Summer has fully arrived, with a new set of plants coming into their glory, from goldenraintrees and their panicles of bright yellow flowers to a multitude of hydrangea blossoms. Last week, my family and I shuttled from mowing grass in Northeast Ohio to hiking the trails of Mount LeConte and Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Here are some of the plants we viewed.
There are not many trees with such spectacular flowers as goldenraintree (Koelreuteria paniculata) this time of year. We enjoyed its flowers last week in Portsmouth near the Ohio/Kentucky line and further south, so the bright golden floral show should be coming our way for the next several weeks in Northeast Ohio. Goldenraintrees have a storied history in American filmdom: think Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Lee Marvin, Eva Marie Saint, the Civil War and the mysterious tree discoverable only via a trek to the Indiana swamps of the movie Raintree County (Trekkie alert: DeForrest Kelley plays a minor role in the movie).
Goldenraintree is a small- to medium-size tree, growing to 25-30 feet, with a rounded crown. It has compound leaves and an attractive canopy, but the real feature is the upright panicles of golden flowers that cover the tree for several weeks in early to midsummer. The light green papery, bladder-like fruits that follow are interesting at first, and as they change to orange or pink, but then are less attractive later in the season as they turn brown.
In southern states such as Florida, seed production and germination is high and this Asian native tree has become an issue with invasiveness there. Here, goldenraintrees provide a spectacular summer-flowering addition to the landscape. It is highly adaptable to various soil types; plant in sun.
That ending of “aceae” is a tip off that we speak of plants related to each other, in this case, the heath or rhododendron family. The Ericaceae is a group of more than 4,000 species of plants that genetically share the traits of bell-like or tubular flowers and typically a preference for acid soils.
The woodlands of the Appalachian mountains are ideal for ericaceous plants and they are legion, from huckleberries (wild blueberries) and the many species of rhododendrons and azaleas, to enkianthus, mountain laurel, leucothoe, and mountain myrtle.
Mountain myrtle, Leiophyllum buxifolium, was a plant I was not particularly familiar with, but its low-growing habitat, tiny boxwood-like foliage, red flower buds and tiny white flowers, was common on the high altitude trails found on Mount LeConte, including the wonderful overlook of the eponymous Myrtle Point.
At 6,593 feet, the LeConte Lodge and cabins are the highest altitude inn found in the eastern United States. The 7-mile or so hike up is the only way to get there, unless you are a helicopter pilot making the once-a-year supply airdrop or a llama making the every-other-day trip. We hiked in a deluge of rain, but soon the skies cleared to blue with glorious sunsets. Purple rhododendrons and orange flame azaleas, delicate mountain laurels and tiny mountain myrtle. Put on your hiking boots.
I was reminded on this trip of the vagaries of plant identification. ID is wonderfully challenging in that it is oft lacking in precision.
Along one nature trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (no admission fee, by the way) there was a vine of Virginia creeper crawling up a tree, with its tell-tale five leaflets. Yet on the same vine a few of the leaves had only three leaflets, which reminds us of the “leaflets of three, let them be” of poison ivy. There was some order to this chaos, though. On this same vine, the leaves with their variable three to five leaflets, were arranged alternately, not oppositely along the vine. Virginia creeper, not poison ivy.
One of the main evergreens on Mount LeConte is the lovely Fraser fir (Abies fraseri). One of the ways you can distinguish between true firs in the genus Abies and other conifer such as spruce, pine and hemlock, is that firs have upright cones rather than cones that hang downward.
Sometimes even the names of plants are a challenge. On Mount LeConte, there were, predictably enough, numerous mountainashes (Sorbus americana). Mountainash is not a true ash in the genus Fraxinus and thus fortunately is not being devastated by the emerald ash borer insect.
Alas, the eastern hemlocks in the lower elevations in the Great Smoky Mountains are true hemlock trees (though not related to the poison hemlock herb of Socrates lore) and are susceptible to the hemlock woolly adelgid insect, which is devastating there, and now establishing a beachhead here in Ohio.
Trip full of beauty
It was a wonderful trip from start to finish, from our own yard to the mountains and at rest areas and towns in between, from noticing the small glands at the base of the leaf blade and along the leafstalk of Prunus (cherries and their relatives) to the glories of southern magnolias in Portsmouth and points south.
From the invasive mimosas and kudzu down south to the elderberries we share with our southern cousins. And hydrangeas. There are so many hydrangeas, from the glorious reblooming Endless Summer series with pink and blue flowers to the smooth hydrangea of both gardens and mountain woodlands and the oakleaf hydrangeas and their spectacular creamy panicles blooming now.
And keep those plant ID skills honed. With warmer winter temperatures, southern magnolia with its spectacular large, aromatic blooms, and kudzu with its creepy coverage of all things green are coming soon.
Jim Chatfield is a horticultural educator with Ohio State University Extension. If you have questions about caring for your garden, write: Jim Chatfield, Plant Lovers’ Almanac, Ohio State University Extension, 1680 Madison Ave., Wooster, OH 44691. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 330-466-0270. Please include your phone number if you write.