Plant Profiles

White Elegance - Hydrangea arborescens


Hydrangea arborescensIf I could have only one species of hydrangea in my garden I would choose the smooth hydrangea, Hydrangea arborescens. It is native. It will grow in acid soils or in alkaline soils. It will grow in full sun or shade, even fairly deep shade. It has a lots of flowers which grow on new wood so there is no challenge to the flower bud hardiness. It is hardy from Zone 3-9. H. arborescensIt grows from Canada to Florida and west to Missouri. It thrives in Minnesota. The further north it grows, the more sun it will tolerate.  I have rarely seen a pest problem although the deer do like to nibble on the new growth. Deer repellents help with this. I walked the garden at the hour of the gloaming last night. The white flowers of the H. arborescens (I think this one is H. arborescens 'Grandiflora') glow in low light. It is elegant. H. arb closeupI am not so crazy about the 'improved' cultivar 'Annabelle' which has incredibly large flower heads. That sounds great...until it rains and they bow to the ground in humiliation paying the price for their ostentatious display. The species stands straight and tall in the rain and the large number of flowers make up for the smaller size. It is hard to find the species at the garden centers. New and improved is not always so. I have paired this plant with Persicaria polymorpha and also Fallopia japonica. H. arborescens with PersicariaIt does not really need 'pairing' but what gardener can resist? I would love it with a white flowered astilbe or a variegated brunnera. I need more of this plant. It is easy to divide. This is a task which is on the list for late fall or early spring which is after leaf drop or before the leaves emerge. White is so very elegant in the garden and for those who work long hours, returning home in the dusk or leaving before dawn, this shrub will greet you with brightness. I admit, I may be a bit jaded toward this plant as it is one of the plants I clearly remember growing in my grandfather's garden. Those memories from childhood are tainted with love and affection if one is very lucky. I guess it was inevitable that I would adore this plant.


Dogwood Blooms


Flowers rowIt is common to accept much of what we know without question. Take the dogwood for example. Did you ever wonder how that tree got its name? There is speculation that it is derived from the Old English word 'dag' which is short for dagger. Daggers were supposedly made from the hard wood of the dogwood. When I hear the word 'dogwood' I most often picture the Florida dogwood which is  a lovely and delicate flowering tree but there are over fifty species of dogwoods and they encompass every shape and size from small shrubs to 30 foot spreading trees. Kousa flowerThere is one dogwood which all but the smallest garden should contain and that is the Chinese dogwood, Cornus kousa. Of course that is just my opinion but the Chinese dogwood waits until the spring show is over. It blooms at the beginning of summer with creamy white or pink star like flowers floating on the layered branches. Cornus kousa 2013A Chinese dogwood gives a garden substance, architecture and form. As a youthful maiden is upright and vase shaped, so is the young Chinese dogwood but as it ages it settles and spreads with a determination and maturity akin to a woman in later life. Last year my Chinese dogwood which is about 25 years old, flowered with intensity. Barely a leaf showed. Dogwood 2014This year the flowers are sparser. We did have quite a harsh winter which may have dessicated some of the flower buds. I have to say I am still enjoying the show this year in spite of the lack of abundance. The tree looks more like the night sky to me. In the center is the band of heavy flowers reminding me of the Milky Way while there are pinpricks of white over the rest of the tree. Three flowersI would love to know exactly what mechanism adjusted the bloom this year. It could have been the cold, the wind or the soil fertility which changes over time but Mother Nature has her secrets. I will have to be content with the blooms, such as they are. In my area I have seen dogwoods with a similar bloom pattern this year but then I have seen full ones as well. The mystery remains.    


Naked Plant ID

Silhouette of treeNow that I have your attention, you are probably shivering at the thought but there is no need to undress. The plants, trees in this case, are already in their bare form and if you can brave the cold this time of year and have the desire to increase your identification skills there are many opportunities to do so.  I took a course in ornamental tree identification many years ago as part of my college curriculum. I loved it. When I saw in the Audubon brochure that there was a tree identification class available this past Saturday I decided to attend. My previous course covered ornamental trees and shrubs which did include some natives but I feel that my skills at identifying those trees along the roadside are not what I would wish them to be. I do know many of the woodland trees but some I just can't identify. Winter tree identification has a language all its own.
Terminal bud, leaf scar lenticels
Terminal bud, shield shaped leaf scar and lenticels (dots on stem)
Bud scales, bud scar, leaf scar, pith, lenticel, growth rings and then there are the buds themselves. Are they clustered or single? Sticky, smooth or velvety? Much of this course was review for me at least with the terminology but it is challenging to re-acquaint oneself with those terms. Books on Tree IDI have quite a few books to help me in my cause. Gray's Manual of Botany is a wonderful key if you know all of the language. Years ago I bought Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines for a class and never used it. It cost $79.00 twenty years ago and it is a wonderful book whose time has finally come. I also own three of Michael Dirr's books. His Manual of Woody Landscape Plants is still used by many college students. Seeing Trees is a gorgeous book on trees written by Nancy Ross Hugo with photographs by Robert Llewellyn. It is informative, fun to read and the photographs are incredible. No Kindle or Nook would properly do them justice.
Opposite branching
Opposite branching on a red maple
I usually start with the basic outline of the tree and then move on to the bark. A closer view of the tree's branching structure will show if the branching is opposite or alternate. There are fewer genus of trees exhibiting opposite branching than alternate. Maple, Ash, Dogwood, Horse chestnut and those in the Caprifoliaceae family all have opposite branching. Furrowed barkThe bark of an ash is deeply furrowed and quite beautiful while that of the paper birch can easily be identified by the sheets of peeling white. Paperbark birchI have many different types of oaks on my property. White oak and pin oak along with some red oak. Quercus palustrisThe pin oaks are easy to spot as their lower branches dip toward the ground while the basic form of the tree is pyramidal. Trees are quite beautiful in their nakedness.
Many have buds which are quite distinctive. Most of us can identify a flowering dogwood from the fat flower bud.Tulip tree seed head The Tulip tree has this distinctive seedhead. Every endeavor requires one to start at the beginning and no matter what your skill level there is always a new plant to learn. I would bet that Michael Dirr would know all of the trees on my property but for the rest of us there would be something new around each corner. Do you have any desire to know your neighborhood trees? It would be fun to learn together.  

Bush Hemp - Boehmeria platanifolia

BoehmeriaThe common name for Boehmeria platanifolia is Female Bush Hemp or False Nettle. That first title should elicit quite a few search results but it is a rather unfortunate name for an interesting perennial. This perennial is an understudy, no show girl here, but it does have unique features which give it character which can benefit any shade border in Zones 4 - 8. Anyone can plant a hosta but it takes a true plant lover to search out the unusual.  Bush Hemp.False Nettle or Bush Hemp will satisfy the most discerning plantsman. A member of the Urticaceae or nettle family, it grows four feet tall by four feet wide (so far). This plant has large leaves, up to six inches across. B. platanifolia or Bush HempThey have a bit of a sycamore shape to them, hence the species name, but with oh, so much more interest. The edges are serrated and they are borne opposite one another along the red stems. B. platanifoliaYes, red stems. Flowering in August, the blooms are along a spike or catkin. False NettleNothing so common here as an ordinary aster like flower. This plant will tolerate shade. It has not blinked during the dry, hot spells of this summer although a bit of compost added to the soil has probably helped retain moisture. False nettle may be overlooked by some of your garden tourists but true plant geeks will certainly notice this beauty. This plant hails from Japan, Korea and China and grows along the forest edge. I will work to plant something a bit more interesting at its feet. The rounded leaves would look great with a sedge or carex.  Have you heard of Boehmeria? If so, what is your experience with this plant? If not, would you consider giving it a spot in your shady border?

Culver's Root - Veronicastrum virginicum

August 1st 003
Veronicastrum virginicum

Culver's Root is a wonderful perennial with a common name which bears the question "Who is Culver"? Friend Gail of Clay and Limestome fame has provided the information on the common name from the Prairie Moon Plant website. It is derived from the name Dr. Coulvert who found a medicial use for the plant in the 18th century. Dr. Coulvert may have the honor of the name but Native Americans used the plant as an emetic probably long before Dr. Coulvert examined its medicinal properties. I find that the genus name,Veronicastrum, is a much more descriptive name for this native herbaceous perennial as its flowers do resemble those of veronica which is a more familiar plant. Veronicastrum is widely distributed in the U.S. from the east coast to the mid-west. It will grow in zones 3-10 and tolerates a wide range of soil type and light although it is at home in the open woods, thickets and meadows. August 1st 001It is in the same family, Scrophulariaceae, as veronica. Snapdragons also are family members. There is much to recommend this plant for your perennial border. It has beautiful foliage. The leaves surround the stem in a whorled pattern and when the flowers do emerge in mid-summer they are spikes which do stand straight and tall with the caveat "if pinched". This plant is described as a plant with erect stems but I have found that left to its own devices it stands less than erect. I have it planted in full sun, partial shade, dry soil, moist soil and even lean soil. Perhaps it is the strain I am growing that flops. I saw a beautiful stand of Veronicastrum in an English garden the summer of 2011. It was at a garden called 'Woodpeckers' and the plant was dense with new growth in mid-June.

V. Chelsea Chopped
Culver's Root exhibiting 'The Chelsea Chop'

So dense,in fact, it took me a moment to realize what I was looking at. I asked the owner/gardener about the plant which had new growth at the top and he told me that they always do the "Chelsea Chop" on their Veronicastrum plants. I had not heard this term before so he explained that he pinches the plant by a good third during the time of the Chelsea Flower Show which takes place at the end of May. This year, I gave my plant by the front walkway the mid-June chop. Our winters are more severe than those of England and plants emerge a bit later so I adjusted the calendar accordingly.

Veronicastrum 2
The 'June Chop' on Culver's Root

There is no flopping on this plant by the walk which stands about three and a half feet tall.

August 1st 004
Veronicastrum v.

Not so for those in the island garden which are a bit caddywhompus as are those in the long, sunny border where this plant would be six feet tall if it were not leaning against the fence.

August 1st 007
Veronicastrum with phlox and bee balm

I think it looks much nicer after the 'chop'.  I am trying to find a apt name. One that will remind me to pinch this plant in June. I don't know, the 'Flag Day Chop' does not have much of a ring to it. Do you have any suggestions?