The warm humid air carries a sweet scent as I cross the little bridge over Peter’s Creek near Panther Mountain. I stop the big blue truck in the middle of the bridge and look over the edge I see the silky pink puffs that connect Appalachia to an ancient civilization on the other side of the world.
This beautiful delicate bloom would have once graced the landscapes of ancient Persia. As a child I learned about the hanging gardens of Babylon as one the ancient wonders of the world. Today there’s a little controversy over if it was Babylon or Nineveh but either way it’s safe to presume that it was the Persian culture in one form or the other. We also tend to think of ancient Persia as the desert that Iraq is today but I don’t really believe that’s accurate. There’s evidence that as recently as 5000 years ago the Sahara Desert in Africa was a lush landscape with a large river. If that’s true then perhaps ancient Persia was also a climate more like Southeastern North America today. And I think that the Persian Silk Tree is evidence of that.
The tree is tolerant of hot dry conditions that we see in the region of modern Iraq but in the the humidity of the Southern United States it thrives to point of being invasive. The dried seed pods spread on the wind similar to Honey Locusts and other pod bearing trees. However I would be amiss not to mention that the humidity also encourages a particular blight that shortens the lifespan of Silk Tree here.
I grew up calling this tree a Mimosa but the scientists who decide on what classifications a tree falls into chose to remove it from Memosea and into the Fabaceae family with trees like Redbud and garden plants like peas.
Image Titled “Silk Tree 70620d”.
Regardless of the name it seems to be a particular favorite of butterflies. While there didn’t seem to be any butterflies visiting the tree on the day that I took the photos I have seen Swallowtail Butterflies if every kind swarming the pink blooms. But this brings me to a personal conflict with myself concerning the Persian Silk Tree. While it produces a high quality food for the adult butterfly population it also crowds out the plants that many of those same butterflies host their eggs on. Eventually this leeds to a decline in the population of native species. West Virginia is already experiencing a crisis in the native firefly population and because silk tree is a pioneer species that means that it competes with the pines. Because the litter from pine needles create a good habitat for fireflies to reproduce it’s possible that Silk Tree along with other escaped non-native trees and bushes could be one of many factors leading to the loss of fireflies. But that’s just my theory for now. And nurseries are already trying to develop a sterile version of Silk Tree that provides the beauty and the nectar but isn’t capable of producing viable seed. It is possible that pollen spread to wild strains of Silk Tree would also produce seed that not viable and thus slow down the spead of the invasion.
My grandmother used to tell me that there was times when we had to laugh with the sinners and cry with the saints. It was her way of saying that you take the good with the bad in life and that sums up my thoughts on Silk Tree. It’s a beautiful plant that I enjoy seeing and smelling but it’s also one that I keep an eye on and don’t want to allow to spread more than it has already. There has to balance in everything.
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