The Happy Tree

By Marc Fest

There is a particular tree in front of the south side of our Everglades home that David and I call “the Happy Tree.” It is maybe 25 feet tall and almost as wide. David and I have a peculiar way of naming things around the farm. For example, there is a “Beautiful Flower Tree” (with delicate pink blossoms) in the middle of the “Jungle Quadrant” (a now-grassy area that used to be impassable and overgrown). There is a “Fire Tree,” named so for its large crimson flowers. When Hurricane Irma struck it down, a bunch of “Baby Fire Trees” soon grew in its place, creating what we now call the “Fire Tree Forest.”

The Happy Tree got its name because of the flamboyantly happy, pink flowers it sports for eight weeks in March and April. They make the tree look happy like an excited child dressed for a costume party.

The flowers look like shaving brushes. Hence the “proper” name of the tree, “Shaving Brush Tree.” Its scientific name is “pseudobombax ellipticum.” Even that sounds over the top, like the street name for a psychedelic drug. “Let’s go and do some Pseudobombax today.” People in Central America indeed make a “highly intoxicating drink” from the tree according to Wikipedia.

But there’s something else that makes this tree special. During the few weeks when it blooms, every night at around 10 PM, it unfurls out of cylindrical casings a new contingent of flowers. The tree will be shining with these pink shaving brushes in the morning. On a typical warm Florida day, all these flowers, every single one of them, will drop to the ground by early afternoon, returning the entire tree to its flower-less state by mid-afternoon (on colder days, they hang on till dusk). By the following morning, the tree stands again in pink splendor, with a new batch of flowers, full of bees, to be joined by hummingbirds later in the morning.

Over the course of the day, when each flower falls, there is a sound of impact on the wilted leaves below. Plop. Plop. It’s the poignant sound of short-lived beauty passing.

When you sit on the second-floor veranda, the Happy Tree’s strong branches make you feel like being in a tree fort. As a kid, I always dreamed of having a tree fort in one of my childhood home’s tall oak trees. The Happy Tree also reminds me of a song titled “My friend, the tree” (“Mein Freund, der Baum”) by the German singer Alexandra. Alexandra died in a car accident on June 31, 1969, at just 27 years old. The song is sad, about a felled tree that used to be the singer’s childhood companion. Check out the song and its lyrics. They’re hauntingly beautiful.

David and I were concerned that the Happy Tree might damage the house during a hurricane. We contemplated cutting it down but couldn’t bring ourselves to do so. Instead, we did some thorough trimming of the most problematic trunks and branches. Afterward, something made me pick up one of the cut pieces, maybe a foot long and four inches in diameter. It fit neatly on one of the sub-branch stumps we had left standing like a pedestal. Over the following months, the cut-off piece oozed sap and reattached itself and sprouted leaves and flowers again. It seemed like a bit of magic.

Thus, the Happy Tree stands for beginnings and endings. When its flowers begin to bloom in early March, there typically is just a single flower on the tree on the first day of that cycle. It feels celebratory to catch the first Happy Tree flower of the season. The number of flowers in the daily batch will then increase from day to day, reaching an apex after four or so weeks to wane until the day comes in late April with just one last flower left on the tree–the last flower of that year. This year, I made a point of picking it up from the ground. I put it in a small vase with water. It stayed alive for a few more days. I must remember to do this with more of the Happy Tree’s flowers next year.

Once the flowers are gone, the tree enters its leafy phase. By the end of May, it is chockful with leaves, obscuring for the next six months the view of the pond at the foot of the little hill that our house sits on. Starting in November, the leaves will fall to make place for the flowers to return in Spring. “God willing” as my mother likes to say. Nothing is certain, given the vagaries of the world.

We call it the Happy Tree because it looks happy, and it makes us happy. But wouldn’t it be something if it were indeed a happy tree?

I like to think it is.

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[I’m still working on this story. Your editing suggestions are very welcome.]

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This video shows the blossoms of the Happy Tree near the peak of their cycle. 

The piece of the trimmed tree that reattached itself magically.

Once I saw this barred owl sitting in the Happy Tree.

The song “My Friend, the Tree” by Alexandra. Check out the lyrics.