Jim Chatfield

Johnson Woods State Nature Preserve near Orrville this past Wednesday: the spring peeper chorus frogs, active in the warmth of late February, missing during the more seasonable cold of much of March, now are back. Spring has truly sprung.

New green leaves are starting to rise, and those modified leaves known as flowers of some plants are starting to shine. Spring beauties from white to deep pink, a few early buttercups, cut-leaved toothwort, and the electric chartreuse flowers of spicebush — all were abloom. Large-flowered trillium with its triple leaves is afoot, and in the deer exclosure, the peduncled white flowers were just ready to pop; I expect they have arrived by this morning.

The return of warmer weather brought a second flash of forsythia in landscapes, and the forest floor and its ponds and puddles are now a-riot with forms and colors: muddles of decaying leaves, spreading branches and their shadows, towering beech trees, sometimes Ozymandias-like decayed monoliths, sometimes as healthy as you and me. Forms — this leads me to our next subject.

In architecture, a common concept is “form (ever) follows function.” This was coined and practiced by the 20th century U.S. architect Louis Sullivan and the idea informed the architectural approach of Frank Lloyd Wright and others.

A loose form of this emerged during a recent class trip for my Horticulture and Crop Science class. We had just visited the wonderful Building Ohio State exhibit at the magnificent OSU Thompson Library (exhibit until May 14) on the Main Campus in Columbus. This exhibit alone is worth a visit, and if you have not visited the renovated library, do it. It has many Northeast Ohio references, including Secrest Arboretum and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster.

We then ascended to the 11th floor for sweeping views of the OSU Oval. Looking out over the windmilling pattern of sidewalks on the Oval, student David Farrell quipped: “This is the most terrible example of design I have ever seen — these look like cow paths.” Another of this most excellent class, Pete Grantham, immediately responded: “Genius.”

This case reveals different perspectives on the ideas of form, as in aesthetics, vs. function, as in where students, staff, faculty and visitors probably chose to walk — same as cows. Then, Stephen Tomasko, an art photographer who was one of the guest instructors with the class that day, responded.

The cow-path/human idea for urban design is one of the principles of the famed Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who taught at Harvard. Tomasko expounded a bit on Koolhaas and his books, such as Delirious New York. Out came the cellphones. Teachable moment. Form and function. Urban landscape architecture. Rem Koolhaas.

Form and function is, of course, an oversimplification, and a dynamic interface that is never pure (ornamentation for ornamentation’s sake is also appealing), but it is an important dynamic when it comes to buildings as well as landscape architecture, design, installation and maintenance.

The principle “that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose,” as in where people naturally choose to walk, was expressed by Louis Sullivan: “Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law.”

And from Koolhaas: “When I published my last book, Content, in 2003, one chapter was called ‘Kill the Skyscraper.’ Basically it was an expression of disappointment at the way the skyscraper typology was used and applied. I didn’t think there was a lot of creative life left in skyscrapers. Therefore, I tried to launch a campaign against the skyscraper in its more uninspired form.”

A perfect lead-in to the New York City field trip coming up next week for the class. There they will see skyscrapers, the High Line Park that interweaves between skyscrapers, landscape design under the duress of a major city, the swamp white oak trees at the 9/11 memorial, plane tree allees — and the elm allee in Central Park.

To prepare the class for those American elms, Dave Farrell profiled Ulmus americana. Our native elm is a rapid grower, putting on 2 feet a year through its middle age, ascending to 136 by 85 feet for the National Champion in Maryland. Fat little buds against the sky in late winter, cascades of tiny flowers as spring arrives, dark green above and light green below leaves, and often that wonderful vase shape (form!) that endeared it to Americans.

Also endearing was its adaptability: from swamplands to rich woodlands, to city streets. Alas, almost the last 100 years of the history of American elm is tainted by the presence of Dutch elm disease, a fungus that plugs up the water conduction system.

French elm logs were transported for furniture-makers by rail here in the United States, including in Ohio. The European elm bark beetle, with the fungus attached, hopped off and found American elms, unprepared genetically for this new challenge. The insects laid their fungus-covered eggs under the bark, and the rest is history.

A history, by the way, that involves northeast Ohio. In 1929, a man at the railyards in Creston, in Wayne County, called Dr. Paul Tilford, a plant pathologist at the Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station (now OARDC) in Wooster and said all the trees were dying along the railroad tracks there. Not all the trees — just the elms. Paul cultured the fungus, sent it off to the USDA, and that was the first confirmed discovery of Dutch elm disease in North America.

All this and more was related to the class by Dave Farrell, from Hudson! Well done.

Since we will be in New York City and shall at least pass by the Algonquin Hotel, home of the Algonquin Round Table of New York wits, Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker, Harpo Marx and Ogden Nash (at least in style), let us finish with Nash’s 1933 quip in Song of the Open Road about form and function:

I think that I shall never see

A billboard lovely as a tree.

Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,

I’ll never see a tree at all.

Jim Chatfield is a horticultural educator with Ohio State University Extension. If you have questions about caring for your garden, write to chatfield.1@cfaes.osu.edu or call 330-466-0270. Please include your phone number if you write.