeded just about every state east of Illinois from those trees that used to line the back alleys of Grayville. The last two trees that I remember  seeing when I was in Grayville last year; was one growing between two buildings on Main Street, and one growing through the middle of the roof of the old pool hall. Both may have been cut down by now, but don’t despair; we planted a new one in my mother’s front yard over on West Spring Street. It’s a little over one year old now and doing quite well as last reported. Yes, they also do quite well here in Texas. Now that we have learned to clone them, my wife has a  home grown business going. We have propagated  hundreds of them here over the last several years. Ranchers found the leaves to be good fodder for cattle (23 % protein) and with a deep tap root system, they survive drought quite well.

 Now if some of you folks have wondered a lifetime about those fast growing Grayville trees, now you know. It only took me about forty years to find some answers. I guess my dad, and grandfather too, probably tried to get some answers from Saint Peter about those trees. For quite a few years I thought that I too would be the next family member in line with the same question. Well, that’s all for now, and as the late Paul Green used to always say upon departing, “Don’t step in anything.”                          

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