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:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Two-tone spiraea

I'm sorry. Have I been missing something here? I thought someone was being inventive by doing a mixed planting of white-flowered spiraea and magenta-flowered spiraea. But then I realized (or am I crazy) that they are on the same plant, and sometimes in the same flowerhead. So, how long has this been going on . . . ? 

Looks like Spiraea japonica to me. On Miller, corner Seventh.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Yet another last jack of the season

I stumbled upon this Arisaema ("jack-in-the-pulpit") while weeding perennial beds this afternoon. Unless I'm mistaken, it was 10 years ago that I grew it from seed and let is loose in the garden with a little pat on its behind, 'Good luck, son.'  It's Arisaema flavum, hardly the showiest of the bunch, despite that the top of the inflorescence is yellow. One source tells me it's from China and Yemen, but a search in the infallible Wikipedia tells me it is endemic to Ethiopia where it is eaten during times of famine: "It is preferred to other species of Arisaema due to its relatively acceptable taste, can be prepared within a short time, and is less perishable. But all varieties must be crushed and dried prior to further preparation. The dried parts are then ground to powder, which is mixed with water and cooked like maize for approximately 30 minutes."

I'll never look at this diminutive species the same.  

Friday, June 24, 2011

A very beautiful catalpa on a historic property

It's so hard to photograph a "tree." And it's particularly hard if you don't have all that Ansel Adams gear and lens filters and whatnot, but just a little pocket digital thing.

Here's an enormous, glorious, recklessly-flowering catalpa on Geddes Heights, the street that borders Nichols Arboretum to the west. In fact this tree is on the property of the old Nichols house.

I'm told it's perfectly legal to saunter down this street, despite the intimidating nature of the homes and the trees themselves. A door or two to the south of the Nichols house is a walnut tree of such size to make your jaw drop. Take a hike and see what else you can find.

Your mother was a hamster and your father smells of elderberries

And what do elderberries smell like? To know that, you first have to learn to identify them, and now is a good a time as any.

Elderberries growing near Cavanaugh Lake
Our local elderberry species (Sambucus canadensis) thrives best in full sunlight in moist conditions. Where I took today's photo, I could hear the calls of a common yellow-throat, a yellow warbler and red-winged blackbirds. Elderberry will also show up along the edges of woodlands and roadways.

Common yellowthroat (photo stolen from internet)
And what about elderberry pancakes?  I've never made them, but I have on more than one occasion stuffed my face with a mouthful of ripe elderberries. On a scale of 1 to 10 (extremely pleasant to decidedly unpleasant) I give it a solid 5; but it is one of those things you just have to do if want to know this plant.

(And that's my general feeling about getting to know plants -- sassafras wouldn't be half as dear if I had never chewed on its twig; a fall doesn't pass without my experiencing the lemony drool you get when you chew on a couple of ripe fruit of the "tooth-ache tree" (Zanthoxylum americanum); and this past month I almost (almost!) got my son to volunteer to submit to the glass-sliver-like pain-in-the-tongue you get when you bite into a jack-in-the-pulpit tuber.)

But . . back to elderberries -- they have pinnately-compound leaves that are arranged in pairs along the twigs (the only other local woody with meets that description is ash). The twigs are soft and easy to collapse, in no way akin to those of  a proper tree.

Black elderberry, in actual living color
An elderberry you would be more likely to encounter at a commercial garden center is the European black elderberry (Sambucus nigra).  I've seen many miserable-looking specimens in peoples' yards, and the one I planted in my garden lasted about 48 hours. It's grown best by people who don't know what they are doing. I speculate that constant moisture and a mucky soil are key.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Chestnuts in Ann Arbor

Most people are unfamiliar with chestnut trees. It's a sad, sad story. There was once an extensive  ecosystem in the eastern United States known as the chestnut-oak forest. And then a disease came over from 'Eurasia' and wiped out the chestnuts, and it did such a thorough job that basically all that remains are occasional stump sprouts. Unlike with the case of elms, the sprouts never grow large enough to produce viable seed so there is no chance that our native chestnut will out-evolve the fungal pathogen.

But the chinese chestnut (Castanea mollisima) survived just fine, thank you very much, and you'll sometimes see it planted locally as an ornamental. The one in the photograph is across Fourth Ave from the Farmers Market. When the flowers fully open, as I expect they will next week, the 'fragrance' is quite strong. I think I like it. It must have been an overpowering experience in the forests prior to the blight. And have you ever tried to handle the uber-spiny shell of a chestnut fruit? Yikes!! Did the indigenous 'Americans' really run around barefoot? Double yikes!! Things was sure different back then.

Don't confuse true chestnuts with the horse-chestnut, which is a close relative of the buckeye. No relation except for spiny husk. True chestnuts have a simple leaf resembling that of a beech, but considerably bigger.

And DO go back to that first month of my posts for a walking tour of the trees around Kerrytown and the Farmers' Market. Chestnut included.

New herbicide for lawns seems to kill more than weeds

Two spruces in Saline
Conifers scattered throughout Saline, Plymouth, the U-M campus, and perhaps much of the U.S. have taken a hit from a new herbicide released by DuPont called Imprelis. The selling point of this new weed-killer was that it was wouldn't harm trees. The problem is that it harms trees, particularly norway spruce and white pine. It has also resulted in conspicuous yellow streaks in lawns (so I guess it harms grass also). 

So what  happened? Obviously the company didn't intend to release a product that would kill non-target plants. Probably they wagered that the precipitation would be within a certain range, but the heavens went overboard, leading to the quick and deleterious uptake of the product by woody ornamentals. Obviously the recommended dosages were too high. But scaling back on the dosage would have meant that customers wouldn't have to buy so much product. Hmm. Ultimately one must wonder who is going to pay for the damage. Some individuals are claiming that damage to woody plants on the University campus is not restricted to conifers.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The last jack of the spring (for me, at least)

There are a fair number of jack-in-the-pulpit species from the Himalayas, so perhaps some are still skulking underground in someone's Ann Arbor garden, but for me this is the final one to make its appearance in the spring.

It is Arisaema candidissimum. It's very easy, and it spreads around freely without being in any way obnoxious. For me it doesn't matter where I plant them, the flowers always face away from any path or patio near which I have placed them. Yes, I'm trying to funny ha ha. It actually seems to be entirely random -- a clump of five flowers will face in five different directions. The foliage doesn't hang around for very long before it turns yellow and returns to the earth.

Before I drop the subject of these cobra-lilies (as the they are known elsewhere), I'll mention that I once grew A. speciosa. A peripatetic friend of mine told me that in India large quantities of tubers of this species were sold at markets for pig slop, and he managed to bring some back into the U.S.  It was superb in my garden for a couple years and then it disappeared, presumably for lack of hardiness. The variety sold by Heronswood is listed as being hardy in  zone 5. Could be. I recommend it, but give it a nice bed of mulch before winter.

Another ash tree update

I saw this h-u-g-e white ash outside Detroit yesterday. It's very unlikely it has been getting treated -- no evidence of trunk injections, and it's too big for other methods to be practical. So . . another promising sign of ash's eventual return?

The emerald ash borer is not gone, unfortunately -- it is thriving in areas where the pickings are better. Michigan Extension reports that ashes in southwest Michigan are taking a hit this year. But I've been keeping a close eye out for flying borer adults in our area, and I haven't see a one. Ash regeneration in parks and along roadsides is impressive.

I should add: ash trees will return (as will elms). The issue is whether this will happen in a geological or evolutionary time-frame, or whether this will happen in a time-frame more relevant to humans.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Lion's head japanese maple

A friend introduced me to this fabulous maple cultivar: Acer palmatum 'Shishigashira' Lion's Head maple. With tightly crinkled leaves of a deep rich color, this plant has motivated people who probably have better things to do to post adoring layouts of photos of it on the internet. Apparently the fall colors are to die for. I look forward to revisit it at that time (but without the dying part). 
My friend bought her plant at Gee Farms in Stockbridge (e-mail me for directions or search them on the internet). I don't know if they have other specimens of this cultivar available, but their overall selection of plant materials is near infinite.

Carolina allspice and its Chinese cousin

Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) is not a common ornamental, but it's a kick when you run into it. Here's the deal, though: smell before you buy. A good selection in flower will fill the air with a fruity strawberry-banana fragrance; other selections will have no discernible fragrance at all. Still, the woody-looking flower is pretty neat, once considered by botanists to represent a primitive condition (but the consensus on that might have changed). Michael Dirr is especially fond of this shrub: "Worthwhile plant for every garden. . . a trouble tree plant that can be meshed into any garden setting," he says. This photographed specimen is at the corner of Hill and E. University, which happens also to be one of the best locations in town for katsura trees.

A relative of Calycanthus that you are unlikely to casually stumble upon is this one from China: Sinocalycanthus chinensis known as Chinese sweetshrub. It's a clunky and coarse looking thing with a flower that looks like a fried egg. IMHO, it looks better in pictures than in real life. I had to swat a million mosquitoes to take this picture in my garden before I set off to work. Every time this shrub gets greedy for space, I cut it right back to the ground, and it keeps coming back for more.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Housekeeping and odd bits

In my post regarding slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) at Wurster Park, I mentioned that a quick way to identify the species is by the insect damage on the leaves. Here's a shot from Longshore Park showing damage by the elm leaf miner. Note also the attenuate tip of the leaf blade (with its cute little twist) -- I don't know if this is characteristic of the species universally, but it works around here. Of course a more honest way to differentiate the species from American elm is by the seed, but that's only available for a short while in the spring.

In my post about buckeyes and horse-chestnuts, I didn't mention the wonderful Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra), mostly because I had just missed the opportunity to photograph it in flower. According to, this species is native to Washtenaw County. If so, just barely. However, there are places in Ann Arbor where people have long grown the tree, and this is one that the squirrels readily help to propagate. I'm thinking mostly of Geddes east of Dixboro, but no doubt there are other buckeye communities. I've found it along the Huron near Mast Rd, and along 94 west of Dexter. The photograph is of a specimen by an old farmhouse in Dexter Township.

For fun I include a picture (from my garden) of a scrambling species of soloman-seal (Polygonatum sp) from China. The tips of the leaves will latch onto nearby plants for support.

The two mystery plants I posted pictures of on May 29 have been identified by Tony Reznicek of the U-M Herbarium: Symphytum grandiflorum and Diphylleia cymosa. The former is a great weed-smothering ground cover that works in dry shade. The later is a mayapple relative from the Blue Ridge Mountains and environs.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

One strange maple tree

I saw this unusual maple tree today when checking out the annual garden tour organized by the Ann Arbor chapter of the Women's National Farm and Garden Club. A thing of beauty? I report, you decide. If I recall correctly, the label said 'Alaskan Sunset.' I can't tell what species it is.  Speaking of maples, have any of you readers ever grown the western vine maple (Acer circinatum). I bought one a couple year ago at the Farmers Market in Dexter but it doesn't like my dry soil. Perhaps you would like to take it from me and give it a better home?

I also recently ran into an exceptionally beautiful and perfectly-placed paper-bark maple (Acer griseum) at someone's home off Wagner Rd near Miller. Behind it in the photo, off to the right, is a tri-color beech.

Nothing much to report otherwise. The mosquitoes around my house hardly allow me time to get to my truck much less observe what's flowering and what's expiring. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Giant oaks, giant ragweed, and four other reasons to visit Wurster Park

1) Quercus muelenbergii: Wurster Park in Ann Arbor is best known (among people with a somewhat single-minded focus like me) for having the largest chinkapin oak in Michigan. It's in the southwest part of the park, and you can't miss it. Signs near the tree inform you that the area is being restored to native vegetation and politely ask you to keep your distance.

2) Nyssa sylvatica: North of the iconic chinkapin oak is a tupelo (blackgum) planted in the grassy area next to the path that leads into the woods.

3) Tilia americana: Take the path into the woods and the dominant tree is our native basswood which forms a delightful canopy of heart-shaped leaves. Other woody plants include additional chinkapin oaks and our two most common species of hickory.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Hot weather and cool gingers

It's been so hot and I've been so busy this past week that plants have come into flower, fruited and returned to the earth without my notice in just the last five days. The flowers of nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) came and went.  Cranberry-bush viburnum (V. trilobum/opulis) is now finishing up. The flowers of my southern blackhaw (V. rufidulum) are still in good form. Hey, speaking of looking good, have you ever witnessed such a wonderful full-monty display from black locust? I was hating that tree; now I have to give it a bit of credit.

Anyway, forget about those flowers for a second. I want use this post to show off my wild gingers, all of which I feel great affection for.

Here be Hexastylis naniflora, a native to North and South Carolina. Nice shiny mottled leaves that presumably remain evergreen down south. Not here. I've had it for years and this little patch is about the same size as when I got it. Other little patches went to ginger heaven.

I think this species from California is exceptionally pretty. It is -- let me look it up, ah yes, Asarum hartwegii. Apparently it has never crossed the border into Oregon, and it's a little bit of a mystery to me why it seems so content in my Michigan garden.

This gentle and soft-spoken species is from the Pacific Northwest: Asarum caudatum. I love the puckered leaf texture. It makes a nice spreading ground cover.

Over a period of many years Hexastylis arifolia has maybe doubled in size.  This species from the southeastern US is called colloquially 'little brown jugs' because the flowers look like 'little brown jugs.' I don't think I have a good form. Many pictures on the internet show it with more pronounced mottling.

To be fair, I'm including a picture of the glossy Asarum europaeum, which seeds around lightly and can be used to fill odd spaces. For some reason I find it offensive and rank it just below Norway maple.

After two half-hearted tries I failed to take a decent photo of our own Asarum canadense. I like it fine, but it requires some effort to keep it contained. I'm always yanking it out to keep it away from its less-vigorous neighbors.  In my garden I also have Hexastylis speciosa, which Fred Case collected in Alabama and brought back up north. It needs steady moisture which is something I am unable to guarantee to any plant. You can have mine if you would like.

One of the nicest species available for Michigan gardens is the Asian Asarum splendens with very large, very nicely mottled leaves. Is it fully hardy? I know people who claim to have success with it, but it wouldn't surprise me if it all got wiped out one winter. 

About the taxonomy: it's in flux. One treatment took ten North American species out of the genus Asarum and put them into the new Hexastylis. Until the dust settles, you can use either name . . . and if you say it with authority, everyone else will follow.