THE Earthman was last seen in his mud shoes trudging toward his garden, muttering about chill winds and defying the skies to open up while he was aout. Until he returns, hereis an earlier column worthy of perenial interest.
The early spring flowering trees are a great delight to the gardener, especially if the blooms are not frozen.
The tree that opens its off-white (or "pink") blooms the size of pennies or smaller is the plum. The one with single flowers and dark red-purple leaves that expand as the flowers are falling is a form introduced from Persia in the last century and called Pissard's plum or Prunus cerasifera pissardii. There are several forms of this, varying slightly in color and foliage.
Early magnolias are a great comfort, as well as a major anxiety--comfort on a warm sunny day in March when all goes well and an anxiety on nights when the temperature may drop into the 20s, and blacken all the blooms with frost.
Possibly it is obvious to all (except gardeners, of course) that trees that regularly flower some weeks before frost-free weather begins are in danger every year of frost damage. Gardeners are usually startled when the flowers are ruined, and always indignant.
The smallest of the Oriental March-blooming magnolias is the star magnolia (M. stellata, formerly known as M. halleana), which has a dozen or so wavy strap-like petals. It is usually white, sometimes blush, sometimes light pink, and sometimes full rose. All forms are highly fragrant. As usually seen, it makes a dense rounded gobular shrub or small tree perhaps 12 feet high.
In the park at 14th and K streets NW, one can see fine old specimens of M. kobus, a small-flowered white magnolia. It is more free-flowering in age than in youth, and with its gray trunk and branches it is handsome enough.
The common early magnolia is the pink (or madder-rose or rose bengal) "tulip tree" (M. X soulangeana). This is a hybrid, or a series of hybrids, between two wild Oriental magnolias. The one so commonly planted is, in the main, pink or rose, and it may easily be seen all over town in gardens and parks.
Often, if some of the flowers are frozen, other buds open in a few days and disaster is forgot. In some years, however, the freeze calmly waits until the entire tree is in a veritable orgy pf bloom, then strikes, like Billy Graham as it were, and hell is apparent to all.
No permanant harm is done, naturally, but there is much gnashing of gardeners' teeth for several days.
There are many Oriental magnolias, all of which should have been tried (and tried and tried until they suceeded) years ago by venturesome gardeners, among them MM. dawsoniana, sargentiana robusta and campbellii, the last-named being especially tender to cold and better suited to California perhaps. One rarely sees that wild parent of the soulangeana hybrids, that is the white fragrant M. denudata, which is perhaps lovelier than its better-known children.
Gardeners often imagine a new hybrid is "better" than an old wildling; hence, the lurch toward novelties of all sorts. Now the original wild tree is relatively rare, though I believe there is universal agreement that it's better than any of its progeny. A fine specimen of it grows, or used to, just north of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia and is worth a slight detour to Charlottesville, if you are in that neighborhood. If the old tree is gone now, you can still look at the school, of course.
Gardeners are sometimes led astray by the name "tulip tree," which is applied both to the early Oriental magnolia and the great yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifere), which is a major forest tree exceeding 80 feet in height.
If you want the March-blooming magnolia, be sure you do not order the liriodendron. I would not, myself, call either a "tulip tree" for the simple reason I abhor the name, but others are quite free to call things anything they choose. These matters are usually a question of what you are used to, and we always called the magnolia a magnolia and the liriodendron a yellow poplar. As long as you are straight in your own mind, it makes no difference.