HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.


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Caterpillary

Sawtooth Oak (Quercus acutissima) flowers in Spring. Scott Arboretum, Swarthmore College PA

Sawtooth Oak (Quercus acutissima) flowers in Spring. Scott Arboretum, Swarthmore College PA

Everywhere I go people are sneezing.  Spring seemed to happen all at once and the pollen from everything is coating cars, pavement and, apparently, nostrils in a dusky green film.  Funny how people lament the late start to spring wondering where all the flowers are and then almost as soon as they show their cheerful colors people are wishing the blooms banished from the face of the earth.

It is true in the earliest weeks of spring there can be a lull in blooms. It is the time when the crystal magic of winter has passed but the jewel tones of spring haven’t yet exploded onto the scene. People are desperate for something that shows life will go on. This is when it is important to get out and look for the details. Once you start looking closer you start to notice the beauty in the subtle details of leaves emerging and of flowers that don’t need any extra attention.

Of course by now that lull has passed. Virginia bluebells, violets, trilliums and marsh marigolds are all but screaming their presence in their showy way. Plants with catkins remain quiet and subtle, letting the showoffs attract the pollinators – who needs them?! And until the pollen starts blowing in the wind no one notices them.

Catkins are wind-pollinated flowers. Catkins have emerged on the oak trees around here right now and many many people experience nostril distress with all this pollen floating in the air. Just like Ragweed, these flowers aren’t showy. They don’t need to be. They can reproduce every time the wind blows (I think I know some people like that…) Showy flowers are showy because they need to attract pollinators. Catkins are strictly functional, unless you are desperately looking for signs of spring and then they become quite lovely in their unique caterpillary way.

White Oak (Quercus alba) catkins and newly emerging leaves.

White Oak (Quercus alba) catkins and newly emerging leaves.

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A Unique Relationship

Snow and Lichens in Tuscarora State Park PA

Snow and Lichens cover a boulder in Tuscarora State Park, PA

Seems as though spring is taking a bit longer to sprung. As I write this temperatures are dipping into the twenties. Though the tried and true late winter/early spring bloomers are slowly and cautiously making  an appearance there is still barely a sign of green bud or yellow flower around.

This is when I get antsy. Snow is gone, well, almost, snowboards have been packed away and the gardening tools have emerged. But the ground is still frozen and the soggy soil means I can’t even plant my peas yet. What is a plant person to do, sit and twiddle my thumbs until it Spring actually arrives?

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Burly

Small Burl on a Big tree in West Virginia

Small Burl on a Big tree in West Virginia

Winter woods expose many details otherwise obscured by foliage. One of nature’s wonders made more visible are burls. With just a slightly more involved glance into the woods you start to see these tree bumps frequently. You may know burls are treasured by woodworkers for the interesting patterns revealed when shaped by lathe then sanded and shined to a lustrous finish. There is a monstrous burl high up in a tree on my way to work. Each day I observe it with admiration and wonder. As we hike through the woods, friends and family ask: “What caused that?”, “Will the tree survive if you cut it off?”

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Accessories

“Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” ~ Coco Chanel

Accessories. I like the whole idea of them. Bracelets, earrings, hats, snazzy shoes, purses. I have a sister who has a scarf for every occasion, and another sister with equally significant sunglass options from which to choose for any given moment. But my fascination with accessories stops at admiration. I do collect tiny stud earrings (usually horticultural in nature) made in whatever place I travel, but I rarely change from the tiny leaves that adorn my earlobes daily.  Though I lean to the austere, I admire those who manage to put together combinations of clothes and accessories that tell the world who they are. I admire people who wear their personalities, regardless of what the world thinks. Folks who own whatever runway the world throws at them that day.

On a recent visit to the southeast, the Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) caught my attention. Though they were immense and old, stately and sinuous, it was not those features that captured my attention. It was their accessories.

A Well-Accessorized Live Oak

A Well-Accessorized Live Oak

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Pine Trees

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Monkey Puzzle Tree (Araucaria araucana) is NOT a Pine Tree

Monkey Puzzle Tree (Araucaria araucana) is NOT a Pine Tree

According to my dad all cats are girls and all dogs are boys. That’s just the way it is. Every cat is a ‘she’ and every dog is a ‘he’. Of course for many years we had a male cat and a female dog, but that didn’t matter.  My dad doesn’t seem to be alone in this sentiment. My father-in-law ex-father-in-law also always refers to dogs in the masculine and cats in the feminine.

Something similar happens at this time of the year. As people start searching for their Christmas trees, often they refer to every Christmas-tree shaped object in the lot and in the woods as a pine tree. Just like all cats are not girls and all dogs are not boys, all evergreens are not pine trees.

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Parking Lot Picnic

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Nearly ripe persimmon fruit

Nearly ripe persimmon fruit

I’ve heard and read that when you thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, trail magic happens. This is the “kindness of strangers” that happens on the trail. Someone gives a hiker a lift to a dry shelter on a rainy day or leaves some delicious snack in a shelter for a weary hiker to find, that’s magic. I have only heard and read about this and that is likely all I’ll ever do. Though the idea of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is appealing to me, I would never be able to do it. Well, I could do it, but it would take me 432,567 days because I would be stopping to look at every flower and bud, taking pictures of each leaf and nifty pattern and talking to anyone who will listen about the wonder of the plants around. (Think I’m exaggerating? Just talk with ANYONE who’s ever hiked with me!)

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Seeds Travel

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Ouch! That was definitely an acorn that just hit me on the head. There seems to be a bumper crop of them falling from our trees this year.  When a slight breeze blows it sounds like hail falling through the trees. THUNK!  A black walnut hits the top of the car as I cruise along River Road taking in the fall colors and noting Delaware River water levels (low). Holy moly was that loud and a little bit scary! No dents (in my head or in the car) but all of this fruit flinging has gotten me thinking about the purpose of fall.

Turns out that there are other reasons for fruits to fall from the trees than providing ammunition for you to throw at your younger (though similar sized – I’ll have you know) sibling.  The autumn colors signal to many of us winter is on the way. It’s time to split the rest of the firewood, dig out the long sleeves and extra blankets and find the snow shovel underneath the accumulation of beach chairs and coolers that piled up this summer. Similarly, for wildlife, the changing of the leaves signals a bounty to be eaten and preserved for the cold winter months.

Think about the small red fruits of a dogwood or spicebush, they would be tough to see from a bird’s location high above, and it would take a lot of energy to stop at each tree to figure out if there were ripe fruits to eat. Instead, birds can keep an eye out for the changing of the colors, an entire tree full of red leaves signals to those flying above ripe fruits to be had, fuel for continuing the long migration or fattening up to make it through a (hopefully) snowy winter.

As I explore various places this fall I take a look at the fruits, and the trees from which they fell, and consider their purpose and value.

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