Monday, November 22, 2010

Reflections on a severed bulb

Waking up to snow this morning means that, despite what the calendar says, fall is over and winter is here. A few weeks back, when fall was still in full swing, I took advantage of the sunny, balmy weather we had  and struck out for the arboretum for a mid-day stroll. I wanted to take in the myriad display of fall color and I was not disappointed. The warm days and cool nights we had this fall, combined with relatively little stormy weather, made for spectacular foliage color. 

I hadn't even made it all the way to the park when I saw a stunning, bright yellow Ginko tree (Ginko biloba).

Ginko has lovely, unique foliage that is mid-green in the summer then turns a vivid, lemon yellow in the fall. It was a beacon of light painted against a gauzy blue sky. The leaves of this living fossil are shaped like a duck's foot for which it gained the name ya chio ( ya chio to ginko) in China, where it originates. Ginko is a handsome, ancient ornamental tree that once grew widely, and has survived virtually unchanged for over 125 million years. The last remaining colony of trees grew in eastern China south of the Yangtze River and was highly regarded for its unusual fruit (yin hsing - silver apricot), which was paid as tribute to the emperor. This rare tree was eventually brought to the capitol and then gradually made its way into cultivation, spreading throughout China, Asia and then to the rest of the world.

The fruit, a drupe, is about the size and shape of a small apricot, is yellow when mature and contains an edible nut. For years I heard of how horribly messy the falling fruit of this tree can be and for this reason most ginko trees in cultivation are male. Last year, when Evan and I were in Montreal, I visited the Montreal Botanical Gardens and I saw the ginko fruits for the first time! They were beautiful - on the tree - and messy on the ground.

This spectacular tree is quite tolerant of a wide range of soil types, grows well in urban environments (though better suited for larger gardens), prefers full sun and is heat tolerant once established. Its habit is broadly pyramidal, growing moderately, it can eventually reach 50-80' with age and can grow to be as broad. Its habit is highly variable, so try to stick to named varieties when selecting your ginko. I highly recommend Hui-Lin Li's The Origin and Cultivation of Shade and Ornamental Trees for more information about the fascinating history of ginko and other ornamental trees.

A few other trees I stopped to admire on my walk through the arboretum were Sourwood (Oxydendron arboreum) and October Glory Red Maple (Acer rubrum 'October Glory').

When I returned home I paused out front to check on the status of our newly planted sidewalk bed. I have been eagerly awaiting the emergence of Cyclamen coum  bulbs that we planted in October. Our neighborhood has more than its fair share of squirrels with all of the acorns that the oak trees shed every fall. Feeling somewhat tenuous about planting bulbs for the first time in our garden, not knowing what the squirrel's level of interest would be, I opted to plant the cyclamen a little deeper than I knew I should have - 5" deep instead of a scant 1".

I know that squirrels generally leave cyclamen alone and I know that newly planted bulbs won't have leaves emerge at the same time as potted/planted bulbs, BUT I just couldn't resist the temptation to investigate their status. Against my better judgment, I grabbed my hori hori knife and dug around where I knew I had planted the bulbs. In doing so, I cut into one of the cyclamen bulbs. Just a nick really and not a mortal wound. The bulbs were there, undisturbed, until my zeal for signs of winter made me foolishly wield my knife. The lesson was clear: let sleeping bulbs lie and let the seasons come and go when they are ready.

"The very things are still the same, but human nature changes in time. Someone should record the beginning so that future generations can know its origin." Ou-yang Hsiu (1007-1072) historian, essayist and poet, discussing the ginko tree, as translated in The Origin and Cultivation of Shade and Ornamental Trees by Hui-lin Li.

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