Jim Bradshaw: The one about the old tree and the robins that got drunk
Last week we took down the big chinaball tree that has shaded our back courtyard for many, many years.
It was way past its prime and diseased, was dropping branches regularly, and had spread thick but brittle limbs threateningly over the roof of our house and a neighbor’s garage. We worried about it becoming laden with ice during cold snaps like the one just past and crashing down.
It was time for it to go, but it will be missed. There’s a bit of history tied to chinaball (also called chinaberry) trees in south Louisiana, and possibly to this particular chinaball, or Lilas parasol, as the Cajuns called the trees.
The “lilas” comes from the lilac colored flowers like the ones that perfumed our entire neighborhood each spring. Unfortunately, the pretty little flowers turned into pulpy chinaballs that were excellent ammunition for slingshots and just right for popguns made from hollow elderberry stems, but that created an unholy mess for whoever had to clean beneath the tree. We’re not talking just a few little chinaballs; we’re talking thousands that seemed to drop in waves so that there was always another mess to clean up.
These chinaballs have no practical value except to propagate more trees, usually in flower beds. The balls are inedible by people or animals, but as Lauren Post explained in his book about life on the southwest Louisiana prairies ("Cajun Sketches," LSU Press, 1962), left to their own devices, the berries will ferment and robins that come to south Louisiana for the winter get drunk eating them. According to Post, “They become such drunkards that the Acadians speak of people getting ‘drunk as robins.’”
The “parasol” part is in the name because each tree forms “a perfect umbrella and [provides] fine shade for the people as well as their animals.”
Out on the treeless prairies, Post wrote, “Barren indeed was the sight of the sharecropper’s cabin without these trees, and pitiable were his children and also his livestock unless there were trees about. … For deepness of shade, no southern tree is the equal of the chinaberry.”
That “parasol” had another important value. Because there were no trees on the prairies, there was no firewood for cooking or heating. But chinaball trees grow fast. People on the prairie planted a grove of trees around the house and topped a certain number of the trees each year for the wood they needed. The trees would replace the limbs fast enough that they would be ready for another trim in just three years. With proper rotation, a fair-sized grove would provide all the wood any family needed.
Lots of people planted them, Post tells the story of a girl who was traveling by stagecoach to visit a friend who lived between Carencro and Duson.
She was told to get off the stage at the house “with all the chinaberries around it.” To her confusion when she made the trip, she saw chinaberries surrounding almost every house for the entire 10 miles.
We suspect that our tree may have been the scion of a firewood tree that grew next to the kitchen of our old house. It is near where we think the kitchen stood in the days when they were separate from the main residence because of fear of fires.
Post lamented that “windstorms have blown down many of the old trees,” that others, like ours, “have rotted from within,” and that they are not being replaced because they are no longer needed (and are pretty messy).
Nowadays we use other fuels to cook and heat with, stay in air-conditioned houses for shade, and wouldn’t know how to begin to make a popgun (presuming we could find a good stalk of elderberry, which is also disappearing).
The losses of those things are obvious and sobering, but we may also be losing a big, overlooked opportunity.
Can you imagine the lightning speed in which the video of a bunch of drunk robins would spread across the world on social media?
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.