HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.

Selection

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As a single person I have been thinking a lot about selection.

When considering another person to share time and space and energy with I have criteria I would like that person to meet. These criteria are different depending on the circumstances – are you going to be a friend… or are you going to be um.. more than a friend? I have a list of “need to haves” and “neat to haves” applying to either scenario.

As a horticulturist I think about selection too.

On a recent vacation I just happened to be on the trails at the exact right time to find mountain laurels in full bloom. Though I hike a lot, I often find myself in mountain laurel areas thinking to myself “I have to remember to come back here when these will be in full bloom.” And then not getting back to them until the same time the next year, if at all. So I was thrilled to find myself in multiple places with these beauties in full show.

What really caught my attention as I wandered these trails was the variation in color of the mountain laurel flowers.

Notice, in the photos above, all the color variation of the mountain laurels I found in my recent travels. These are naturally occurring wild species of this plant – Kalmia latifolia. The flowers on different plants ranged from pure white with no sign of pink at all to solid dark pink and every variation in between. A dark pink one could be right next to a pure white one.

A cultivar, or cultivated variety of a plant, is a selection. The characteristics it features were selected by someone who thought they added value to the plant – could be disease resistance, cold hardiness, double flowers, purple foliage, etc. You can tell a cultivar when you are purchasing plants by the name in ‘single quotes’ on the plant name tag. If it has a name in single quotes you have a cultivar on your hands.

A cultivar is different from the straight species of a plant. The straight species is the one that grows in the wild and is only modified by mother nature. Natural variations abound within straight species of plants and this is where a lot of cultivars come from.

This type of genetic variation is where plant selections come from. Plant breeders would take seeds or cuttings of the plants with the interesting and desirable traits and try to create plants that reliably demonstrate these characteristics. Then they give the plant a marketable name and put it out for sale. The dark pink mountain laurels so popular at garden centers are cultivars of these I found in the wild. In fact there are more than 75 cultivars of mountain laurel.

Unlike when we get to choose people, based on our lists of wants and needs and likes and dislikes, for the most part, we are only able to choose plants that have been designed for us. These plants have been chosen for us out of myriad genetic combinations and mutations happening out there in nature based on what marketers think will sell well, what horticulturists find interesting and what problems hybridizers want to solve or niche they want to fill.

New To Me

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Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis)

I have a goal to hike 250 miles this year. I figured this averages out to about 5 miles per week and that felt like a realistic, yet challenging, goal for me.

As of today I am 127 miles in and have been hiking at least weekly since January.

Hikes serve many purposes in my life: meditation, relaxation, connection, reflection, exploration, and education.

Here I share some of my trail education. I am always looking at the plants along my hikes, naming them if I can, and trying to figure out who they are if I can’t. Some of us call this process botanizing.

These are new-to-me plants I encountered on some of my hikes this year. Nearly every time I go out on a trail I run into a plant I have never noticed, never learned, or have long forgotten. I don’t typically take a field guide with me on the trail. I take so long taking photos on these hikes already I am afraid adding the potential for dive into a field guide around every bend would keep me from getting very far at all. So my process is to take photos of the new-to-me plant and then figure out who it is when I get home.

The photos I take are of the habitat (where it is growing); the habit (its overall form or shape); the flowers if it is blooming (close ups from top, side, bottom and front , making sure to capture the pistils and/or stamens if present); the leaves (the entire leaf, a close up of the leaf margin, the underside and a close up of the leaf veins); and the stems (focusing on color and hairs, both leaf stems and flower stems); if it is a woody plant I will also take photos of the bark and the twigs (including leaf scars).

I then come home and consult a field guide depending on the type of plant. I know there are apps for this. But I like this process of documenting the details and then when I get home from a hike diving into these details and solving my personal mystery using a book, with pages and an index. I find when I do this, these plants stick with me and I remember them forever.

Of course, this is not a fool-proof system and sometimes I need to revisit the plant (aw shucks… another hike) to gather intel on some teeny tiny detail that separates one species from another.

Here are a few of the new-to-me plants I did figure out and will now know forever:

Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis)

Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius)

Pennywort (Obolaria virginica)

One-flowered Cancerroot (Orobanche uniflora)

A little parasitic gem. No leaves, just these 5 petaled flowers. Wondering about the name? It is also known as Broomrape. Check out this excellent New York times article about this weird little plant with the unfortunate names.

Deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum)

Some things still remain pretty consistent mysteries to me:

Mosses

Fungus

And

Ferns

But eventually I will develop a system for identifying these too and they will stick with me, in the meantime I am ok with the mystery.

Back on the Trail

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A golden Sugar Maple leaf, Acer saccharum, manages to perch perfectly on a twig between the creek and the trail.

For many the pandemic inspired people to get out on the trails, into parks and exploring nature, maybe for the first time, maybe to places they have never been. For me, the pandemic had the opposite effect. All of the places I usually find solace in a quiet exploration I found teeming with people, uncomfortable, crowded and unpleasant. The trails that brought me peace and an opportunity to contemplate and observe were now obstacle courses of bikers, joggers and walkers. And so I avoided my favorite places.

6 months into the pandemic, my friend and I began venturing on early morning bike rides. The area was opening up. Group activities and businesses were finding their new way to engage people and less people were hitting the trails, especially early. Eventually, after quite a few bike rides, I felt I could walk, and contemplate and recharge and observe out in my favorite natural places again.

Ahhhhh… Breathe in…. Breathe Out…

Listen to the crunch of the gravel under your feet…

Listen to the rippling of the creek down below…

Stop every five seconds to take another photo of the beauty that surrounds you.

Pale purple flowers of Blue Wood Aster, Symphyotrichum cordifolium, and the bright yellow leaves of Spice Bush, Lindera benzoin. Note the empty trail.

The Perkiomen Trail, my favorite stretch being the Crusher Road Access to Spring Mount, felt peaceful and accessible and enjoyable again.

Poison Ivy Toxicodendron radicans crawls up a homeowner’s fence putting on a bicolor show.

It is not that I stopped exploring nature during my Pandemic Pause from the Perkiomen Trail. Interestingly early on in the pandemic car traffic became so light I felt comfortable walking the narrow, unlined, hilly, curving roads around my home and began taking suburban safaris finding two 3.5 mile routes that took me past all kinds of nature I hadn’t noticed before. Over the months I discovered native plants I thought I had to drive someplace else to see and watched the changing of the seasons right close to home.

Blue Wood Aster Symphyotrichum cordifolium edges the trail and a lone jogger in the distance.

On this day I managed to time my morning walk just right to capture the essence of autumn in the sunrise and the wildflowers. Back to my happy place, a little bit of feeling normal, in this crazy new world.

Dewy Spiderweb

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PS

There was some evidence of the crazy I missed while avoiding the trail over the summer. Notice the trashcan stuck high up on the trees in the photo below. A remnant of the intense flooding storms we experienced over the summer.


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George Aiken Wildflower Trail

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Hunkered down in quarantine during prime spring ephemeral season has me thinking back to places I have been lucky enough to visit. It is also giving me reason to stay close to home and time to look back and write about some of the places I have explored.

In the summer a little more than a year ago I ventured solo north to Vermont for a week. Meandering the unfamiliar roads on the way home from a state park I saw a sign for this Wildflower Trail. I never miss an opportunity to get up close to wildflowers and decided to check it out.

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The Tall and the Small – A Visit to the Redwoods and Finding Wildflowers

That tree in the background – that would be an enormous tree in our eastern forests.

“Like a flea hugging its dog” Richard Powers writes about touching a Coastal Redwood in The Overstory, I am certain no more accurate a description for anything has ever been written. Had I picked up this book prior to my visit to see these behemoths in person I may have thought this sentence pure hyperbole. After visiting I know now this phrase is as accurate as any scientific description.

The Tall

Reverence

A hiker among the redwoods.

Unlike Powers, I could not come up with the words to accurately describe what I witnessed exploring the beaten paths through Redwood National and State Parks in northwestern California. I ran out of seemingly fitting adjectives in the first 100 yards, eventually becoming speechless, neck craning back as far as biology would allow to try and take in the entirety of the tallest living organisms on the planet.

A vertical panoramic of the redwood forest, as much a cathedral as anything I have entered.

I can only describe the feeling of walking in this forest for the first time as similar to that I feel when walking into a cathedral. While I do not have religious beliefs and have never attended church for services other than weddings, I have been nearly overwhelmed with a sense of reverence and awe when walking into the great cathedrals of Europe and America. The beauty, the silence, the craftsmanship, this history takes your breath away and there seem to be no words of beauty and grace and magnitude adequate to describe what surrounds you. And this is exactly how I felt walking the path into the redwood forest. Not only does the forest leave you speechless, it actually absorbs speech. Once you are 25 feet or so away from the next group of hikers their sounds disappear. Children’s laughter is absorbed into the chest-high sword ferns carpeting the floor . Couple’s chatter is soaked up into the damp mosses, lichens, huckleberries dripping from branches far overhead. Dog barks are absorbed into the foot-thick sponginess of the tree bark. Entire groups of conversation are muffled by the feet of soil building in the connections of branch to trunk, wrapped in wren song and delivered in burbling packages down the streams so essential to this ecosystem.

The Small

Insignificance

Part of the significance of these trees is how small they make you feel. Perhaps this is a function of growing where where the trees get a measly 150′ tall and 8 feet wide. Maybe those who grow up among the redwoods, do not feel as small. It is important to be reminded of our insignificance, of our short lifespan, of our smallness. It is humbling to realize these trees, some more than 1000 years old and more massive than anything else on the planet (3 times the length of the longest whale, wider at the base than two Volkswagon beetles) exist. We are just a blip on its lifespan. Blips of lifespans are shown in the tree’s rings after it falls, or has been fallen.

Evidence of drought and fire and flood and lightning can all be read in the rings of a tree stump. Except in this case, in this case the influence of man on these trees causes the stumps – so the damage we have wrought is never evidenced in the rings. We can see the rings because of our influence and interpret other details of its millennium of life, but we humans and our tiny masses and minuscule lifespan make no appearance at all. It is scary to learn what we tiny, infant humans have done to the populations of this ecosystem.

Small Remnants

You may think that when a redwood topples over naturally everything about the remnants would be enormous. And some of it is – the crater left in the landscape from the tonnage falling to earth from 30 stories above makes an impression. However, the pieces that are left, in many cases are firewood sized. This is because the tree is so massive when it hits the ground it shatters in a way the locals call ‘toothpicking’.

When these trees are harvested for that desirable redwood for our back decks and long-lasting outdoor furniture the soft undergrowth of rhododendrons, salal and understory trees, as well as all the huckleberries and ferns are bulldozed into the fall zone creating a mattress for the tree to land on, preventing the toothpicking and ruining of the lumber.

The familiar shape of the soil-ends of toppled giants

When the trees topple naturally the root masses that emerge are curiously alike. There are no long dangling roots, or half-fallen trees connected to the earth still by sinews of long anchoring roots. They are uniform and rootless. Much smaller than you would think. This is because under the surface of the soil the trees have formed a network of roots. Interconnected and interdependent. If one tree were to fall and take all of its roots with it – it would upend the entire forest. And so they have evolved weak points in their root zones, near the root flare, where the mass of roots disconnect from a tree. The tree falls leaving its roots for all others using it resulting in the uniform root mass now exposed.IMG_6847

Fauna

Even the large fauna feel small in this landscape. While I was laser-focused on the big trees, I was not even thinking about the wildlife we might encounter, even when we weren’t specifically looking for it. We happened upon a Roosevelt Elk just munching on ferns next to a well-travelled road. We saw a black bear cub and a fawn. We saw small birds, harbor seals and sea lions, river otters and many many snails and slugs.

Accidental Perfect Location

You may be wondering how it is we saw sea lions and star fish on our trip to the redwoods. Our visit was to the Coast Redwoods, to visit Sequoia sempervirens. These tallest living beings on the planet live along the Pacific coast of southern Oregon and Northern California. They need the ocean mists to provide supplemental water and the fogs to keep the humidity up and the soils moist. They will not live outside of these conditions. They may survive This is in comparison to the Giant Redwoods, Sequoiadendron giganteum which are not quite as tall but wider than the Coast Redwoods, known as the most massive trees on Earth, and thrive inland limited to the Western Sierra Nevadas in California.

No Coast Redwoods without the Coast

What I didn’t know when I selected our amazing cabin using VRBO for the first time, was that it was in the perfect location for a plant-nerd like me and an off-road enthusiast like my companion. Turns out the 15 acre property with the middle fork of the Smith River running right through it, is surrounded by thousands of acres of the Smith River National Recreation Area. There are no tourist shops there. There is no place to get a t-shirt or any branded cardboard cutouts for your instagram selfie. Where we were there were just various ecosystems, crowdless trails and enormous trees and tiny wildflowers.

From the ground up in the Redwood Forest

We could day trip from the top of a mountain to the sands of the ocean. We hiked, a most amazing hike, from the coast into the redwood forest, hiking 9.9 miles of a 10 mile hike before we saw another human being. Eating lunch on a bridge over a creek surrounded by 300 foot tall Coast Redwoods. And this type of exploring we did, each day.

Snow covered peaks in the distance

We had a 4-wheel drive rental car because it was recommended by our cabin owner just to get in the driveway. We put it to good use. We traversed dusty switchbacks into the Six Rivers National Forest taking in the scenery from the mountain tops. Looking out at snow covered peaks and finding amazing wildflowers we had not seen int he redwood forests. Here, we found ourselves in a serpentine barren. Serpentine barrens have soils high in magnesium and low in other nutrients and are generally high in nickel. This combination makes for a unique plant community with many plants found only there.

A scene from the serpentine barrens of Smith River National Recreation Area

 

Accidental Timing

As I was planning this vacation, I was concerned with just one thing – seeing these trees! Imagine my surprise and delight when, as we trekked various trails, I realized we were there during spring wildflower bloom time. This made for longer, slower hiking and an ever-growing appreciation for the endless patience and understanding of my hunny as I photographed E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G in bloom.

Some of the Wildflowers in Different Ecosystems

 

Winter Visit: Hoover-Mason Trestle, Bethlehem

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Bethlehem Steel Stacks

The Bethlehem Steel Stacks is a phenomenal place to visit and see just how well a place that has outlived its original purpose can become something completely different and equally important to the surrounding community.

According to their website: “Steel Stacks is a 1-acre campus dedicated to arts, culture, family events, community celebrations, education and fun. Once the home of Bethlehem Steel, the second largest steel manufacturer in the nation, the site has been reborn through music and art…”

While you can find comedy acts, art exhibits, concerts and all kinds of other events here, in the summer of 2018 you could also get an up close look at the industrial complex that was Bethlehem Steel as well as take in some horticulture.

The Hoover-Mason Trestle (HMT) began its life as a narrow-gauge railroad to carry materials needed to make iron from the yards to the blast furnaces.

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Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden

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Hare Sculpture

The Hare Sculpture at Stoneleigh has been an icon of the Villanova neighborhood for decades before opening to the public. This sculpture is made from a white oak trunk and features two adult rabbits and 5 young rabbits representing the Haas family. The rabbits frequently dress up for holidays and special occasions. Haas means Hare in Dutch and German.

Mother’s Day weekend, the southeastern PA region, already teeming with more than 30 public gardens, welcomed the newest public horticulture space to the map.

Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden is a property of Natural Lands.

Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden is also under threat of eminent domain.  Perhaps one of the biggest blows to a public garden is a letter just prior to a grand opening regarding a school district’s intention to condemn a portion or the entirety of the gardens for ball fields and a new middle school.

Save Stoneleigh Banner

The current rallying cry for Stoneleigh as it’s future is threatened by eminent domain.

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One Park, Two Champion Trees Susquehanna State Park

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Susquehanna State Park Sign

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”
― William Blake

Susquehanna State Park in Havre de Grace, MD is home to two Maryland champion trees.  In addition to waterfalls and wildflowers I am always on the hunt for large trees.  I mean I planned a road trip and vacation solely to visit a large tree. So on this weekend camping trip we happened to set up the evening’s nylon shelter in a park with some big trees. We honestly didn’t realize it until we read the trail map.

While 15 miles of trails wind their way through the forested 2,753 acres, you need only to take one of them to see these two enormous trees.

Hop on the Deer Creek Trail and follow the green blazes. The well-worn trail will lead you to the trees.

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Jamaica State Park, VT

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The Dumplings in the West River in Jamaica State Park VT

The Dumplings in the West River in Jamaica State Park VT

Welcome to Jamaica. Jamaica, Vermont. No Caribbean for me, but that is just fine. I am happy to be where the days are cool and the evenings cooler. While spring sprinted by in what felt like just a few short days at home in southeast Pennsylvania, happily it is still spring here.  43 degree evenings, days in the mid-70s. Heaven to me.

I am house sitting in this area, the southwest corner of the state, near where Vermont, New York and Massachusetts all come together and attempting to make this an inexpensive bit of time away. Spending lots of time writing and exploring and not spending money. I brought all the ingredients to make my meals and stayed away from places designed to separate me from my money opting for hiking and other botanical explorations.

If you ever find yourself in the area, plan some time to explore (botanize?) Jamaica State Park.

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Transition

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The late afternoon autumn sun setting over a meadow. At this time autumn is beginning to look wintery.

“Kaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaathy!!!!” my sister would yell across the 2 1/2 pine barrens acres we called a playground growing up. This bellow could easily take the tone of joy or anger. We often yelled across the yard to each other and, in the silence of the rural pinelands, I am sure the neighbors heard our calls too. When we would do this within ear shot of my dad he would find us and remind us that we had “two legs and one mouth which means you can walk twice as far as you can yell.” I am not ashamed to say I have used this exact same phrase with students and interns in the past. Seems logical to me.

Just the other day I took a gentle walk along my favorite rail trail and instead of having a goal of miles or a time to beat or number of steps to worry about, I ventured on this day with the specific intention of using my two legs and just looking.

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The sun highlights a swath of goldenrod seedheads. Insects and mammals alike will find refuge here, protection from winter winds and snow. Birds find nourishment here in the fluffy seeds.

There have been a lot of words lately, an overwhelming amount of opinions and facts, love words and hate words and one word that keeps popping up: transition. Of course this realization of transition of political leadership coincides with the transition of seasons from fall to winter. It occurred to me, in addition to having two legs, I have two eyes. This means, by my father’s logic, I can see twice as much as I can say. So I decided to quietly witness this transition of fall to winter, during this time of transition for the country and, if I am going to be honest here, during personal transition of my own. Remembering with every dormancy theres comes a rebirth, after every winter follows a joyous spring, that autumn leaves provide the nourishment for next year’s wonderment, and that winter snow sustains us all.

So what follows are some snapshots of my small wander through transition, acknowledging we all are transitioning all the time; sometimes in small ways, sometimes in ways we have never imagined. Remembering none of this is permanent and if we stop talking and start looking, seeing, we will find the beauty and potential in the change.

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