The Whiskey Tree

Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite, and furthermore, always carry a small snake.” —W.C. Fields

Victorian Box Tree Photo Credit: Paula Nixon

I admit it. I watched way too many episodes of Cheers in the eighties.  When I called the Southside Spirit House I was certain that Coach or some 2015 version of him would answer the phone.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me back up.  A few months ago I wrote about trying to identify this tree in San Francisco. I was stumped until Ben at Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF) saw my post and had their arborists look at the photo.  They thought it was a Victorian box tree.  What did I think?

I compared the field guide with my photo and it looked like the same tree, but I wanted to see it again before confirming and completing the online profile for the urban forest map.

It was late in January before I returned, a Tuesday; happy hour was just getting started.  Four twenty-something guys were sharing a pitcher of beer at Southside’s window table.  Trying not to attract their attention, I took a tape measure out of my pocket and eyeballed a spot four feet up from the ground and measured the trunk’s circumference.  Studying the tree, it did appear to be a Victorian box: smooth, gray trunk with narrow, wavy-edged, dark-green leaves. It was covered with buds, all tightly closed.

I wanted to see the creamy white petals and inhale the orange blossom scent, just to be sure it really was a Victorian box, but by the time the blossoms opened I would be back in New Mexico. That’s when I had what I thought was a great idea.

I waited about a week to give the tree time to go into full flower.

The telephone rang and I could picture Coach wiping his hands on a bar towel and  answering, Cliff and Norm looking on over the tops of their beers.  He grumbles a little, but listens and then sets the receiver down on the bar.

He shrugs and says to Sam, “Some nut wants to know what the flowers smell like,” and shuffles across the bar out the door and disappears up the stairs.

But it didn’t happen that way.  The telephone at Southside rang a few times until voice mail picked up with a message advising that they rarely answer the phone or check the messages, best to send an email.

So, I did.  And within a couple of days I received a reply from the manager; she hadn’t noticed any flowers on the tree.

More weeks passed. Back in San Francisco I was impatient to see the tree,   It was blooming, but not showy—lots of small white blossoms nestled in the glossy leaves, smelling faintly of oranges, easy to miss unless you stopped to look and take a deep breath.

Tree #150163, a thirty-foot tall Victorian box, on Howard Street in front of a busy bar quietly does its job intercepting more than 400 gallons of storm water per year (if it rains, that is) and reducing carbon monoxide by 77 pounds.

I’ll lift a glass to that!









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