WAKING WITH THE INLAND SEQUOIAS
Inside my tent, like the trees in the damp breath of the Pacific, my hair and face are wet; the night refuses to leave and take its heavy fog. The ancient inland sequoias, the oldest living beings, are making a song, high & low pitches, staccato creaks, kind of a forest allegro--different from the oaks and beeches I am used to hearing back east in the Shenandoahs.
Yesterday's shirt is dry inside my pack--smart, David--I put it on and walk out barefoot to watch the dawn (no rosy fingers on this side of the Sierras) now black & thick. I don't wear a watch and figure I'm up too early turning to the tent flap when another drawn-out 'creeooak' comes floating down through the fog and then I see the hazy ferns and cords of vines at the base of an enormous buttressed trunk. Like an ant I walk over to touch it.
Great long strips of exfoliating bark turn brown & burnt red and wet against my hand. I feel euphoric, buzz-like, almost like having sex, and then gently, like a caress, all the linguistics fall to the damp needles beneath my feet and dawn becomes the trees' eos, their first seedlings on these eocene piles of rock. For a moment a great bridge spans to the cycads growing far to the north; in a state of pure instinct I can almost reach them.
Quercus alba White Oak
If the beech is the prince of trees, then surely this oak is king.
Magnificent in a park setting, these trees are best in the forest where
in age their silver exfoliating bark reaches70 or 80 feet to flare out
in a crown whose grace makes all others stand in awe. Even bent and storm-blown,
this tree has an elegance that only its relative, the beech, can approach.
Reputed as a very slow grower, a happy three year old like a Kentucky thoroughbred,
can make fast tracks in height. But happy is the key. This tree's genetic
codes--and most trees'--were written in the forest, not in someone's groomed,
limed -out front yard. Their ini file for growth is full of such things
as highly oxygenated soils (highly drained) yet moisture retentive via
the activities & succession of the forest floor, particularly, fallen
leaves & woody debris, and very far back, the company of other trees,
brother oaks, beeches, American hollies. Walk out into the forest and see
where they live!The
ancient Wye oak,
after growing five and a half centuries on Marylands's Eastern shore, fell in a cataclysmic storm in June 2002
Unlike pin oaks, Q. palustris, and the red oak, Q. rubra, white oaks are somewhat rare in the nursery trade. Nurserymen can grow them, but landscape contractors & the end user (homeowners, cities, new housing developers, park & planning, et.al.) have little success--blaming the tree's deep tap root, etc.--so that demand for the tree is nil. You do not buy 200 white oak liners (small whips of trees), grow them on to 2"-3" caliper, recommend & sell them to contractor Joe, and have 80% die in 2 months.
White oaks will not survive in the new mall's sub-soil parking lot islands, nor will they in the new, exclusive Excalibur Homes development, where under the inch of top soil--enough to produce Bermuda grass & dandilions--the soil is the same glop as in the mall. Site is all! As with the success of the smallest lavender or rosemary plant, so it is with shrubs & trees. Poor sites, poor nurseries & hungry plant centers are unfortunately the rule; purple "Homestead" verbena & carloads of vinca carry the day, as do callery pears--'Bradford' 'Aristocrat', pin oaks, silver maples....
There are however--aside from the sloping piedmont forest--good sites
for white oaks, where the soil is acidic & where it drains. Here's
a white oak with sculptor di Suvero's "Mother Peace" at Storm King Art
Center along the Hudson--the oak could carry the same name.
Start white oaks small and watch them grow, and do not kill them with kindness
(with the hose) during those hot August days. Don't let the soil dry out,
but don't swamp the tree just because the surface is dry. This oak unlike
its brother pins, reds, and willow oaks, loads up early in the growing
season after which many vessels plug & close. It does not drink little
bits all through the season like a red maple or pin oak. Go to an 'available
woods' and gather a few bags full of oak leaves & floor debris and
mulch around the base of your white oak. Why settle for less. Give your
children & theirs, give to the world the very best.
Nyssa sylvatica Black Gum
Here is one of the most elegant trees of the North American lowlands. Like its name, nymph of the woods, the black gum or tupelo grows more graceful as the lives of those who fall in love with it move on from generation to generation. Its fall color comes early and is unmatched:
This tree, located in Chevy Chase, Maryland, was lighting up the October skyline atop this knoll long before the civil war. The area is now a golf course, but is still riddled with springs and low dells in which the Nyssa thrives. Like the white oak, Nyssa prefers an acid soil, and because of its anchor-like roots, can be difficult to move except while young. 3"caliper trees, however, like the white oak, will move quite well just before bud break. Nyssas will tolerate wet soils, and if you must plant it in a high & dry spot (a few can be found on wooded hillsides) do bring out the hose; this tree likes to visit the bar all summer long.
The black gums in the tree line below are at their peak of color, while the white oaks to the left are just beginning to color up. Wind blown and leaning, the red pines, Pinus resinosa, give texture and a kind of natural whimsy that is often missing in today's landscaped plantings. The gum's dark green elliptic glossy leaves make the whole tree glisten & sparkle in the summer sun; in fact, this glossy foliage often causes a 'what is it' from from forest hikers. Nyssa sylvatica is truly magnificent in age; branching is beautifully twisted in great horizontal arms which end in a delicate twig structure often pendulous, brushing the ground. In a rare setting, a low branch ending in tufts of fine blue fescue can, in October, make a poet of you. Further south the very close relatives, Nyssa ogeche and Nyssa aquatica grow in misty swamps along with bald cypress--all of them with bird-resounding canopies 100 feet up. Despite Nyssa's preference for low sites, you will often find a tree or two growing on drier upland areas like the trees above where they develop slowly and celebrate life for centuries.
Taxodium distichum Bald Cypress
Mention bald cypress and the great trees of the everglades &
deep south swamps arise festooned with Spanish moss, their "knees" or root
extensions rising out of languid black water rippling with reptiles and,
often, loud fan-driven flat-bottom boats.
These trees also occur in areas much further north; Delaware's Trap
Pond is a good example as well as Battle
Creek swamp in Calvert County Maryland.
The fluted 4 foot caliper trunk (left) rises out of Battle Creek, majestic, ancient, and like so much of the natural world, exquisitely humble.These are indeed our oldest trees on the east coast, core samples going back more than 3500 years. They are becoming more & more available in the trade, and if you are lucky enough to have a few acres these trees belong there. They are at home on the drier piedmont soils just as they are in the standing water of swamps. Buy a young whip of a tree (1/2-1" caliper) and watch how fast it grows; or a 3 or 4" caliper tree (8-10'tall--or more) and watch as it begins to develop its magnificent buttressed trunk--like its cousin, another deciduous conifer, the dawn redwood, and the Sierra redwood above, all members of Taxodiaceae. It will begin to develop "knees" after 5 years or so in your marshy spot. Plant a couple of whips with that 8 footer.
Here are the happy knees of a large tree growing in Battle Creek:
Here is a grove with a few trees dating to Edwardian times: These
are relatively young trees in many of the species' varying silhouettes.
I wish I could see these around 2200, or better, 3200 (I won't count that
out). The texture of Taxodium's foliage is delicate and feathery, the tree
narrow & conical in its
first hundred years. A grove of these planted in a sunny lowland is truly astounding; their russet-red fall color, their winter texture against a newly fallen snow, the strong branches coated in sun-blinding ice, you will not soon forget them. Here's an older tree at the Tyler Arboretum: Walk out (you may have to wade or paddle) through a group of these cypress. They are astounding anytime.
Very often, the most beautiful is as close as the end of your nose. Can't make it to the woods? Then try the older city parks where back in a more gentle age people planted for love and for the many who would come after them. Good example is a park directly across Constitution Ave. from the Washington Monument where a few bald cypresses have been very happy for well over 100 yrs. They are real beauties. Check them out! Seats of power are always (ironically?) bedfellows with things & people of great beauty. A good 17th century example is Cromwell's friend, John Milton who wrote the following:
Here is a much taken for granted tree growing along the interstates like so many colonizing soldiers, ancient and young, tall and broad and somewhat pendulous, straight and fastigiate, dusty emerald green, or blue with new berries bluish-silver in the June sun. If you drive a stick shift and like gravelly clay roads, you might come upon a really ancient specimen, its corded buff-colored trunk with limbs tufted into half-broken fans--green, blue, and then rose, late in the day. Cruise with the waning light still in the fescue blooms--black locust bending in Fragonard luxury, scarlet oaks and red oaks, green & lush in an old hedge row, and then, not ubiquitous at all, a 60 foot tall ancient Juniperus virginiana bending with berries, silver-blue and rose in the sun, a tree who has enjoyed hundreds of years of life, floods, drought, lightening--downshift & stop. Get out and maybe slide through a fence, and check it out.
Fagus grandifolia American Beech
If you are near Washington, DC, walk the horse trail in the upper part of Rock Creek Park; the beeches are astounding. See them in May with pinxterbloom azaleas at their feet.
Beeches are easily moved when young--so many roots!--but they will demand, and get, their space. They are, of all the trees above, very slow in the race to the sun. The Norway maple and its forest-destructive seedlings will have grown 20 feet before this tree has grown five. Soils can be neutral and should be well drained, though the stream or wet area should not be far away. Its surface roots, and it has many, love its own fallen foliage; do not play Mr. Neat with the rake or blower, and don't even think of throwing down sod under it. The few clumps of fine fescue that will seed in and the moss, during a wet year, will be enough to accent its beautiful pewter colored roots.
I have been watching a 6"caliper tree growing out of the moving water
of a spring for several years now waiting for signs of calamity, but the
tree seems to be really happy! Another tree, much larger, rises cool and
elegant out of a dry rocky hillside among a gang of chestnut oaks, Quercus
prinus, always looking rather lush when an August drought is bringing
the oaks to their knees. Again, as with so many others, a visit to the
woodlands is worth a 100 trips to the nursery fields to see the variance
in this tree. It is in the woods that you begin to understand why this
tree is with us for so very many years.
If you have comments or suggestions, email me at email@example.com