Thursday, June 19, 2008


Native American fringetrees are little-known and neglected beauties. They're hard to find. Fringetrees are so few and far between in Plainfield that the poor, solitary things can't even reproduce. Female fringetrees produce a crop of beautiful blue berries in the fall, but to do that they need a male close enough to provide pollen. I have never seen a single berry on a Plainfield fringetree.

The trees produce a magnificent floral display, which has just finished in Plainfield. The fringetree pictured below is between 1745 and 1751 Watchung Avenue.

The native fringetree below, which was also pictured in my June 2 posting, is at 653 Ravine Road.

The Ravine Road fringetree used to be the focus of an annual spring celebration complete with poetry recitations until it broke off at the ground about ten years ago. Its owners, Jean Mattson and the late Norman (Moose) Mattson, brought it back from a hollow stump by cutting away all but a few of the hundreds of sprouts that grew up from the wreckage over the space of a few years. The sprouts that were allowed to grow reconstituted an attractive multistemmed tree. I wish it a long (second) life.

How do I know that these two fringetrees are the native species, Chionanthus virginicus, rather than the beautiful Chinese import, Chionanthus retusus? I happened to be at the Polly Hill Arboretum on Martha's Vineyard for a lecture last weekend when both species of fringetree were in bloom there. I was able to take photographs permitting a comparison. The most easily recognizable difference is in the bark. The Chinese tree's bark, pictured below, is deeply furrowed, while the American's is relatively smooth.

The flowers have easily recognizable differences too. The Chinese species' blooms, shown below, are not as thread-like as the American's, shown at the top of the page.

I have not seen any Chinese fringetrees in Plainfield. Clearly there is a niche available here for both of these species of Chionanthus.

(1) The rarity of fringetrees can inspire deviant behavior in susceptible subjects. Plainfield tree lady Barbara Sandford took me trespassing into the backyard of a house on Sleepy Hollow Lane to see one in bloom a few weeks back. (I place the blame for this transgression entirely on her.)

Copyright Gregory Palermo

Monday, June 2, 2008

Flowering dogwoods

Can there be a more beautiful tree? I don't think so, but I have never been tempted to plant one. Flowering dogwoods, Cornus florida, are so beset with pests and diseases that I have refrained from planting any for fear of losing the fruits of my labor. I prefer to enjoy other people's dogwoods. A very handsome example is across the street from the Plainfield Public Library at the corner of Park and Crescent Avenues.

Flowering dogwood is a tree of four-season beauty. Its spectacular spring floral display is followed by handsome red berries and rich maroon fall foliage. The tree's persimmon-like bark provides visual interest even in winter. A dogwood in fall foliage at 1340 Watchung Avenue is pictured below.

Dogwoods are prey to borers and a number of diseases. The most serious threat to dogwoods is dogwood anthracnose. This fungal disease was first recognized in the United States in the 1970s. By the 1980s, garden writers were lamenting the rapid disappearance of flowering dogwoods, which are native to the eastern United States.

An anthracnose-resistant substitute for the native Cornus florida is an Asian dogwood, Cornus kousa. Kousa dogwoods are in bloom now. Unlike native dogwoods, which bloom on naked stems, kousa dogwoods bloom after their leaves have formed. A native dogwood in flower often gives the impression that an artist has arranged the placement of each flowering branch for maximum charm. With kousa dogwoods the impression is rather of robust and dense bushiness.

There are outstanding kousa dogwoods at 960 Glenwood Avenue, one of which is pictured below.

Another handsome kousa dogwood is at the rear of 975 Hillside Avenue, pictured below.

There is a fine kousa dogwood between 980 and 996 Hillside Avenue, pictured below.

The flowers(1) of some kousa varieties last for much of the summer.

Professor Elwin Orton of Rutgers hybridized native dogwoods with kousa dogwoods in an attempt to blend the look of the natives with the borer-resistance of the kousas. His family of hybrids, called the Stellar series, is also resistant to anthracnose. I have seen them for sale locally, but I don't know of any planted in Plainfield. I would be grateful to hear of any Stellar hybrids that can be seen from the street.

Other trees in flower in Plainfield now include fringetree, Chionanthus virginicus. The tree pictured below is at 653 Ravine Road.

Also flowering now (but I know of none visible from the street) are Japanese styrax, Styrax japonica, pictured below, and

American yellowwood, Cladrastis kentukea, pictured below.

(1) Not really flowers, but bracts. Dogwood bracts are the bud scales that enlarge and take on color after they open. The actual flowers are tiny and are clustered together in the center of what we think of as the bloom.

Copyright Gregory Palermo