Black Locust

There is an area of campus called Stewart Woods-it’s south of Stewart Hall, on the other side of the road, next to the graveyard. Our department mows underneath the trees, forming a beautiful little grove next to the road. The trees are black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, and are in full bloom right now. A favorite of honeybees, walking over there you can just hear the air humming with the sound.

Stewart Woods in bloom

Stewart Woods in bloom

Native from Pennsylvania to Georgia, west to about Oklahoma, early settlers have since dispersed the tree far and wide. Like the lilac, old house and farm sites in Vermont can often be found by the black locust trees nearby. They had multiple uses back then, and still would, were it not for the locust borer, a destructive insect wiping out nearly all the magnificent trees in the prime of their life. The trees grow in groves, suckering up from their roots, making sharing trees with your neighbors easy. (This is like a lilac as well-popular early colonial plants were easy to propagate.) The wood was used not only for burning, with a very high BTU, matching an equal weight in coal, but also for fence posts, nearly never rotting when in contact with the ground. In fact, Donald Peattie in “A Natural History of North American Trees” quotes mark Catesby, a British naturalist who visited Jamestown a century after it’s founding. He states “they erected each of their little hovels on four only of these trees ( the locust tree of Virginia), pitched into the ground to support the four corners; many of these posts sare yet standing, and not only the parts underground, but likewise those above, perfectly sound”.

So, apparently, no “log cabins” for our early settlers, but an impressive grasp of the semi-colon.

The latin, Robinia,  honors either Jean Robin, or son Vespasien, who grew seeds of the tree sometime between 1601 and 1636, and introduced the tree to France, where it became all the rage. The wood is so strong, it is also used for nails on ships, lasting longer than the hulls they held together. The British used the superiority of our hastily built “locust fleet” as an excuse for their defeat on Lake Champlain in the war of 1812. The nails, also called Trunnels, took advantage of the nature of Locust wood, that when wet it expands and becomes leak proof.

Peattie expands the tree nails story, writing of William Cobbett, a famous English publicist and economist, who between 1917 and 1819 started a Black Locust grove on his farm on Long Island, hoping to supply the British navy with tree nails. He had to hurridly leave what he undoubtedly still called the ‘colonies’, having been chased out by popular opinion for libeling Dr. Rush for having killed George Washington by malpractice. He returned to England with some Black Locust seed, and the corpse and coffin of Thomas Paine, planning to re-intern the body in a spectacular monument to atone for his former attacks on the author. He never finished, the coffin auctioned to a furniture dealer, the corpse inside lost to history.

A special strain of Black Locust used to be described as “Shipmast Locust”, having perfectly straight and clear trunks for many feet, yielding valuable timber. It used to be described as a separate species, until botanists yelled foul, merging it back with the normal Locust, as it was probably just a cultivar asexually propagated by root suckers.

The tree itself grows fairly straight, only branching at the top. The leaves are a nice light green, aboiut 6-12″ long, with many leaflets at about 1-2″. The leaflets fold up at night and droop, making people believe the tree is conserving water, but that is a non-issue at night, so other guesses must be made.

Black Locust Bark

Black Locust Bark

 The bark is a light grey, but unmistakably furrowed and rough. The blooms are white, and hang in clusters 4-8″ long  from the branches. The scent needs to be experienced, but is spectacular.

Black Locust Flowers

Black Locust Flowers

Gardeners would recognize the bloom as similar to peas, and indeed they are in the same family. Black Locust has the ability to fix nitrogen, like all legumes, so the tree is often listed in the saddest of all plant use lists, Mine Reclamation. Micheal Dirr calls it an “Alley Cat Tree”, more as an indication of hardiness and usefulness than anything else. It is a common tree in China, and is called “yanghuai”, or Foreign Scholar Tree, as it does mimic the Scholar Tree native there.

There are many Black Locust trees on campus aside from Stewart Woods. Off the top of my head, I can think of Nichols House, below the ledge at Gifford, McKinley House, and next to Hillcrest Road. The oldest and largest are probably at the McKinley House.

P.S.- A public apology. While running a garden center and growing trees in pots, I became enamoured of a cultivar of Black Locust called “Purple Robe”.  This was a beautiful tree. Nice round shape with good branching, not like a normal locust, crisp lime green leaves, and spectacular purple flowers instead of white. We grew and sold many of them, and it was easy, for they grew fast and looked good in a pot. I even planted one in my back yard, and it would slow traffic down on our road in flower.

Purple Robe Locust Flowers

Purple Robe Locust Flowers

After several years, the trees started falling apart, literally. Some would get a couple of locust borer holes, and snap in half at a gust of wind. Others would branch poorly, and split down the middle. Still more woiuld get riddled with borer holes so bad as to just up and die. Mine did all three.

I only mention all of this because I still run into former customers in town that will not talk to me, or even nod a hello, mad at me for making them fall in love with a fast growing shade tree that died a premature death. It’s terrible to see a tree die in the prime of its life, and believe me, had I known, I wouldn’t have grown or sold them. Sometimes a plant that does well in one part of the country does poorly elsewhere, but that’s not really an excuse, is it?

The wind, the wind

One of the most impressive thunderstorms I’ve seen ripped through campus Wednesday night, starting about 8:00. From my house in Weybridge it was a continual light show; not just flashes of lightening here and there, but the sky constantly lit as bolt after bolt attacked the ground and sky. Torrential downpours accompanied the storm, with driving rain, straight down. No massive wind gusts in Weybridge, though, at least my end, so I was unprepared for the damage I saw on my drive to work on Thursday.

The Burlington Free Press has a very good explanation of the development of this storm. Thunderstorms build, using the heat at the surface, which rises and is full of potential energy, explaining why most thunderstorms happen later in the day. Wednesday had record breaking heat, in the low 90’s, but a cap of warm air prevented the hot surface air from rising too much.  A rare cold front pushed down from the northeast, wiping out the cap of warm air that was sitting several thousand feet up, letting the storm build quickly, seemingly out of nowhere.

Weather obsessive that I am, the Weather Underground sends me emails for severe weather alerts, and when I got one late in the day I looked at the radar map, and saw nothing but clear skies, with a little storm near the Quebec border. Half an hour later or so, I see some impressive lightening to the north, so I run to the laptop, and glance at the radar again. (OK, very obsessive.) A huge storm was just north of us, and I was glad, and a little bummed, that it missed us. For kicks I set the radar to run a time lapse loop, to check the speed and direction of the storm. I didn’t know about the front pushing from the northeast, so was shocked to see this storm flying south from the north, as most storms have the common sense to go west to east. The radar was impressive enough I stuck a flashlight in my pocket, expecting to lose power.

Like I’d mentioned above, no wind in Weybridge. In town and on campus was a different story. As thunderstorms build, hot air at the surface rushes upward, creating an updraft. What goes up must come down, and downdrafts in thunderstorms are common. When severe enough, greater than 59 mph, they are called ‘straight line winds’, and can mimic tornadoes in the amount of damage. To differentiate them from tornadoes, one needs to look at the type of damage, and, sadly, an easy way to do this is with trees.

Middlebury’s weather station only recorded a peak gust of 41 mph, but that is down at the track. The Mead Chapel quad probably experienced straight line winds, based on the damage to some of the trees. Luther Tenny, fellow obsessive, noted how similar the tree damage was to an ice storm, with many branches hanging straight down, as if loaded with ice, broken from the weight.  It was an astute observation, and a good indication of a staight  line gust.

Some trees on campus lost some large branches, and many lost smaller ones. We spent most of the day picking them up, and we’ll be pruning trees for the next several. A large Norway spruce that was hollow fell across Porter Field Road, displacing a squirrel family that didn’t have the good sense to leave until we cut into the trunk to get rid of it, scaring the heck out of the chain saw operator. A huge Silver Maple, also hollow, fell behind 70 Hillcrest, missing everything in the yard. The tree had a 2-3″ band of living tissue holding it up-the remaining 4-5 feet (!) of trunk was hollow. Other large branches fell here and there, but no property damage or broken electric lines.

The tree that took the storm the worst, though, may be a large elm below Mead Chapel. This is the tree that looks like an ice storm hit it. Most of the crown seems to have snapped downward, like the downdraft was right above it. We’ll prune the broken branches out of the crown, and see how much of the tree remains. I’ll keep you posted.

Teaching with Technology Fair

It’s Commencement (literally, it’s about 9:30 Sunday morning, we’ve been at it since 5 Am, but now us landscapers are hiding around campus working where you can’t see us), hence the lack of any posts the last week or so. I’ve got a lot to write, but being a landscaper in spring has it’s disadvantages, time management being a one of them.  I just wanted to mention I’ll be at the Teaching with Technology Fair on Wednesday, in the Great Hall at Bicentennial Hall from 10-12, showing off the Campus Tree Map. If you’re curious as to the ArcGIS underpinnings of the map, or just want to drop by to talk plants, come on over.

10,000, and an invitation

The site stats section of the blog just claims I reached over 10,000 page views (What does that mean? I have no idea. Maybe 9000 views by the “Google”, 500 people searching for “most beautiful college campus”, and then there is the rest of you in bloggerville. Welcome, come right in.) Like having a child, now I’m feeling this mantle of responsibility, but without the diaper phase. So the invitation is simple-ask away. Walking across campus I’m frequently stopped and asked questions, like advice on fruit trees, or tomatoes. I’ve been gardening and landscaping since about 6th grade, and while I have nowhere near all the answers, I at least know where to look. (And as you may have picked up on, I’ve got opinions. Lots of opinions.) So post some feedback, ask some questions, or send some pictures of your gardening accomplishments. I’m a landscaper, and although it hasn’t felt like it yet, it is May, so give me some time to respond. And thanks for listening.

Some things in bloom

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'

More Vandalism

Scene of the crime

Scene of the crime

I read with interest the recent article in the Middlebury Campus on the increase in vandalism this year, as I completely agree. We’ve recently lost another tree to senseless idiocy, this one a rare Silverbell. We’d only planted this tree about a year and a half ago, and it was ripped up out of the ground about 2 weeks before it was due to flower. I could see the little flower buds shriveling up and dying right before my eyes. Not only was this tree ripped up out of the ground, but it was snapped in half at the base as well, I guess in case the first injustice wasn’t enough. This was outside of Allen Hall.

Close up of root system

Close up of root system

That same weekend, someone felt the need to do a little pruning on a paper birch outside of Battell.

The branch as found outside Battell

The branch as found outside Battell The tree

Maybe what concerns me the most is the possibility that, because most of the plant vandalism seems to be taking place outside of freshman dorms, we may be in for 3 more years of this. Once again, any ideas are welcome on how to fix this as a community.

Most Beautiful Parking Lot, Ever.

Is there a contest out there for most beautiful parking lot? I can’t seem to google one, but if one turns up, I’m nominating the the Mahaney Center for the Arts parking lot-the big one off of Porter Field Road. Monocultures are verboten in the arboricultural world, but this singular planting of ‘Snowdrift’ crabapple transforms a blacktop wasteland with nice views of the Green Mountains to something totally magical for a week or so in the spring.

DSC04348

 

DSC04347

Snowdrift Crabapples have a great shape, with almost no variation in the population, making it predictable, and therefore enjoyed by landscape architects who don’t trust their plantings to trees that may take any old shape they want. The cultivar gets a nice dull gold fall color, and reddish orange fruit that birds wait and eat in the spring (at least in my yard, returning Robins mostly). While the name may have come from the flowers on the tree, I prefer to think it was named for the petals as they fall on the ground, all at once, blowing against the curbs and tires.

DSC04349

Happy Arbor Day!

A final reminder to join us, 3:00, on the McCullough Plaza for a tree walk around campus, followed by a tree planting by Bicentennial Hall. Come learn about the trees around us, and make your mark on Middlebury by planting something you’ll watch grow for the rest of your life.
As part of her class project in the Trees and The Urban Forest winter term class, Laura Budd took the tree inventory of the Middlebury College Campus and ran it through iTree, modeling software that quantifies the benefits of a urban tree population. Today seems like an appropriate time to remind everyone of what our campus trees do for our environment.
2.75 million gallons of Stormwater intercepted

270,000 lbs of carbon sequestered yearly, 616,000 lbs sequestered and avoided, and 5.36 million lbs stored in total

3156 lbs of air pollutants captured or avoided, including 807 lbs of ozone, 1580 lbs NO2, 778 lbs SO2, and 503 lbs of PM10.

Arbor Day This Friday

Come get your hands dirty, and plant some trees. Arbor Day is coming to Vermont, this Friday the 7th, and we are celebrating. Start with a Tree Tour, led by yours truly, starting at the McCullough Plaza at 3 PM, and end up at Bicentennial Hall about 4:00. Plant some trees with students around Bi-Hall, and enjoy refreshements generously provided by the Mountain Club. Once we’re done, go enjoy the all campus picnic at Battell Beach. (No, we didn’t plan that, but pretty cool nonetheless).

“He that plants trees loves others besides himself.” -Thomas Fuller