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Season Creep

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Everybody has their own phenologies, their own timing of spring. First day the snow shovels get put away (unused in my driveway at all this year, I might add), first day of working without long johns on, or maybe the first day of wearing shorts. I’ve always dreamed as a horticulturist of keeping a journal, tracking of events throughout the years such as first frost, peepers in the pond, first robin at the feeder. Yesterday I realized I sorta had one, and that I hadn’t posted to it in a while. So here I am…

One of my harbingers of spring is the opening of forsythia. It’s a plant I grew up with in our backyard, and the bright yellow flowers more than anything else speak spring to my weary winter frame. After arriving to work yesterday I saw the ‘Vermont Sun’ Forsythia in bloom next to the service building parking lot. Early. I first wrote about this hedge of Forsythia when in bloom on April 13, 2009, and wrote about it again in 2010 when it way 11 days earlier in bloom, on April 4. For the record, the bloom date this year was yesterday, March 20. Peepers were in my pond Monday the 19th of March, a blog post on them in 2010 was April 2.

Phenology, not brought to you by the letter “F”, comes from the greek phaino, meaning to show or appear. It’s the study of recurring life cycles of what is around us, the timing of insects, plants, mammals, and the relationship of time to weather and climate. There is even a USA National Phenology Network, using volunteers across the nation to study these cycles. A great example is the Cloned Plants Project, a partnership with the aforementioned  USA NPN and the National Weather Service, where clones of either a lilac or flowering dogwood are planted in an observer’s yard and bloom times noted throughout the years.

Obviously, this is wonderful data for global warming. More inputs than air temperature factor into when trees leaf out in the spring. Daylength certainly plays a part, as well as moisture conditions the previous fall, and amount of cold temperatures in the winter. But air temperature is the biggie. A study of oak leaf emergence in England since 1947 has indicated that a 1 degree rise in global temperature is associated with a 7 day earlier tree leafing. This is called Season Creep, and scientists point to this as one of the first effects of global warming that we can actually see in the present, with most of the other detrimental effects taking place in the future.

So where does this put us right now? I’ve been getting many questions on if this early spring will hurt the trees or landscape, and the best answer isn’t cut and dry. The worry is a late frost or freeze after the buds have opened, or shoots emerged from the ground. Short answer? The plants will be fine.Trees losing their first set of leaves can regrow new ones from secondary buds. Like beer on a worknight, it isn’t something to make a habit, but once in a while it isn’t going to hurt anything. And bulbs and perennials emerging from the ground know just when it is safe to come out-a frost never seems to bother them.

The impact of a freeze will be bad for us humans. For example, apples bloom before the leaves emerge, so should they bloom and get pollinated, a late freeze will destroy most of the crop for the year. There are no secondary buds for flowers.

The mild and early spring will cause other problems as well. Those suffering from allergies are miserable all the sooner. And the short, mild winter did nothing to mitigate the deer tick population, so extra care should be taken. If you are interested in tracking the spring and summer phenologically, I can’t speak highly enough of the UMass Landscape Message, posted weekly.

Seven Son Flower

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I don’t know if I’m a lazy, slothful gardener, or just a brutally honest one, but either way I’m hoping for a hard frost pretty soon. I’m tired. My garden is tired. A good significant freeze, a cleaning of the summer slate, an official change of the seasons, that’s what I need.

Given my perennial neglect, fall flowers always hold a soft spot for me. Anything that can brighten the garden in September is a bonus. Take Asters, rising up above the weeds of late summer. Sure, go ahead and curse the Aster yellows causing the lower leaves to fall away all summer, making the plant look ridiculous, but the bright pinks and blues as a surprising upper tier to the late garden redeem almost any neglected space. Grasses hold their own all season, but shine in the fall as vertical accents even as other plants droop and hunch like my sore autumn back.Trees and shrubs, though, are truly a lazy gardener’s friend. For a minimum of work, they blossom and grow dependably. In the plant world, it’s like something for nothing.

Heptacodium minicoides - Seven Son Flower

Seven Son Flower, Heptacodium minicoides, is a recent introduction into the plant world. Originally discovered by the famous plant explorer E.H. Wilson in 1907, at Hsing-shan in western Hubei province in China. Found on cliffs about 3000 feet above sea level, only one seed was found, so dry specimens were collected and brought to an herbarium. Another expedition found the plant in the Hangzhou Botanical Garden in 1980, and two seed collections were made from a single plant and distributed to various arboretums. Most active in spreading the plant around was the Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts. (Read the complete history ) As far as I can tell in my reading, all plants in the trade trace back to that single plant.

Seven Son flower gets its name from the seven headed inflorescences on the flower cluster. The white flowers wouldn’t draw much attention in the spring, as they honestly don’t hold a candle to a lilac. In September, though, they draw the eye through the tired landscape, showing off against the pale tattered leaves of most trees and shrubs in the late summer.

Heptacodium-flowers

The plant seems to grow somewhere between 10-20′ high, and about 10-12′ tall. It’s one of those gangly plants that defy the easy tree/shrub category, although the finest specimens seem to be pruned into attractive multi-stemmed small trees. The advantage to this little bit of work is the ability to show off the bark, which peels in long strips in alternating cinnamon and light brown shades. The leaves hold opposite each other along the stem (showing off its familial relation to Honeysuckles, the Caprifoliaceae) and stay dark green, pest and disease free all season. Some books claim no fall color, but we seem to get a dependable, but not stunning, gold.

Seven Son Flower-bark

Further south, once the flowers fall, the calyxes stay attached, and while the seeds are forming, turn bright red, looking like a second bloom on the plant. Honestly, I’ve never noticed this in Vermont, and the book Landscape Plants of Vermont states that the the season ends too soon for this Cape Myrtle effect, but I’ve managed to photograph some last week, and I’m watching.

Heptacodium calyxes

For the observant, there is one planted near Painter Hall, just off of Old Chapel road, pruned to a single trunk. Other clump forms are on the south side of Munford, the east side of Pearson Hall, and a couple other places I’m forgetting. Heptacodium seems to do best in full sun, but is at least partially shade tolerant as well.

Summersweet

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Memories of first loves can sneak up, then slam into the consciousness, triggered, perhaps by the sound of a song in a car at a stop light, the sight of a certain color hair, or, most strongly, a scent slipping into your brain upbiden.

For me, smell. Summersweet may well be my first plant love. The unique scent reminds me of a Connecticut childhood, wandering in the woods mid-summer, and smelling the spicy flowers for half a mile or more before coming upon the colony of undergrowth, sometimes a half an acre in size. Blooming now, and in fact for most of July as well, the plant sports long 3-4″ spikes of white (or pink, we’ll get to that) flowers, with a fragrance of, oh, vanilla and cloves together. Maybe that doesn’t even describe it, but is as lovely as it sounds.

Others know it as Sweet Pepperbush, for its small seedheads that look like little peppercorns, but without the taste. The latin is the rather unwieldy name of Clethra alnifolia, and is a native shrub to the east coast, from Florida all the way north to Maine and Nova Scotia. In fact, the only northeast state where Clethra is not found seems to be Vermont. Its marginal hardiness in zone 4 probably prevents it being found wild in our state, but this certainly doesn’t preclude use in the landscape.

Clethra alnifolia 'Compacta'- Summersweet

Given the bright audacity of so much in the late summer landscape, the subtlety of Clethra in bloom is a refreshing change of pace. It comes from a forest understory provenance, so they naturally do best in shade, and prefer some moisture. Smart gardeners are drawn to shade in the heat, and while the hostas are looking tired and beat, summersweet glows bright and fresh. My lone plant at my house is in a dry shade, but the species seems to grow well in sun given sufficient moisture.

Even the leaves stay clean and lustrous all season, in various shades of mid to an almost black green, with a slight sheen on top. Fall brings a bright yellow gold, holding late in the year. Full grown plants range from 4-8′ tall, depending on moisture, and tend to be wider than tall owing to its suckering nature, sending new plants up from the roots.

Yes, by all means, dig those suckers up and pass them to friends you like.

Michael Dirr, in his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, writes of seeing Clethra next to a water feature while shopping at L.L. Bean in Freeport, and “I got so excited I amost fell in taking photographs. L.L Bean is a terrific company plus they know their plants.” He raves on “if a retailer says he/she cannot find Clethra tell them Dirr said it is one of the easiet plants to grow at the commercial and garden levels and excuses will not be tolerated.”

In my 1990 copy Dirr lists 3 cultivars, and my 2009 copy over 25. I’ve grown some, and have opinions. The marginal hardiness of the species means some may not grow quite as well as others. A popular cultivar, Hummingbird, while a gorgeous dwarf at only about 3′, was discovered by Fred Galle in Northern Florida, and suffers from severe dieback in our northern state.’Hummingbird’ can also succumb to a nearly unforgivable genetic floppiness, which hopefully the sibling ‘Sixteen Candles’ has not inherited. I prefer ‘Compacta’ for it’s better hardiness- it was found in Tom Dilatush’s brother’s garden, the seed transported from the New Jersey Pine barrens in some leafmold-although this is a harder find in a garden center,.

Pink is another color worth persuing in the Clethra cultivar world. Ignore ‘Rosea’ and ‘Pink Spires’, both hinting of a light pink, but barely blushing, and look for ‘Ruby Spice’, a sport off of a Pink Spires discovered at Broken Arrow Nursery in Connecticut. The rich rose red color holds throughout its entire bloom cycle, even in the heat of August.

Ruby Spice Summersweet

So why isn’t this just grown everywhere? As a plant for sale, Summersweet suffers several minor flaws that drove us crazy back in my garden center days. One is the fact it blooms late. While I can argue until I’m blue in the face that Clethra is integral to Any Garden, I was generally talking to myself, not customers, in the dog days of July and August, and our September shoppers were lured instead by the cheap thrills of red leaves and pumpkins. Springtime brought another headache. The species is very late to leaf out and show growth. So late, in fact, I’d taken to warning customers to not give up on the plant until the fourth of July, after too many experiecnes of seeing live plants return “dead” in May, an irate customer wanting their refund. They grow out of that. The plant, not the customer.

And when it does leaf out, it may leaf out low on the branch, suffering dieback. This seems to also happen to younger plants, although even my 10 year old plant still does this to some extent. The late bloom follows a long, late growing season, so this tender new growth may not have sufficent time to harden off before the Vermont winter. The plant blooms on new wood, so any dieback (or spring pruning) will not decrease flowers.

I’m sticking Summersweet everywhere I can on campus. Compacta is next to the main door at Emma Willard, tucked against the north side of the building. Ruby Spice is at the lower door. More plants are at Battell, and in a new planting in front of Pearson Hall. Another cultivar, Sherry Sue, sporting bright red stems and a large size, is planted on the north side of Axinn, where the last two winters have been a little tough on them, but I’m still rooting for it.

Pussy Willow

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Ask 20 gardeners, and you’ll get 40 or more answers on what they consider signs of spring. One of the most common answers, though, will probably be Pussy Willow.

Salix, the Willow family, claims more than 400 members, with a range from the tropics all the way up to being the last woody plant before you are stumbling across the Arctic Circle. Many kinds are native to western China,  including the magnificent but weak-wooded Weeping Willow, but North America claims her share as well, about 75 varieties. Pussy Willow is one of these, although there are several willows with that name.

Go to your local garden center, and you’ll probably find, well, you probably won’t find pussy willow at all. Garden centers have a hard time selling very early or very late bloomers, like pussy willow or Witch hazel. Both bloom before most garden centers this far north are even open, and, during the regular growing season, these wonderful shrubs probably wouldn’t even catch your eye.

Should you happen upon one, though, probably in the sale bin, odds are it is a Salix caprea, a European Pussy willow also know as Goat Willow. Native from Europe to northeast Asia and northern Iran, it is nearly identical to our native species, Salix discolor. Our native form is more susceptible to canker, and have deeper brown branches and a nearly bluish white underside to the leaves, but it is the canker scaring plant propagators from growing the native species.

Pussy willow (both) reach about 15-25 feet high, and about 12-15′ in width. Native to wet, moist areas, they are frequently seen in marshes, wetlands, and on the edges of rivers and ponds. The ‘pussies’ we are familar with in kindergarten are male catkins, flowers with inconspicuous or, like Salix, no petals. While most catkins are designed for wind pollination, the Willows are known for insect pollination. Perhaps the non-showiness of the catkins is forgivable in the wild, as nothing else is in bloom, competing for the insects to visit them. For you pollinators among us, they are high-sugar flowers. At any rate, they are easy enough to force in a vase starting in February for the spring-desperate.

In the wild, Pussy Willow is an important source of food for browsing animals, such as deer and moose, although not the most palatable (who asks?). Duck and other waterfowl feed on the catkins in the early spring, while mice and other rodents can be found eating the stems in the winter.

Majorie Harris, in Botanica North America, writes of the Pussy Willow, and references a somewhat sketchy web site for the legend of how Pussy Willows got their name. It’s a Polish legend, and involves a sad, crying cat next to a river, whose kittens had fallen into while chasing Butterflies,as kids and kitts are likely to do. Hearing their cries, the Willow trees next to the banks swept down, arching into the river and allowing the kittens to cling to their branches, when they were safely brought to shore. Every spring since, the willow sprouts tiny fur-like buds at the tips of their branches in remembrance.

We have some Pussy Willows at Middlebury, but I had to do some thinking to remember where. While there undoubltalby some wild native species along Bi-Hall Road or the wetlands next to the Johnson Parking lot, the best species on campus proper are probably right next to Atwater Dining Hall, on the south side, where they were planted in the ditch that runs along there as part of the storm water mediation.

 

Some things in bloom

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

It’s mother’s day, it’s snowing outside, and I’m blogging in front of my woodstove writing of plants in bloom. Go figure.

Fothergilla is in bloom right now. A great native shrub, I’ve raved about this in several fall postings, and the blooms are nice this time of year as well. 

Fothergilla 'Mt. Airy'

Fothergilla 'Mt. Airy'

 

Fothergilla-Fall Color

Fothergilla-Fall Color

A dwarf golden yew outside of Warner Science. I’m a sucker for dwarf conifers.
Taxus cuspidata Nana Aurescens

Taxus cuspidata 'Nana Aurescens'

One of my favorite spireas, Magic Carpet, also not in bloom, like the yew above, but just look at the color of the new growth.
Magic Carpet Spirea

Magic Carpet Spirea

The Pulmonarias are in bloom. That’s a terrible latin name for a pretty plant, but it’s common name of Lungwort is, I think, worse. These shade loving perennials will be in bloom for a month or so, but the pretty spotted leaves should look attractive the rest of the year. These are planted underneath the grove of River Birch in front of Ross Dining.
Silverado

Silverado

Pulmonaria ‘Silverado’
Pulmonaria 'Raspberry Splash'

Pulmonaria 'Raspberry Splash'

Pulmonaria 'Bertram Anderson'

Pulmonaria 'Bertram Anderson'

Another plant with an unfortunate name, Siberian Bugloss, Brunnera macrophylla. A better common name would be Perennial Forget-Me-Not, as the flowers are very similar to it’s cousin. The original forget-me-not most people think of is a biennial, but I prefer the Brunnera, as the foliage stays attactive in a hosta sort of way the rest of the summer. There are some beautiful (and expensive) variegated forms availible now.  A very old fashioned plant, I first met this plant outside a 200 year old farmhouse.

Siberian Bugloss

Siberian Bugloss

This is one of my favorites, a perennial commonly known as Candytuft, Iberis sempervirens. This is one of those perennials that blur the line between perennial and teeny tiny shrub. The leaves on candytuft are evergreen, and the plant should not be cut back in the fall. It grows from a single stem, making it very shrub-like, and impossible to divide.

Iberis "Tahoe"

Iberis "Tahoe"

 Finally,  a rare little tree leafing out. This is a green leaf Japanese Maple on the New Library Davis Family Library side of Warner Science. It was slow enough that it didn’t make the previous post on new trees sprouting, but is sure pretty enough to include as a ‘bloom’.

Acer palmatum Viridis

Acer palmatum 'Viridis'

Spring Ephemerals

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I had dreams of guest posting on the great Middlebury Trailrunner, inspired by his post on Snake Mountain (the wildflower in his post is a Hepatica, by the way) . I was going to go for a run up the back side of Snake Mountain, the side where our house is located, taking pictures the whole way of plant life.

Well, I’m not that much of a runner.  My reason for running is simply running away from middle age, and besides, the plant life is too distracting, and I’m not sure I want to share the less popular trail up Snake Mountain with everyone. So, the run I was thinking about turned into a much needed and great hike with Nancy and Molly the stillhyperpuppyeventhoughshe’salmostayearold. While not on campus, I still feel like I should share what we saw, though, as this is one of my favorite times of year in the plant world, the quick flash in the pan of the spring ephemerals.

Spring Ephemerals are plants that complete an entire life cycle early in the spring, before the upper tree canopy leafs out. An unknown Wikipedia author writes about “excess light” in the early spring, but after a long Vermont winter we know better. Light can be held in dearth, but the glorious spring rays are to be cherished, not called out as vain and excessive. Imagine the evolutionary trick-sprouting, flowering, reproducing, and storing of energy for the next year all within the light and cold of early spring. What a strategy.

springbeauty This is Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica -an apt way to start some pictures. Grows from an underground tuber like a potato, and was used as a food source by native Americans and early settlers.

wildoatsWild Oats, or Sessile-leaved Bellwort, Uvularia sessilifolia . A common bellwort, and maybe not technically ephemeral, but pretty nonetheless.

lrgflwbellwortAnother Bellwort, the Large Flowered, Uvularia grandiflora .

hepaticaHepatica, Hepatica americana , named for the supposed resemblance of the leaves to the shape of the liver. Can be seen in blue, white, or pink flowers.

lrgtrilliumOne of the grand queens in the spring ephemeral world, the Large Flowered Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum .

wakerobin

Personal favorite here, Wake Robin, or Purple Trillium, Trillium erectum. Probably the most common trillium in the northeast, and known for it’s foul scent, which it uses to attract carrion flies for pollination. The smell is such that early herbalists used the plant to treat gangrene, since plants were used to cure the ailments they resembled.

troutlilyTrout Lily, Erythronium americanum. Very common in the woods lately, and named for the leaf pattern resembling the fish.

dutchmansbreechesDutchman’s Breeches (best name ever), Dicentra cucullaria. Perennial gardeners will quickly see the resemblance to Bleeding Heart, another Dicentra. Flowers are pollinated by early bumblebees, as honeybees don’t have a long enough proboscis to gather nectar.

bloodrootBloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis. So early blooming, the flowers are self pollinating, just to be on the safe side. The name comes from a dye that can be made from the roots, and was probably the ink used for the Scarlet “A” on the forehead of adulterers. There are some great patches of this in Ridgeline. The plant is myrmecochorous, ant-dependent, as it’s seeds attract the insect which then moves them around and buries them.

earlymeadowrueEarly Meadow Rue, Thalictrum dioicum.

wildgingerSome Wild Ginger I found in a tree stump, Asarum canadense. Strange and kinda ugly brown flowers thankfully hidden beneath the foliage-ant pollinated.

mouseearchickweed

Mouse Ear Chickweed, Cerastium vulgatum. This was on the top of the mountain by the concrete platform, which makes sense seeing as it is an escaped European plant. Now a lawn weed, but reportedly edible leaves once boiled like other greens.

amflyhoneysuckleAmerican Fly Honeysuckle, Lonicera canadensis. Not an ephemeral, but a woody plant along the trail edge.

bluetsBluets, Houstonia caerulea. Another plant found up by the concrete platform, native to fields and open woods.

earlysaxifrageEarly Saxifrage, Saxifraga virginiensis. Feel free to let me know if I’ve mis-identifed this one-I hadn’t brought the wildflower book with me on the hike, and have been identifying from pictures. violarotundifoliaThis was a great find, and a bear to identify. Round Leafed Yellow Violet, Viola rotundifolia. the only stemless yellow violet, with flowers and leaves on separate stalks.

 

Daffodils are Blooming

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daffodil`

The blue Nymph, Liriope, gave birth to a son, destined to become a mighty hero. His fate was sealed after being granted his good looks by the very gods themselves, and given immortality. Like all gifts from the gods, however, immortality came with a catch. He could remain immortal, as long as he didn’t know his own reflection.

Echo was a nubile Oread, a mountain nymph. Zeus liked the mountain nymphs, in a ballroom dancing in the old movies sort of way, and Echo would distract Zeus’ wife Hera during the indiscretions. Beware a spurned goddess, especially the wife of the almighty Zeus, who, catching wind of the plan, punished the lovely Echo by taking her voice, only allowing her to echo others.

Our hero in this story grew tall, handsome, and vain. Ironic, given that he was not allowed to view himself. Surronding yourself with admirers does present difficulties, however. One day, while hunting in the woods, the lovely Echo fell in love with our young hero, and followed from a distance. Hearing this, our boy shouts “Who’s there?”-only to hear “Who’s there?”, quieter, and a little further away. This goes on longer than you can imagine, until the hero gets angry, and leaves, spurning the unrequited love.

Echo and Narcissus, Oil Painting, 1903-John William Waterhouse

Echo pines away, weeping and wailing, consumed by her love for the boy. Finally, all that was left was her voice, which childern can still hear deep in the woods, or boorish tourists in the canyons. As she dies, she offers a prayer to Venus, the goddess of love, for punishment to the vain youth.

Nemesis, “she who ruins the proud”, hears and intercepts the prayer. She lures our hero into the woods, and takes him to a still pool of water. He gazes below his feet, and seeing his reflection, the divine penalty takes effect. He promptly falls in love, and stares into the water until he fades away. As he fades, a flower arises from the ground from where he sat entranced. The Narcissus, or Daffodil, bears his name to this day.