Monday, February 27, 2012

American Plants for American Gardens: An Old Book Review

By Edith Roberts and Elsa Rehmann   

I had some free time last month to do a little reading so I grabbed my copy of  American Plants for American Gardens.  I've made great use of the plant lists from this book, but I had not taken the time to read the text that goes along with each list.  This is a rather short book that is packed with information on plant communities commonly found in the Northeastern U.S.  In addition it describes, in compelling prose, what these plant communities look like throughout the year (not just when the plants are in full bloom) and how to use them in a natural way around a home. 

It was originally written as a series of articles on Plant Ecology that appeared in House Beautiful in 1927-28.  The authors are Dr. Edith Roberts, a professor of Botany, and Elsa Rehmann, a landscape architect.  The 1992 edition includes a forward by Darrel Morrison that provides an excellent background for this work, as well as the need for planting in community, in general.  Also in the Appendix of this edition is listing of updated plant names that have changed since the original publication.  

These articles were written between 1927-29, before the market crash in ’29 and the Great Depression.  They were targeted toward planning a country estate; but are also applicable to smaller properties or to open space planning. The authors were strongly influenced by the ‘Prairie School’ of Frank Lloyd Wright & Louis Sullivan.  In general, designers of that time were more interested in natural forms and native plants than they were in the 1950’s when form and function were the main considerations.

I originally bought this book for the rich plant lists based on habitat types which helped me to design groupings of plants that naturally grow together.  These lists are skewed toward the natural communities of southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic Coast.  For me, this is the first place I look to get ideas for the plant palette to use in a design, whether I am augmenting a planting in an established habitat, or if I am starting from scratch to create a planting that evokes a more natural space.

The community descriptions are not as detailed or finely divided as found in some of the more region-specific resources, like Wetlands,Woodlands, Wildland: A Guide to the Natural Communities of Vermont or Plant Communities of New Jersey.  While Wetlands, Woodlands contains descriptions of 80 natural communities in the state of Vermont, American Plants condenses this to 11 communities types for the entire Northeast.  For residential design, this is sufficient, unless you are doing a habitat restoration or are a botanical purist.  When you consider that most residential settings are highly disturbed compared to the original native environment, the 11 communities described here are sufficient to accommodate most residential sites.

Beyond what is in other books about plant communities, Rehmann, contributes additional information on architecture and site planning, such as routing of driveways and styles of houses that are appropriate to each of the habitat types.

While this is not a reference text for the ecologist, it is an excellent book for the designer trying to introduce (or reintroduce) a more naturalistic landscape to the residential setting using native plant species.  

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Winter Field Trip

So after writing about the 'Winter Weeds' around my house for a couple of weeks I decided to take a walk through a nearby meadow to see what's still standing.  For me the closest meadow is Rock Meadow, in Belmont, MA.  This erstwhile farm has been conservation land for the town of Belmont since 1969.  With decreasing maintenance budgets over the years this area was undergoing succession with open meadows being closed up with a variety of native and non-native, invasive species.  This severely  degraded its value as a bird nesting habitat and reduced it general value as a recreational space.  In 2005 the Friends of Rock Meadow worked with the town in securing funds to do a renovation.  Most of this work was completed between 2007 and 2009, with the removal of many invasive plants, clearing shrubbery from the meadow and improving trails.  So with map in hand I set out to see what interesting plants I could find...

The burrs on this Burdock catch the afternoon sun
as easily as they do to a passing hiker.
The first plant I came across was Burdock.  This old world introduction is a common weed of waste spaces, but its strong structure helps it persist in the winter landscape.  The burs on the seed pod are hooked which help them attach to passing animals, thus dispersing the seed to a wider area.

Next I walked by a thicket rich with Red Twig Dogwood.  I am assuming these are the native Cornus sericea (formerly, C. stolonifera), even with leaves and flowers some of these species are difficult to tell apart.

The Red-twig Dogwood was easily identified among
all the other brown branches in the thicket.

Large sections of Rock Meadow are consistently wet.  These areas are easily identified by their large populations of Cattails.  There are two common species in the Northeast, one with broad leaves and one with narrow (Typha latifolia and T. angustifolia, respectively).  I did not investigate which was present, or if both were there.

One of the wet areas in Rock Meadow that is home to Cattails

Steeple Bush, just upstream
of a wet meadow.
Steeple Bush (Spiraea tomentosa) is another native spirea.  Unlike the Meadowsweet I have growing at home, the flowers of Steeple Bush are held in tightly erect panicles.  Also I found it here, Steeple Bush prefers moister soils.

While not a true pre-Colombian native species, Queen Anne's Lace has become naturalized throughout North America.  Even without its flower petals, this plant still has a presence in the winter landscape.  

The bare bones of Queen Anne's Lace

The few remaining seeds on this Little Bluestem
still catch the  winter sunlight.

Little Bluestem is a widespread native grass.  It seems to look its best growing on really poor soils and is often seen growing along the highway.  In richer soils it gets tall and floppy.  In the fall and winter it can be picked out by its orangy appearance and the way that the fuzzy seeds catch the light.

One plant I almost passed right by was this Tower Mustard.  It just looked like some sticks poking out of the ground.  On closer examination I noticed the dimpled membranes that once held the seed in an alternating pattern.  I didn't know this plant at first, but I looked in my copy of  'Weeds in Winter' and it led me to the mustard family.  After that, I was able to locate the species by referring to my copy of Newcomb's.

The seed pods of Tower Mustard still show
the impressions of the seeds they held.
The opened seed pods of Evening Primrose
 look like dried flowers.

Evening Primrose is a plant that is easy to recognize in its dried form.  When I walked by I realized that I knew this plant, I just could not remember its name.  The stiff, four-parted seed capsules on the tall, upright stems are unique and hard to forget.  I quickly flipped through the field guide until I found a drawing that matched this plant dead on.

I'm pretty sure this is Sweet Everlasting.
Had I used my nose as well as my eyes I would no for sure.
After returning to the path I looked down and saw another familiar plant.  There was a single stem of what I believe was Sweet Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtussifolium).  However, it could also have been Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) which also has woolly stems and leaves and persistent papery bracts.  Crushing a flower would have told me which, Sweet Everlasting has a sweet, tobaccoy scent, while Pearly Everlasting has no smell.  Also, the bracts of Sweet Everlasting have a dingy tone, while those of Pearly Everlasting are reported to stay white (forever?).

As I moved into a shadier area, a large patch of Raspberry vines became evident.  These stood out as a purple mass of branches against an otherwise dull brown background.  Closer examination showed the little red thorns on the purple branches.  A couple of years ago I attempted to ID some raspberries but was quickly overwhelmed by the possibilities.  Right now I will just appreciate their contrast to the shades of brown.

Raspberries of some sort; the thorns are too small to be Blackberry

When I first saw these berries I thought this might be an Arailia of some sort.
A little research indicated that this was actually Carrion-Flower.
Carrion-flower was a surprise find as I was heading back to the parking lot.  Most of the members of the genus Smilax are rather unpleasant to deal with, like Catbriar (Smilax rotundifolia), with its tangle of thorny branches.  Carrion-flower, S. herbacea, on the other hand, has few, if any, thorns and only grows to about 8' in length.  As its common name indicates, the flowers have an unpleasant scent.

While Rock Meadow has been cleaned up of many of its  invasive species, some still remain.  In the winter months Winged Euonymus is easily recognized by the little wing-like projections along its stems.  Another common invasive is Black Swallowwort.  It can be recognized by the remains of its seed pod that looks like a dried leaf.  This vine is very hard to eradicate since it will resprout from small fragments of roots left behind after pulling or digging.

The arrow in the photo points to some of the wings
on this Winged Euonymus.
The old seed pods on this Black Swallowwort looks kind of like those of Milkweed.  In fact these are both members of the Asclepiadaceae family.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Winter Weeds, Pt 2

Continuing from last week's post, here are 10 more native wildflowers that, though dried out, are still standing in the middle of winter.

Fertile fronds of the Sensitive Fern
The first is the fruiting stalks of the Sensitive Fern.  While the fronds of this fern are among the first to die back in the fall, these stalks are quite persistent through the winter.

The next image is of Shrubby Cinquifoil.  While not a wildflower per se, it does have a similar appearance in the winter.  Left to their own these small shrubs can form a tangled mass of branches.  Annual removal of about 1/3 of the older branches gives a good balance of flowers, neatness and size.
These dried flowers of Shrubby Cinquifoil
stand above a mass of branches.
The Orange Coneflowers and Black-eyed Susans are classics in the winter landscape.  The Orange Coneflower has spiky, black to dark-brown seed heads.  These look really nice sticking out of the snow, and the seeds provide food for overwintering birds.
Orange Coneflower seed heads are nearly round,

Black-eyed Susan's seed heads are definitely cone-shaped
and are lighter in color than the Orange Coneflower.
Next I have the annual/biennial Black-eyed Susan.  During bloom season the flowers look very similar to the Coneflower, but this species has a laxer habit.  In winter you can see that the light colored seed head is very different.

Wild Petunia after a rare snowfall (this year).

My Wild Petunia is usually crushed under the snow in the winter.  But this year it is still upright.  The dried stems have a silvery cast that is enhanced by the long fine hairs that cover this plant. 

This Blue-stemmed Goldenrod
still has its narrow leaved attached.

Many of the Goldenrods (Solidago ssp.) persist well into winter.  I've captured three species here.  The first is the Blue-stemmed Goldenrod.  This species has flower clusters in the leaf axils all along the stem.  Zig-zag Goldenrod (S. flexicaulis) is another species that also has flowers originating from the leaf axils.  
The second goldenrod I'm showing here is the Seaside Goldenrod.  It has flowers in long terminal sprays.  
The third species is Showy Goldenrod.  This one grow tall and upright with flowers in a terminal plume.  It blooms early in the season, but stays upright through most of the winter.

Seaside Goldenrod blooms later in the season
 and tends to hold its fuzzy white seeds later, as well.

Showy Goldenrod has a strong presence even though
 the flowers are long gone.
Another species that I wanted to show is Stiff Goldenrod (S. rigida), but this early blooming species does not hold up well into the winter.  My plants tend to disappear around the middle of December.

Meadowsweet is lanky spreading shrub that may be difficult to use in a formal landscape.  But it grows under many difficult conditions, blooms all summer and is very attractive to native bees, so I am using it around my house and trying to learn how to tame it.  It also has a nice presence through the winter.
Meadowsweet flowers remain intact all winter.
Swamp Verbena is free-seeding native perennial.  It started in the flower bed and is now growing out of the driveway.  The flowers, borne on little spikes, are rather small considering the overall size of this plant, but I have found that they can be cut back by nearly 1/2 in June and be of a more appropriate size for the garden.
The afternoon sun caught on these Swamp Verbena flower spikes
inspired me to take a closer look at the other plants in my yard this winter.

Now that I've checked out the plants around my house, I'll need to make a trip out to some 'wilder' places to see what's happening.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Winter Weeds, Part 1

On nice winter days it is fun and interesting to take a walk through some of the wilder areas to see what plants are still standing.  An excellent guide book for this is Weeds in Winter by Lauren Brown.   This book has all kinds of useful information for winter plant ID in New England.  There’s a glossary of terms, a dichotomous key for plants described in the book and some really great illustrations of the winter appearance of these plants.  

Since this winter has been so mild in southern New England, I was able to find many of these plants right around my house.  These normally would have been crushed under piles of snow.  In fact, I found so many of them I need to split this post into two parts.  Most of these photos were taken at the end of January this year.  Here is the first of two installments of photos of my winter weeds.  

This Prairie Aster retains its strong
stems through the winter
These photos are roughly in alphabetical order.  I had already decided on the order when I remembered the name changes for the asters, so Symphyotrichum is coming first.
Aster can be difficult to ID in the winter.
Fortunately, I remembered which is which in this case.
Many of these native asters have long lasting stems.  For example, the 'bush' on the far right in the topmost photo is a Prairie Aster.

The Bigleaf Aster still has some of its seeds.
When I came across this old stem of the American Bellflower I was not sure what I was looking at.  After I few minutes I remember what had been growing in that location and narrowed it down to this species.  One advantage of using the plants around the house is that ID is a lot easier than when working in the field.
American Bellflower has distinctive seed capsules.

Sweet Pepper Bush looks like a tangle of branches in winter.  Closer examination of the older branches shows that it has exfoliating bark.  It is more easily identified by its flower spikes that stay on through the winter.
The long styles of the pistil are retained
on these dried Sweet Pepper Bush flowers.

I usually don't see the Pink Tickseed in winter.  It's growing out of the driveway and is usually covered with snow.  On close examination you can see the narrow little leaves have already started coming up.
Pink Tickseed is only 6-8" tall.

The new buds on this Sweetfern are beginning to swell.
The hairs on the stem really show up in the afternoon light.

The low angle of the sun really enhances the appearance of the stems and spent flowers of these plants.  This is particularly true for the taller plants like these River Oats.

The seeds of the River Oats are shed
slowly over the coarse of the winter.

Purple Coneflower is one of the easier plants to identify.  The old flowers retain their cone-shape even thought the seeds are long gone, either eaten by birds or scattered in the wind.
Seeds of the Purple Coneflower are all gone now

Even though it's dried up American Pennyroyal
still has its minty scent.
The last plant in this post is the American Pennyroyal.  This low growing annual is usually buried under snow there is nothing left of it when the snow melts.  The dried calyxes are arranged in whorls around the stem.  These are much easier to see now that all the leaves are gone.

Well pregame is nearly over, so it's time to close down the computer and start watching the Super Bowl.

Go Pats!!!!