Jim Chatfield

With the fits and starts of spring this year, we continue to have an extended season for “rarely seen by the uninitiated” features of bud swelling, emerging leaves, and flower development on trees, shrubs and wildflowers.

Dogwood blooms, beech leaf emergence, the frilly flowers of fringed polygala, the sunny yellows of sassafras inflorescences, you’ve got to love Ohio’s vernal beauties.

Let’s take a look at some featured flora that are especially fine this year, and let’s even throw in a fungus, or to be precise and to the point, two different fungi.

Beech

Beech (Fagus grandifolia and Fagus sylvativca) trees are among the most glorious woodland trees, providing yearlong grace.

Beeches are the very definition of a sylvan glade. In winter, the gold and silver remnant leaves of our native American beech (F. grandifolia) with its elephantine smooth gray bark, in spring its slender leaf buds giving rise to light green leaves, and through the seasons the grand stature of the tree and beechnut wildlife food, all are a sight to see.

European beech (F. sylvatica), comes in many horticultural forms, from copper-leaved beech, to tricolored beech (plant in protected sites), to weeping beech, to the much-admired medium-sized rounded fernleaf-beech, a favorite of OSU’s Secrest Arboretum’s Joe Cochran, who particularly mourned the loss of a fernleaf-beech adjacent to the water garden during the Wooster Tornado of 2010. Joe, and Secrest, recovered quickly and after cleaning up the fallen beech and other trees, quickly commenced planting more trees.

Sassafras

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is often overlooked for its more subtle seasonal finery, but flowers and fruits join foliage as ornamental features of this native tree. It is typically a medium-sized tree up to 30-50 feet but the national champion exceeds 100 feet in height.

Tiny five-petaled sunny yellow flowers were quite attractive this spring in northern Ohio. Leaves are variable, some entire, some mitten-liked and two-lobed, some three-lobed. Fall color can range from attractive yellows to yellow-orange, especially effective with a grove of sassafras trees. Bright scarlet fruit cups, which remain after blue-black fruits are shed, are attractive, especially if sun-reflected later in the season.

Sassafras tolerates wetness, but prefers moist, well-drained, organic soils. It was once used for root beer commercially, and teas are still sold, but should be used only if liver-damaging and carcinogenic safrole is removed in processing.

How are your morels?

To knowingly feed the wrong cup fungus to your guests can be highly immoral, as well as a case of false morels.

Morels are much beloved spring-collected fungi, and if you do not believe me, ask a morel lover where they collected theirs, under what elm or cherry tree, in what woods. After they explain that to tell you would mean they would have to kill you, they will slowly drift away from you, only to savor their wild-collected morels in their own kitchens.

Morels, like many fungi, thrive on death, living on decomposed (already dead) organic matter. The convoluted brain-like shapes of morels are the fruiting bodies of these fungi. Do not be deceived, however. Just because you see a fungus that you think is a morel does not mean you can eat it with impunity.

There are delicious true morels such as the yellow morel (Morchella esculenta) that are a perfect blend of earthiness and heavenly aromas and flavors. Then there are false morels such as Gyromitra esculenta, which though it does not poison all, and in some cases not every time it is eaten, can nevertheless be quite poisonous.

Before deciding to partake, learn your fungi, read guides like the Audubon Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, and join groups like the Ohio Mushroom Society and go with them on forays for a few years.

Deer euonymus

Finally, speaking of feeding, sometimes Bambi and other white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) munch a bunch of leaves and stems we would rather they eschew instead of chew. Typically, muffin-shaped arborvitae hedges are not to our liking, but occasionally the deer create pleasing-to-the eye horticultural curiosities.

At Dow Gardens in Midland, Mich., a few weeks ago, a euonymus hedge, rooted around rock, presented quite a dynamic look with its lower kilts pruned away by our voracious friends, which with their four-chambered stomachs process many foods we cannot, including a number of poisonous mushrooms and even poison ivy.

So, like the deer, enjoy the spring, with all of its buds and leaves and flowers of spring. Wake now your senses.

“Green was the silence, wet was the light,

the month of June trembled like a butterfly.”

— Pablo Neruda

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 chatfield.1@cfaes.osu.edu or call 330-466-0270. Please include your phone number if you write.