Along with spring bulbs and ephemerals, there are innumerable trees that capture our attention at this time of year as they break into flower. Dogwoods, shadbush, redbuds and magnolias define the early season in the garden and the landscape almost as much as daffodils, epimediums, and bloodroot. The above-mentioned perennials, bulbs, and trees all belong to a group of plants known as angiosperms, which, taken along with gymnosperms, account for all seed-producing plants. Angiosperms are most simply defined as flowering plants that produce fruits that contain their seeds; their gymnosperm counterparts (conifers, cycads and ginkgos) hold their seeds naked on the branch and do not flower as part of their seed production process.
By far, the majority of the plants that we cultivate are angiosperms, which means that they produce flowers, some of which are inconspicuous because they are pollinated by wind, and others that are showy because they are pollinated by insects and birds and need to attract their pollinators. Needless to say, this latter group, which includes magnolias, dogwoods, and redbuds with their beautiful flowers, are the plants we most often covet.
However, I came to the conclusion, on a recent series of trips that took me from Minneapolis to Boston, that these show stoppers have been eclipsing the beauty of other trees, and it is time to give their subdued relatives their due. A series of walks through Wellesley, Minneapolis, and my own garden left me with a newfound appreciation for a host of trees that flower much more quietly. Many of these are maples and elms that produce wind-pollinated flowers that have a subtle beauty of their own, more Audrey Hepburn than Marilyn Monroe, to cast it in show business terms. And it seems to me that it is time we recognize them for the magic that they bring to the spring landscape.
Along the Mississippi in late April, near the Federal Reserve in Minneapolis, I was taken by the flowers of a red maple that dangled from the trees like the delicate earrings of a bohemian actress, playful and light, casting about in the wind and adding their magic to the spring landscape as they glowed softly in the spring sun. Like the individual crystals of a chandelier, each had its own beauty, but it was the totality of their presence that really produced their entrancing effect. Somehow, they were at one with the majesty of the natural kingdom, not demanding one’s full attention, but adding to one’s appreciation of nature as a whole. They were like a good guest, as my mother would say, contributing to the conversation but not demanding all of the attention.
In Wellesley, the flowers of a sugar maple, chartreuse and glowing in a way that called to mind the spring shoots of rice in the Japanese landscape as the sun and wind cause the golden rice blades to shimmer, took a rainy day and made it vibrate with the energy of spring. Why, I asked myself, do we not consider these aspects of maples, beeches and elms as we select trees for our gardens? Their subtle beauty is as much a part of the majesty of nature as that of their showy cousins. I became determined to pay them more attention when I arrived home. Driving across the state, I took notice of the tops of trees, backlit as their flowers came into bloom, and was drawn into the glory of spring in a manner that was new to me. Perhaps it is because, for many years, I was induced into an uncomfortable coma by these wind-pollinated trees., as elms and maples need to produce incredible amounts of pollen in order to fertilize their flowers. Elms and maples, which cast their fate to the wind, must produce massive amounts of pollen to ensure that that their flowers are fertilized, and this output did not go unnoticed by my sinuses in the years before I was treated for my tree allergies. Now, thanks to series of injections by my much-appreciated allergist, I can see these flowers in a new light and through clear eyes.
When I arrived back from my sojourns and noticed the beauty of the flowers of my weeping camperdown elm, a pair of sugar maples, and an old American elm at the back of my property that seems to have a natural resistance to Dutch elm disease, I realized why we leave home from time to time: to find the beauty that already resides alongside us. And to learn how to look beyond the magnolias that keep demanding our attention and to take notice of what the other guests in the garden are wearing.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.