Saturday, June 1, 2013


As a child, I would walk and play through the woods of our property in southern Winston County, Alabama.  My grandparents, Virge and Sarah Kilgore, and my aunts and uncles all had  property adjoining ours, which made for rather a large tract of land on which to discover and play.  From the ridges of higher ground and down to hollows  where small streams of water could be found, I would  play and run about.  Playing with, and in, what nature had provided was as natural as breathing air.  The trees were ubiquitous except where the lands were cleared for planting . There were numerous kinds of oak, poplar, hickory, and pine--all serving as part of a playground for a young boy.  The woods on my dad’s property were a magical place where one could explore a world that only trees could provide.  Climbing trees, hiding behind trees, and constructing things from trees were only a few things that were a part of my play times.  From the   thick, thick pine tree forest behind our home,  I had plenty of limbs, branches, and straw needed to construct earth hidden dwelling huts.  There was the big oak in our front yard that was home base for our games-- Red Light and Hide and Seek. But of all the special memories associated with the land, the one most magical was playing among the organically, wild magnolias, better known as cowcumber trees.

What is a cowcumber tree?  It is a rare, wild tree found only in certain areas of Alabama and the southeast. It looks like a magnolia in that the flower of the cowcumber and the flower of a magnolia are identical to the eye.  However, the tree's leaves, branches, and trunk do not look similar at all.   Cowcumber trees are slender.  Their branches are small and spread apart.  But the main difference is definitely in the appearance of the leaf.  The leaf of the cowcumber tree is extremely large, pliable, and strong.  It almost looks like a lush tropical plant without the thickness of tropical foliage.

The location of the cowcumber trees is confined mainly to ravines and damp areas where soil is loose and moss abounds.  Cowcumber trees can be found in low lying areas of Winston County. The trees are usually surrounded by a canopy of other larger trees. This special plant is not as hearty as the trees surrounding it.  The cowcumbers are small in comparison to the oak, hickory, poplar, and pine.  They also do not have a large trunk, only large leaves. I would break the leaves off the stems to make drinking cups, hats, shoes, and what ever the mind could come up with and put together.  The stems of the leaves were used as needle and thread to hold the items together as the leaves were folded and shaped to form whatever was conceived.  From the leaves, my girl cousins would even make skirts similar to Hawaiian grass skirts. The areas where the cowcumber trees grew was a favorite place to play for my cousins and me.

At some point in time, my parents transplanted a cowcumber tree to the yard of the cottage on their property, beside the graveled dirt road going to the main house.  For some reason unknown to me, about a year before Daddy’s death, he cut down the cowcumber tree.  Maybe it was getting too tall and too close to the cottage.  At any rate, from the roots of that tree, branches, stems, and leaves have reappeared.  Presently, it looks more like a shrub than a tree because it has come back closer to the ground and much fuller than the mother tree.  Seeing the regeneration of the tree this spring has reminded me of those childhood play times under the cowcumber tree in the woods.  I share some of the pictures of the transplanted  cowcumber tree for you all to see.   For some reason this tree has thrived, uncharacteristic of the  plant.  There is a special beauty, a special presence, and special memories when it comes to playing among the wild magnolias.

Johnny Kilgore 

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