Yes Dad, Those Trees
Did Come From China
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
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
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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