Some Late Fall Color

We’re in the bitter end of fall here, at least in terms of foliage. To me, this is when trees really start to shine. Maybe it’s all the bare trees nearby, or the perpetually cloudy skies, but the remaining foliage seems to take on an extra glow, or maybe urgency. Foliage colors that wouldn’t have turned a head 2 weeks ago now looks spectacular in the dying season, like the russet brown of the Star Magnolia behind Voter Hall. Sunlight breaking through the clouds acts like a highlighter pen. The wet cold makes any color seem all the more special. Here’s a little slideshow of trees and some shrubs that turned my head late last week.

Best Addition to the Landscape 2010

Everybody has been talking about it, and I know I’m late to the party in posting a picture of the mural on the back of Wright Theater. What I wanted to post, though, was not the best picture of the mural out there, but a picture of the mural in the context of the greater surrounding landscape. I only wish and dream that someday a landscape I put in would have even a fraction of the power this piece has to transform a space. Thanks to Sabra, Kate, and everybody else who made the project happen.

'Cosmic Geometry' (click for larger picture)

Strange Fruit Falling from the Moon

Osage Orange-fruit

Every year, people working in Facilities start bringing me these tennis ball sized fruit. Last year, I decided to have some fun, and started freaking people out, acting incredulous they were actually touching them, and insisting they go wash their hands immediately, or terrible things would happen. This year I’m pretending they fell off the moon, and just happened to roll down to the front of the auto shop.

The truth is almost as strange. Middlebury College is in posecession of Vermont’s largest Osage Orange tree, Maclura pomifera. The circumference of the trunk is only 40″, nowhere near the record tree in Virginia of 321″. Ours is under the shade of a large sugar maple, and sits at the top of Stewart Hill, where its tennis ball sized fruit promptly roll downhill, over the speed dip, and end up near all the equipment.

Originally native only to southern Oklahoma and northern Texas, the Osage Orange was introduced far out of it’s range by using it as fencing, as it’s thorns and brushy nature made great hedges to keep out cattle.   It met the demand of a hedge in the wild west , “horse high, bull strong, and pig tight.” I’ve chased a loose pig before. Pig tight is saying quite a bit.

Alas, it was not hedge clippers, but barbed wire that won the west, replacing Osage Orange in the 1880’s.  The edible (?) fruit is cherished by squirrels, but more commonly used as holiday decorations.  Some have described the fruit as “brain-like”. If my brain were only that large…Chemical compounds in the fruit repel insects, although the whole fruit itself does not. The fruit is anachronistic. Usually large fruit is a method of seed dispersal, but squirrels are notoriously finicky on that front. Some theorists state that an extinct Ground Sloth used to aid in the spread of the plant. Indeed, the fossil record shows a  much larger range to the genus than what we see now.

The wood itself is remarkably able to resist rot and decay-and has been used as railroad ties and pavement blocks, as well as a superior wood for bows (archery, not violins). A bright yellow dye can be extracted from the bark.

Osage Orange Bark

Horticulturists like some parts of the Osage Orange. It’s yellow gold fall color can frequently rate spectacular, and it also boasts a pretty orange brown older bark. Michael Dirr, expert on all landscape plants, says the fruit is “effective in September, and lethal in October if one is sitting under the tree” and states that one should “select male trees; the large fruits are a nuisance and a problem around public areas as people will invariably use them for ammunition”. Male trees are being selected, and cultivars developed for use as a street tree. The species is remarkably tough, able to grow nearly anywhere. One last thought-Osage Orange is dioecious. Male and female flowers appear on separate plants, and of course you need both to pollinate. So, while our clearly female tree still sets fruit, they are sterile. Large, but sterile nonetheless.

So ours sits, unremarkable most of the year, until the fruit starts rolling. I don’t know how it ended up planted there, or even where it was grown. I’ve never even seen one for sale.

Shade Plantings, and a new Service Building look

Landscape books often write about shade as a “problem”, or give chapters on “solutions” for shady locations. I think that’s crazy talk.

Shade plantings require a slightly different mindset, like stepping two feet to the left and looking at the world slightly skewed. Full sun is luxuriant-throw anything in there, and it’s bound to look good. How can you go wrong with something in bloom? But shade draws a sharper line, and making dark locations look good without relying on a full palette of blooming plants requires looking at other properties of your plants, things gardeners and landscapers take for granted in the light of day. Master planting in the shade, and the required skills will make your sun plantings all that more rich and interesting.

Like the color green. You know green, it’s all that stuff beneath the blooms on your Coneflower. Green is a color too, and without the laziness of the myriad of colors of flowers to rely upon, shade draws out an appreciation of the multiple hues of greeen. Or how about texture? Think of the huge leaves of hosta, and play that against a finely textured grass. It’s about making the plants talk about what they are for the entire season, not just the couple of weeks they are in bloom.

I bring all of this up because of one of my favorite landscape jobs this year, maybe of my entire 4+ years here so far. The service building doesn’t have a glorious name (how could it?), and the north side had an overgrown thicket of juniper, hating life in the shade, and Bayberry, a nice plant prone to suckering from the roots to over-fill any area given it. Yearly our department was asked to rediscover the sidewalk leading up to the main door, as the shrubbery in the beds nearby were eating any free space the path may have had. Once again I failed at a before picture. I actually took one this time, and deleted it by accident from my cell phone. Trust me, it was a jungle.

Here’s the after picture. All of what you see was a thicket, including the grass now on the left side underneath the White Pine. The large tree on the left is a Red Maple, which strangely enough turns a bright yellow every fall, instead of the Red of it’s name. They do that sometimes.  The bench by the door was already there, and frequently used by my wife on her breaks from the Grille working the night shift, so that was staying. (And I would have gotten to this landscape eventually anyway, but having her out there a lot certainly did move it up on my priority list. Work until 3 in the morning, I figure you deserve a nice garden to relax in…)

This was also the first landscape job where I got to work with Brad Lambert, our resident mason in facilities. Really nice guy, and more than willing to put up with my crazy ideas.  The landscape had a BFR for no known reason right at the end of the walk to the front door, and, rather than move it, we decided to build a small stone wall off from it, and we put a dwarf Weeping Hemlock (‘Cole’s Prostrate’) right at the top to cascade off of the new wall. Less work to build the wall then move the 500 pound rock out of the way.

BFR,Stone Wall, and Weeping Hemlock

Brad and I were having fun, so he stuck around and made a stone path through part of the garden. Someone stopped by, probably going upstairs to Human Resources, and leaned their bike against the wall, so a bike rack seemed in order.

We had a little extra stone, so Brad jazzed up the bench some too.

Nancy's bench

The stone is Panton stone, originally used as the low wall around the deck at Proctor, and we stole recycled it from storage.

Other woody plants in there include an Upright Yew, in an attempt to screen the parking lot from the front door, and some “Landmark” Rhododendron, another great shade evergreen with red flowers in the early spring. I haven’t planted this one before, but I’ve had good luck with other small leaved rhodies, so I have hope. There is also dwarf Japanese Golden Yew, Taxus cuspidata ‘Nana Aurescens’. This plant stays gold all winter long, adding some nice color near the walkway.

We left a woody plant in there, tucked behind the bench. I don’t even recognize it when I first started working at Middlebury-it’s not really supposed to live this far north.

Oregon Grape Holly

Oregon Grape Holly, Mahonia aquifolium,  is a solid Zone 5 plant, though some people say Zone 4 with protection, which this location certainly has. Native to the west coast, this Barberry cousin has chains of yellow blooms in the early spring (the state flower of Oregon no less), and  purple grape shaped fruit in the fall. Edible, you can make jam from it, but I wonder if it’s one of those fruits that needs copious white sugar to make it palatable. The evergreen leaves are shaped like holly, and are used as such by florists.

The plant fun I had here, though, was in the perennials. Hostas are the backbone, their thick large leaves giving a coarse texture to play off of in the rest of the garden. Current plant breeding has given the hosta genus much more interest than the old fashioned green and white leaf with purple flowers your grandmother ringed all of her trees with back in the 60’s.

Guacamole Hosta

We used ‘Guacamole, an apple green and gold leaf with large white flowers late in the summer, scenting the air with a jasmine fragrance, along with my favorite scented Hosta, ‘Royal Standard’. ‘Cherry Berry’ is another hosta, put next to the pathway, with spear shaped gold and green leaves, but really planted for their dark purple blooms, followed by masses of little red seeds, hence the name.

Cherry Berry Hosta

Another hosta, massed underneath the memorial Red Horsechestnut at the end of the bed is ‘Gold Standard’, once again with gold and green leaves. This is the same hosta we planted underneath the giant Sycamore at the Deanery on College Street.

Other plants are sprinkled in there as well, included a cool variegated Carex, ‘Evergold’, and some red leaved Snakeroot, Cimicifuga ‘Hillside Black Beauty’. We also stuck in some Heuchera, a new cultivar called ‘Mocha’, and a great Japanese Painted Fern named ‘Ghost’. We didn’t forget about spring, sticking in a perennial Forget me Not with the strange latin name of Brunnera, a.k.a. Siberian Bugloss. The forget me not everybody knows is Myosotis, but that’s a biennial, and hard to manage in commericial landscapes (it gets weeded and pulled quite a bit) The Siberian Bugloss has large dark leaves like a hosta, and seemingly live forever.

My favorite shade plant is next to the walkway-it’s small blooms in the fall need to be seen closely. And once you’ve looked, you’re hooked. Tiny speckled purple blooms like tiny orchids cover the plant all fall. The name, though, is unfortunate-Toad Lily. Let’s go all Latin on it, though, and call it Tricyrtis. The speckles on the blooms and leaves may make it look like a toad, but that’s rather silly. Native to Eastern Asia, from Nepal to Japan, even to the Philippines. Tricyrtis is in the Lily family, and needs shade to thrive in the south, but this far north does fine in quite a bit of sun, given proper moisture. It is only hardy to Zone 5, but I’d try it elsewhere, given sufficent snow cover. The cultivar we used is ‘Gilt Edge’, featuring gold ringed leaves all summer long.

Tricyrtis 'Gilt Edge'

New School Year, New Vandalism

Personally, I was hoping we were done with this. I’m as tired of writing of it as you are of reading.

Since the school year started, our landscape department has seen an additional 4 incidents of tree vandalism. One, a newly planted tree was broken in what appeared to be a climbing attempt (no, we’re sure it wasn’t a squirrel of exceptional size). An arborvitae was snapped in half in front of a dorm, and a random branch broken off a a large sugar maple in front of Johnson.

This is only half the tree!

The final straw, though, and the reason for the quick post on a lunch hour, was the near total destruction of a little red oak by the Davis Family Library. Nearly every single branch on this street tree was broken or bent downward, leaving only the very top branches. This wasn’t just a random “lets grab a branch and break as we walk by”, this was intentionally standing in front of a tree, breaking as many branches as you can reach. Cruel, senseless, disheartening, and more than a little bewildering. What can we do as  a community?

Just the other day a crew chief and I were interrupted by a student walking to class, and he’d mentioned how he had joined us tree planting on Arbor Day. He pointed to the tree he did, and said he can’t wait to bring his kids to see it in 30 years. So we keep planting, and keep pruning broken branches.

Leaf Color

I’ve been reading quite a bit this fall in various newspapers, web sites, etc. about the science of leaf change, and I thought, well, heck, there goes another blog post. I don’t see the sense to retread ground others are covering.

By now, you’ve probably read that leaf color changes by the shortening of day-length light triggers the tree to begin shutting down the leaves, and that chlorophyll breaks down, and sugar is absorbing into the tree. In a nutshell, the veins connecting the leaf to the tree are closed (abscission layer), and once this is complete the leaf falls.

Weather does play a part in leaf color, and in the color you see in the hills as you visit your children on parent’s weekend here (Hi parents! Your kids are doing fine. They want more money.) Many articles have talked about warm weather delaying fall, cool nights are good, drought bad. It’s easy to understand, though, if you think of it in terms of plant health.

A happy, healthy tree in a good growing season will more than likely have pretty spectacular colors. The factors responsible for bad fall color aren’t good for the tree health either. Drought is bad for fall color, and also bad for the trees. Southern Vermont this year had a pretty bad late summer drought, and when I was on route 4 a week or so ago near Woodstock the leaves were terrible, turning brown and falling off, rather than turning nice colors. Here at Middlebury it’s been a dry September, and then the recent rain storms came at just the right time, and the leaves held on long enough to turn well. Warm fall days and cool nights? Good for sugar production, and the breaking down of chlorophyll in the active leaf. A late spring or a severe summer drought can delay fall color-the tree holding on to it’s leaves as long as possible, storing as much energy as it can before winter.

Another leaf color fact plant geeks have probably noticed is called the Leaf Wave Model. An article at the University of Georgia discusses this: Peak color is an opinion. Different trees turn at different times, and in differing colors. Yellows dominate early, then oranges as both later trees turn, as well as some yellow leaves becoming more orange. Finally reds dominate the landscape, with accompanying orange. Browns come last, generally in oaks. The leaves in Vermont are spectacular because of the forest cover types found here, yellow Ash, orange and red maples, along with splashes of green from Pine and Spruce. By paying careful attention to the mountains in the fall you can watch this leaf color wave happen.

Some other reading I’ve been doing this fall was about the color red, something I’ve never thought about. An interesting question for botanists has been “Why red?”.  As chlorophyll disappears from the leaf, the other colors emerge, such as yellows and oranges provided by Carotenoids. Red, though, is expressed through Anthocyanin, but is not found in a leaf, and must be produced. The question, therefore, becomes why would a plant be producing a compound, expending energy, at a time in it’s life cycle when it is trying to store and conserve? There are two schools of thought, and probably both are correct, some for some plants, some for others.

One theory is that anthocyanin is produced in trees in nitrogen poor soils. In some varieties of trees, as the green chlorophyll breaks down, the leaves are vulnerable to bright sunlight, and this sunlight breaks down the produced sugars, thereby not being absorbed back into the tree as energy storage. The red pigmentation acts like a barrier from the sunlight, allowing the tree to absorb more of the sugars it has produced. Nitrogen poor soils means the tree would have produced less sugars, being weaker growing, so more red pigmentation would conserve more of the valuable food.

The other theory is one of coevolution, that red leaves are a signal to insects as a repellent, a red warning signal to the insects attempting to use the tree as an overwintering site. A study has shown this in aphids and apple trees, that wild apple leaves turn red in the fall, and suffer less aphid predation.