Now the parasol tree has already shed its leaves.
And the osmanthus flowers are newly scented.
Dreaming of you during every watch of the night,
Thinking of you as I wake…
~ Feng Menglong, “Black Silk Robe,” 1615
In Sunday’s column (Feb. 5, 2017), I wrote about what to do with hanging branches. So what does this classical Chinese love song have to do with hanging branches? Well, literary gardeners, “Black Silk Robe” is one of more than 400 song-poems in a compilation of 17th-century Chinese ballads titled “Guazhi’er,” or “Hanging Branches.” These popular urban songs were created and sung in the “pleasure quarters” of the Yangtze River Delta. They portray relationships between courtesans and the literati of that time. Feng Menglong was one of those literati, and he compiled and edited the songs he heard at the brothels and in the surrounding cities.
In addition to the title of Menglong’s songbook (and a previously published songbook by the same title by Liu Xiaozi), “Guazhi’er” or “Hanging Branches” is the name given to this genre of sexually explicit love songs, all with a similar pattern: 8-8-7-5-5-9. I couldn’t find a definitive answer as to the meaning of “hanging branches” in this context, but perhaps the term refers to the hanging branches of the mulberry trees that were so important to the Chinese silk industry (and to all of those black silk robes!).
Menglong went on to become an important figure in popular Chinese literature during the late Ming Dynasty because he introduced erotic facets of Chinese culture to Chinese literature, and he used (and thus retained) regional vernaculars of the period in his compilations of songs, histories and novels, as well as in his own short stories.
Now, what about the hanging branches in our yards? Here’s a useful guide provided by the Montana State University Extension Service on how to make proper pruning cuts for broken branches.
The Arbor Day Foundation also offers handy advice for Tree First Aid After a Storm. One of the points the ADF makes is to resist the urge to overprune after cutting away broken branches: “Don’t worry if the tree’s appearance isn’t perfect. With branches gone, your trees may look unbalanced or naked. You’ll be surprised at how fast they will heal, grow new foliage, and return to their natural beauty.
I’m glad to hear that news because I found several damaged branches in the interior of my laurel.
In addition to lots of hanging branches in my own and my neighbors’ yards, I’ve also seen a few trees that toppled right over after the recent winter storms. Frequently this
happens when a top-heavy tree has a weak root structure. Although my neighbor tried to prop this small Chinese Photinia tree back up with rope, it fell over again and may not be salvageable because the roots have been weakened by wet clay soil and exposure to the elements.
I’ll end this post with an excerpt of a contemporary poem called “Broken Branch” by Andrew Blakemore:
Broken branch on forest floor
And hanging on the tree no more,
All tangled twisted overgrown
It now remains forever prone,
The broken branch a solemn sight
Split on one November’s night,
When the wind was cruel and strong
And gales were gusting for so long.