I never walk down River Road past the Uptown Citizen office without a lift of pleasure, for although there has been no effort at "landscaping" the front, there are two nice bushes, of the sassafras and the wild hardy orange.
Throughout the leafy season you can pinch a small bit of leaf from the sassafras and enjoy the small incense of this dandy wild native plant -- a plant more clearly deserving a gardener's attention than many exotics.
In the winter its fat leafbuds are agreeable in their minor way, and in spring the new growth is fine sharp green, and of course you get oval leaves and left-hand and right-hand mitten leaves and some mittens with two thumbs as well. The fall coloring is as beautiful as any plant can show, in oranges and yellows and no telling what else.
The plant on River Road is a shrub, not a tree, but sometimes you can see one 60 feet high, usually leaning a bit. I have always liked it with persimmon trees, which have glossier leaves that turn red in the fall, and especially picturesque knotty branching and a bark like alligator hide. There is nothing wrong with the now-ubiquitous non-fruiting pear trees -- they are beautiful -- but I often wonder why the sassafras and persimmon are widely ignored.
From tender leaves (not old ones) file' is made, which you use in gumbo when okra is not in season, though people tell me frozen okra does quite well. Didn't use to have it, you know.
The hardy orange (Poncirus trifoliata) is a marvelous plant indeed, forming what you would probably call a small tree, but really a shrub as you usually see it, smaller than a dogwood, with dark glossy trifoliate leaves that smell like a citrus fruit when you crush them. In the spring there are white flowers, pretty but not massively showy, like orange blossoms, and scented not so rich as they, but nice enough. The branches have workmanlike spines, not quite as grand as those of the honey locust, but larger than those of the hawthorns.
As the flowers fall, little green fruits form, and by mid-October they are uniform orange, with a near-velvety surface and a pronounced perfume of grapefruit. For some decades now I have meant to stick cloves in them to see if they wouldn't make good pomanders, but have never actually done it, partly because I have no use for pomanders. But people who like to stick orange cloves in dresser drawers might try it and say how it works, if it does.
The mature fruits are the size of golf balls, very good for throwing to terriers who trot off with them and (properly trained) bring them for you to throw again. The hound also shows interest in them, but only to annoy the terrier.
When green, in the summer, they were called limes by my wife's mother, though country people say they are poisonous. This lady, however, sliced them like limes and put them in gin drinks, and it saved buying limes and in any case I rarely died. The fruit is widely known to be inedible, so don't count on lime pies.
This plant -- there is a very nice one in the White House garden, by the way -- grows easily from seed, as real oranges do, and it also makes a reasonable hedge six feet high if you clip it. The sassafras, which like the trifoliage orange is rarely offered for sale, is easily propagated from its numerous suckers in the woods.
What I started out to say is how fine it would be if everybody, or every business, planted even one or two shrubs of interest for passersby to look at.
Most of the viburnums, the big winged euonymus (not necessarily the smaller form called compacta, which does not have such fine corky wings on the branches), the blue or white vitex, a large crape myrtle, the spiny wild Perny holly, a winter jasmine given space and good culture and not just jammed in somewhere as an afterthought (as I grow it) or an osmanthus or eleagnus -- these are all shrubs of considerable interest when treated as specimen plants.
Another plant you almost never see as a specimen when you wander about town is the rose. There used to be a fine Scotch briar on Dupont Circle where I once lived, but the house has been replaced with an office building and the rose is gone. It was spiny in the way of those briars, with beautiful single white flowers in the spring and small round black fruits in the fall, against the leaves that turned blackish-bronze. There was nothing spectacular about the rose at any season, but it was beautiful every season.
Sometimes new gardeners, who have discovered garden roses, see one of the many wild roses in bloom and say hmmmff. They wonder how anybody can admire wild roses with such small, and often modestly colored, flowers. Well, quite apart from the fact that taste may improve with one's age (and may not) so that beauty in a plant becomes as desirable as showiness, it should be said that often these wild roses are handsomer when out of bloom than garden roses. They could hardly help it, of course, since the garden rose is likely to be a plain Jane indeed except for the flowers.
I do not really urge anybody to get a sweetbrier, which may or may not have perfumed foliage, by the way, or any of two dozen other worthwhile wild roses, since I realize you have to be pretty grand, taste-wise, to like them as I do, and not everybody of course is quite there yet. But I do suggest the gardener sort of mull on them in the back of his head as a possibility.