A mandarin tree is a valiant thing, pushing colour into the garden even when those who call themselves gardeners regard its spindly branches dismissively. I have known three mandarin trees. Each in a rented house, afterthoughts at the back of the garden, fending for themselves against crumbling walls, gasping for air in hardened, inflexible soil.
I did not love my first mandarin tree. It blocked access to the back gate. I would slip on the overripe mandarins that no one cared to pick as I left for work, cursing as the earthy zestiness flew up into my nostrils. Whenever there was a thunderstorm I would pray the mandarin tree would be struck by lightning, that it would burst into flames so I would no longer feel the little twinge of guilt I felt that it hung in there no matter what, and in spite of, my obvious neglect.
I loved my second mandarin tree a little more. It was in a garden noted for its varying shades of concrete. Colour inside and outside was a luxury the owner of the house thought her tenants did not deserve. We decorated with Indian scarves and embroidered cushions to reduce the impact of grey upon grey. The garden was a bit of a lost cause. Plants in pots were swallowed by concrete walls and stairs. Looking out the kitchen window was like gazing into a carpark.
But for the little mandarin tree.
It pushed its way up and out through the cracks in the concrete. Persistence was its only strategy. It appeared one day in autumn, a skinny, frail thing, wavering in the cold winds springing up from the south. At first I didn’t recognise it for what it was, I assumed it could only be a weed in that most soulless of gardens, but it grew and flourished, determined to reveal its true self.
One winter’s morning the garden was a fairytale. Golden orbs sprung into view, bouncing like a young girl’s curls. It was as if someone had found the switch for colour overnight, turning it to full right there in the garden.
The mandarins were surprisingly tasty. We competed with the possums for their juicy goodness but managed to eat our share.
I learned to love that little mandarin tree.
I still think of it and hope no home renovator came along and chopped it down.
Now I know a third mandarin tree. Also at the back of the garden. Overshadowed by Chinese Elms, Maples and Jacarandas; tenacious as always. I have tried to make up for the lack of love I have given its brothers. I have tried to assuage the guilt. I have pruned it, fed it, watered it. I have helped to steady it in the wind. It has struggled but remained resolute and like a shy child speaking up for the first time in class has borne fruit, determined to fulfil the promise of its brothers.
The mandarins appear, little faces full of sunshine on drab winter days. They are like a choir singing behind the main actors on stage, so good we wonder why we never noticed them before.
I admire the little mandarin trees I have known. They are a reminder that even if the odds are stacked against you, there is no need to give up hope.
They are all the hidden tenderness of winter rolled into one, blooming, clasp-in-the-hand ripples of joy.