In the Garden: Spring Thoughts: An Assortment

Mystery flower. Photo: Charles Kidder.

Green Is a Color, Too… and Flowers Aren’t Everything

Can you guess the identity of the unusual flower shown in the accompanying photograph?  Hint: you have to be looking closely even to see it.

Spring in Virginia brings many more conspicuous show-stoppers to the fore. We all enjoy the dogwoods, azaleas, and daffodils that vie for our attention. But what about some more subtle aspects of the spring extravaganza?

Although I enjoy the variety of grays and browns that winter provides, by the time spring arrives I’m ready for a change of color scheme. The newly-emerging foliage provides just that, and it’s not just that everything turns green, period. Green comes in a symphony of shades. The tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera) bravely put out their bright green square-ish leaves earlier than most other trees, often even before the danger of frost is over. Shortly afterward, the red maples (Acer rubrum), having long since flowered in a haze of burgundy, turn to unfolding their delicate leaves in a rich green tone.

After the tulip trees and maples have leafed out, the reticent oaks put on their own show. With perhaps a dozen species native to our area, you can find subtle differences in the color of the unfolding leaves. Close to home, a white oak (Quercus alba) and a willow oak (Q. phellos) both grow in view of my office window. I guess I’m easily amused, since I can take in the beauty of these trees for minutes on end. The white oak’s golden yellow foliage serves as a bright backdrop to the medium-green leaves of the willow oak. Both produce a blizzard of golden brown flower tassels that drop off to decorate streets and clog gutters. As the leaves mature, they’ll darken in color, and on some oak species they’ll develop a glossy sheen to conserve moisture.

What about the mystery “flower” shown in the photograph? In reality it’s a trick question and not a flower at all, rather the bracts of an opening bud on a buckeye shrub. You’ll see similarly colorful bracts on the buds of young hickories as you walk through the woods.

Spring is much more than its admittedly spectacular floral display. Enjoy the multiple hues of green in the larger landscape, and take time as well to notice the small details such as unfolding buds.

“Woodsmen, Spare that Tree!”

Ever since moving to our property four years ago I’ve had an issue with a red maple in the back yard. Perhaps forty to fifty years old, it probably just showed up as a volunteer, but grew to a tree with a diameter of about two feet and a height of forty. It has undistinguished muddy yellow fall coloration, and being a maple, sucks up water at a prodigious rate. Initially a lone azalea was underneath the maple leaving lots of open space, so I proceeded to plant—and curse—as I went.  The tree’s extensive roots were near the surface, making planting difficult. I tried to use drought and shade-tolerant selections as much as possible, but that limits your palette. As summer progressed, I could see some of my plantings wilting, so watering was in order.

Over time my plants survived but hardly flourished. I was anxious to try new things free from maple root competition. I decided the tree had to go, got a couple of estimates, and chose my arborist. Only then did my wife come forward to (figuratively) throw her arms around the tree and declare that, “It was here before we were! And you chose to plant under it.” Hmm. Quite true.

So the maple still stands. And it still pumps out oxygen and absorbs carbon dioxide, both good things.

Always get a second opinion.


Some weeds are all too obvious, like dandelions in your lawn or chickweed in your flower beds.  How you handle those is up to you, since they’re beneficial to pollinators.

More to be feared are the weeds that remain in hiding. I was recently stunned by one example of a sneak-weed. I have a tea-olive (Osmanthus sp.) that’s a few years old and maybe eight feet tall. While admiring it close-up, I noticed that the leaves on one branch were different, not spiny like the rest. I gradually came to the conclusion that this was a different plant altogether, perhaps a Ligustrum, that had taken root right next to the Osmanthus. With some trepidation, I began pulling on the errant stem, fearing that I might pull up the good plant. Fortunately, the Ligustrum stem pulled right out, confirming my initial impression. Perhaps not coincidentally, both plants are members of the Olive family, the Oleaceae, perhaps emboldening the Ligustrum to hide among the branches of its botanical cousin.

Other more common sneak-weeds are seedlings of the highly prolific maples—there’s that unloved red maple again—that lurk under shrubs. It’s easy to miss them for a few years, until they poke out over the top of their host. By then they’re harder to pull, so it pays to catch them before they’ve put down a good root system. Check occasionally around and under your shrubs to spot them while they’re still little. Caution: this can be a good place for copperheads to lurk, so it’s best to explore first with something other than your hand.

Postscript: Coincidental to our experience with the maple, my wife was reading Lab Girl, an autobiographical account by Hope Jahren of her life doing research on plants and soils. She writes that a maple not only takes up water during the day, it then returns some of it to the soil at night. I never knew that, but admittedly I can’t claim to be a professional botanist or soil scientist.  

Guess that red maple isn’t all bad. 


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