Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Cornus mas (Cornelian Cherry)

I had never noticed a specimen of Cornus mas, the Cornelian cherry, until this year. (Photo 4/24/07, taken in front of the Williamstown Library.) While it is a dogwood, it bears some resemblance to the much more popular Forsythia x intermedia (large bush, yellow flowers, early spring), but it has several differences, some at least to the advantage of the Cornus:

1) Cornus is usually at least a couple weeks earlier to bloom, when the landscape is still in winter bleakness. This year, however, our one-week transition from snow on the ground to 85 degree sun meant Cornus mas was only a few days earlier than Forsythia, which is just starting to bloom in significant measure as of today (4/25/07, likely peaking within the week).

2) It has a mounding or tree-like form, whereas the Forsythia grows with numerous separate canes. While aesthetic opinions of form will vary, I find the more tree-like form more noble in appearance, and its form is part of the reason that the Cornus needs much less pruning than the Forsythia. Forsythias can be “gracefully arching,” but are large and can also get rather sloppy, tempting owners to top or shear them. (Better for the Forsythia’s health and floriferousness to cut out older canes to the ground each spring.) Cornus mas is a bit bigger than Forsythia, at the largest attaining about 20’x15’, while Forsythias attain about 10’x10’.

3) It is as least as hardy as the Forsythias, many cultivars of which, while being “hardy” in zone 5, will lose flower buds unless they were covered with snow during the winter’s coldest snaps.

4) Cornus mas has “cherry” fruits (½”-long plum-shaped, red). These are not showy as they are hidden among midsummer foliage, but are reportedly very tasty for jelly, or they can be left to feed the birds.

5) Both plants are very flexible as to soil type, and grow well in full sun or light shade. But either will have fewer flowers in shade. (Note that there is another Cornus mas across the street from the library, in a shaded area in the rotary oval, which has about half as many flowers.)

6) Both plants bloom before any significant leaf production. But the Cornus has an airier, more see-through appearance, and would benefit more from a dark background, such as a forest or evergreens, perhaps most ideally a yew hedge. Forsythias also so benefit, but with their generally bolder colors and denser canes, probably need it less.

I have both Cornus mas and Forsythia (cultivar undecided) on my list of plants to obtain for my slowly growing shrubbery. Can anyone in the Berkshires, or in the broader inland Northeast, report on successes or failures, or notable specimens of Cornus mas?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Eranthis hyemalis (Winter Aconite)

The winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) is a minor bulb, to be sure. It fills the same role as the similar-sized Crocus, or the snowdrop, the value of the little flower being largely due to its very early season, when almost nothing else is noticeably active. Eranthis is generally expected to bloom even earlier than most Crocuses, at the same time as the snowdrops (Galanthus, photos in earlier posts). But this year, in this location, the Eranthis bloomed at the same time as my Crocuses (4/21/07), a good 18 days later than the snowdrops (granted, the Eranthis may have just had more weather sense). These 3 blooms are the result of 5 bulbs I planted early last fall (9/24/06).

So why plant Eranthis instead of a yellow Crocus? Primarily because it is ideal for shadier (deciduous shade), more woodsy locations, with humusy soil that is moist in winter and early spring; while Crocus prefer sunnier, better-drained positions, such as in my sun-baked front lawn slope.

Of course, either bulb will tend to make a minor impact, unless it is present by the hundred. Eranthis, like some but not all Crocus varieties, is known for multiplying if it likes its location. My small planting is an experiment to discover if it likes mine. I may add to it this fall, but I am always prepared to wait for results that may be obtained cheaply (5 bulbs for $2).

I bought the bulbs at Ward’s Nursery down in Great Barrington, which is pretty far away, but had a far better selection of bulbs than any other place I visited last fall. (As far as I know, you can’t find Eranthis in the Northern Berkshires.) If you have a lightly wooded area, or a shrubbery, I recommend you give them a try. (They won’t do well under evergreens.) While Eranthis’ greenery disappears by midsummer, when shade and dryness makes their position inhospitable to most plants lower than their overtopping shrubs or trees, their presence in the spring is reputed to stifle most weeds.

I have never noticed these bulbs other than in a botanical or open-to-the-public garden. I suspect there is a “chicken and egg” problem here, given that they've never heard of them even in most places selling bulbs. Do you have experience with them, or questions?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

What Would You Do With This Shrub?

Here is a shrub, photo taken today (4/18/07), on a quiet residential street in the northern Berkshires. Can you identify its species? I can’t. However, I can tell a few things about what has been done to it culturally, and what I would do to it now if I owned it.

Shrub treatment, like most of horticulture, is an evolving science, an art, or even a matter of some controversy, rather than a science of certainties. What do you think? How has the shrub’s owner treated its soil, its woody structure? Which treatment appears to be better than average, which appears to be a mistake, and what changes would you recommend?

On Wednesday June 6, I will be teaching a two-hour course (6:30-8:30 pm) in MCLA’s Continuing Education program: “Garden Design: Making the Most of Your Shrubs.” The class aims first to help homeowners make the most of their landscape’s existing shrubs, on the grounds that, compared to ripping things out and starting over, rejuvenating what you’ve got is free or cheap, more environmentally sound, and quicker than growing or buying new plants. We will look especially at analyzing some locally common shrubs for problems and potential, and the purposes and methods of pruning, especially of woody plants which have never seen the knife. We will also consider choosing shrubs for a given site, or finding the best site for a given shrub that’s not so happy where it is.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Friday, April 06, 2007

Garden Event Tuesday


I see that the North Adams Public Library is hosting a free talk with garden editor and author Elizabeth Stell, on Tuesday evening (April 10, at 6:30).

The lecture is titled “Gardening Made Easy(ier)” – which as described sounds like it’s intended for garden burnouts (“Has your love of gardening fizzled out? Do you put off weeding because there’s just too much? … Come learn some garden tricks and time-savers. Liz Stell will help you create a strategy for how to get more fun and more flowers out of your yards and gardens.”) But we can all use easier ways to achieve our gardening goals, and such a topic can be used to cover just about anything in the garden. I’m always interested in books written with the input of local gardeners, and I think I’ll attend.

Ms. Stell is the author of Secrets to Great Soil (with our local Storey Publishing, 1998) and coauthor of Landscaping with Perennials (from the famously organic Rodale Press, 1995). She’s an organic gardener of food and flowers at her home in Lanesborough, has taught at Berkshire Botanical Garden, and managed the herb gardens at Hancock Shaker Village.

While doing the Amazon “Search Inside” on Secrets to Great Soil I found a neat experiment, which I think I can properly summarize as a fair use: Take a tablespoon of thoroughly dried soil. Add several drops of vinegar. If the soil fizzes, then pH is above 7.5 (alkaline). Take another tablespoon of dried soil and add water until it’s very moist. Add a pinch of baking soda. If the soil fizzes, then pH is below 5 (acid). (She does point out that you should get a more thorough test before working on your soil’s chemistry.)

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Spring Comes and Goes


With today's hail, sleet and slush I am reminded of Henry Mitchell's "On the Defiance of Gardeners." It is, of course, absurd to complain of ice storms in early April, in Massachusetts, unless it is actually a complaint about the decision to live here. And I like living here. Anyway, I don't feel particularly defiant, because I've got it easy. But these guys, these guys are defiant today, looking just as in this photo (from yesterday, 4/3/2007) except for the inch of frozen slush at their feet.