A few days ago, a friend was helping her father complete a crossword puzzle, and asked me for advice. I can’t recall what the exact clue was, but it was a six-letter tree starting with A. My mind immediately went to Acacia, which turned out to be the correct answer.
Although I’ve never lived in a hardiness zone where Acacia grows, it was was a familiar name for me because I thought it was the genus of what I grew up knowing as a mimosa.
I grew up in southern Connecticut, where the winters were tempered by the moderating effects of Long Island Sound. A thin stretch of the Connecticut seaboard, from New London to where I was raised in Stamford, is identified as Zone 6b and, as a result, is home to plants unfamiliar to the rest of New England. In the early 1960s, my mother’s family moved to Connecticut from Hinsdale, Illinois (west of Chicago). Having returned to the more temperate climates of their youth, my grandfather and grandmother (who were from southern Indiana and western Kentucky, respectively, both Zone 6b), enjoyed growing a variety of plants that wouldn’t have lasted a single winter in northern Illinois.
One of these plants was the mimosa tree, which I now know is Albizia julibrissin, also known silk tree. A relative of Acacia (both in the subfamily Mimosoideae), Albizia julibrissin is a moderately more hardy tree, that can survive in climates as cold as Zone 6.
According to my uncle, my grandfather brought a mimosa sapling from Kentucky to plant in the yard of their new Connecticut home. By the time my grandparents’ children had started families of their own, the transplanted mimosa had grown into an impressive specimen. About two feet off the ground, the trunk branched into three, reaching high above the the driveway and swimming pool, providing a dappled shade in the heat and humidity of the summer. The tree provided a canopy for countless family picnics and a frame for a similar number of family portraits.
In this 1981 photo, my grandparents pose with two families worth of grandkids around the mimosa. I’m in the blue suit on the right.
Having lived outside the normal growing range of the mimosa for the past 20 years, seeing the ferny foliage topped with tufts of pink, sweetly-scented flowers brings me immediately back to my childhood. Our summers were spent in the shadow of this mimosa. We learned to swim and dive by its careful watch, learned to climb on its smooth, thick trunk, and enjoyed fresh watermelon and cantaloupe from my grandfather’s garden at the picnic table under its canopy. In the fall, we’d play with the long, thin, rattling seed pods that fell at the same time as a nearby black walnut. In many of my childhood memories, this stalwart tree stood as a sentry.
I never knew this as a child, but a mimosa tree of this size is somewhat rare, as they often succumb early in life to both insects and disease. Wilt disease has destroyed large swaths of mimosa across the country. Winter cold and winds in the more northern reaches of its range can also cause splitting of the trunk. In fact, you can see the beginning of a trunk split in the family photo above.
When my parents purchased their first home in 1977, a sapling child from my grandparents’ mimosa was planted in our back yard. When we built our garage several years later, it was transplanted to the front, where it grew to a height of about 15 feet. It even survived an accident where a car, swerving to miss a neighborhood dog, crashed into its trunk. Eventually it, too, succumbed to disease (or perhaps never recovered from being transplanted).
Every once in a while, we would find a sapling growing in the yard. One grew into the tree pictured above, that graced a corner of our backyard outside my sister’s bedroom window.
Today, more than 40 years after my grandfather tried to bring a little bit of Kentucky to his new home in Connecticut, none of our family’s mimosas have survived. They may be gone, but the sweet scent of their blooms, and the memories they witnessed, remain an immutable part of our family’s history.