Native flowering trees – from the forest to the garden

At the forest’s edge, serviceberries lean far over into the sun, scattered clusters of small white flowers twinkling against the stark bareness of early spring. A native woodland tree, the serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis, below) grows with such informality that I find it ill suited for a position as a centerpiece in the garden. Instead, it is marvelous when placed at the periphery, with a structure as a backdrop, and particularly with its back to a section of forest, which is where it is generally found in the wild.Serviceberry in mid April

If given a bit of sun, serviceberry will exhibit more abundant flowers than the few found on trees fighting through the forest for a peek of sunlight. In my garden, the single serviceberry is planted with upper branches reaching into the sun, so lower branches are mostly green while the top is covered in white blooms. The tree has suffered from occasional bouts with severe winds, and a few of the dozen or more trunks have been cut out, though the damage is hardly evident.

(Note: In recent years, white flowers at the forest’s edge along a highway are as likely to be seedlings of the invasive Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), escaped from neighborhood gardens. Bradford and Chanticleer pears are quite splendid in flower, and with spectacular autumn foliage, but their small fruits are quickly consumed by birds. The pear grows with vigor in sunny fields and along fence rows where seeds are deposited, but scattered seedlings also compete successfully even in the shade of the forest’s edge. The trees are also highly susceptible to damage from summer thunderstorms once the trees are ten to fifteen years of age, and too many trees are disfigured or removed due to wind damage.)Serviceberry blooming in mid April

Though an occasional single trunked serviceberry can be found, this is accomplished only with some effort, and the tree typically grows with multiple irregular trunks. But, regardless of a single trunk or a handful, the branches arch asymmetrically so that it is rarely chosen for a position where a dogwood, redbud, or perhaps a Japanese maple are more obvious choices.

If serviceberry is planted in proximity to others in the forest, or more than one is planted, the blooms will be followed by edible dark blue fruits. Serviceberry is often included in lists as an ideal tree for the edible garden, when in fact the fruits are not so abundant as to provide much of a harvest, and will be picked only if you are able to beat the birds from plucking them. If you are looking to fill the cupboards with berries, there are superior alternatives, but for delightful blooms that will then benefit the local wildlife, seviceberry is an exceptional choice.Redbud flowering in early April

Before the native serviceberries fade, the white blooms are joined at forest’s edge by the more prolific pink-purple blooms of redbuds (Cercis canadensis, above), and soon after by the larger white blooms of the native dogwood (Cornus florida, below). Now, flowers are more abundant so that for a few weeks the border of every highway in the area is the equal of the best cultivated gardens.White dogwood in mid April

While serviceberry has some limitations for use in the garden, dogwoods and redbuds have more possibilities. With more sun, both grow full and wide, and are exceptional in flower and in leaf. On occasion, redbuds will develop long brown, pea-like seed pods that are hardly ornamental, but this is rare and hardly a consideration in choosing such an exceptional small tree.

Some note that redbuds and dogwoods, as well as serviceberries and cherries and most flowering trees, bloom for only a few weeks, and why bother? Unquestionably, the period of flowering is short, though some credit must be given to the week ahead of flowering when color is nearly as splendid as when in full bloom. To my thinking, the few weeks of flower are an encouragement to plant another tree so that flowering extends through the spring. If redbuds and dogwoods flowered for months, like crapemyrtles, they would be taken more for granted and these would not be treasured so much.Forest Pansy redbud new growth

The large, leathery, heart shaped foliage of redbuds is particularly nice, and cultivars with red, yellow, or variegated leaves (‘Forest Pansy’ redbud, above) offer many options, all with the familiar spring flowers. ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Texas’ redbuds have glossy foliage, but in climates with sufficient rainfall there is little advantage in planting these more drought tolerant varieties.Cherokee Sunset dogwood

The native dogwoods have pleasant enough foliage, and in early autumn clusters of red berries are quickly consumed by birds. The autumn leaf colors are long lasting, and as delightful as the most spectacular maples or blackgums. There are, of course, red and pink flowered dogwoods, and ones with variegated foliage can be found (‘Cherokee Sunset’, above), though these are particularly prone to foliar diseases.Galilean Chinese dogwood

To extend the period of flowering into May and June hybrid and Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa, above) are excellent choices, and these have the added benefit of more vigorous growth and more tolerance of the varied maladies that afflict the native. My recommendation is to plant one of each, at least. If space allows, the garden is greatly improved by starting the spring with the blooms of serviceberry, with redbud and dogwood to follow. If there is space of enough for hybrid and Chinese dogwoods, there will be continuous blooms from the start of April into June.Celestial Shadow dogwood in late April


A joyful day

Today, there will be no whining that the paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha) and Southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) are troubled, or that the mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) have died to the ground. Winter has left behind considerable miseries that must be dealt with, but on a sunny, though slightly cool late April afternoon there is too much joy to allow the day to be spoiled by concerns that will be nearly forgotten within months.Geranium and euphorbia in late April

In fact, no matter how I try I still recall when evergreen magnolias were splintered under the weight of many inches of snow, and then again the following year. Now, most of the leathery leaves of both magnolias are brown, though parts are green so it will not be quickly determined if the trees can be saved, or not.Shaina Japanese maple in early spring

I’m afraid that reminders of this severe winter will linger too long. The upper branches of the witch’s broom Japanese maple ‘Shaina’ (Acer palmatum ‘Shaina’, above) have died, or at least they are long delayed so that while lower branches are fully leafed,  the bark of the top branches is still green, but fading. The slow growing ‘Shaina’ will take years to recover, and once the dead is pruned it could be so disfigured that it must be discarded, or at least transplanted to a less obvious spot in the garden.Fernleaf Japanese maple in late April

Now, I fear that I’ve strayed too far into complaining, with too little celebration of the day. There is considerable beauty when Japanese maples first leaf in the spring, and many have delightful flowers that dangle beneath the vibrantly colored new foliage. Good fortune a week ago when emerging foliage was most vulnerable kept temperatures a degree or two too warm to inflict any more than minor damage when it seemed catastrophe was imminent.Viridis Japanese maple in late April

A new Japanese maple has been planted near the spot at the entry to the rear garden where an old dwarf hemlock (Tsuga canadensis ‘Lewis’) died of unknown causes, but certainly was related somehow to the unusual and prolonged cold. I suspect that the culprit was extreme variations in temperature rather than only the lows, and now that it’s been chopped out I look forward to the maple occupying this spot.Linearilobum maple

The new Japanese maple is a Linearilobum type (Acer palmatum ‘Scolopendrifolium atropurpureum’, above) with long, narrow red lobes, and if I have figured correctly it will obstruct the flagstone path to the rear garden within three years. This will require selective pruning of those branches, and by the fifth year the branches will arch over the path in magnificent fashion. Or, something like that.Carol Mackie daphne and Japanese maple

This much is clear. It is difficult to go far wrong by planting a Japanese maple anywhere with a bit of sun. Certainly, mistakes are made when the eventual size of a tree is not considered, but even when a ‘Bloodgood’ or other large growing maple is crammed into a space far too small, the tree is likely to be splendid.Gold Heart bleeding heart

Some perennials are coming up that were planted at some point a year ago, but that I have forgotten about. Too often I will begin to dig to plant a hydrangea in a small open area, only to uproot a hosta or bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’, above) that was planted earlier. It is difficult to keep up with everything, and to those who recommend that a plan of the garden would help to avoid such problems, well, I have no good answer except that the garden is too large, and I haven’t the will to take on the project. So, that’s settled.Epimedium in late April

Little harm comes of this, and both the hydrangea and bleeding heart find a home. On occasion, something is irreparably damaged, but this is the hazard of cramming so many delights into one garden so that a day such as today can be enjoyed.Emerging leaves on Japanese maple

Flowering and delightfully fragrant

The winter daphnes (Daphne odora ‘Marginata’, below) have managed only a few weak blooms near the ground where flower buds were protected from the worst of winter’s freezes, by snow or perhaps just by ground warmth. Though the uppermost buds were damaged, and foliage dropped completely, there are numerous growth buds that are clearly green, so the daphnes will suffer no long term setback. Winter daphne is the least cold hardy of the daphnes in the garden, and with damage to so many evergreens from the horrid winter I was concerned that these would suffer more. Fortunately, they have not.Flowers a the base of winter daphne

Other daphnes show no sign of trouble, though the foliage of ‘Carol Mackie’ (Daphne × burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’, below) also dropped, which isn’t unusual in any winter when temperatures fall below five degrees. There were handfuls, or possibly even dozens of days hovering just above and below zero through January and February, and even into mid March. Winter daphne is a zone seven, cold hardy only to zero, while the others are tolerant of another twenty degrees colder.Carol Mackie daphne in mid April

With few flowers, the fragrance of the winter daphnes is not overwhelming, but ‘Eternal Fragrance’ (Daphne transatlantica ‘BLAFRA’ , below) is now flowering and ‘Carol Mackie’ is nearly at full bloom, and I’m certain that on the first still afternoon there will hardly be a spot in the garden where the scent will not be evident. While the fragrance is delightful, the waxy pink to white flowers are not exceptional on any of the daphnes. In fact, the flowers of ‘Carol Mackie’ are pleasant enough, and the excellent variegated foliage is less coarse than winter daphne’s, but all are treasured for their scent first, and foliage and flowers more as an afterthought.Eternal Fragrance daphne

New to the garden this year is Rose daphne (Daphne cneorum, below), with diminutive foliage and clusters of tiny flowers. I’ve had poor experiences with small leafed rhododendrons requiring exceptional drainage, and Rose daphne appears so similar to these that I took particular care to keep these away from any soil that could possibly remain damp for more than a few minutes. While all daphnes are reputed to be persnickety, the dwarf is supposedly more so, though I’ve not had any problems with daphnes at all.Rose daphne in mid April

Korean Spice viburnum in mid AprilOn this next still day, there will be a variety of scents wafting through the garden since the fragrant viburnums are also flowering. Typically, one follows the other, but now both Korean Spice (Viburnum carlesi, above) and Burkwood viburnums (Viburnum x burkwoodii, below) are in full bloom. With the strong fragrance of daphnes and viburnums, and redbuds and dogwoods in full bloom, this next week will be particularly delightful.Burkwood viburnum in mid April


In the mud and the muck

The lower garden is sinking, I’m afraid. Why, is partly a mystery, but in recent years the back third of the garden has become wetter, for longer periods of time. There have always been times in early spring when sections of the rear garden are wet enough to suck the shoes off your feet, and mostly I’ve been able to manage to steer clear of these areas during the worst of it. But, when the days stretch into weeks and then months the wet areas become more difficult to avoid. As hard as I work to delay and avoid maintenance chores, some must eventually be done.Blue Mist flower in late August

The back property line backs up to a swampy meadow of cattails, briars, and brambles (Conoclinium coelestinum, Blue mistflower, above), and below to a retention pond for our small community. This is the source of the problem, I believe, though there’s also a wet weather spring that trickles more consistently down the edge of the garden than in years past. At one time the lower garden was mostly lawn, and when our kids were kids they made ample use of the area for impromptu football games and just plain chasing about. As they grew a bit older the lawn was converted to a court for boisterous badminton games, but then the kids grew up and moved out. Now, the wife and I have no time for such foolishness, and besides, more space was needed for garden. Sometime in between, the area began to get wetter, a little, then a lot.

Arnold's Promise witch hazel in mid February

I’ve learned to adapt, and just as the garden has become increasingly shady as it matures, my most recent plantings have been ones that are tolerant of the moist environment. And, this works just fine, except treasured witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, above in better days) and hollies (Ilex x ‘Patriot’) that have been there all along have struggled as the garden has become more damp. A year ago the area neighboring the witch hazel remained saturated for most of the second half of the year, and finally the large shrub reacted by prematurely dropping its foliage in early October. The witch hazel failed to flower this year, though there are buds that I hold faint hope will bloom, even a little. The holly is looking sadder by the day, and I wonder how long these cherished shrubs can last.Sweetshrub in late April

In any case, it appears that the witch hazel will leaf, at least partially, and I’m hopeful that the holly nearby will rebound from its obvious state of distress. Already, a few nearby hydrangeas and smaller shrubs have given up the fight, and like it or not I’m having to plan on replacements. Before the witch hazel and holly fail completely I’ll plant a few red chokeberries (Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’) and sweetwshrubs (Calycanthus floridus, above) in the gaps between. These should thrive in the wetness if I’m able to keep the deer away. A nearby black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa, below) is a frequent target of deer, and both red and black will demand continual attention to spraying with a repellent.Chokeberry flowering in mid April

When I became distracted in the past and failed to spray, deer nibbled almost every leaf of the black chokeberry, so if these native shrubs are to be successful they’ll require a bit of my attention. But, they’re lovely shrubs and they’ll tolerate the damp soil, so there seems little question it’s worth the effort. A small Buttercup winter hazel (Corylopsis pauciflora, below) planted a few feet away, and just at the edge of the dampness is managing well so far, though it would likely prefer a more well drained situation. This shrub was transplanted from bare root a few years ago, and it’s not surprising that it’s taken a few years to get growing. I’m pretty certain that it’s just high enough above the worst of the dampness to survive, unless the area continues to sink.Winter hazel

Several primroses (Primula vulgaris ‘Drumcliff’, below) flourish in the dampness, though certainly they will not spread like the mint on the far side of the garden. By necessity, the mint is hemmed in by larger trees and shrubs to prevent its escape, but the primroses have some room to spread, and a bit more sunlight to encourage them to seed about. I don’t expect the primroses will thrive beyond control in this damp spot, but there’s plenty of damp ground to cover, and if they do spread, it will be quite marvelous.Primrose

A late start

There are hardly enough hours in the day to keep up with the chores necessary to maintain this garden in early spring. There are piles and piles of leaves to collect. Beneath every shrub and in every corner there are leaves accumulated from the maples and tulip poplars that border the garden, and through the winter big, leathery sycamore leaves blew in from the neighbor’s property down the street. These are particularly annoying because, unlike the maple leaves that decay quickly, these stick around for half of the spring if they’re not removed. I thought I did an adequate job of cleaning up in November, but the evidence today shows that I did not.Crocus in mid March

Thankfully, the winter weeds are not so bad this spring, but now that it’s warming up they’re multiplying quickly, and if I don’t get to them soon they’ll be everywhere. Perennials and grasses must be cut back, and ponds cleaned. When only two days of labor are permitted in March due to the ice, snow, and bitter cold ….. well, things are just not going to get done all by their lonesome. In fact, I know that everything will be accomplished sooner than later, or at least everything that must be done will be. A few chores will slip through the cracks, I’m certain, and if I plan well enough these will never show and the garden will not be the worse for it.Primrose

I talk about, but seldom get much accomplished prior to the first of March. In theory, there are at minimum a handful of days in January, and usually more in February when a motivated gardener can get out to lessen the work list that must be performed once spring hits. At best, I might get around to working a day or two for a few hours during the winter, so the garden annually arrives in spring as nearly a disaster, and a lot needs to be done in a hurry once temperatures warm up. Of course, this winter there was one good excuse after another why nothing could be done outdoors, and unfortunately, the excuses continued far into March.Little Heath pieris in late March

Now, it’s mid April, and the only thing that’s saved me is that spring growth has been delayed by the cold, which has given me a bit of leeway. The last few weekends have had nice weather, so much has been accomplished. But, the spring chores typically take at least three and sometimes four full weekends, so as I see it there is one more weekend of tasks to be completed. It seems like more time will be needed, and perhaps that’s because I’m a year older and that much slower than a year ago. I hope that’s not the case, and I imagine that I can accomplish just as much today as ten and twenty years ago. No kidding.Hyacinth

If it was not for the huge maple that fell in a December ice storm in the side garden, and cold damage to half hardy evergreens that I’ve had to fool with, I think that I’d be much further along than I am. The shattered tree required a new chainsaw and several days of labor, as well as an afternoon wasted with a trip to the emergency room. This was nothing major, just a blow from the tree’s trunk that split my forehead wide open. I thought a bandage would do the trick, but my wife insisted that I would not look so pretty with a jagged scar extending from my hairline nearly to the eyebrow. This was a waste of several hours and though the head is healed, still I haven’t made up for the lost time.Hellebore in early April

A truck load of chokeberries, sweetshrubs, and hydrangeas I brought home, and the box of Southeast Asian oddities ordered by mail have also taken some time, though several hydrangeas and a few others wait patiently on the driveway for me to figure out where they’ll be planted. Once a planting location is determined the digging goes quickly, but as I walk around the garden wondering if this spot is too shady, or sunny, or too wet, valuable time is wasted. Gardening should not seem like such a rush, but for four weekends in March (or April), every hour must be productive.

The yellow magnolia

On Sunday the blooms of the pale yellow flowered ‘Elizabeth’ magnolia (Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’, below) were perfection. By some confluence of circumstances nearly every flower arrived at once so that the tree went from nearly bare to full bloom, probably within hours though I was not watching at the time. From Saturday evening to Sunday morning the transformation occurred, and happily I was able to wander past several times on Sunday while working in the garden, and then again through the early week.Elizabeth magnolia in mid April

On some afternoons the yellow flowers seem barely so, and would be best considered a creamy white, but on this day the blooms were clearly pale yellow, and marvelous. ‘Elizabeth’ is often listed as our native Cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminata), but instead it is a cross between cucumber and Yulan magnolias (Magnolia denudata), if that matters. The fruit that follows flowering is similar but slightly smaller than on the cucumber tree, and so the confusion is inevitable. In any case, it is a hybrid and should not be considered as a native tree, though it is exceptional and any garden is the better for having included one.Flowers of Elizabeth magnolia after a freeze

Predictably, after two nights of freezes, the blooms have collapsed into a heap of brown mush (above). In a more typical spring the flowers might open over a period of a week, so some would be injured by frost while others would be unscathed, but the spell of extreme warm days last week pushed the buds to open all at once, and here we are. There will be no lasting effect from the damage to the blooms, and by next week the brown flowers will have dropped and been forgotten.

A brief walk this afternoon has revealed little other damage to the garden from the two night’s freezes, though I continue to be saddened to find evergreens that have suffered considerably from the long and harsh winter. An aged dwarf hemlock has turned completely brown, with all branches showing brown beneath the bark, and a Brackens magnolia has suddenly turned brown, though on some branches buds are alive. The magnolia is extremely cold hardy, but in any year there are tragedies that result from a combination of circumstances, and no doubt that is the case here.


A spell of cold

After a delightful series of warm days, this upcoming period of cold is maddening. However, it is not unusual, and it is fairly common for a spell of cold to arrive in April just as the leaves of Japanese maples unfurl. This is when the leaves are most fragile, and tender foliage might be undamaged at twenty eight degrees, or blackened at twenty six. Often, injury from the cold is not immediately evident, but after a day or two the gardener is distraught that the beautiful crimson leaves of the lovely ‘Tamukeyama’ have shriveled and turned to black. More than a few times I’ve rejoiced that a freeze has passed with no injury, only to discover a day or two later that the leaves of the dwarf ‘Shaina’ are hanging limp.Bloodgood Japanese maple in early spring

The gardener is aware that the maple will revive to some degree, but that it often requires another year for the tree to fully recover. Here, it is evident that there is some advantage in planting more than one variety of Japanese maple, since different maples will leaf over a period of weeks, and in a freeze it is fortunate that some foliage has not even begun to emerge. Of twenty three maple cultivars (or is it twenty four, or five?) in the garden, perhaps half are in various states that are susceptible to cold damage. Understandably, not every garden has the space or budget for so many trees, and in any case the best the gardener can do is to hope and pray that temperatures remain a degree or two warmer.Fernleaf Japanese maple - new leaves and flowers

Certainly, a few energetic gardeners take matters into their own hands to wrap trees in cloth to protect them through these few stray cold nights. But, this is a considerable task, and with tender foliage and brittle stems there is often more damage from the wrapping than the temperatures that turned out to be not as cold as expected. This is my plan. Leave well enough alone, and hope. Usually, this works.Emerging leaves and flower of Golden Full Moon maple

Few other plants suffer to any great extent from a sudden spell of cold. The flowers of magnolias are notoriously susceptible to cold damage, and perhaps cherries might suffer, but besides fruiting trees there is no long term harm that comes from injury to blooms. One day the flowers are lovely, the next they are blackened, and two days later they have fallen and vivid green leaves are emerging. Most trees and shrubs, and many perennials that begin emerging in April are well adapted to varying temperatures. Only extreme cold is a threat, but after recent eighty degree days much foliage is at its most vulnerable.Elizabeth magnolia in late March

Still, I will not be out this evening wrapping trees and draping blankets over the hostas. This garden has survived this and worse, and if I wake tomorrow to regret my inaction, be certain that I’ll whine that the weather has conspired to make my life so miserable, but tomorrow will be a better day.