Re-Weaving the Web

Viola papilionacea

~

Our ‘lawn’ hosts many wildflowers, including the always beautiful violet, Viola papilionacea.  I’m happy to see these lovely wildflowers bloom each spring.  They are so common, and so elegant.  And I’ve always assumed that their nectar is a welcome source of nourishment for bees and other pollinators in early spring.

But I was surprised to learn, when browsing recently on the National Wildlife Federation’s website, that the common, native violet is a larval host to 30 different species of moth and butterfly.   By simply allowing these pretty spring wildflowers, rather than stopping their growth with a ‘broadleaf weed’ herbicide, I’ve been helping to support moths and butterflies.

~

Monarch butterfly on hybrid Lantana, an excellent source of nectar.

~

Once we begin to understand our own lawns and gardens as part of an intricate web of life; the daily decisions we make, and the actions we do, or don’t take assume an entirely new and more meaningful context.

~

Spiders often weave large webs in our autumn garden.

~

I certified our garden as a wildlife habitat some years ago.  Ever since, I get regular mailings and emails from the National Wildlife Federation offering me things if I’ll only send a bit more money to them.  I respect their work and detest the constant fundraising.  But an email last week somehow caught my attention, and in a spare moment I began clicking through to find a personalized list of native plants that thrive in our zip code and also support wildlife.

Imagine that!  A personalized plant list just for me and my neighbors to assist us in preserving habitat!

~

Our native redbud tree, Cercis canadensis, supports 25 species of butterfly and moth larvae.  Our dogwood tree supports 110 larval species.

~

Also on my list: Fragaria, Solidago, Aster, Geranium, Hibiscus, Rudbeckia, Achillea and good old Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium.  It’s the first plant on this list, Fragaria, that nudges that guilty sense that maybe I’m not as good as I want to be.

Common (weedy) ground strawberries, Fragaria virginiana, thrive in our garden.  They thrive and spread themselves over and around every bed I start and every other thing I plant.  Along with the ubiquitous Vinca minor vines, Fragaria are the plants I find myself pulling up and throwing away the most.  And to think that this common and enthusiastic plant; which feeds pollinators, songbirds, small mammals and reptiles; also supports 73 different species of larval moths and butterflies.  How did I ever miss that?

~

Wild strawberries, Fragaria, mix with other wildflowers as ground cover at the base of this stand of Narcissus. Brent and Becky Heath’s display gardens, Gloucester VA.

~

You may have read Dr. Doug Tallamy’s revolutionary manual, Bringing Nature Home.   Dr. Tallamy makes a clear argument for why including native plants in our home landscape matters, and offers simple advise about how to do this in the most practical and easy to understand terms possible.

The National Wildlife Federation has based their Native Plant Finder on his work, and will give anyone an individualized list of native plants that form the basis of the ecosystem in their particular area, down to their zip code.

~

The American Sycamore tree, Platanus occidentalis, supports 43 species of larvae, including the beautiful Luna moth..

~

The change in my sensibility came when I realized that I don’t really have to do anything special to grow a garden of native plants.  Rather, I need to allow it to happen, by understanding and respecting the natural processes already at work in our garden.

We modern American gardeners are often conditioned to feel like we need to go and buy something in order to be gardening.  Dr. Tallamy helps us to understand that going to our local garden center or nursery may not be the best way to heal our local ecosystem.

~

~

How many of us already have an oak tree (or two or three) growing in our garden?  They are handsome shade trees, and I’ve always admired oaks.  Did you know that in addition to producing acorns, oak leaves support over 500 species of larval butterflies and moths?  A birch tree supports over 320 species.  That is a lot of mileage from a single tree, when it comes to supporting the insect world!

~

Virginia Creeper, a native vine which crops up in many areas of our garden, provides nectar, berries, and it also supports 29 species of butterfly and moth larvae.

~

Keep in mind that this is only a counting of butterflies and moths, and doesn’t even consider the hundreds of other insect species which live on our native trees.  Even a pine tree supports over 200 species, and the simple mistletoe already growing in several trees around our yard will support 3 species of moth larvae.

~

 Zebra Swallowtail feeding on Asclepias tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’ at Brent and Becky Heath’s display gardens in Gloucester .

~

I keep returning to this conundrum about native vs. ‘exotic’ plants. I listen closely when experts, like the erudite speakers at our local chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society, speak on this matter.  I have also been doing a bit of reading about the balance between natives and non-native plants in our home gardens.

~

Hibiscus syriacus is not our native Hibiscus… but our bees and butterflies love it anyway.  It has naturalized in our area.

~

Some landscape designers suggest planting exotic plants near our house and native plants towards the edges of our property.  This assumes, I think, that the native plants may not be beautiful enough or refined enough to plant along our daily paths.  Somehow, I know there must be a better way….

~

~

Purists try to demonstrate to us that ‘native’ means the plants that have grown in our particular location for centuries, maybe even millennia.  It is the particularly adapted sub-species that have grown in symbiotic relationships with the local fauna and geo-forms which matter most.  They are adapted to our soil, climate and may not be truly ‘native’ 30 miles down the road.

~

Asclepias incarnata, July 2017

~

The problem with this analysis comes from understanding that there was a lot of movement of people and spreading of plants in North America before the earliest recorded European inhabitants.  It doesn’t matter whether you take that back to the Vikings, Sir Henry Sinclair, The Templar fleets or Captain Chris; the truth is that many different groups of native Americans carried plants around from place to place and established agriculture long before there was a European around to observe and record their activities.

~

Muscadines are a native North American grape.  Vitis species support 69 larval species, and were cultivated long before the European migration to our continent.

~

Many of us mail order an Asclepias or two and know we have done a good thing for the Monarchs.  But Asclepias only supports twelve larval species, while the Rudbeckia systematically colonizing our entire front garden support 20!

But Rudbeckia don’t feed Monarch larvae.  And neither do many of the Asclepias I’ve planted in recent years.  Their leaves remain pristine.  It is not just what we plant, but many factors in the environment that determine whether or not a butterfly will choose a particular plant to lay their eggs.

~

~

I am happiest when I realize that the plants I want to grow anyway also qualify as ‘native’ and benefit wildlife.

~

Native Hibiscus moscheutos grows in our garden, and has naturalized in many wetlands in our area.  Sadly, non-native Japanese Beetles feasted on its leaves.  Hibiscus supports 29 species of butterfly and moth larvae.

~

I am content when the ‘exotic’ plants I want growing in our garden also offer some benefit to wildlife, whether it is their nectar or their seeds.  And I still stubbornly assert my rights as The Gardener, when I commandeer real-estate for those non-natives that I passionately want to grow, like our beloved Caladiums. 

As long as I find hummingbirds buzzing around our canna lilies and ginger lilies each summer, and find the garden filled with song birds and butterflies, I feel like we are doing our small part to support wildlife.

~

~

Many of us enjoy watching pollinators gather nectar and pollen from the flowers in our garden.  We enjoy a variety of birds attracted to seeds, berries, and insect life in our gardens, too.  But how many of us relish watching caterpillars nibble the leaves of our garden plants?

We see nibbled leaves as damaged leaves, without taking into consideration that before we have butterflies flitting from flower to flower, we must shelter and support their larvae.

~

Black Swallowtail butterfly and caterpillars on fennel, August 2017

~

Assuming that you have read Doug Tallamy’s work, let me invite you to take the next step by reading Larry Weaner’s thought provoking new book,    Garden Revolution:  How Our Landscapes Can Be A Source of Environmental Change.  Where Doug Tallamy writes about plant choice, Larry Weaner is all about ecological landscape design.  He teaches how to begin with a tract of land and restore an ecosystem.  Weaner teaches us how to work with the processes of nature to have plants present their best selves, with minimum inputs from us.

~

~

Restoring our environment, preserving our ecosystem, are holistic, systemic endeavors worthy of our energy and attention.  As we develop a deeper understanding and sympathy for these matters, our aesthetic, and our understanding of our own role in the garden’s evolution, also evolve.

~

The Devil’s Walkingstick, Aralia spinosa provides nectar when in bloom, and thousands of tasty berries in the autumn.  It also supports 7 larval species. A volunteer in our garden, it is one of the most spectacular trees we grow.

~

Woodland Gnome 2018
*
“The wild is where you find it,
not in some distant world
relegated to a nostalgic past or an idealized future;
its presence is not black or white,
bad or good, corrupted or innocent…
We are of that nature, not apart from it.
We survive because of it,
not instead of it.”
.
Renee Askins
~

Hummingbird moth on a hybrid butterfly bush growing among native Rudbeckia. 

Advertisements

Native Trees: American Sycamore

~

North America’s trees were considered one of its greatest treasures both by European colonists like John Bartram and his son William, and by European gardeners eagerly awaiting shipments of seed from ‘the colonies.’

Our many varieties of conifers and hardwood are as beautiful as they are useful.  North American trees were planted extensively in European gardens soon after Jamestown was settled.  The early colonists were always on the lookout for ‘useful plants’ to send back home.

These same prized trees still grow wild here in Virginia, today.

~

The American Sycamore grows on the bank of Jones Millpond in York County, Virginia

~

One of my favorite native American trees is the American sycamore, Platanus occidentalis.   Also called ‘bottonwood tree,’ named for its round fruits which persist through winter, the sycamore may also be called an American plane tree.

I particularly like this tree’s mottled, light colored bark, and its beautiful branching form.

~

~

The sycamore prefers moist soil and can often be found in the wild in lowlands and near bodies of water. Yet it will grow in many different environments in Zones 4-9.  It’s native range extends from Florida, north into Canada, and westwards into Texas and Oklahoma.  It is also considered a native tree in Oregon.

The sycamore will quickly grow into a massive shade tree, with a thick trunk (to more than 6 feet in diameter), a broad canopy, and a mature height of over 130 feet.  Its extensive roots can damage nearby walls or sidewalks, yet it is a common street tree in cities.  A sycamore can handle the heat and polluted air of urban areas, where it is enjoyed for its beauty and its shade.  Its dense canopy helps filter the air.

~

This Sycamore grows on the banks of the James River near Jamestown Island.

~

I enjoy visiting this lovely sycamore growing on the bank of Jones Millpond, alone the Colonial Parkway between Williamsburg and Yorktown throughout the year.  It is pleasing in all seasons.

~

~

There are several notable sycamore trees in our area.  Their interesting branches and bright bark make them easy to recognize.  In winter, the seedpods hanging from their branches playfully sway in the wind.

~

~

A sycamore tree’s wood is useful for making things, but it isn’t a preferred wood for furniture making.  It doesn’t produce edible nuts or leaves.

It is valued more as a beautiful landscape tree and for the shade it gives in summer.

~

The distinctive leaves and bark help identify this tree as a Platanus

~

The sycamore ranks high among my favorite native American trees.

~

~

Woodland Gnome 2018
~
~

Even when pruned hard in a style called pollarding, the Platanus is easily recognized by its light colored bark. This tree grows in Colonial Williamsburg.

One Word Photo Challenge: Eigengrau

April 12, 2015 flowers 120

~

Eigengrau, (read: I’-Gen-growl, both g’s hard) is the color your brain sees in the absence of light.

Jenny has chosen a very esoteric color to end her color challenges.  Her final ‘color’ is the absence of color in the absence of light.  Those who understand these things explain that eigengrau is more of a dark grey than a true black, by the way.

~

April 12, 2015 flowers 119

~

Also explained as ‘brain grey’ or  ‘dark light,’  this color describes what you might see upon opening your eyes in a dark room.

This is a new color term for me, and a fitting way for Jenny to close out this challenge.

~

April 12, 2015 flowers 109

~

Don’t worry, Jennifer begins a new ‘One Word Photo Challenge’ next week using weather themes.  She starts us off with an easy one:  rain.

~

Colonial Williamsburg in late afternoon

Colonial Williamsburg in late afternoon

~

I am choosing to interpret eigengrau as the dark grey one sees when an object is seen in silhouette against a background of light, and the deep shadows where light cannot reach.  Although the Germans, who coined this color term, elaborated an entire cult to celebrate the very esoteric ‘Black Sun;’ I celebrate the life giving sun of visible light. 

~

April 5, 2015 Parkway 015

~

The photos I’ve chosen celebrate the light, which nourishes all life, while also showing us the shadows.

With Appreciation to Jennifer Nichole Wells for her

One Word Photo Challenge:  Eigengrau

~

April 12, 2015 flowers 035

~

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2015

Pollarded Platanus

 

Planatus x acerifolia ?  Either a London Planetree, or an American Sycamore- we know now that the interesting structure is created through pruning.

Planatus x acerifolia ? Either a London Planetree, or an American Sycamore- we know now that the interesting structure is created through pruning.

Gwennie supplied the answer.

Gwennie’s first message suggested these beautiful trees belong to the genus Platanus.

The distinctive leaves and bark help identify this tree as a Platanus

The distinctive leaves and bark help identify this tree as a Platanus.  Growth from the base, and from buds along the trunk, is stimulated by the frequent pruning necessary to maintain the pollarded form of the crown.

That much I had surmised from my field guides to trees and internet searching.  But which one?  I wasn’t finding a species or cultivar with these  strange, knobby branches!

May 24 2014 vines 028

I had narrowed it down to something akin to the American Sycamore Platanus occidentalis, the London Planetree, Platanus x acerifolia, or the  Oriental Planetree Platanus orientalis.

May 24 2014 vines 031

But what hybrid or cultivar?  Nothing seemed to quite fit exactly.

But then Gwennie supplied the answer, as of course a European gardener would:  these trees have been pollarded.

Our trees last December 27.  Do you see the new growth at the "knobs"?  This was pruned away over the winter.

Our trees last December 27. Do you see the new growth at the “knobs”? This was pruned away over the winter.

Of course!  And  the clues were all there.

The same trees, photographed on March 12, 2014.

The same trees, photographed on March 12, 2014.

To pollard a tree is an ancient practice. 

Like coppicing, one cuts back the new growth on a regular schedule to shape and train a tree, to maintain its size, or to harvest its wood.

Unlike coppicing, where one may cut the tree or shrub back to the ground; pollarding leaves the basic framework of the tree in place, and simply cuts back new growth to a given point.

This may be done annually, or once every several years depending on the gardener’s needs.

In England, where much of the old growth forest was harvested for building, the practice of pollarding was practiced to grow and harvest wood for building fences and other useful things, without killing the tree.

Some farmers would feed pruned branches and leaves to livestock, others used it for construction or even firewood.

Why does this photo remind me of Tolkien's Ents?

Why does this photo remind me of Tolkien’s Ents?

And here is this quintessentially European practice demonstrated in Colonial Williamsburg!

May 24 2014 vines 033

Pollarding trees is a common practice in many European cities- less so in large American cities.

This pruning technique keeps the overall size of the tree in check.  But it also makes the tree much stronger and safer.

An American Sycamore growing on the Colonial Parway shows no signs of pruning.

An American Sycamore growing on the Colonial Parkway shows few signs of pruning.

By limiting the growth of branches, those which remain grow larger and stronger.

October 18 parkway 018

Wind moves through the tree easily, reducing storm damage.

Our heavily pruned oaks in December.  They survived the summer, after pruning, and show beautiful new growth this spring.

Our heavily pruned oaks in December. They survived the summer, after pruning, and show beautiful new growth this spring.

Pollarded trees are far less likely to fall in a storm because their reduced canopy won’t resist the wind in the same way a large, unpruned tree will catch the wind in its branches, much like a sail.

We decided to severely prune several large trees in our own garden last summer.  Strong winds in a summer thunderstorm took down three huge old oak trees quite unexpectedly.  They fell towards the street, but we could plainly see what might have happened had they fallen in a different direction….

The pruning was a bit too drastic for my taste, but then I hate to prune a rose...

The pruning was a bit too drastic for my taste, but then I hate to prune a rose…

The decision was a hard one for me to accept, but it was pointed out, by my very practical partner and his arborist allies, that this severe pruning would protect both the trees, and our home.

July 23 2013 001

And so they cut.  And cut; and chipped up beautiful branches full of new summer leaves.

July 23 2013 004

It was so painful to watch, and yet I realized that with the strange storms blowing across the planet these days it was absolutely necessary.

Although July is the wrong time for such an operation (if we thought we could, we would have waited for November) we had the work done, and then hoped for the best.

And all of our trees now show new, vigorous growth.

April 21, 2014 hypertufa pot and pedastal 022

Not only have they survived their pruning ordeal, they are bouncing back.

It just shows the incredible resilience of established  trees.

In fact, one use of pollard style pruning is to maintain trees in a more juvenile state.

May 24 2014 vines 032

Rather than allowing them to mature and establish huge  canopies, one keeps them lean.  (This reminds me of the longevity diet plans which claim to extend human life through under-consumption of food, and maintaining a very lean weight.   Please don’t ask when I plan to get serious with this approach….)

There are some very very old, and very contorted trees in parts of the colonial district, which have intrigued me.  They are mostly hollow, and more sculpture than tree.

A friend posing with one of these beautiful old trees near the Colonial Capitol in CW last December.

A friend posing with one of these beautiful old trees near the Colonial Capitol in CW last December.

It seems that one of the effects of continual pollarding is to eventually create a very old tree with a hollow trunk.   Now I’m keen to re-visit these old trees, and see if they can be identified by their leaves.

Pollarding isn’t reserved to just Platanus species.  It is also used with many broadleaf deciduous trees, including beech, oak, redbud, Malus, Cornus, Acer, Salix, and others.  (More on Crepe-Murder here.)

This pruning practice is also used to control Wisteria, Lonicera, and Clematis vines.

Growth may be controlled on Wisteria vines, and flowering increased, through pollarding the fine.

Growth may be controlled on Wisteria vines, and flowering increased, by pruning the vines.

Wherever a steady supply of new growth is desired, pollarding can be practiced to increase the supply of flowers, juvenile foliage, and new growth wood.

I am still not positive about the identification of these Platanus trees.

While they resemble our native American Sycamore trees, a case can be made to identify them more properly as Platanus x acerifolia “Bloodgood.”  Also known as the London planetree, or hybrid plane, this hybrid claims both the American Sycamore and  the oriental plane as parents.

This naturally occurring hybrid first turned up as seedlings in Spain in the 17th Century.  Beautiful, strong, and disease resistant, Platanus x acerifolia went into the nursery trade early on and is the preferred Platanus for urban plantings.  Not only does the hybrid withstand heat, drought, soil compaction, and pollution, but it has superior resistance to the anthracnose virus.

So, while not sure of the exact species or cultivar, we will agree that these lovely trees are Platanus, some variety of Sycamore or Plane trees.

May 24 2014 vines 029

And they are living works of art.  Lovely in all seasons, sturdy and useful;  they inspired me to learn a bit more about them.

And with Gwennie’s assistance, a new understanding of tree cultivation has opened up.

Thank you, Gwennie!

May 24 2014 vines 027

 

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2014

 

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 667 other followers

Follow Forest Garden on WordPress.com
Order Classic Caladiums

This Month’s Posts

Topics of Interest