Sunday, August 31, 2008

Student Post, River Birch

BETULA NIGRA (River birch), Betulaceae family

Betula nigra, what a discovery!

I did not know this tree. In fact, I did not know any trees (except for plane trees, Christmas trees (lol!) and the trees of my region – I am from the South of France - so, olive trees and lindens (tilleul)), before I met Jennifer.

Betula nigra is such a fascinating specimen.

It starts as a local story.

Originated from throughout the southeastern United States (from New Hampshire west to southern Minnesota, and south to northern Florida and east Texas), river birch is commonly found in flood plains or swamps (River birch is the most common species on the banks of disturbed streams in Tennessee), is closely associated with alluvial soils and grows near willows.

River birch wood is hard, strong but of limited commercial value since it is usually too knotty to be used for lumber. Its main uses are for local furniture manufacture, basket materials, small woodenware, and fuel.

Native Americans used the boiled sap as a sweetener similar to maple syrup, and the inner bark as a survival food.

Recently, Betula nigra (together with gray birches (Betula populifolia) have become the beloved of “modernist” (that is to say, minimalist) architects and landscape designers.


Its relatively small-diameter trunk, combined with the beauty of its bark – brown, reddish, pinkish bark peeling off in film-like papery curls all year round – provides for a sophisticated element of verticality in a space. Its papery texture refers to “art brut” and coexists extremely well with contemporary architecture.

Also, its branches are…black, which is quite dramatic,…

and drooping, particularly when they are wet with rain.

Foliage is delicate and lets the sun filter through, providing a light atmosphere to the ground where Betula nigra is planted.

Plant Characteristics:

40 to 60’ high and 25 to 35’ wide, with an oval, pyramidal, symmetrical canopy

fast grower, and likes sun. Monoeicious.

Leaf is simple, double serrated, ovate, deciduous, green in the summer and yellow in the fall.

If left unpruned, it often becomes multitrunked in its first or second year.

Tolerant to clay, loam, sand, acidic, extended flooding, low soil oxygen.

Pendulous catkins are characteristic. Producing abundant pollen and therefore contributing to hay fever.

Seed production and seedling development.

Good seed crops are usually produced annually. The winged seeds are wind or water disseminated. Water dissemination is probably more important because water deposits the seeds on moist shores favorable togermination and establishment. It is an early pioneer on stream bank alluvium, and requires high soil moisture coupled with no shade for germination and establishment.

“The most beautiful of American trees!”. That’s what Prince Maximilian thought of river birch when he toured North America before he became the short-lived Emperor of Mexico. I concur!

To end:

Let us not omit that Icelandic singer and actress Björk Guðmundsdóttir, known simply as Björk. She bears a fine, ancient Viking name meaning ‘birch tree’!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Pacific Northwest Conifers

Okay, well, this may be the last post on my sojourn to the Pacific Northwest. But I had to touch on the coniferous forests once more before returning to Manhattan.

To whit, a few pics of the trees so prevalent in Washington. Below is yet another shot of Mount Rainier, primarily composed of Tsuga heterophylla and Abies amabilis, trees I mentioned briefly on Tuesday.

Douglasfir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) needles:

Note the white stomatal stripe down the side of the needle. Stomatal stripes are essentially strips of pores that exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide through the leaf's waxy membrane. A stoma is an individual pore on a leaf -- all plants have them, though in most cases they are microscopic.

Below, T. heterophylla. The species name most likely refers to the two different leaf types on Tsuga. Like Tsuga canadensis, Western hemlock has a small leaf that sits along the top of the twig. This leaf appears to be upside-down and displays that stomatal stripe otherwise existing on the undersides of the lateral leaves.

Though you are looking at the underside of a branch in this photo, it is overexposed so you can't see the stomatal stripes on the lateral leaves; I'm simply adding this pic 'cause I think it's really, really beautiful. Personally, it captured my experience walking around these forests.

Another shot of Tsuga, this time with an addition that looks suspiciously like Spanish moss -- the iconographic epiphyte that is ubiquitous on the live oaks in the south.

Whatever it is that is growing on the hemlock is probably an epiphyte (epiphytes are like parasites, only they survive off another organism without compromising said organism's survival) or a bryophyte (tree lichens), but I can't definitively find out. Please note I have just bastardized definitions of both epi & bryophytes. Non-vascular plants are way outside my expertise!

Happy Labor Day weekend!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

More wildflowers from Mount Rainier

Here's a few quick shots of wildflowers from the Pacific Northwest.

This is a species of Erigeron (fleabane), most likely E. speciosus (Aspen fleabane). Eri- means 'early' and -geron means 'old man.' The name was applied to this plant because the spring-blooming species' flowers turn gray quite quickly. Most plant people know that '-bane' in common names usually means that the plant has a history of medicinal or practical use. In this case, the flowers have been placed under rugs to deter fleas. As usual, I have no firsthand information on whether this works or not.

Next, we have Anaphalis margaritacea, or pearly everlasting:

The botanical name is derived from the Greek ana, which doesn't mean absent (like 'anaerobic') but upwards or above. Phalos is Greek for shining or white. The species name, which pops up in a lot of botanical nomenclature, is Latin for pearl.

This flower was all over Washington when I visited. It's easy to guess that this belongs to the Asteraceae family. Apparently, it has been used a tobacco substitute, perhaps when times were tough for lumberjacks or loggers of yore...

Below is Indian paintbrush (what a great, evocative name), or Castilleja miniata. There are over 200 species of Castilleja, all sharing their name with a Spanish botanist. These plants are semi-parisitic, and extract nutrients from the roots of nearby grasses and forbs.

This plant offers many folkloric uses. From wikipedia's entry on Castilleja:

The Chippewa Indians used a hairwash made from Indian Paintbrush to make their hair glossy and full bodied and as a treatment for rheumatism. The high selenium content of this plant has been cited as the reason for its effectiveness for these purposes. Nevada Indian Tribes used the plant to treat venereal diseases and to enhance the immune system. Various other tribes used the plant as its name suggests -- as a paintbrush .

Finally, please, please someone tell me what this is:

Whatever it is, the flower structure is really, really cool: see how the pistil splits in three? (The pistil is the female part of the flower - in the center; the stamen are the male parts and surround the pistil.)

If you know what this is, please comment below & tell me!

Student Post, Hornbeam


One morning in an old neighborhood of Palo Alto, California, I came upon a hedge of trees that stopped my burn to Starbucks in my tracks. It was the most iridescent and mesmerizing fresh leaf green color I had ever seen, and had the form of a naturally topiaried tree. The tree was without any showy flower, or amazingly handsome bark or a fragrance that knocked me over, but almost had me in cardiac arrest. Wow! Botanical virginal green straight from God himself! It’s beauty has never failed me since frantically finding out its name, Carpinus betulus or the common name, ‘European Hornbeam’, and it’s splendor is implanted in my brain as the venations are on its leaf.

To say I’m ‘hornbeam struck’ is an understatement. Most of my landscape designs include at least a specimen or if the budget allows, an allee or hedge of the hornbeam. I validate this by pointing to it many wonderful qualities. Besides its magnificent fastigiate form, it tolerates a variety of soils, and culture suits zones 5-8 (where most people live, so you can most probably plant this at least as a specimen). It is slow growing but you will have it adorn this earth for at least 150 years after finally your own boots are put to rest. It’s a great tree to anchor surrounding plantings for all seasons and so often complements traditional and modern landscaping.

After more research of my beloved Carpinus betulus, I find out some more history and lore belonging to the tree. Fred Hageneder in his book,‘The Meaning of Trees’ (Duncan Baird Publishers: 2005) writes, ‘Latin carpinus is derived from Celtic car, q’er and carya, the ancient eastern Mediterranean goddess of wisdom.’ As the wood is extremely dense and durable another common name for Carpinus is ‘Ironwood’. In old times it was used for windmills, water cogs, axles and yokes for farm animals. The Cherokee used the astringent inner bark of the American hornbeam to treat discharges and urinary problems. Hageneder further mentions in ‘Europe hornbeam leaves have been used to treat wounds and stilled water from leaves as an eye lotion.’

In this age of instant gardens and impatience for nature to evolve before our eyes, it would be good to pause and put something in our designs that will last longer than 30 years. We probably will not enjoy its beauty at maturity but thank God gardeners and designers were thinking of our generation a hundred years ago so we may enjoy the heritage trees in our national parks today. I am biased towards the ‘must-have’ Hornbeam, but really you cannot go wrong with any of the classics like Beech, Japanese Stewartia, Chinese Elm and Quercus to name a few. Buy it, grow it, name it and if you want to, talk to it. I can assure you, if you pick the Hornbeam, alias ‘the goddess of wisdom’, it will give you much pleasure and delight.

Written by,


Wednesday, August 27, 2008


A few shots of fireweed, or Epilobium angustifolium, at Mount Rainier:

I had never seen this plant before and I prepared myself to feel guilty for enjoying it so much; I felt that anything this prevalent and beautiful had to be some terrible invasive species. But it turns out that fireweed is native, so no guilt necessary.

It is, however, a colonial plant and grows in practically any sunny location. It hasn't earned its name because it spreads like fire (which was my original assumption) but instead because it is particularly successful at colonizing recently-burned areas.

Fireweed has a long history of medicinal use by Native Americans. The shoots can be used for salves and are good sources of vitamin A & C. Reportedly, the younger shoots are less bitter than the more mature plants.

As you can see from the photos, I was beset by rain all day. At least it made for fun photography. I'll post some other wildflower photos, all decorated with dewy drops of rain, soon enough. But this species was my favorite find.

I was in Washington for an obviously-beautiful outdoor wedding; one of my first small-talk questions to another attendee was, "What is that awesome flower?" The person I was speaking to told me it was fireweed; he added, "When that stops blooming, it's time for snow."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Chamaecyparis nootkatensis

Here's a shot of Yellow Cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) at Mount Rainier park. The botanical name I just used, while still used in nursery trades, has been replaced with Xanthocyparis nootkatensis.

Communities of C. nootkatensis cropped up all around Mount Rainier park, but not as consistently as the other standard forest trees of Abies amabilis (pacific silver fir), Psuedotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir) and Tsuga heterophylla (western hemlock). While the severely drooping branches protect the plant from excessive snow-loading, it also means that when the snow slides down off the branches, it exposes the scaly leaves to extreme temperatures and winds. So, as I understand it, stands of these trees tend to thrive in protected microclimates.

Here's a shot of its ornamental use near Snoqualmie Falls:

I'm guessing the above is a cultivar, not a straight species. The branchlets are similar, either way, and can be seen below:

C. nootkatensis is also called Alaska Cedar, in reference to its northernmost range. I see it used in the east coast as a horticultural oddity (along with weeping cedars, both so beloved by those who landscape fast food parking lots). It never makes sense to me in a landscape out east, but it was quite beautiful in its natural habitat.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Student Post, Kapok Tree

Next up from my students, Hyunch Sung:

"The Space Inside a Tree: Ceiba petandra"

Ceiba petandra, family Bombacaceae, also known as the Kapok tree, grows in the tropical rain forests of Central and South America, Africa, and the West Indies. It grows very fast to over 100 feet and has nocturnal blooming flowers. With its giant trunk and spiring branches covered in fuzz resembling an insect's appendages, it appears as mythical as it is imagined and defined as being by the ancient Mayans.

Mayans believed that this tree served as a portal between the sky and the earth. It is often hollow because of the decay caused by the moisture from torrential, rainy seasons. Monkeys often live inside the hollows. The hollow of this tree creates space for the myth of entry through the different spheres.

The creation of super-space inside this tree is a human installation of super natural power. Nature's aspect as flora is often backdrop and/or pure science. Fauna usually play active roles in sacred storytelling. Ceiba petandra, however is not just backdrop or magical canopy. It is a passage between the world of above and the world below. It is a gate between the different layers of the natural world. This tree reminds me that we are walking through sustainable and living installations that are art and magic after committed transformation. The internal spaces and functions of plant material are abundant sources of inspiration for time-based installations and living sculptures.

by: Hyunch Sung

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Student Post, Franklinia

Next up from my students' submissions is Todd Haiman's post (also can be found on his blog, Landscape Design + More) about the Franklinia.


There is much history surrounding this small, deciduous tree that has beautiful camellia-like late summer blossoms and striking orange to red fall foliage. All plants in cultivation today can be traced back to the original collection of naturalist, botanist and plant explorer, John Bartram in 1770. According to the Arnold Arboretum, “the species was discovered in southeast Georgia, along the Altahama River near Fort Barrington, on October 1, 1765, by John Bartram and his son William.

“I set off early in the morning for the Indian trading house, in the river St. Mary, and took the road up the NE side of the Alatamaha to Fort Barrington. I passed through a well-inhabited district, mostly live plantations, on the waters of the Cathead creek, a branch of the Alatamaha. On drawing near the fort, I was delighted at the appearance of two new beautiful shrubs, in all their graces.”
-Travels of John Bartram

Illustration of John Bartram

Bartram's illustration of Franklinia tree from the British Museum, 1788

The Bartrams carried some of the plants and seeds back to Philadelphia where they propagated the plant. When they returned to Georgia after the American Revolution, they could find no surviving examples. Every Franklinia in cultivation today is a direct link to the specimen found by John Bartram and his son William in 1765. The first successfully grown tree was given to its future namesake Benjamin Franklin. Dependent on which piece of history you read, the species became extinct in the wild somewhere between 1790 and 1803 due to land clearing and over-collecting by plant enthusiasts. No other plants have been found in the wild since 1791!

Franklinia has also endured a name change. Originally the specimen was named to honor Bartram’s friend and fellow member of the Philosophical Society -- Benjamin Franklin and the location where they found the specimen (near the mouth of the Altamaha river). Somewhere along the way Franklinia alatamaha evolved into Gordonia pubescens, then Gordonia altamaha by European botonists, but in 1925 it reverted back its original nomenclature. Of even greater detail is that the genus portion of its name is a misspelling (an additional” a”) of the Altamaha River that stuck!

Other reasons for the disappearance of the species from it’s native habitat include the following suggestion…”The good cold-hardiness of the surviving plants suggests that Franklinia may have originally been native to the north, but was forced to migrate southward during the Ice Ages to escape the extreme cold and the repeated advances of the ice sheets. But conditions in the south might have become less suitable for it after the Ice Ages ended. If it got stranded there, it might have begun to die out as the climate warmed again. The plants discovered by the Bartrams could be the last survivors of what was once a much larger population.”

I have also read that it responds adversely to a chemical produced by the cotton plant, therefore that might have led to its demise in the native woodlands of the south.

There is much legacy with this plant, as it was even featured on two different U.S. postage stamps, one of which was from 1969 -- back when you could actually mail a letter for 6¢!

“Bartram’s Garden”, the website of the John Bartram Association maintains a census report of Franklinias, whereby you may register your tree or those which are growing in commercial properties or public gardens.

What does all this mean?
From a personal perspective, when I visit my brother-in-law David’s house in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. and gaze upon his Franklinia Tree, I know it comes from the same exact seed that Ben Franklin’s tree did, just up the road, a descendant from almost 250 years ago.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Student Post, Taxodium

Courtesy of Ken Missbrenner,

Knocked Kneed and Bald

I love this tree. Really.

The first time I ever noticed one was when I was working as a photographer at an old estate in Yonkers called Wave Hill.

There was (and hopefully still is) a gorgeous specimen planted out on the lawn not too far from where the couple getting married were holding their ceremony.

She possessed a distracting beauty. Graceful lines, an airy disposition and a radiant confidence. I’m referring to the tree. It was a mature specimen with a broad, pyramidal habit, an exquisite fine texture, feathery leaves and handsome gently peeling, reddish bark.

The ceremony wasn’t bad either but it took place under the punitive sun of a withering August afternoon.

I did not know that it was possible for the human body to sweat so much and still remain upright.

The tree didn’t seem to mind the southern swamp climate. It must have felt right at home under the conditions of its native coastal US Southeast. Pass the Mint Julep, please.

Several months later, while deeply ensconced in my ragged edition of Dirr’s Encyclopedia I identified the tree as a Bald Cypress.

I recall an image from the Dirr’s book showing the trees growing next to water where they had developed fantastic protrusions from the roots called “knees”.

Apparently, the “knees” help the tree to obtain the oxygen it needs when growing in wet conditions.

The memory of that photograph conjures up the distant sound of a banjo playing, the buzz of insects larger than birds, the fecund aroma of thick, swamp air and the visage of an ancient, shirtless, toothless man in overalls bent to the work of poling his battered, old skiff full of crayfish past slithering snakes and the glowing, wet orbs of semi-submerged alligators to a tin shack on stilts. Spanish moss hanging from every available branch. Deliverance Revisited.

That said there are two magnificent, majestic examples of the trees side-by-side at the south end of the Harlem Meer in Central Park. From swamp to city. No banjo music there. Hip Hop or Salsa is more likely. Shirtless old men, optional.

There are also two Bald Cypresses growing in my neighborhood in New York City. The tree planted this past spring shows all of the vigor and optimism of youth. It proudly displays its lush, green, feathery foliage and stands approximately twelve feet tall. The old tree that lives around the corner seems much more dour and likely to complain about the weather or your dog. The old tree stands a very leggy thirty feet tall and has a rather mangy habit. The Gingko trees on either side have been bullying it for a long time. The tree becomes almost insignificant in this situation. Given the space and the absence of competition, the young Bald Cypress should grow into a beautiful specimen and a worthy street tree.

The Bald Cypress will grow within Zones 4 through 9. The tree will be evergreen or semi-evergreen in the warmer zones and deciduous in the colder zones.

Keeping that in mind, a Bald Cypress in a northern climate will end up as bald as a cue ball. A single, naked tree might look good in the right setting but a group of trees could provide a rather striking structural element to the winter landscape. Bald Cypress, like most people, certainly look better with their clothes on.

A few of the images accompanying this post were taken in Battery Park where the Bald Cypress has been used very successfully in both specimen and in group plantings.

Battery Park is located at the bottom of Manhattan in a rather exposed location requiring tough, wind resistant plantings. Due to the park’s proximity to the ocean and the briny quality of the tidal river, I imagine that salt spray could also be an issue there. Nonetheless, I have to wonder about the viability of the trees in truly exposed coastal settings. The deciduous quality of the tree should protect it from desiccating winter winds. A close source of fresh water could keep the trees alive in that harsh environment and maybe even throw in a few knocked knees. Let me know.

The Bald Cypress is a wonderful and beautiful tree. Plant it. Enjoy it. Tell your friends.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Battery Park Aquatics

Here are a few summer aquatics from the pond at Battery Park.

First, we have Canna glauca or aquatic Canna. This species is native to Central America and is closely related to the annual Cannas you may find in pots over the summer. Canna belong to their own family, Cannaceae and their closest relatives are other members of the ginger (Zingiberales) order.

These are not perennial aquatics, they are most likely placed in the pond each spring.

Pontederia cordata, or pickerelweed, is a worthy pond plant. Though invasive in the wild (or increasingly becoming so) it is very effective in removing pollutants from a pond. It is perennial and has great arrowhead shaped leaves.

As for this plant's common name, pickerel is a word for small or juvenile pike. This plant is called pickerelweed because it grows in slow-moving water where pickerel are apt to be found.

Evidently, Chaucer had some opinions on this:

Bet [better] is, quoth he, a pike than a pickerel.
-- Chaucer

Why he felt this way, I have no idea.

Finally, a favorite of mine: Nelumbo nucifera, or Lotus:

Lotus leaves, you may have noticed, are superhydrophobic. In fact, when this property is observed in other biological surfaces, it is casually referred to as the Lotus Effect. The properties of the leaves, which allow water to bead up completely and roll off the plant are studied intensely by people who want to mimic those characteristics in manmade products (think scotch guard).

The fact that these leaves repel water and dirt is part of the reason they are considered sacred. In the muddiest of rivers, they remain pure.

The nomenclature derives from the Sinhalese word Nelum- which is the local name for the lotus. Nucifera means bearing nuts -- the fruits that are found in the persistent dried seed pods.


I'm off to the Pacific Northwest for a long weekend. Expect a few photos of whatever I find at Mount Rainier after Tuesday. In the meantime, I have scheduled a few more student posts...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Student Post, Sassafras

This summer, my students had a couple options for their final project. One option was to write a blog post for this site about a plant they admired and provide photos illustrating the plant's qualities. So I will be posting these now and then in the upcoming weeks.

First up is Jeannie Marcucci (, writing about Sassafras.


Sassafras albidum, Common Sassafras Tree

This is one of my favorite trees. Until we bought our house I had never seen one and since it was October when we had settlement, the tree was a gorgeous red—so I had to ID it. The give-away were the mitten-shaped leaves, yet not all the leaves are shaped like this. Some of the leaves are more oval or elliptical. Fall color aside, the leaves are bright green or medium green.

I don’t know how old my tree is, but it’s about 15 feet tall right now. It blocks my view of the neighbor’s garage when it’s in full leaf, but in the winter, the habit of the tree, the asymmetrical branching, the sympodial branching (branches do not have terminal end, they just keep re-branching) is even more interesting. Since the tree was planted too close to that garage, it does lean a bit. I hope once the canopy is above the roof line of that garage it will straighten up some as it seems to be a very supple tree. I should also limb it up some, but the low canopy provides nice shelter for the birds.

In the spring, the squirrels love the fattened buds. I have watched them hang upside down by their hind legs to reach after particularly luscious samples. During the warm weather, the tree is host to lots of small birds. I was lucky enough to get a photo of some fruit, which I’m sure is why the birds have really been enjoying the tree more than usual of late. I have only seen a few seedling trees sprout, which to me indicates the birds are getting nearly every piece of fruit available.

In the two years we’ve been here, I have not seen any Japanese beetle damage, scale, mildew; it has been trouble free. I had applied leaf compost to the area under the tree this season and that seems to have brought some extra vigor to the tree; it does look like it’s grown a lot this year.