JP Hides February Colors

February 10th, 2008 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Plants and people both
Clothed for New England winter
In tan, black and gray

In recognition of or perhaps as a paean to our Puritan heritage, the Arnold Arboretum and neighboring park on the way to Forest Hills Station dress dully in cold weather.

In many ways, it is the natural order of plants. Among the choices are evergreens of course, and numerous bushes and grasses with red or gold canes or branches, and little gems like the Japanese beautyberry that are drab until their leaves fall. Yet most trees and bushes in the arboretum are deciduous. They tend to leaf green, show colorful flowers and perhaps fruit, and then when fall and winter arrive, they turn as drab as commuters crossing Boston Common.

Pic Click Trick: Click on a thumbnail to see a larger image.

When there is snow cover, the stark and leafless flora have a certain brutal elegance. Without the white, they blur into the dormant grass and other sleeping plants, as though painted by an impressionist with a very limited palette.

The drabness on the kind of nature path from Forest Hills has, on opposite sides, a bit of a horror-movie landscape and a delightful rare flare of winter color.

This path bisects a former urban wild. I lamented the demise of what was the habitat of foxes, pheasants, opossums, raccoons and rabbits. It seems there were other forms of wildlife less attractive to humans — junkies and hookers and hooker/junkies. There are no more syringes, surgical gloves or condoms, but few furry friends either.

Path to the arboretum marshOne remainder is a marsh. It likely is more evidence of the many springs that natives, then colonists, and then brewers found here. In the present form, the brook running from the arboretum empties into a marsh. In the winter, you can see the dead and dying trees there, but you don’t smell the stagnant water. It’s easy to imagine some form of malevolent critters submerged and waiting.

Directly across the path on the north side is a strand of grand and hardy staghorn sumac. Their response to fall and winter is to fruit, bearing large, thick orange or red flowers that give it its name.

sumac spikeSumac spikesThese bushy trees are common on several of our harbor islands, particularly Lovells. The rangers there point out that the natives made a tea from the staghorn spikes. It’s colorful, just a little bitter and with a citrus flavor. There’s a recipe here.

The rangers quickly note that while the plants are related, poison sumac and staghorn sumac are very different. The poison sumac (Rhus vernix) and staghorn variety (Rhus typhina). The plants and their fruits look nothing alike, but drinking a tee from the poison sumac would be an awful mistake.

Looking is good though…free and safe. It took me a couple of seasons to make the tea, but I do it regularly now. It has odd plant bits that float in it, but a lot of my favorite loose teas do too. It’s fun in the late summer to make it for folk and to keep a spike on the table to show them the source.

You’d think, incorrectly, that the arboretum folk would take great pride in ensuring spots of color in all seasons. Nah, that’s for amateur gardeners. In fact, they have a detailed Living Collections Policy. Amusing winter gawkers doesn’t make the list of priorities at all. The closest it gets is buried in one sentence, with the phraase “appreciation and preservation of woody plants.”

Pigeons on 203 bypassUntil the bushes and trees wake up, you have better chance of seeing colorful plants in neighbors’ yards than in the arboretum. It’s the same with our morose winter coats around here. In that vein, crossing on the Casey overpass above Washington/New Washington/Hyde Park Avenue, I saw that even the pigeons favor dark colors. They must be natives.

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5 Responses

  1. Ramona says:

    I love your photo of the staghorn sumac. I’ve been lusting after getting one for our backyard. I had one in my backyard as a child–it was destroyed by a bulldozer but that’s another story. Here in Seattle, we get some color this month from the bloomin’ witch hazel. Our arboretum has an extensive collection. And crocuses are starting to open here and there.

  2. Harrumpher says:

    Well, knock me over with a feather duster! How did you stagger in here? Here, I walk the arboretum regularly and need to badger them into more winter color. Brown has its limits.

  3. Nice photos.

    Our family did a spurt of investigating in late fall, but I’ve been pretty lackadaisical since winter finally arrived.

  4. Ashley says:

    For the tea that you make, during what season do you pick the fruits? The recipe link wasn’t very specific.

  5. Harrumpher says:

    As soon as the flowers are deep red. That varies by your zone and how much sun they get, but figure summer and fall.

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