Come read of the sylvan secrets of a springtime stroll I took through Secrest Arboretum this past Tuesday. It was a cloudy, sometimes misting evening, a bit chill. A springtime that so far has stretched its limbs slowly, giving magnolias their natural reign, unsullied by frosts. A vernal reign that will bring the peak of Secrest’s ornamental Malus, crabapples, to their peak this first weekend of May.
Next Saturday, May 11, will be the Plant Discovery Day plant sales and activities at Secrest, but start that trip today with Crablandia views, and much more; herein is a mere taste of what you will see.
• Cedar rusts. These fungal diseases are a fascinating example of plant host range. To complete its life cycle and the plant disease cycle, the cedar rust fungus must go through an elaborate ballet of spore stages while spreading from junipers (Eastern red cedars) to a rosaceous host, such as apple/crabapple, hawthorn, quince or serviceberry, among other members of the rose family.
Right now the dance consists of microscopic spores emerging en masse from spectacular abnormal growths (galls) on the juniper, blowing in the wind, randomly answering the call of a windward rose family host.
Lacking Marvelesque microscope-eyes, we will not see their arrival on the host, their infection, or their conjugal visits with each other, but will see them again when a new spore mass emerges on the underside of the leaves and on fruits. For now, what we see is the orange spore horns emerging on the junipers. Risking a pie in the face from an apple orchardist, I will say the orange telial horns emerging from the galls on junipers are as pretty as an (admittedly garish) flower.
• Deciduous conifers. Needles and cones are evergreen, right? Not always. We have four genera of conifers that lose their needles in the fall in Ohio: dawnredwood, bald cypress, larch and goldenlarch. Check out the compound names of dawnredwood and goldenlarch, denoting that these trees are not true versions of redwoods or larch, but different plant types, kind of like pineapple.
These trees are fascinating as their new needles emerge for the year. Come see a twisted stem version of the Japanese larch, the cultivar ‘Diana,’ showing just a touch of cold injury but with soft green needles and unusual curvy stems. Cold injury? When did it occur — when was our last frost, March? What a great spring. Goldenlarch and dawnredwood needles are just emerging from their spurs and are wonderful against the sky.
• New leaves. Do not miss this. There is nothing more wondrous in nature and so easy to miss than the emergence of new leaves and their accoutrements this time of year.
Nursery workers and landscapers and garden center professionals and arborists are so busy they have little time to pause for a few moments. The rest of us may not pause in the yards if there is a sprinkle or two. End-of-school activities deflect us. But just do it. Take some time each day to focus your attention and note how lovely reawakening life presents.
The tiny miniature leaves of oaks along with their dangling flowers. The ironed and starched new leaves of the bottlebrush buckeye. Hostas swirling and rising from their winter slumber. Ladys-mantle with its hydrophobic leaves pooling crystalline water droplets. The many versions of maples unfurling and often paired with their often unnoticed flowers. The otherworldly sticky buds bursting and unraveling into leaves of horsechestnuts and their hybrids.
Check all of this out at Secrest or at a park, landscape, streetscape, backyard or balcony near you.
• The Flowers, the Flowers, the Flowers, Oh My. Flowers with buds like pearls, as in pearlbush (Exochorda). Butter yellow flowers on a cucumbertree hybrid (magnolia). A panicle of flower buds on red buckeye. Sassafras flowers, here for only a short time. Soft pink Carolina silverbell flowers each subtended by a chocolate-colored calyx (the floral envelope made up of sepals behind the petals). Common lilac flowers bursting from buds right on time. River birch catkins (the male flowers) filled with pollen. Headily sweet aromas of fragrant viburnum blooms.
What do I mean by “right on time” in terms of common lilac? I was chatting with Secrest Arboretum curator Jason Veil on Tuesday and he said it was about time for these lilacs to start blooming. We checked the growing degree-day calendar (just Google oardc + phenology) and the count was 217. Common lilacs show first blooms at 234, so with the warm day it reached that point and lilacs started to bloom. Another great reason to visit Secrest this weekend.
As is, I might add again, the peak weekend for Crablandia. There is about a two- to three-week window between the early- and late-blooming crabapples, so the peak is subjective, but I opine it shall be this weekend, though still of great interest by Plant Discovery Day on May 11.
My final — and controversial, as I have heard for years by professional landscapers and home gardeners — flower pick right now is sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua). Oh, the wonders you’ll see, if only you look. Right there along with the much-maligned mace-like fruits from the past season are the cool tiny gumball female flowers and the male cone-like pollen-bearing flowers nearby. Exquisite, even if you hate cleaning up the eventual brownish, spiky fruits unpleasant for landscaping equipment and barefoot gardeners.
• Assorted curiosities. Lastly: the gnarled, Ent-like faces in beech trunks. The thorns and twisted stems (and currently flowers) of hardy orange (Poncirus). The plentiful fruits of Camperdown elms. The woody galls caused by the Phomopsis fungus on a hickory at Secrest, one of only two locations I have ever seen this gall.
All this and more. And on May 11 (check out secrest.osu.edu), the Plant Discovery Day Plant Sale and grand opening of the new Secrest Welcome and Education Center. Both are open to visitors from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. In addition to a tantalizing selection of new and unique plants, you can explore our new orientation space, offices and classrooms. We will also be offering science activities, "Ferris" Buehler and Flamingo Jack's food trucks, and Arboretum tours.
Check out more photos of springtime at Secrest on Ohio.com. And if you are like me, you will also enjoy the new Instagram posts @Secrest_Arboretum. Now rise as you are able and see as much as you can of “Nature’s infinite book of secrecy” (Shakespeare).
Jim Chatfield is a horticultural educator with Ohio State University Extension. If you have questions about caring for your garden, write to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 330-466-0270. Please include your phone number if you write.