Eulogy to the Peach Tree

We laid the peach tree to rest yesterday. Well, if by “lay to rest” you mean grab hold of the trunk, walking around it in circles to loosen it from the ground, bobbing up and down on it to further loosen it, and then finally yanking it out by the roots, with a small hand-held saw to help us. It was the only tree in the garden this spring not to have sprouted a single leaf or blossom, while the others were already bedecked with petals. The peach tree wasn’t a late bloomer; it was just time for it to go.

It’s funny how, when you’re a gardener, plants can become like pets. Each is a protagonist or minor character in your horticultural play, and there is an absence keenly felt when one exits, stage left. Everyone knows what it’s like to lose a pet, but there’s a certain kind of absurd grief that comes with losing a tree.

The peach tree was, it was pointed out, the most beautiful, the most delicate, and the most susceptible to disease. Funny how those things seem to come together, as beauty in the garden must often equate with fragility. Our rhubarb plants are quite hideous, oversized Jurassic things, although their stalks certainly taste delicious in cakes. The leaves on our squat, shrubby strawberry plants always turn a most obscene shade of reddish yellowish brown and shrivel over winters, but they dutifully grow white flowers with the yellow pads at the center you can already envision as strawberries. The peach tree’s blossoms were always a deep, ruddy pink, its fruits always small but perfect.

Those first few years with it were like a childhood dream come true – that first time you grow something in your very own garden that you have seen for sale all your life, it’s always like a small miracle. We picked the fuzzy, pink-salmon-yellow fruits and made jams and pies, we marveled at the fact that a tree like this was even possible in northern Germany.

But then it turns out it really wasn’t. Two years ago, disease hit. The normally delicate, long wispy green leaves turned gnarled, bulbous, red and bubbly with boils. The illness caught the leaves even as they emerged from their branches. And I thought, “how unfeeling, not even to allow the tree a moment to breathe, stretch, and glory in its loveliness.”

The tree fought on valiantly, like a hospital patient who knows he’s headed for hospice care, still squeezing out leaves, still – unbelievably – producing smaller and smaller fruits, which glowed even as everything else shriveled up around them. We asked more experienced neighbors for help, we cursed, we denied, and finally, this year, we mourned.

I’ve found there’s a certain predictability to telling people about Parstein. They ask how big it is, they ask if we have a garden and how big that is. When I start to list the fruit trees – apple, pear, plum – they nod silently, expectantly. It’s only when I get to “peach” that the nodding stops and you can see their eyes get wider – but just a bit, as if they’re trying to hide their wonder. There’s something particularly magical about having a peach tree – especially when you aren’t in Georgia or South Carolina. There’s a special kind of innocent decadence to the peach tree, a culmination of various picture book stories.

As I watched the tree come down sideways and the roots emerge, I realized that gardening is nothing like in the picture books; it’s muddy and messy and sometimes, not at all fun. You have to battle predators, large and small, winged or slimy, and sometimes, you have to battle the fact that you live in a country where it’s much too cold for peaches.

Let this, then, be a eulogy to the peaches that gave us so much joy, filled our stomachs and fueled our imaginations. To paraphrase a line from one of my favorite films, “For a few years they were mine; that is enough.”