The mid- to now late-summer weather in Northeast Ohio has simply been glorious, though a bit warmer and wetter the last few days. Heptacodium flowers — all my life I have looked for them to be such as this — sassafras fruits of almost unreal beauty, reddening magnolia fruits encasing their bright orange seeds, beauteous. Let us begin.

Sassafras

This native tree is underused in my opinion. It has attractive foliage, entire or with one glove-thumb lobe, or in parts of three. The young green stems are fragrant year round, spicy-sweet or Lemon Pledge-like, depending on your sensibilities. Fall color is variable, but often fabulous, ranging from yellows to oranges to reds to striking reddish-orange.

Dried young leaves are what is used as filé powder (a thickener) by among others, Creole chefs. Think file gumbo. Roots and lower stems smell like root beer when scratched and were much used in the past for this and for tea, though they contain safrole, an animal carcinogen, if used in large amounts. I noticed a commercial jar of sassafras tea syrup the other day, and it professed to be “safrole-free”.

But that is all prelude. What I want to revel in today is the fruits and the fruit stalks (peduncles). As with many other plants, this is a great year for fruit production. Rarely do I see many sassafras fruits, and truth told, I do not see a great deal this year. But more so than usual, and the reward is worth it: startling scarlet peduncles, and intense blue-black fruits, all in contrast to the green leaves. Wow.

Get thee out into the sassafras groves. And believe me, if you have a few in a naturalized area of your yard, you will have many seedlings crop up. Most will crowd each other out, but those who wend their way upward through the other vegetation can be magnificent medium-tall trees with gorgeous fall color.

Heptacodium

Also known as Seven-Son Flower, this small tree is becoming ever more popular, and truly stands out this year. I have made a big deal over the years of how the salmon-colored sepals (collectively called the calyx) supercede in beauty the white petals (collectively called the corolla) of the flowers of this plant. But these snowy-white petals this year are numerous and quite a sight. Now is the time to enjoy the beginning of the flowering season of Heptacodium, because with three weeks or so of the petals, and then the six weeks or so of the sepals, that after the petal show grow larger and turn from green to salmon, are worth including in our landscape. Or at least coming to Secrest Arboretum in Wooster or other local gardens to see and enjoy.

The Spider …

And the Tree Cricket. While pursuing other photographic prey the other day, I came upon a little touch of nature if not red in tooth and claw at least equally lethal to the tree cricket. An eight-legger of one of the 6,000 species of jumping spiders (the Salticidae family) had espied, with its four pairs of eyes, a tree cricket. Stalled for a long moment in time, perhaps by my giant presence, it would otherwise almost surely proceed to grab its prey, having jumped with its silky lifeline, to confront their tree cricket dinner, larger than spidey itself. Unless, unless the tree cricket (a six-legged insect in the Grillidae family), itself is able to jump away, perhaps due to the distraction of — moi.

Some of our nighttime noise now is from these tree crickets, wiping their wing ridges together. My wife’s sister and husband visiting from Seattle were amazed at the Northeast Ohio nighttime din. It turns out that this concert will vary in terms of the nature of the chirps, a temperature-variable frequency noted as long ago as 1897, when Amos Dolbear published “The Cricket as a Thermometer,” developing his Dolbear’s Law of the relationship between air temperature and cricket chirp. I kid you not; look it up.

The escape — or not — of my photographic pet cricket, shall not noticeably effect our backyard nightly choir of cricket cacophony, but our recent warmer weather will.

Programs at Secrest

I have trumpeted the Sestercentennial of Alexander Von Humboldt for some time now, and it has arrived. Depending upon whether or not you are reading this Friday online you can hurry on down to the Secrest Arboretum Streeter Amphitheater for the Humboldt Unbound play at 6:15 on Friday the 13th, or if reading your morning paper on Saturday the 14th, the actual 250th anniversary of von Humboldt’s birth in 1769, you can drive or ride down to the Miller Pavilion at Secrest from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for talks and walks. All programs are free, and prizes and refreshments, including strudel and Humboldt Fog cheese will be served.

Andrea Wulf’s "Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World" (2015) was my greatest entrée to the world of Alexander von Humboldt and us, but two passages in another, somewhat dry book, intrigued me this week. It is "A Longing for Wild and Unknown Things: The Life of Alexander von Humboldt” (2018) by Maren Meinhart. In this book, Meinhart notes that Darwin took Humboldt’s "Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctal Regions of the New World" (1799-1804) with him for his evolutionary-theory developing voyage to South America three decades later.

Andrea Wulf had noted in "The Invention of Nature" that Darwin said he would not have sailed on the Beagle (1831-1836) if not for von Humboldt. Pretty powerful connection. Meinhart comes at this from a different angle, though. Darwin was famous for his book about that voyage, but not that famous, and would not publish his full evolutionary theories until 1859, the year of von Humboldt’s death. The two did meet in 1842.

As Meihhart notes, the meeting was not particularly momentous. The young Darwin hoped for more from this world-famous scientist. It was not to be, as the meeting was brief. I, who play Old Alexander von Humboldt in "Humboldt Unbound" was amused by how Darwin’s recollection of the meeting eerily channels my particular, though non-famous path: When asked what Humboldt said at the meeting, Darwin replied, he did not remember anything he said, but von Humboldt was “very cheerful and talks much.” That’s me all right.

Which brings us to a second reference from Maren Meinhart’s book and its relevance to programs at Secrest Arboretum. It is about the young Alexander von Humboldt’s early interests in plants. In his 20s, von Humboldt frequented the Botanic Gardens in Berlin and to quote Meinhart:

“He was mostly about cryptograms: mosses, lichens, sponges and ferns. These plants produce asexually, by spores rather than through the sexual parts normally found in a flower. Cryptogramic botany had only recently taken off [the 1790s] and become a fashionable area of study. It was probably no accident that it should have been so in the Romantic era. Plant life being so fundamentally different from animal life, held a particular fascination for the Romantic imagination, and cryptograms, stranger still and less knowable, presented themselves as even more mysterious, worthwhile for study.”

As it turns out, sponges are animals and not plants, lichens are not plants, but actually mutualistically symbiotic relationships between fungi and cyanobacteria, and the cryptogrammic plants do actually reproduce sexually as well as asexually, yet they are different from seed plants.

But cryptic they are. So, let us build the mystery. On Oct. 31 — Halloween! — we shall have a Cryptic Botany Workshop at Secret Arboretum. There shall be no Crypt-Kicker Five (reference: "The Monster Mash"), or maybe there will be. Certainly there will be talks, a field trip, an excellent lunch and much learning about cryptogrammic botany.

As with many Secrest OSU Extension workshops, there will be the usual $40 fee (though no cost to the Sestercentennial celebrations this weekend). And also check out the Secrest programs on Plant Families (Oct. 22 - $40), ArborEatum Edible Landscaping (Oct. 22 evening, no fee), and ArboReadUm Book Discussion (Oct. 25, no fee). Check them out at go.osu.edu/chatfield (must be lower case “c”) or contact Sarah Mays at mays.201@osu.edu, 330-263-3831 (by fax at 330-263-3667).

“The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world” – Alexander von Humboldt.

 

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