Friday, December 20, 2013

My Passion for Trees, Part One

"I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do."  Willa Cather

Before the leaves were off the branches this fall, I photographed some of the trees and shrubs on my property. I've included labels and some description of each. There are also links to additional sources if you care to learn more detailed information about the specific species I mention in this article.

Northern Catalpa (L); Poplar (R).

(L) Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa). Catalpa has large, heart-shaped leaves and distinctive flowers that resemble orchids. Because of its long, dark seed pods, Catalpa has been commonly referred to as the "Cigar Tree." Catalpa grows rapidly, one foot per year, and reaches a height of 60 feet. You will never see it in a shady spot, nor in soils that are sometimes waterlogged. It's native to much of North America, although it doesn't survive beyond eastern Utah to the west, and isn't found in Florida.

(R) Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides). Cottonwood can reach 80 feet in 20 years' time, but for all the instant gratification, their lifespan is brief. A sugar maple at 40 years is just entering maturity, whereas Cottonwoods are bedraggled old geezers at that age. But their twirling, chattering leaves are wonderful to behold, and there is something remarkable about the speed at which they grow. One of my neighbors planted a thick row of Cottonwoods under his electric lines along the road. Then the power company came by and slashed them to the ground, leaving only stumps. The stumps re-sprouted, and three years later the Cottonwoods are nearly touching the wires again.


Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) is one of my favorite trees, but I have a lot of favorites. Although Tulip Tree is commonly known as a Yellow Poplar, it is not related to Poplars. In fact, Tulip Tree is a species of Magnolia (Liriodendron is a genus within the Magnolia family). The colonists were rendered speechless at the sight of Appalachian forests filled with majestic Tulip Trees, soaring over 150'. They immediately set to cutting down all the trees to be used for the British navy's ship's masts. Thomas Jefferson planted two Tulip Trees behind Monticello, his estate in Vermont. I own a couple of vases that were turned from the wood of these trees when they were felled not too long ago.

Red Oak (L); Black Willow (R)

(L) Red Oak (Quercus rubrum) adapts to loam, sand, and clay soils; pH from 4.3 (acidic) to 7.3 (alkaline). If you study my photo you'll notice two things in the background: cattails and a tall Black Willow, two obvious signs of wetter soil. This Red Oak is planted in a transitional plane where the soil is sometimes damp, sometimes dry, and the pH leans toward alkaline. Allowed to grow in an open field, Red Oak can reach grand proportions--50' high by 50' wide. Some day, this tree will provide valuable food for local wildlife--acorns rich in fat and carbohydrates. 

(R) Black Willow (Salix nigra) is native to eastern North America. It does not display the ornamental "weeping" growth habit of its Asian cousin (Salix babylonica), but what it lacks in garden appeal, Black Willow makes up for in other ways. It flowers very early in the spring, providing pollen and nectar to bees, and is a host plant to various lovely, native butterflies including Mourning Cloak, Viceroy, Red-spotted Purple, and Tiger Swallowtail. Branches from Black Willow are abundantly useful for weaving baskets and rustic furniture. Its roots thrive in wet soil and help prevent erosion along stream banks.

"To be poor and without trees, is to be the most starved human being in the world. To be poor and have trees, is to be completely rich in ways that money can't buy." Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

Japanese Angelica Tree

Japanese Angelica Tree (Aralia elata) is better defined as a large shrub. It's a rather horrible beast (thorny, spreads aggressively) yet has a few strangely charming features, such as its profuse white flower clusters that appear very late in summer. Bees arrive by the hundreds to plunder the flowers' pollen and nectar, filling the air with musical buzzing. Once the flowers have been fertilized, they quickly produce dark purple berries that last only a few days until the birds devour every last one. Unfortunately, Angelica Tree is non-native, and can be invasive in the north-east U.S. Therefore I recommend planting its native cousin, Devil's Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa) if you (as I do) have a fondness for menacing plants.

Shagbark Hickory

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) produces both male and female flowers on the same tree (moneocious). Shagbark is related to walnuts, and similarly produces a large green fruit that squirrels find irresistible. The bark becomes "shaggy" as the tree ages, as if peeling away from the trunk. Although slow growing, Shagbark Hickory eventually reaches 100 feet in optimum growing conditions. On my property, I'm clearing out the nearby weakling Ashes and Elms so that this Shagbark can grow a fuller canopy.

"In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they're still beautiful."  
Alice Walker

Maple 'Red Sunset'

Red Maple (Acer rubrum) is far and away one of the most popular (and planted) landscape trees in the U.S. It grows in about 85% of the lower states. Horticulturists have produced a number of cultivated varieties that are sold in nurseries. 'Red Sunset' is favored for its symmetrical growth habit and intense fall color. Admittedly, I was in a hurry to get a decent-sized tree on this spot, so I purchased this clone. Closer to the edge of the woods, I've planted a dozen or more wild (uncultivated) Red Maples to increase genetic diversity. Eventually they'll begin throwing off hoards of seed pods, and I'll have wild volunteers. 

I'll be back soon with more trees...and shrubs!

Shane VanOosterhout is The Passionate Gardener.  
For more garden inspiration, you can follow him on Facebook


Karen said...

You have Elm trees? I haven't seen one since I was a kid. They had such a nice shape.

Shane VanOosterhout said...

Yes we have a fair number of Elm trees. They are unhealthy and don't live long, which is another reason why I've been planting other species.