Native trees

I’ve planted nearly a dozen magnolias of varying sorts in my garden, yet none are native to northwestern Virginia. There are hybrids and cultivars from east Asia, and two that are native to the United States. The Bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla, below) is native to states just to the west of the Blue Ridge mountains, but not to the mid-Atlantic region, and the evergreen Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is native from North Carolina to Florida.

By the most liberal interpretation of the term “native”, both trees are acceptable as U.S. natives, but in any case I’m happy to include them in my garden. The Bigleaf magnolia is seldom planted, and rarely grown by tree nurseries because of its coarse texture and lack of attributes that make it any more than a novelty. My curiosity was aroused when I saw one stray tree in the field of a tree grower in middle Tennessee, and with its huge leaves I immediately made arrangements to purchase it as soon as it went dormant.

The small tree with huge leaves has grown to a wide spreading twenty-five foot tall tree with light green, deciduous leaves that are nearly two feet long from tip to tip. Not surprisingly, the big leaves are matched by huge flowers with the typical citrus-like scent of Southern magnolias. The seed cones that develop after flowering are the size of my fist, posing a danger to anyone walking beneath the tree in a late summer storm.

I’ve planted three cultivars of the evergreen Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora, above) in the garden, which unfortunately have been damaged to varying degrees by heavy snow the past two winters. They have rebounded quickly, but with the central trunk broken they have become more wide spreading, with less symmetrical branching than is typical.

Since my garden is near the northern edge of the magnolia’s cold hardiness I chose cultivars for their cold tolerance. ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ is the hardiest of the bunch (reputedly to thirty degrees below zero), but beside snow damage and occasionally some minor injury from ice, none have suffered from cold temperatures. ‘Alta’ and ‘Greenback’ are handsome trees that grow smaller and more narrow than other magnolias, though they do not flower heavily.

The first tree I planted in my new garden twenty some years ago was a selection of the native white flowered dogwood (Cornus florida ‘Cherokee Princess’, above). In the years since I’ve planted another white, a pink, one that is red flowered with green and yellow variegated foliage, and one with pendulous branches and white flowers. Several white flowered dogwoods arch for sunlight growing in the forest that borders the garden, and seedlings regularly sprout in the understory beneath the towering swamp red maples (Acer rubrum), tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera), and scattered American beeches (Fagus grandiflora).

In a rainy spring the foliage of the dogwoods is regularly plagued by leaf spot (Anthracnose), and in damp, humid summers powdery mildew isn’t unusual, though these maladies are rarely fatal. A few of the trees have minor stem cankers, and I expect that eventually they will decline in health. But, their flowers, bright red berries, and long lasting autumn foliage color make this a marvelous tree despite these problems. There are a number of non-native dogwoods (Cornus kousa ‘Satomi’, pink flowered Chinese dogwood, above) and hybrids that I’ve planted that are more vigorous and disease resistant than the natives, but these flower after leafing in the spring and I prefer the earlier blooming native.

Years ago farmland bordered the property and several native Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) grew at the forest’s edge, but the land was further developed and the builder harvested some of the taller poplars. The sassafras could not manage the change, and sadly their health faded, so only the stumps remain. The property line was once delineated by locust fence posts and barbed wire, and today a few rough cut posts remain. I presume that a nearby thicket of black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia, flowers above) was once the source of the posts.

The locusts’ flowers are sweetly fragrant, but the trees sucker vigorously so that they are rarely planted as ornamentals. Years ago I planted a yellow leafed cultivar (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Aurea’) which had somewhat fewer of the vicious thorns that typically adorn black locusts, and it also seemed less determined to sucker. After several years the tree grew too large for the setting, and I was forced to remove it, but multiple seedlings still sprout each spring.

Along the forest’s edge that borders the garden I’ve planted multi trunked Shadblow serviceberries (Amelanchier canadensis, above) and a Carolina silverbell (Halesia caroliniana, below) that stretches for sunlight. Both are sturdy and pest free with brief, but splendid displays of spring flowers. I’m satisfied that the informal habit of the serviceberry is well suited to the woodline, but I would prefer that the silverbell be given a more prominent position with a bit more sun so that its form might be more compact with flowers closer to the ground.

On the far side of the garden a sourwood (Oxydendron arobreum) was jammed into a space impossibly too small to enjoy its spectacular lily of the valley like blooms in mid-summer and brilliant autumn foliage color. When it was planted the small tree was thinly branched with a crooked trunk, and it was obviously collected from the wild rather than nursery grown. Such a practice is forbidden today, but sourwood grows so slowly that the cost to grow it is nearly prohibitive. I feel mildly guilty for having purchased a tree that was likely to have been dug from parkland, but I was young and dumb, and now I’m not inclined to dig the tree out and take it back.

Many autumn foliage enthusiasts proclaim that black gum has the finest colors of the season, and in the garden are one native (that unfortunately sits under a towering tulip poplar) and a cultivar (Nyssa sylvatica ‘Wildfire’, above). The mottled autumn color of the woodland tree is superior, but ‘Wildfire’ was selected for color on its new growth, which is quite nice. I’ve learned that black gums are transplanted with some difficulty unless they are grown in containers and then planted, and then they grow vigorously.

The rear of the property ends in a swampy native meadow that eventually drains into a farm pond. In this saturated soil River birch (Betula nigra) and Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) thrive, shadowing redbuds and crapemyrtles that were planted in slightly drier ground. I have not been favorably impressed with the autumn foliage of the cypresses (that some people seem quite pleased with), but this deciduous conifer is a beautiful tree, and tolerant of wet or dry soils.

The river birches are superior choices for wet areas (or dry). They are longer lived and considerably more disease resistant than weeping willows that are forever dropping branches and dying prematurely. And, despite most gardeners preference for the white birch that is short lived in the heat of the mid-Atlantic, the rough, peeling bark of the river birches is quite marvelous. Lower branches of birch are prone to dying off, and this is a good thing so that the peeling bark is more evident when the branches are pruned away.

Several redbuds have been planted through the garden, though all are cultivars rather than the green leafed native. The cultivars have been selected from seedlings, and then they are propagated by cuttings to assure that desirable characteristics are retained. I’ve planted several red leafed Forest Pansy redbuds (Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’, above), two variegated leaf ‘Silver Cloud’ redbuds (below), a yellow leafed ‘Hearts of Gold’ , and a weeping ‘Lavender Twist’. The redbuds are splendid in flower, and the large, leathery leaves look fresh through the heat of summer. The foliage color of ‘Forest Pansy’ fades considerably in July and August, but I don’t complain. 

Between the two ‘Silver Cloud’ redbuds I’ve planted two Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus, below). For a period in the spring the fringetree is unsurpassed in beauty, but the time is all too brief and for the remainder of the year the tree is unremarkable. Still, there is ample reason to include this wonderful native tree in the garden.

I’ve planted dozens of other trees in the garden, including a collection of Japanese maples, but these native trees deserve consideration for a place in any garden.


365 days of blooms

For the first time in my years of gardening there will be flowers in the garden every day of the year. Yes, outside in the garden, in northwestern Virginia! In most years I’ve had blooms in eleven months (though usually not every day in February), and in a few years there have been a few scattered flowers for a day or two in January. But, never for every day of every month through a year.

‘Winter Sun’ mahonia (Mahonia x media ‘ Winter Sun’, above) begins to flower late in November and consistently blooms through December, but only rarely into early January. With unusually warm temperatures in December I figured that the flowers would fade more quickly, but at the end of January there are more than a few blooms remaining.

With mild weather the late winter blooming leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, above) began to flower very early in January rather than the typical late February. There has been no apparent damage from the ensuing cold nights, though the pace of new flowers opening has slackened. I expect that it will remain in bloom through the middle of March.

In most years winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum, above) will pop into bloom during any period of three or four days of above average temperatures, but I’ve never seen it begin to flower before late January. This year it was flowering in late December, and scattered blooms are likely to continue into late February. Winter jasmine is the rare non-fragrant jasmine, but the arching branches of bright yellow blooms are welcomed in most winters when there are no other flowers.

Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, above) also flowers with a few warm January days, and I’m a bit surprised that only a part of this large shrub is flowering. There are a sufficient number of blooms that the fragrance is noticeable from twenty feet, and if all goes well its blooms and ‘Arnold Promise’ (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, in bud below) and ‘Diane’ will overlap so that the fragrance in the rear garden is inescapable into early March. The hybrid witch hazels showed signs that they would begin to flower several weeks early, but colder temperatures have delayed their blooming, and now they are right on schedule.

In the past several years the hellebores (above and below) have flowered later with snow cover through February, so I was surprised to see swelling buds in late December. Then, one flowered in early January, and a week later several others, with the dark purple flowered types the latest of the bunch. In most years hellebore flowers will persist for several weeks, and I expect that blooms will last longer in the cold (or cool) temperatures of February than in the warming days of March.

Several weeks ago I read that gardeners were disturbed that their snowdrops (Galanthus, below) were blooming, and there was widespread concern that they would be injured in the cold days ahead along with daffodil foliage that had broken the ground by several inches. At the time several of the snowdrops in my garden were showing only a slight indication that the flowers would soon open, and only this week has one flower emerged (hardly early at all).

Several other snowdrops appear ready to bloom in the week ahead, and with several more days of above average temperatures forecast they are likely to flower along with the fragrant winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aurea marginata’, below). All these plants were planned to provide some color through the early and late winter, but I didn’t anticipate that there would be a time when there would be flowers every day through the winter. Perhaps this will not happen again, but this year I’ve spent a considerable amount of time wandering through the garden to enjoy it.

The beauty of pollination

I was reading a blog this morning with a link to a YouTube video (below) that demonstrates the essence of why I garden. No further commentary is needed, but this is all the substantiation anyone should need to include more native plants into their garden to attract specific butterflies, birds, and other beasts.

To enjoy this wonderful video in fullscreen click on the icon in the lower right of the YouTube screen.

Native, or not

The Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, below) is native to the United States, but not to Virginia or the mid-Atlantic region. Its native habitat is on moist, shaded banks of creeks and rivers in the southern half of the midsection of this country, though it is sturdy and dependable through most parts of the United States. Thus it is not considered a native plant in my garden, though its beauty and toughness make it an exceptional choice as a large shrub or small, multi trunked tree. The witch hazel requires no care at all, no fertilizing or supplemental irrigation, and it is resistant to insects and diseases.

In my garden I’ve planted Vernal witch hazel and red and yellow flowering hybrids (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’ – red and ‘Arnold’s Promise’ – yellow, below), but not the common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) that is native to much of the eastern United States. Virginia witch hazel flowers in late autumn, but the small blooms are often obscured by the foliage, and it’s wide spreading form and size are not appropriate for my garden. With Vernal and hybrid witch hazels there will often be flowers in the garden from mid to late January into early March, and often these are the only blooms in the garden when the ground is snow covered.

The decision that I was confronted with in planting the Vernal witch hazel, and then the hybrids, was whether to choose strictly based upon whether the plant was native, or to select the one best suited to my garden. In this instance I chose the non-native, but through the same processes of researching the habitat and habit of plants I’ve planted many natives.

My garden is a hodgepodge of native and non-native trees, shrubs, and perennials with a sprinkling of tropicals sunk into the ground for the summer months. I suppose that I’ve planted nearly as many plants that are native to China and Japan as Virginia natives, and I love them all. When I’m interested in adding a plant to my garden I reference as much information about it as possible, including whether it is native to the mid-Atlantic region, but I’m not dissuaded if it’s from some other spot on the map, so long as it is suitable for my garden.

Whenever I get around to checking, I’m always surprised by the number of natives planted in the garden (when I bought on impulse without caring to check on habit or habitat), but there are just as many or more that aren’t. I don’t fault gardeners who insist on planting nothing but natives, though the definition of a native plant can be a bit complicated (and too lengthy to be considered today). I do mind that some hard core believers from one side or the other make claims that are misleading, or plain untrue.

The first thing to get out the way is that native plants are ugly. There’s no reason for this to be true any more than for any other geographical region on the planet, and in fact there are some marvelous plants to be found in our natives. The first trees I planted in my garden twenty some years ago were dogwoods, white and pink flowered selections of the dogwood that is native to most of the eastern United States. The dogwoods were followed by several native redbuds (Cercis canadensis), but at the same time I also planted a European purple leafed beech and the first Japanese maples that have grown to a collection of twenty three varieties.

There’s not a tree in the garden that I favor more than the native dogwood (Cornus florida, above), but I’ve also planted Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa, below) and hybrids that are crosses between the native, Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttali), and Chinese dogwood. Some native plant enthusiasts will claim that natives are tough as nails, resistant to bugs and diseases and impervious to drought and flood, but the native dogwood is bothered by a host of issues and is far more fragile than the non-natives.

To my thinking the choice of plants should be guided more by suitability to the location in the garden than by whether a plant is native or not, but additional consideration should be given to include natives whenever possible. In every case, potentially invasive non-natives should not be planted, but in many areas with disturbed (non-native) conditions natives might not be the ideal choice. I hope that it’s obvious that the typical subdivision lot that has been stripped of trees and native topsoil bears little resemblance to the surrounding native forests and meadows. Finding a suitable native plant for these conditions could be a challenge, and perhaps a non-native will tolerate this environment more easily.

In my experience I’ve seen no evidence to support that non-native plants as a whole require more water than natives, or that they are less resistant to insects or diseases. There are some native plants that are encouraged because they provide habitat or food source for butterflies, or some other critter. For the gardener who is attentive to the needs of wildlife these are a must, but most gardeners should choose plants that meet the size and environmental requirements of the site first, with native or non-natives a secondary consideration.

I’ve counted more than forty native plant species in my garden, and in the next few weeks I’ll feature some of the best, starting with trees, then shrubs, and then on to perennials and vines. There are many that will be splendid additions to your garden.

Spring planning

I’m an idiot! This is not open to debate. My wife has decided and it’s final. Now, I don’t believe she thinks I’m a complete idiot, just mostly, and certainly concerning anything to do with the garden. There are way too many plants, she says. They’re too big, and she can hardly get around where plants have overtaken the paths. All true, I suppose. I offer (weakly) that she doesn’t have to go out in the garden at all, and then we’d both be happy.

My wife insists that she’s going to learn how to use a chainsaw to clear out some of the trees in our overcrowded garden, but regardless, I’ve been preparing my annual winter list of plants I can’t live without. The list is getting kinda long, maybe too long, so I’ve got some figuring to do.

I suppose that if I had more than an ounce or two of sense I’d realize there’s no room for another tree, but I’ve been eyeballing a few. There are more dozens of trees in the garden than I care to admit to, and at last count there were twenty-three Japanese maple cultivars.  Some, I’ve planted two or three of, so what’s the harm in adding one more?

On a trip through nurseries in Oregon last summer I saw a Japanese maple with striking white foliage with pink highlights, and immediately I knew I had to have one. I’m certain that I’ve seen the Floating Cloud maple (Acer palmatum ‘Ukigumo’, above) before, but it has not been commonly available through nurseries, and if anyone grew it the small growing maple was likely to be at an extravagant price. Now, its cost has become a bit more affordable, at least to someone with hardly a lick of sense.

Where I’ll plant it is a mystery. I suspect that the creamy white leaves will burn in the summer sun, so the Floating Cloud maple will benefit from some shade, at least in the afternoon. Shade, I have plenty of, so my primary concern will be finding a spot with a bit of sunlight where the soil isn’t choked with roots from the poplars and swamp maples that border the garden. Will it have adequate space? No, but I’ll be happy in the meanwhile and I’ll worry about that in another ten years.

I’ve already ordered a Dove tree (Davidia involucrata, above) though I’ve not nearly enough space to plant a tree that grows to more than thirty feet. It’s going to be a small one at the start, and I’ll be planting it in a container to sit on one of the patios until it grows too large. The probably ill conceived plan is to someday plant this unusual and uncommon tree with handkerchief-like white blooms at one of my son’s homes, whenever it is that they get around to purchasing one, but after I’ve enjoyed the tree and until it becomes too large and a nuisance to keep around in a pot any longer.

If this sounds like a good plan I’d appreciate some help in explaining it to my wife. I’ve learned not to tell her about my spring planting plans until the plants are in the driveway, figuring that at that point it’s too late to do anything about it. This spring the driveway will be crowded with these trees, a collection of hardy orchids that I’m beginning, a few new hellebores, and whatever else. The plan has worked for thirty five years with no more than a few comments about my lack of intelligence, so why not for another?

The little hellebore that could

The south facing garden is sandwiched between the house and towering tulip poplars and maples so that only a bare amount of sunlight reaches the garden floor. The soil is choked with roots, and only with great effort is a hole dug to add new plants to this dry, shaded garden.

A shallow, rock lined depression winds through this parched garden, channeling rainwater from the house’s downspouts to a small spring fed creek that originates only a few steps beyond the garden’s border. The stones prevent the thin soil from eroding in summer’s storms, and on each side of the often dry depression are plump hellebores that have managed nicely despite the inhospitable environment.

As hellebores will do, these have seeded themselves about, some inexplicably up the slight incline towards the house, and others inevitably swept downhill by the rushing rainwater. The seedlings look much like their parents, with similar foliage and blooms.

One particular hellebore seedling made its way up the gradual slope and across a stone path to settle in the shade of a large ‘Burgundy Lace’ Japanese maple. Here, the soil is bound less by roots, but the shade is deeper. In all respects this little hellebore is indistinguishable from its parent eight paces to the other side of the path. Except today.

With temperatures much warmer than usual for weeks through December, and several moderately warm January days, the buds of all the hellebores in the garden have swelled, but only this one has opened into fully formed blooms. There are other hellebores close by, both youngsters and fat old clumps in similar soil and winter sun filtered through the trees, but they will only flower with another ten days of warmth. This one young plant blooms alone, with several flowers and a few buds that are opened halfway.

There are gardeners who shriek and exclaim that certainly these flowers will be destroyed in the next freeze, but one cold night passes, then another with no injury. Hellebores usually begin to flower in the garden by the third week of February, and a few years ago when they were blanketed by snow six weeks they did not bloom until the first week of March.

The late February blooms are often subject to extreme low temperatures without a problem, and I expect that the mid January flowers will also escape without damage.

My garden’s winter worklist


There’s no worklist (written or mental). No plans. I might do something in the garden this winter, I might not. It depends. Is there something else to do? Anything? My wife volunteers that she can prepare a list of indoor projects in a heartbeat, but she knows it would be a waste of her time.

There’s plenty of garden chores that could be accomplished, and as the winter wears on I’m likely to get the itch to get started. One morning in February I’ll roll out of bed to a glorious, sunny day, and I’ll decide that today is an excellent time to get started cutting down the grasses and spent perennials. Or maybe not. These must be chopped back before new growth starts, but that’s almost two months off, so there’s no rush.

And there are leaves, lots of leaves that were not cleaned up in the late autumn. The paths were cleared, the patios and most of the lawn, but the large bed areas along the forest’s edge that borders the garden have barely been touched. By late in the winter the leaves will be damp and matted, and it would have been much easier to have cleaned up and shredded them while they were dry. But, I didn’t.

It’s not that I didn’t try, but there are lots of trees in the garden, and a bunch more beside the garden. From lots of trees you get lots (and lots!) of leaves. I’ve never finished this task before the new year, and I don’t expect I ever will. And it really doesn’t matter, except that the labor is more difficult when the leaves are wet.

There has been negligible snow thus far, and I won’t be disappointed if it doesn’t amount to anything this winter. The past two years the damage from wet, heavy snow has been substantial, and I’ll be overjoyed to escape without having to repair broken and bent branches.

When I walk through the garden in January I see that winter weeds have invaded open spots between shrubs and by bed edges. They were here last year, and I didn’t remove them before they went to seed, so they’re back. And they’ll be back next year. Most of these are cute little ground covers with lush green leaves, and only from experience does the gardener know that it is best to pull them before they go to seed. If they’re not removed, they multiply. Today, there are no seeds, but they’ll be here sooner than later.

Occasionally, I’ll pull a few weeds as I stroll through the garden on a winter afternoon checking the status of the buds of witch hazels and hellebores. But only a few, and not enough to qualify as having accomplished anything. Eventually these winter weeds will be dug out (probably after they’ve seeded), though it’s likely I won’t get around to removing all of them. They usually fade in the first heat of spring, but the seeds have scattered about to germinate next autumn.

So, if I haven’t gotten around to pulling the weeds before they go to seed, the effort is largely wasted, and I probably would have been better off rolling over and going back to sleep.