I was hurrying the other day on my way to pick up Thai food, and I felt something was…off as I passed St. Mary’s. Few people now know it as St. Mary’s but it’s the church attached to the “oldest building in the city” In other words, the church attached to the Ursuline Convent.
I looked up and noticed no rubber tree.
This rubber tree had been incredible. It had hung over the sidewalk, offering a bit of shade to sweaty tourists and greenery to sidewalk kings and queens for many years. Clearly, the cold air from last winter had done the tree in.
After picking up my food (drunken noodles with shrimp from Sukho Thai on Royal in the Marigny- I recommend), I clambered up the stairs to the Grand Duchess and her light-filled, warm rooms to ask her opinion on trees and to see if I could capture an idea or two about what to do. She made me at home and personally fixed me a rum and satsuma juice with grenadine and fresh lime juice. She always remembers the seasonal drink I choose although she added the grenadine. I like it better.
Can you tell me your thoughts on how we can re-tree the Vieux Carre to make it more shady or livable?
We prefer to think of the presence of trees as their own reward.
(I put my drink down carefully and focused my words.)
Pardon me, Duchess. Will you share some ideas as to how we can encourage tree planting?
We believe that the staff on Loyola Avenue should decree Dec and Jan as Tree Planting Months. Encourage it, offer tips on how and what to plant. Allow any fruit bearing tree or small root tree to be planted in dirt already existing on the edge of the sidewalk, or in the (aside to me with a wink) 1980s garbage inserts that you cleverly wrote about. (author’s note: I had written about the old cans built into the sidewalks that had a short life but still could be seen along some sidewalks in the Quarter. Somehow, she had read or been told about my piece.)
It would also be beneficial to add trees to balconies. These would be small trees in pots that birds would use to rest in and bring their songs to the mornings.
We would also encourage our people to add larger trees to their courtyards wherever possible, remembering the fig trees and orange trees and persimmon trees among many others that could be found throughout the village in the near past. We would also ask the staff on Loyola to offer a small metal bench (1.5 feet long, no more) for any area planted with 2 or more shade trees. The bench would be embedded in the concrete and encourage sitting by passersby or for the store owners who enjoy gazing despairingly at non-shoppers on their streets.
Certainly encouraging people to add trees is wonderful, but why should they go to the trouble?
We believe that trees have their own reasons for existing, but also exhort the citizenry to remember the satisfaction of plucking a plum on one’s way to the Cathedral, or to think of the delight that comes with knowing that full shade lies just ahead on one of our sultry summer days that will come.
Furthermore, we are an agricultural people and we believe that our village should represent the best of every part of what our region has to offer. Think of having a satsuma on Saint Ann or a pecan on Barracks. What is more appropriate for the old city?
It is true that many fruit trees leave debris that can be distasteful to those with the most gossamer of sensibilities, but for those without the passion for picking, ask your nearest restaurant if they would like the choicest fruit. When you find that intelligent chef, simply allow his most industrious staff person in to pick and find your favorite dessert made with your offering waiting for you when you go in to dine. Or toss the key down to the pie lady and offer her the prize. If no one takes your offer, have a party at harvest season and watch the fruit disappear along with your liquor!
She then walked with me down to her courtyard. She pointed out her favorites with her cane as she called some of their Latin and some by their New Orleans or everyday names: her beautiful Fortunella japonica, Citrus reticulata (she had been the one to introduce me to this favorite of mine actually), her Eribotrya japonica, (almost 20 feet high), her Fiddle-Leaf Figs, her bananas (edible and tasty I can vouch for that), her old Ficus elastica (she murmured it was related to the St. Mary tree knowing it would comfort my loss), pomegranate shrubs, and her Sago Palm and various others palms that I only barely recognized, all as gnarled as her cane. With the lights strung between, and with her climbing roses, larkspur, butterfly weed, bougainvillea, narcisissus, butterfly lilies, camelias (like few people had seen in generations), jessamine, red hibiscus, four-o-clocks in every color, it bloomed year-round and smelled–
well it smelled of New Orleans, really.
Ursuline Convent rubber tree circa 2009