It’s easy to step in something unpleasant when you’re working in the garden. But maybe Debby Cooper and Cyndi Long of the Greenwood Garden Club should have worn boots when they recommended to the Leflore County supervisors that a magnolia tree in front of the county courthouse should be cut down.
It’s rare that such a civil and civic-minded organization would create its own controversy, especially when answering the call by volunteering to help a public institution look after its grounds.
Cooper said at the May 6 meeting the idea of removing the tree on the east side of the sidewalk at the Market Street entrance to the courthouse would cause the most controversy. She wasn’t wrong. Since then, talk over tea, letters to the editor, and discussion at garden club meetings would make you think the magnolia was the official state tree or that “The Magnolia State” was Mississippi’s nickname. Oh, right.
A reader poll on gwcommonwealth.com is running about 2-to-1 against. And an hour or so spent in the archives of the Commonwealth confirms many Garden Club members’ suspicions that the trees themselves were planted by Greenwood Garden Club members.
But it’s worse than that.
The Greenwood Garden Club was asked by county supervisors to take a look at the courthouse grounds and come up with a plan of what could be done to dress the place up after volunteer master gardner Silvana Rausa could no longer take on the task. Rausa had directed two county workers since 2015 in planting flowers in beds around the Confederate Monument and in other places to bring color to the courthouse.
“I love color. Why can’t we have color?” she told the Commonwealth at the time. The Greenwood Garden Club agreed and recognized her work at the courthouse as “Garden of the Month.”
Four years later, Cooper and Long told supervisors the flowers should go, recommending to “remove all roses and other flowering perennials (or cut down perennials to the ground, spray with Roundup and mulch heavily). They require too much maintenance and don’t really fit the massive size of the building.” After copies were printed to hand out at the meeting, the message was softened somewhat by striking through the word “all” and substituting “some.” And the Roundup recommendation came at least a week before the $2 billion verdict against Bayer in California.
The tree was second on the list: “Remove the magnolia closest to the front sidewalk. It is too close, blocks the view of the building and doesn’t allow night light to shine on an unprotected area. (Safety reasons.)” The item went on to recommend giving the ax to two indian hawthornes and two crape myrtles while they were at it.
Cooper mentioned she and Long had toured the grounds and met with a landscape architect. Garden Club member Lark Brown, who has a degree in landscape architecture, says the only other landscape architect in town wisely didn’t want to have anything to do with this. Brown’s response to a previous letter to the editor of the Commonwealth can be found elsewhere in this edition.
“It’s a plant in the wrong place,” Brown said of the magnolia in question. “I love magnolias. I have five of them on my property, but I have two acres.”
Besides the reasons mentioned in the proposal to the supervisors, Brown said the tree in question is just taking up too much space and making the lawn of the courthouse unusable. She pointed to how awkward the courthouse lighting ceremony is every Christmas season because the landscaping doesn’t allow for people to use the space.
They say the grass is always greener in the next county, and Brown pointed to the activities in Bolivar County as an example of what could be done.
“You need to be able to use the lawn,” she said. “Cleveland has festivals on their courthouse lawn, but they have oak trees.”
Because magnolia trees grow to the ground with dense foliage that stays green all year, it’s difficult to imagine them trimmed in a way that would allow a bench or table below, wouldn’t stretch out over the walkway entrance to the courthouse, and would allow a view of the clock and the cupola atop the building.
Brown said that the trees could be trimmed but that they would become an “ongoing project.”
“This is just a tree, and I think there are eight more on the courthouse grounds,” she said. Actually, there are seven more, with the four planted along Market Street and four others around the corner at Fulton and River Road, but why quibble over a tree?
A look into the Commonwealth archives shows the Garden Club was big on magnolias in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, every public building was graced with the flowering trees, thanks to donations made by members of the club.
The Garden Club planted 26 magnolia trees at Whittington Park in 1953 with the two at the entrance dedicated in honor of Congressman W.M. Whittington, who donated the land for the park. His wife was president of the Greenwood Garden Club for a stretch, about the same time as the magnolia splurge.
In 1954, the Society and Clubs page of the Commonwealth reported the Garden Club being informed the plantings at the courthouse had been completed. The main point of interest, however, was the planting of magnolias at the Greenwood Leflore Hospital.
A letter to the editor on April 19, 1949, from Mrs. Howard Lewis, president of the Greenwood Garden Club, mentions the courthouse magnolias specifically:
“An American poet once wrote a lovely poem about trees — Joyce Kilmer — and he ended it with an immortal statement: ‘Only God can make a tree!’ And who has not read that other great poem, written years ago, with that famous line, ‘Woodman, spare that tree!’
“There is no creation in nature that has the personality equal to that of a tree. No matter what variety, no matter where you come upon it, there it stands in all its nobility and beauty .
“Just imagine what Greenwood would be like without a single tree anywhere, or a home all alone, with not a single tree about. Somehow, we must have some sort of foliage about us.
“During the past few years, there have been some magnolia trees planted on the lawn of the county courthouse, as memorials to loved ones. The attention of Greenwood Garden Club has been called to the fact that our young folk playing on the grounds are not as careful to protect these trees from damage as they might be. For this reason, an appeal is made, not only to the children but to parents as well, to help protect our memorial trees.
“No one will dispute the fact that the tree is man’s best inanimate friend. You children are the future leaders, so for your own sakes as well as for others, help us to preserve our trees so that they will remain a monument to your love of beauty long after you have played your part upon the scene.
“With God taking so much pains to make trees so perfect and beautiful — to give them bud and exquisite design — to allow them the summer sun, then to age them into every color of the rainbow, and to blow them to the four winds, not only to repeat the process beginning with another spring, surely they were not created to die at the hands of thoughtless folk.
“Boys and girls, and parents of these fine boys and girls of Greenwood, help us to protect our trees.
“‘Poems were made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.’”
So, not only is the tree in question likely 70 years old, but the tree itself was planted as a living memorial by people mourning a loved one, sometime just after World War II.
The state could solve the argument altogether, although it’s not likely. Just to cover all bases, District 1 Supervisor Sam Abraham, who said he agreed the tree had to go, asked that Chancery Clerk Christine Lymon contact the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to see if the county had to jump through any hoops in removing a tree in front of a historic structure.
Sure enough, the department told Lymon the county needed to file an application for permission to wield the ax. She said Friday she had filled out the form and submitted it.
•Contact Gavin Maliska at 581-7235 or email@example.com.