Why the Best Trees Aren’t Always the Biggest

When was the final time you actually checked out a tree?

One of Marc Wolf’s vivid childhood recollections is of doing simply that: strolling round his New Jersey yard with a tree identification ebook when he was perhaps eight years previous, exploring the towering people round him.

It wasn’t till many years later that he started intently analyzing timber once more, after an training and a 30-year theater profession, full with an Obie Award, adopted by a second training, in horticulture. But now the timber are on a 2,400-foot-high Catskills peak in Tannersville, N.Y., the place Mr. Wolf is the government director of the 178-acre Mountain Top Arboretum.

The timber of his present fascination will not be the apparent show-offs of suburban backyards or parks. Their magnificence is just not the insistent, look-at-me type pink-flowered crab apple or a flowering dogwood possesses.

They’re not the largest timber, both — not the 70-foot-high crimson oaks or sugar maples, whose presence amongst the giants of the Mountain Top panorama is difficult to miss.

Trees will not be simply on show outdoor at Mountain Top Arboretum, the place 21 species had been included into the timber-frame training heart, selectively harvested from the grounds or close by to comprehend a design by Jack A. Sobon.Credit…Rob Cardillo

His present listing embraces subtler selections, “native trees for the observant,” he mentioned. “Trees that once you know and love them, make you pause and spend more time with them” — as he does, and desires us to.

“Gardeners are often focused on perennials, annuals and shrubs,” Mr. Wolf mentioned. “And then, on the other end, on the canopy trees. But there is this other layer in the forest, and at its edge.”

Momentarily, lots of the greatest timber of all sizes will likely be displaying off, coloring up for guests to the arboretum, the place the gardens and trails are open daily from daybreak to nightfall.

Mountain Top’s timber are on show indoors, as nicely: 21 species had been included into the artisanal timber-frame training heart accomplished in 2018, and seen in the arboretum’s 2019 ebook, “Twenty-One Trees,” photographed by Rob Cardillo. Each was selectively harvested from the grounds or close by, to comprehend a design by Jack A. Sobon that didn’t specify normal processed boards of anticipated proportions, however fairly the hand-hewed and natural.

“It’s a celebration of our native trees and our connection to them,” Mr. Wolf mentioned of the 2,370-square-foot constructing, which is open Tuesdays by means of Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to four p.m.

In his 5 years at the arboretum, Mr. Wolf has come to understand quite a lot of the 37 native tree species that develop on the property, and he really useful just a few which might be nicely suited to gardens.

Acer pensylvanicum has many widespread names, together with moosewood, striped maple and snakebark maple. As the tree matures, its white-striped inexperienced bark ages to reddish-brown with darkish strains.Credit…Rob Cardillo

A Tree of Many Names

Too lots of our gardens have abrupt transitions, notably at the boundaries: tall timber underplanted with garden or one other low floor cowl, with no understory component in between. Layer-loving Mother Nature by no means designs that means.

Acer pensylvanicum, an ideal small tree for any shady spot, might be known as upon to melt such incongruities and create a center layer, Mr. Wolf prompt.

The first time you come throughout this maple tree it might not look very like a maple. Its leaves are so giant, Mr. Wolf mentioned, they usually look particularly massive on a tree that reaches solely 15 to 25 toes in peak.

The tree has earned quite a lot of widespread names. Some check with its foliage form (goosefoot maple) and others to the texture of its bark (snakebark or striped maple, for the vertical white stripes most outstanding on younger timber). In recognition of the largest herbivore completely happy to dine on its bark, it is usually referred to as moosewood.

Moosewood grows at the forest’s edge, or in gaps inside the forest. As the tree matures, its white-striped inexperienced bark ages to reddish-brown with darkish strains — additionally not very maple-like.

In bigger maples, the flowers are excessive up; it’s simpler to get a take a look at the dangling, chain-like ones of moosewood. Later, from July to September, you may take pleasure in its conspicuous samaras — the winged fruits attribute of maples, once more organized in pendant chains. The tree’s gentle inexperienced leaves, translucent when backlit, flip luminescent yellow in fall.

Among moosewood’s decorative traits are conspicuous samaras that seem from July to September. The winged fruits are attribute of maples, however organized in pendant chains.Credit…Rob Cardillo


Much to Mr. Wolf’s delight, sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is slowly making its means up the mountain. It brings with it many fascinating traits, together with fall colour that rivals that of our native sugar maples. Its foliage, both mitten-shaped or with three lobes, ranges from yellow and orange into crimson and purple in autumn.

At the season’s different finish, round leaf-emergence time, separate female and male timber produce flowers at their department ideas. The females’ are showier and, if pollinated, are adopted in September by blue-black, bird-friendly fruits, every nestled in a gleaming crimson cup held on a crimson stem.

Sassafras is a bunch plant for the spicebush swallowtail and the tiger swallowtail butterfly, in addition to sure moths.

And then there may be its aroma. “Its leaves are Christmas-tree-meets-tropical-fruit,” Mr. Wolf mentioned. “The twigs are strong root beer, to root-beer-meets-Christmas-tree.”

Sassafras can develop to 60 toes excessive, though it’s extra usually round 30 toes excessive or shrubbier, if allowed to have its means with an area. It desires to type a colony, with root suckers that emerge insistently and should be dug out to induce the tree to develop in a single-trunk type.

The fall colour of sassafras (Sassafras albidum) rivals that of the native sugar maples, starting from yellow and orange into crimson and purple.Credit…Rob Cardillo

Two Small Trees for Informal Hedges

Mountain Top Arboretum is just not a spot the place formal hedges would take a look at house, however generally casual outside areas need some definition — if in a a lot looser model, with out the shearing.

Mr. Wolf has two prospects to recommend. Both are small native timber or giant shrubs, relying in your perspective.

One concept for an space in solar or partial shade got here from a 30-foot-long row of pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) that he noticed beside a house close by. Its species identify, alternifolia, for alternate leaves, notes its distinction amongst dogwoods. Members of the genus usually maintain their leaves in pairs reverse each other alongside the stems, however not this one. Its branches are decidedly horizontal, and tiered — therefore the widespread identify.

Clusters of pollinator-friendly, white spring flowers are adopted by blue-black fruit held on crimson stalks or pedicels. Look quick, earlier than the birds devour it.

In fall, the foliage turns a gentle purple-maroon, making it a real four-season plant.

“It would be just as great in a shady backyard of a brownstone,” Mr. Wolf mentioned of the pagoda dogwood, which may attain about 20 toes excessive.

Cornus alternifolia has decidedly horizontal, tiered branches — therefore the widespread identify pagoda dogwood. Clusters of pollinator-friendly white spring flowers are adopted by blue-black fruit held on crimson stalks or pedicels.Credit…Rob Cardillo

His second suggestion — a extra acquainted one, maybe — is the pussy willow (Salix discolor), which can develop to some 15 toes if left unchecked by pruning. In a sunny spot in his house backyard, Mr. Wolf has a willow hedge in progress.

For gardeners with a moist spot, this one is a contender, as even moist soil isn’t any drawback for it.

The crops are both male or feminine; the male will produce catkins which might be extra decorative — and loaded with pollen. Pussy willow presents nectar and pollen to a variety of early awakening bugs round March, a time when little else is in bloom, and is host to numerous Lepidoptera, together with the mourning cloak butterfly.

The understory tree Carpinus caroliniana is greatest referred to as American hornbeam, blue beech or musclewood, for the muscular fluting in the wooden of its clean, grey trunk and bigger branches.Credit…Rob Cardillo

Which Hornbeam or Ironwood Is It?

Two timber in the birch household (Betulaceae) have caught Mr. Wolf’s consideration as promising, though little used, backyard candidates. Both are native to the Eastern forest understory and might attain 25 to perhaps 40 toes. To confuse issues additional, each have the phrase hornbeam of their widespread names, they usually additionally share one in every of numerous different widespread names, ironwood.

Carpinus caroliniana is greatest referred to as American hornbeam, blue beech or by the evocative identify musclewood (for the muscular fluting in the wooden of its clean, grey trunk and bigger branches).

“We have planted a lot of these at the arboretum, and their fall color is variable, from a beautiful red to orange to purple, or just a simple golden yellow,” Mr. Wolf mentioned. “If you’re shopping for one, consider doing it in fall, specifically to see its color.”

He is interested in its potential as a pruned hedge. European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) is famously used as such, and he has learn that the native might be handled the identical means.

Ostrya virginiana, or American hophornbeam, develops catkins in the fall, they usually stay by means of winter. With its vertical strips of curling, shaggy bark and good-looking construction, that makes it interesting year-round. Credit…Rob Cardillo

Ostrya virginiana, or American hophornbeam, has distinctive clusters of puffy seedpods from summer time into fall, resembling these of hops. Catkins develop in the fall and stay by means of winter; with the tree’s vertical strips of curling, shaggy bark and good-looking construction, that makes it interesting year-round.

These and the different timber are at the heart of the Mountain Top mission: combining horticultural excellence, environmental stewardship and training — in addition to a celebration of the pure pleasure of the place. We are inspired to come back, wander and watch, taking concepts house from this distinctive spot, the place frost arrives three weeks sooner than it does simply six miles down the mountain, in Palenville, N.Y.

The first acts of spring begin three weeks later right here, too.

“People often think of landscape design or gardening as a painting,” Mr. Wolf mentioned. “But I think it’s more of a theater: You move through it, and things are always changing. There are sounds and smells and textures, and a story to it.”

Margaret Roach is the creator of the web site and podcast A Way to Garden, and a ebook of the identical identify.

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