Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Native Plants: Early Spring Woodies (Part I)

Lindera benzoin (Spicebush)
Although I have an appreciation for all native plants, my favorites are definitely the woodies - trees, shrubs and vines. I'm not sure why that is; maybe it's akin to my preference for hardcover books as opposed to paperbacks - something about their hardiness and persistence, their presence for the long term, through even the worst of the season. The Spring woodies are some of my most beloved plants, probably because they're true harbingers of the new (gardening) year. They are also some of the most familiar of plants, even for the non-gardener.

One longtime favorite is Lindera benzoin, or Spicebush. Named for the bracing, spicy scent released by the plant's wood and roots when wounded, this is beautiful, vase-shaped shrub of some size that tolerates vernal pooling (spring flooding). Spicebush is covered with tiny yellow flowers early in the season, followed by glowing, patent-leather red berries in Fall, complementing lovely yellow late-season foliage. Like holly (Ilex spp.),  Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) and Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), Spicebush is "dioecious", meaning that male and female flowers on borne on separate plants and are noticeably different for the educated botanist. ("Monoecious" plants have male and female flowers on the same plant.) If you want to get fruit, therefore, you need to have both male and female plants. Unfortunately, unlike Ilex spp., most growers do not sex their Spicebush plants so it's difficult to tell, unless you shop in the Fall: if a plant has fruit on it, it is definitely female; if not, it may be male. Another plus is that Spicebush, along with Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a host plant for the beautiful Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly.

Amelanchier arborea (Downy Serviceberry)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) is just one name for a diverse group of plants, most of which are native to North America. (Two Amelanchier species are native to Asia; another to Europe.) At least one species is native to every U.S. State, with the exception of Hawaii, and the common names - Shadwood, Shadblow and Shadbush (blooming when the Shad run), Serviceberry or Sarvisberry (the service for the dead who passed during the winter could be held when the plant flowered, as the ground was no longer frozen) and Juneberry (the plant bears early in the season, in June typically) - reflect their diversity. Another four-season performer, Serviceberry flowers early in the season, followed by early fruit set, a critical food source for many native birds. Fall foliage is dramatic, in yellow-orange to burnt orange hues. The delicately-striated bark shows to best advantage in this erect shrub of small tree during the winter. The tree is an important host plant for numerous native insects, including Red-spotted Purple and White Admiral butterflies. The fruits are also edible - and often delectable - for humans; make sure to pick the very darkest, ripest, sweetest of the fruit - best a handful at a time!

Salix discolor (Pussy Willow)
Probably the best known and most beloved of our early season shrubs is the Pussy Willow (Salix discolor), a classic harbinger of Spring often included in traditional Easter celebrations and used for cut flowers. (A new plant can often be started by simply pushing a newly-cut twig into the ground so several nodes are below grade.) Like many members of the Salix family, Pussy Willow as adapted to wetland conditions but will thrive in drier circumstances as well. It is a sizable plant, up to about 20 feet, and can get a bit leggy. The plant is named for the the soft, silky, silver-gray catkins borne on the plant before it leafs out, so they show to very best advantage. Like Spicebush, Pussy Willow is dioecious, with male and female plants. The male flowers turn yellow with pollen before fading; the fruit (borne only on the female shrubs) consists of a small capsule with tiny seeds embedded in a cottony down. Fall color is nondescript, with the leaves dropping early in the season and breaking down quickly into the soil The shrub's form is not exceptional but it does add some decent bones to the garden during the off season.

And, as everyone knows, my garden would not be complete without a Pussy Willow, although my cats' toes are much softer!

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