I have felt a connection to trees and plants, a reverence for all living beings, truth be told, since my first memories. I am also prone to making a note of everything in my surroundings, ranging from the good and inspiring to the ugly and depressing. This is both a blessing and a curse. In this case, it’s definitely the former in great abundance.
One of the things I like about living in Viet Nam is the year-round presence of the color green in its many hues, in contrast to the three main colors one sees in continental climates during much of fall, winter, and early spring e.g., white (snow), blue (sky), and gray (clouds and deciduous trees). Every month in a tropical climate is a season for a different tree or flower to explode in vibrant color, making the world a more beautiful place.
One of my favorite trees is the giant crape myrtle, known in Vietnamese as cây Bằng Lăng. It is also known in English as the Pride of India, a gracious nod to its place of origin, certainly one of that country’s more notable flora exports. This flowering tree, which is native to tropical southern Asia, has been honored and celebrated in numerous Vietnamese songs and poems.
Purple Means Summer
Even if you didn’t keep track of time, you would know it’s May and summer has arrived in full force not only because of the lower humidity, higher temperatures, and bluer sky but also when many Hanoi streets are splashed and showered with purple, which is said to combine “the calm stability of blue and the fierce energy of red.” It is a color often associated with other states of being and qualities such as royalty, nobility, and ambition.
This natural purple splendor, which includes a yellow pistil (center), the colors associated with Easter, is one of my lasting memories of Hanoi from my second trip 25 years ago and a sight I look forward to every year.
It is my good fortune to have three giant crape myrtle trees grace the sidewalk in front of my Hanoi office. I consider myself lucky to be able to look up at them from the street and down at them from the upper floors. The biological transformation that these majestic trees undergo from early March to late April is nothing short of miraculous.
The Magic Begins
At first, it’s autumn in spring, as these trees begin to lose their leaves until they are barren. Knowing the myriad of environmental challenges, they face and wondering if they are still alive, I had to remind myself of the value of faith, hope in the unseen.
Slowly but surely, like a runner finding her second wind, they begin their resurrection, making the transition from dead (in appearance) and dormant to alive and prospering, the process accelerating with the passing of each day. This is a well-worn path that these trees have taken since they were saplings; it’s in their DNA.
Scientists have discovered that trees move their branches up and down at night, actively pumping water upwards in stages, and that they have a slow version of a “pulse” or heartbeat. This makes perfect sense since they are living beings with their own circulatory system.
I imagine the roots deep under the urban streets drawing in water and nutrients from the soil coursing through their wooden veins and distributing these evenly through every branch and new leaf. The changes from one day to the next are visible.
First the large, dark green leaves, the new branches reaching out to the building, then the flower buds. The wasps and bees return in their never-ending search for food. The precious shade reappears just in time for the sun-drenched and sultry days of summer.
Like other trees in Hanoi and other cities, these giant crape myrtle trees are both aesthetically pleasing and tough as nails. Many grow away from the buildings towards the sun and must contend with air pollution and occasional drought, yet they survive and prosper.
In a span of less than two months, these graceful Pride of India trees came back to life, restored to their former beauty, a source of joy and inspiration to so many of us who take the time to appreciate them. Looking down one sees a canopy of green and, once May makes its entrance, a canvas of purple.
There are many miracles in our midst if we only take the time and have the eyes to see them. The giant crape myrtle trees annual metamorphosis certainly counts as one of them.
Postscript: Here’s a good 2018 article about one of my favorite tropical trees.
Shalom (שלום), MAA