This site is for people who like plants -- growers, enthusiasts, aesthetes, novices and professionals, those who appreciate wild things and those who appreciate the cultivated. I garden in Chelsea, and I've been visiting people's yards for 20+ years in the course of my work. My goal is to make this blog a community project, so if you share my interests, please consider becoming a participant and contributing content -- Guerin. Info:

Friday, October 22, 2010

Kerrytown Tree Walk

        Later summer and early fall is a great time to visit Ann Arbor's Farmers Market. It coincidentally happens to be the best time of year to educate yourself on those wonderful tall woody perennials we call trees. Following is a tour of 18 interesting common and not-so-common trees that can be accessed by strolling within a couple block radius of Kerrytown. Combine your Farmers Market shopping with the scenic walk below, and you can be guaranteed of a perfectly pleasant Saturday morning.
        Our tour begins on Fourth Ave, on the downtown side of Braun Ct, behind the Aut Bar. Ah, no tree could be considered more characteristic of the concrete urban environment that the tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima). Often given a bad rap and shunned by the cognoscenti, this is the tree that grown in Brooklyn and back alleys throughout the nation. This parking lot is perfect place for it -- the tree provides nice tall shade, softens and greens-up a harsh environment, and demands nothing in terms of soil, moisture or even growing space. Not recommended for around the house since there are many superior trees, and if you ever cut it down, your lot will quickly transform into an impenetrable thicket of ailanthus root sprouts.
        Head north away from downtown and enter the north end of the parking lot just before 409 N Fourth. To the rear of this address is a true chestnut tree (Castanea, not to be confused with more common horse-chestnut). One can safely assume this is not the American species that was wiped out by a fungal blight introduced a century ago. Chestnut fruit are relished by squirrels and humans, but the spiny husks are painful to handle. Most people find the heavy odor of the flowers to be disagreeable. I relish it. Maybe I'm sentimental. Note the distinct large, unlobed and coarsely-toothed leaf.
        Back to Fourth Ave. At the same address is a curious tall shrub with juniper-like leaves called a tamarisk (Tamarix sp.). Often grown in a container, this Eurasian native is perfectly very cold-hardy. The attractive rosy-pink flowers are proof that you're not looking at a conifer. Unlike a juniper, it makes a ratty brown mess in the winter. MSU's Hidden Lake Gardens in Tipton in the Irish Hills has a 25' tall specimen. 
        On the sidewalk extension of this same address is a smoke-bush, Cotinus coggygria. What a wonderful and bizarre cloud of muted color this plant morphs into when the abundant long silky hairs sprout from the inflorescence. The bluish tinge of the leaves (even more striking on select cultivars) is another plus, as is this plant's willingness to be trimmed back ruthlessly.
        Having sufficiently alarmed this homeowner, we can continue north to the s.e. corner of Kingsley to view the European hornbeam, Carpinus betulus. It's very unusual to find the native hornbeam in cultivation, but this European species is used widely (at least in Europe) for hedges and screens since it takes well to pruning. A particularly superb grouping surrounds the parking lot of Downtown Home and Garden on First Ave. Most plants that you see in cultivation are cultivars selected for a particular upright form, as is the case with this specimen.
        Continuing north to Beakes, you might note in passing the trees-of-heaven on the s.e. corner. Cross the street and meander to the left (south-west) until you come to a little greenspace to the right of 117 Beakes. Closest to the street is a mature sophora (Sophora japonica). This member of the legume family sports compound locust-like leaves on green twigs, and a multitude of lovely cream-colored flowers in the latter part of the summer. The City of Ann Arbor has successfully established a number of plantings of this tree along city streets. A great tree from Japan and Korea.
        The mature tree back inside the green zone is a yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea), another member of the legume family, this one native to the eastern U.S. This fine tree produces an abundance of white flowers on pendulous stems in late spring. There's a grand specimen on the s.w. corner of Hill and Washtenaw, and it's a riot to watch the spent flowers rain down on the heads of persons waiting at the bus stop. Yellowwood is thriving and naturalizing in Nichols Arboretum, but doesn't always adapt well to harsh urban conditions. Note the compound leaves with the leaflets arranged in an unusual alternating pattern along the leaf-stem.
        You might also note the small pea-shrub, Caragana (yet another legume!), growing in center of this little mini park. This is a little-used and quite adaptable plant with pretty yellow flowers. I prefer this natural form to the weeping ones which are more common in cultivation. Expect to find one of these along the lane leading to a McDonald's drive-though window.
        Heading towards N Main, there is an American basswood (Tilia americana) across from 117 Beakes. This is a wonderful tree for our woodlands, but prolematic in the landscape because of its coarseness and its tendency to hollow out and collapse. Next to it is a large volunteer white mulberry (Morus alba) showing its typical messy habit.
        Turn right on N Main and walk to 510 N Main. In the small front yard are two attractive river birches (Betula nigra). Improved cultivars with exaggerated bark effect make this a good landscape choice, but as you can see here, it can outgrow its allotted space quite quickly. A sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) with a particularly interesting leaf shape is planted between the sidewalk and the street. If you are wondering if you'll see a healthy ash tree again, enter the parking lot to the right of this address and check out the white ash (Fraxinus americana) at the side of the house.
        Further down Main Street at 526 is a pretty goldenraintree (Koelreutaria paniculata). The compound leaves have an interesting shape, and the tree offers a splash of bright yellow flowering in mid-summer. Very often you'll find volunteer seedlings nearby, and they are easy to transplant.The bladder-like fruit are attractive at first, but turn a dingy brown by fall.
        Before turning back towards downtown, you should cross Main St and note the monstrous bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) at the s.w. corner of Felch. That such a monstrous tree can survive with so little permeable soil around it is astonishing.
        Of course feel free to return to Kerrytown at any time, but there are a few more interesting trees to view within a two block range. If you turn back south towards downtown, you can view a marvelous paperbark maple (Acer griseum) at 405 N Main. This is one of several smallish tri-foliate maples that make outstanding landscape specimens.
        Lining North Main in the next block to the south is a very handsome basswood which sports leaves which are distinctly silver on the undersides. This is the white basswood or beetree linden, and it is a southern variation on the basswood that is common in Michigan woodlands. These specimens are doing surprisingly well as street-side trees.
        If you march one block over to N. Ashley, you can find a very healthy and lush shingle oak (Quercus imbricaria) at 209. You might not recognize it as an oak due to its unlobed laurel-shaped leaves, but it is native to Ann Arbor where it is typically found not far from the Huron River.
        Heading back to the north, you'll find a Amur corktree (Phellodendron amurense) in its typical form across from 407 N Ashley. Note the corky bark that gives it its name, and the interesting candelabra branching. This tree is a bit of an invasive in parts of the eastern US, and does seed in lightly in Ann Arbor's natural areas.
        From this point you should have no problem finding your way back to the Farmers Market where this reporter recommends you sample the refreshing tamarind drink at Pilars Tamales booth.


  1. thanks for botanizing my neighborhood, Guerin! the curiosities you note at 409 N. Fourth and in the "little greenspace" on Beakes are both the work of the late Ben Burkhart, who had his Linotype shop behind 409 for 70 years and owned the parking lot to which the greenspace connects (as well as a number of rental properties around town). The Kerrytown District Association gave his son, Ken, a posthumous award last year for his father's "bold and colorful landscaping."

  2. I remember Ben. Is his son the graphic artist who does the summerfest posters?