The Life Saving Tree

Evergreen Screen

After more than two decades teaching at The New York Botanical Garden, I get questions all the time about what plants to grow around these parts. As in many parts of the country, a lot of these questions center around what deer won’t eat. This week, a friend was looking for a recommendation for an evergreen screen that is “deer proof.” She had heard about a shrub she called “Arbivite.”

Actually, the correct spelling and pronunciation is “Arborvitae” which translates from the Latin Arbor – Tree and  vitae – Life…”Tree of Life.” Many plants have interesting histories and the Arborvitae particularly so.

Travel Back 500 Years

The origin of the name goes back to 1535. Just a short bit of history of America leading up to this most interesting of stories…Aside from the Vikings (a bit more of that below), the whole European immigration thing began when Christoforo Colombo, the 40 year old Italian explorer, was sponsored by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain to sail for the Far East by heading west. After three months at sea, he stumbled upon an island in the Bahamas in 1492 and claimed that he had discovered the Far East. He made 3 subsequent voyages but in fact never stepped foot on North America. He actually went to his grave in 1506 still believing he had reached the Far East. Columbus’ brutal cruelty to the indigenous peoples was legendary and was often reported to the Crown of Castile by many of his crew. For this, he was eventually arrested in 1500 and removed from Hispaniola. His early discoveries, however, triggered intense exploration of the “New World” in the late 1400s and early 1500s by the Europeans.

John Cabot or more accurately  Giovanni Caboto, another Italian explorer was commissioned by King Henry VII in 1497 to sail for the British to explore what the King described as “God’s Own Country.” He landed in what is today the Canadian island of Newfoundland and was celebrated as the earliest-known European to set foot in North America. Of course, we know today, he was not. The discovery of the 11th-century Viking settlement at the found at L’Anse aux Meadows of Newfoundland put that legend to rest. There were even other Englishmen before him, but I digress.
Juan Ponce de León the Spanish conquistador first explored Florida in the early 1500s. He was told of a “Fountain of Youth” located in what is today the Bimini Islands by the indigenous people he encountered there, the Calusa. I have a feeling, because of his cruelty to these people, (this seemed to be a common theme with explorers) they may have told him of this legend to just get rid of him. Ultimately, it didn’t work. He never found the source of eternal life and 80 years later the Calusa were extinct.
The Spanish conquistador and explorer, Hernán Cortés, conquered Montezuma and his vast Aztec empire by 1521 and was appointed the Governor of “New Spain.”
The French Empire’s efforts were led by Jacques Cartier and Giovanni da Verrazano and this is where our story begins. Many European countries still believed at that time that this New World was a relatively narrow strip of land through which they could find a shortcut to the Far East so a lot of exploration involved looking for a river or passage that would accommodate sailing ships to this end.

Jacques Cartier, a French mariner, was commissioned by the then King of France, Francis I in 1534, to finally find the elusive passage to the Far East in pursuit of a passage to Asia and the supposed mountains of gold and spices. He led 3 boats and 110 men to explore “The Country of Canadas,” the name given to this region by the Iroquois. They first mapped the islands off the northeast coast and then sailed westward where they entered a river now called the St. Lawrence River. Winter was coming on fast that year and Cartier decided it was too late to sail back to France so they built a small fort where they could shelter and make it through the winter ahead. Their fort was located where the river narrowed in the shadow of a 3 peaked mountain (actually, not much bigger than a hill) which Cartier pompously named Mont Réal  or Royal Mountain which is today Montreal. About 75 years or so later Samuel de Champlain formally named the area surrounding Montreal, Quebec using the Algonquin word kébec meaning “the place where the river narrows”.

The Vitamin C contained in the needles had an almost immediate restorative effect on the survivors.

Cartier and his men were forced to spend the exceptionally hard winter in the meager fort and according to his journal, the ice on the river was over a fathom (5’10”) thick, with snow four feet deep.They subsisted on a diet of whatever scarce game they could capture, salted fish, and a bread made from cattail root flour. When a diet is devoid of any fruits or vegetables and consequently no vitamin C the inevitable result is the deadly disease known as scurvy. In a short period of time at least 25 of the men had died.

The entire troop would have been wiped out had it not been for a friendly Huron Indian who, upon visiting the fort, immediately recognized the condition of the men and prepared a tea made from the needles and bark of a tree called the Huron called Aneda in their Algonquin language group. The Vitamin C contained in the needles had an almost immediate restorative effect on the survivors. Cartier later reported that the tree looked like the white cedars of Europe. He named the life-saving plant Arborvitae; Tree of Life and later brought some specimens back to France with him.

Today's Arborvitae

Today, these native cultivars are known botanically as Thuja Occidentalis or sometimes called (mistakenly) Eastern White Cedar. Obviously, not all contact between the indigenous and the settlers started out acrimoniously. Fortunately for Cartier and his men, this was one of those cases.

Today, Arborvitae is one on the most common landscape plants in the northern U.S. I have several here on the Currant Farm. The variety I recommended to my friend is a relatively new variety called Green Giant Arborvitae or Thuja Plicata. It’s thick evergreen, can grow 3-5′ a year and reach a height of 20-30′. They make great, fast growing screens, do well in this area and are highly deer resistant.

Back to Ponce de León’s search for the Fountain of Youth for a moment. He never found it but perhaps he was looking in the wrong spot. He might have been more successful had he been looking in a big field of Black Currants. Just sayin’…. Furthermore, I will lay no claims to the antioxidant and vitamin benefits of Black Currants and will not make any association at all between The Fountain of Youth and my CurrantC™ Black Currant Preserves but I will tell you the preserves are uniquely delicious and if you haven’t tried it yet, I want to remedy that!

Cheers from the CurrantC Farm,