I was at least twenty pages into The Flame Trees of Thika, Elspeth Huxley’s classic memoir of her childhood in Kenya when it occurred to me to look up, stare out the window, and wonder “what is a flame tree?”
Sometimes, the answer to a question is right in front of you, as it was then, since framed in the window out of which I was staring was one of the coral trees in our back yard. They are one and the same. The genus Erythrina. Horticulturist Dr. Francesco Franceschi introduced them to Santa Barbara late in the 19th century, a decade or so before Elspeth Huxley spied them as her family made the dusty trek from Nairobi to Thika.
I assume the flame tree still thrives in Kenya, as it does here. A particularly fine specimen can be seen at our harbor:
And, of course, the coral tree reminded me of another treasured import currently blooming in all its majesty in our garden. Thank you, Brazil, for sending us the jacaranda:
Sadly, border crossings don’t always end this well. Consider the slightly stickier situation of the Australian gum tree, or as we known them here, eucalyptus. You can thank Captain Cook for bringing them from Australia to Europe back in 1770, from whence they somehow wended their way to California. Fast growing, yes, but also shallow-rooted with a tendency to topple and most worrisome, they burn like candles in a wildfire. Maybe they should be known as the real flame trees, given how easily they can be torched.
Australia would probably be willing to take back all the gum trees if England would take back all the rabbits. In A Sunburned Country, author Bill Bryson relates that in 1859, British import Thomas Austin decided to do a little importing of his own: he released twenty-four wild rabbits into the bush for sport. Given what Bryson reminds us is the rabbit’s “keenness” for breeding, the predictable result was that” by 1880, 2 million acres of Victoria had been picked clean…all so some clown could have something to pot at from his veranda.”
On and on it goes. For all the lovely flame trees and jacarandas that have come through our border, there is also the dreaded kudzu, originally introduced from Japan at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Today it is an invasive pest, inexorably smothering other plants wherever it goes, pictured here in Atlanta, Georgia:
And don’t forget about the environmental havoc wrought by the Burmese python in Florida’s Everglades. We took an airboat ride there a few years back and were stunned by the complete absence of wildlife due to the pythons’ hostile takeover. The snakes began to have a presence in Miami when they were imported from southeast Asia in the 1980’s as exotic pets but researchers claim that it was when a breeding facility was destroyed during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 that the invasion began. No one even knows how many there are. “It could be tens of thousands, or it could be hundreds of thousands” according to one federal official.
Crossing a border it turns out, is like crossing the Rubicon. There is no going back. Maybe that’s why Hawaii is giving us such a hard time right now with their myriad of travel restrictions. I’m not too happy about all the hoops we have to jump through ahead of our trip planned for next month. But perhaps Hawaii is remembering past errors, such as when they imported the mongoose to control rats in the sugarcane fields back in the 1880’s. Instead of eating the rats, the wily mongoose prefers a diet of songbirds. Mistakes were made.
I guess the cautionary tales remind us to be cautionary about borders. But how I wish Hawaii would ease up on theirs. I can’t wait to be the next mongoose loose on the shores of Maui!