Fall leaf color this year has been a bit of dud, to my eyes. Even the reliable red maple seems to be going through the motions — a little flash of crimson, a slice of orange, a bit of lemon, hold the zest.
This retreat creates one difficulty. I tell people that if they are selecting specimen trees and shrubs for their end-of-season color, as they should, it pays to look at individual plants at the nursery. There is a great deal of variability, even between clonal varieties, and if such-and-such witch hazel is supposed to have a blazing orange display, you might want to see that it does before deciding to live with it.
Besides witch hazels, the Japanese and native maples are singular in their color, along with other autumn stars such as sumacs, black and sweet gums, hickories and persimmons.
This year’s subdued show, obviously, may veil a young tree’s full beauty. But if you are itching for a tree — and now is still a great time to plant one — don’t wait for a banner fall to stick it in.
It is good to have such quiet years because they make the standout autumns of vermilion and gold all the more precious.
Undoubtedly, there are biological reasons for a muted show: too many gray skies in October, or nights that stayed too warm. I prefer a more fantastic idea, that the trees are protesting the way we treat them.
In my Tree Paradise, the operative command — to humans, not trees — would be “stop,” as in:
Stop mutilating trees to make them fit their space.
Stop this strange practice of mounding mulch against the base of a tree.
Stop believing that there are only five or so trees you can plant.
Stop using “landscapers” who are too unimaginative or unresourceful to find better tree varieties.
Stop craving instant bulk and effect.
Phew, I feel so much better now.
The difficulty arises when we merely regard tree planting as a solution to a problem. It is good to plant a tree to provide screening and shade and to shelter and feed wildlife, but first we must find it beautiful so that we do right by it.
Two big books about trees have recently crossed my desk: They are both out of Britain but quite different in their scope. “The New Sylva,” written by Gabriel Hemery and illustrated by Sarah Simblet, revisits a seminal book on trees by the 17th-century polymath John Evelyn. There are many quotations from the original, including the cogent observation that the odor of boxwood is forgiven for the utility of its wood. Fewer possessions are made of boxwood today, but it is still valued for its close-grain density and beauty. Or as Evelyn put it: “So hard, close and pondrous as to sink like lead in water.” I might add that the aroma is also worth it for its ornament and, to some nostrils, for the aroma.
“New Sylva” bespeaks a cultural relationship with the tree that may be missing in other societies and has to do with the way trees are permitted to grow old in Britain — as in centuries old — and the way they inhabit a seamless terrain between close-set garden, park and countryside. You don’t have to drive for hours in the United Kingdom to be in the company of ancient and soul-stirring trees; you can find them while trudging home from the supermarket.
The second book, “The Glory of the Tree,” is by Noel Kingsbury and photographer Andrea Jones. They venerate trees from around the world, in temperate, Mediterranean and tropical climates.
There is a powerful image of a yew tree that inhabits an estate in Scotland named Dundonnell House. It must be 40 feet tall and 50 feet across, and it is pegged at 2,000 years old.
Trees are gregarious things, the stuff of forests, but as the subjects in both of these books they are generally drawn or photographed in isolation. This elevates them to portraiture, which is a good way to think about planting a tree. Place it where it will have space around it. This may mean picking a smaller tree, perhaps a choice variety of crab apple or flowering cherry (can we try something other than Yoshino and Kwanzan?) or a redbud or flowering dogwood. Why don’t we plant more red buckeyes, or the sweetbay magnolia, or the sometimes fickle Franklin tree? What happened to the green and Washington hawthorns, small trees with spring blossoms and persistent red berries? Medlars make interesting small trees — gnarled, broad and full of character, as well as edible fruit.
If you have the room, why not plant handsome oaks that are often overlooked, such as the swamp white oak, the chestnut oak or the black oak? There is a coarse appeal to another native tree, the larger Indian bean tree, considered by some a littering weed, but Jones has photographed a specimen with an uncommonly beautiful and broad silhouette and smothered in blooms of orchid-like pizazz.
Not all tree plantings have to be so precious; it’s fine to plant a screen or, if you wish, a whole garden of trees such as the McCrillis Gardens in Bethesda. Just don’t crowd them or pick fast-growing, weak-wooded species for the sake of quick coverage.
When I was visiting the new native plant meadow at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., recently, an abiding image was the woodland ridge that framed it. It seemed old but was planted about three decades ago, and I’m sure it looked pretty full a decade or more earlier.
We live in a warm, wet part of the world where trees naturally grow quickly; they are not held back by lack of rainfall, desert soils or constant wind.
But if you want to be far-sighted, you could follow the example of Huw Crompton, the landscape architect behind a 15-acre plantation of boxwood north of London, installed for the express purpose of providing authentic material for baroque woodwinds. It should be ready for harvest, Hemery tells us, by the middle of the next century.
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