The Self-Taught Gardener: Barking up the right tree

How does an impatient gardener evolve into a patient observer of the world around him. Lee Buttala, our Self-Taught Gardener, explains.

I was certainly excited to see signs of an early spring as I walked about Ashley Falls this afternoon. The yellow flowers of the witch hazels in front of the old Casdin residence seemed to take on even more brilliance when set against the blue sky, while the changing position of the sun on the horizon foreshadowed the lengthening days to come. But these spidery witch hazel blossoms, along with the green and white flowers of snowdrops and the emerging foliage of scilla, were not my primary focus as I came around the bend in Rannapo Road.

River birches shed their bark in large colorful sheets as the trees mature.

My dog Fred, who passed away recently, normally set the pace for our walks, stopping at almost every tree to smell its trunk as he tried to determine who else had visited there before him. But without Fred, I found myself moving more quickly through the landscape, even though temperatures had finally risen to a point where walking quickly was not necessary in order to stay warm. I always wish that I had the walking habits of the English, who see walking as more of an avocation and spend their time at it observing the world around them and putting it into context. On this note, I am distinctly American — set more on the end goal of walking five miles than on the pleasures of the journey itself. I had things to get done at home and was more focused on my to-do list than on the plants and sites I was passing by.

But, perhaps because I am determined to learn to take in the world as a way of honoring Fred, or perhaps because I am experiencing a bout of Anglophilia having watched the latest season of The Queen (I mean, if she can find time to take in the natural world, why can’t I?), I slowed down and started to look about. And while I was taken by the snowdrops and the witch hazel, I was also drawn to the more permanent architecture of the landscape. The grey-brown bark of an ancient shagbark hickory  (see photo above) had the texture of an impressionist painting; its stately glory stopped me in my tracks. Seeing this tree was like coming across the remnants of a Roman temple shedding some of its marble covering and strewing it about the ground beneath it. The tree seemed eternal, and made me aware of my growing reverence for the world around me.

The Seven Son’s Flower has beautiful exfoliating bark that warrants attention all season long, but particularly in the winter, when its leaves and flowers have been shed to expose its naked glory.

Of course, bark serves many purposes, from protecting the cambium tissue that lies underneath from predators and insects to, in the case of the Scots pine, providing a flame-retardant outer shell to protect the trees from forest fires. I do not know if the beauty of this bark stems from its purpose and function, or if it is the product of some divinely determined aesthetic, but I am determined to learn more, or at least appreciate it more consciously.

Oaks have bark with furrows and ridges that allow the tree to expand without shedding its bark, while beeches have a smooth skin that can expand as the tree puts on girth (not unlike me at this point in the season.)  Others, such as the kousa dogwood, exfoliate as they grow, revealing patterns in the bark that remind me of army camouflage. Did this patterning evolve to help trees blend into their surroundings, or does it simply reflect the process of layers changing color as they age and getting replaced by a new layer from underneath? Whatever the reason, it has shown us a way to protect soldiers from invading forces.

The kousa dogwood has beautiful bark that transforms a multi-stemmed tree into a winter sculpture.

Some bark serves human purposes more directly, like the bark of the cork tree and the peeling bark of birches. The exfoliating outer layer of birches contain oils that ward off disease and insects, and also make the bark water resistant, a quality put to use by indigenous peoples and present-day craftsman to create watertight canoes. (These same oils give birch firewood its ability to burn hard and fast, which is great for those of us who did not earn our fire-starting badges as scouts.) The bark of some trees is capable of photosynthesis (note its greenish cast); some barks provide an acidic habitat for various lichens and mosses that complete a balanced ecosystem; still others provide habitat for insects that in turn feed woodpeckers and other birds.

Trees with high acidity levels in their bark, like this cherry, promote the growth of lichens and mosses, and ultimately develop a symbiotic relationship with these important and beautiful fungi.

As I headed home I recalled Fred stopping to examine trees on our walks, often with an impatient gardener at his side, and wondered if he was simply trying to determine who had visited the tree earlier or if he was really trying to make me slow down and take in a little bit more of nature’s magic. God save the Queen, Fred and this newly converted observer!

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.

3 thoughts on “The Self-Taught Gardener: Barking up the right tree

  • I just love this essay, rich and evocative with its observations of the life of nature, much like the writings of John Burroughs of long ago. Doesn’t mean I don’t miss Fred, though.

  • Beautiful piece, Lee. Here’s to more nature-time and more observing! And sorry to hear about Fred.

  • Beautiful piece, Lee. Here’s to more nature-time and more observing! And sorry to hear about Fred.

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