Posts Tagged ‘trees’

If You Plant It, They Will Come

March 27, 2011

Some of my friends are on a “cleanse”. You need the book  to participate- $9.16 on  You give up “obstacles to digestion” which apparently include eggs, nuts, dairy, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, peppers, meat, soy, cheese, wheat, and coffee.  Since this doesn’t leave a lot you can actually eat, there is a line of shakes and supplements, $425 for the most popular package.  Evidently people are contaminated with poisons from  a diet which presumably includes tomatoes and peppers (see above list for other possibilities), and it is recommended that the cleanse continue for at least a month.  If you have had the habit of eating any “allergen, mucous-forming or inflammatory” foods (see above), then you need to take and stay on a pre-cleanse program for a time before you can get into the actual cleansing. The more poisonous your previous diet, the longer the pre-cleanse.  Then comes the gastrointestinal scrubbing during which you will need to take pills with names like Clear, Equilibrium, Pass, Ease and so on. The image I got when I heard about these wasn’t good at all, especially “pass” and “ease”.

When you complete the tour of duty, you will feel energy and clarity, and be at least $434.16 lighter.  Starvation for the privileged.  But if you want to be on the cutting edge of weight loss fashion, look no further.  The book alone is a runaway bestseller.

I am polite about all this.  But I shudder at the frivolity while people the world over could eat for months on $425 and feel overfed.  Being riven with hunger is torture. Real starvation means the Cheezits aren’t six feet away in the cabinet if you tire of it.  The price of such hunger far exceeds $425. It is known, tragically, by millions.

On another plane, but no less pitiable is the deprivation known this winter by animals and birds throughout our area.  As the snow melted here at Hill-Stead I sadly found quite a number of bird and animal corpses.  In a harsh winter, hunger is a ruthless creditor.

This year birds gobbled up late summer berries like wild grape, pokeweed, poison ivy and blueberries before the fall was even over, so they had to start in on winter berries early.  Winter berries include cedar, sumac and winterberry.  They were in turn eaten up early. Starvation set in and with no other crop to draw from, many birds switched to eating alien and ornamental plants like multiflora rose and bittersweet. Without these foods as sustenance, I would  have found quite a few more corpses during my springtime wanderings. This got me thinking.  Because the birds had to switch over to eating invasive plants , it may mean that invasives will spread more than usual when spring warms up and the seeds dispersed by the birds begin to grow.

I began to consider the further effect of an increase in alien plants. I’ll use Hill-Stead’s experience with a butterfly, the Baltimore Checkerspot, as the perfect example. This insect has a favorite food.  And like a picky child, if the favorite food is unavailable it simply won’t eat.  But the bug has more gumption than most children, and it dies out in places where its’ preferred plant has died out.  No plant, no bug.  In this way, once common insects become more local then gradually go extinct.  Hill-Stead used to be a last gasp location for the Baltimore Checkerspot since we had quite a bit of turtlehead, the favorite plant. But the meadow began to be mowed in wider and wider margins, and the turtlehead went.  It was long before my time and anyone else here now. But the butterfly census folks still shake their heads, and so do I.  The Baltimore Checkerspot is not unique in its stubbornness. Every single insect is the same.

But here’s the thing: 96% of terrestrial birds (as opposed to sea-going birds, for example) feed their babies on insects and spiders. What determines how many and what kind of insects are around?  Plants! So, if we keep creating scenarios where invasives multiply, we will continue on a crash course with insect extinction and by extension bird extinction and by further extension, well, you get the idea.

Eastern Redbud (native)

Now it probably isn’t anyone’s specific fault that we had a bad winter and the birds had

Serviceberry (native)

to resort to eating multiflora rose hips.  But it is our fault if we fail to increase our use of native species when we plant around our homes, parks and ornamental gardens.  In this way, the birds and insects and everything that depends on them will have a leg up by having the proper food to eat. More native plants, more insects, more birds. More, please.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist


Tree of Heaven

August 2, 2010

I see it every time I drive down Mountain Road to Hill-Stead.  It’s the Tree of Heaven, officially known as Ailanthus altissima. Originating in China, it is mentioned in ancient dictionaries and medical texts and was used there to cure everything from mental illness to baldness. Today it’s still used in traditional Chinese medicine, principally as an astringent. Like lots of invasive plants and animals, Ailanthus grows fast and soon dominates the landscape. In an extremely un-heavenly move, it sends chemicals into the ground to discourage growth around it so it can suck up all the surrounding resources and stretch unimpeded toward the sun. You can find Ailanthus anywhere the land has been disturbed and  some say it has a real stink to it, like the female Ginko tree.

Our Tree of Heaven is located near the spot where a wooly mammoth was pulled from a bog by Hill-Stead farm workers in 1902.  For a time it was the “must see” for scientists from all over, as it was then the first completely intact skeleton ever found.  One of the biggest archeological finds of its time, it even helped popularize the word “mammoth”. The Tree of Heaven couldn’t have been there in 1902 since at that time the whole area was part of the Pope farm. But when Theodate died her will dictated that Hill-Stead should become a museum.  There just wasn’t enough money from her estate (the bulk of which went to the Avon Old Farms School, which she founded and for which she designed the buildings) to create a museum.  So they sold 100 acres of land, which included the Wooly Mammoth bog and the place where the Tree of Heaven sits now. But I still think of it as “our” land. I have no doubt that if Theodate had known the value open spaces would come to have, she would have written her will differently.  Now the area is dotted with homes (some brand new as the area continues to grow) and a tennis club. Having been bulldozed by developers I think the property qualifies as “disturbed”, so no one should be surprised that this behemoth of a tree has grown there in such a short time.  Many invasive plants and wildflowers are found in such places.  An Ailanthus can reach 49 ft within 25 years or so.

I think the tree is pretty.  It has large compound leaves at least a foot long, with between 10 and 41 leaflets each.  At this time of year it flowers,and the cultivar we happen to have becomes flame-colored . You can see it from  from a long way off.  Tree of Heaven has determination, reproducing not only by seed, but also by throwing up “suckers” all around it through the earth.  It can withstand dirt, dust, pollution of every kind and still it pulls itself up toward the sun. Tree of Heaven was the inspiration for the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith, and it is easy to see why.

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” tells the story of Francie Nolan, who lives in poverty in Brooklyn, New York.  Like so many immigrants at the turn of the last century, the family struggles to attain a piece of the American dream.  Francie’s mother feels the key to this is a good education and she is determined her children will have one.  A Tree of Heaven grows in a vacant lot near their apartment and symbolizes the determination of the family to rise above their circumstances.  It is a wonderful book-a real touchstone for millions of people. It was adapted to a movie and a stage play, no doubt because the story is a familiar one to Americans whose backgrounds include many a Francie Nolan.

What a contrast to Theodate Pope, daughter of one of the richest families in America! She came from Cleveland to Farmington to attend one of the most elite schools in the country,- a far cry from Francie Nolan, who yearned for any education at all, to save her from a lifetime of scrubbing floors.  And yet in her own way, Theodate was swimming against the courant, too. Unlike her peers, she wanted a farm and a career, an unseemly, unusual aspiration for a young girl with means.  Her mother couldn’t understand it and they were at odds.  Theodate and Francie were not dissimilar in their yearning for that which was just nearly out of reach to them.   Their goals were close enough to tantalize, yet odd enough to be hard to realize within their specific social castes.

What would life be without the thirst for something more?  I bet most people driving down Mountain Road in Farmington don’t notice our tree even when it blooms.  But I am just as certain that they each have a personal Tree of Heaven within them.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

February 22, 2010

A lot of people think we should tap our sugar maples.  It would be nice.  Who doesn’t love maple syrup?  When I come down the drive toward the house, with our beautiful old maples on each side, I smack my lips thinking about all the nice syrup we could make. At least I do in winter.  In the summer I am just grateful for the wonderful shade our sugar maples provide, and the dramatic way they lead us to Theodate’s pretty country house.  Sugar Maples give good shade in summer and good shape in winter, for their branches reach pleasingly toward the sky, and it is agreeable to watch them pointing upward even in their leafless state.  This tree is just chock-a-block full of goodness, and I don’t just mean the syrup.  It is a highly-favored fuel wood, but more excitingly perhaps it is used for bowling alleys, baseball bats, furniture and dance floors.

Now it’s almost sugaring time.  You need freezing nights and above-freezing days to start the sap running.  Also needed is someone to run around to all the trees you tapped at least once a day, to collect the buckets of sap.  That someone would also have to be willing to lug the precious buckets (no spilling, now) to wherever your boiling operation is.  The work is multiplied by the number of trees you tap.  Boiling off the sap is also arduous, and it goes on until all the water is boiled out, and what is left is a sugary residue-syrup.  Sugar maples give the best sap, though you can tap Black Maples and Red Maples, too.  The Black and Red ones have a flatter tasting syrup, but when you consider syrup as a whole, that’s not so bad.

Maple sugaring is simple.  You wait until winter is beginning to slope off like a guest who stayed a bit overtime.  Then you eyeball your maples.  How big are they?  If the maple is less than twenty inches around you can only put one spile (spout) in.  Up to twenty five inches, you can use two, and anything above that you can tap three times.  You’ll probably get about 15 gallons of sap per tree.  Ten gallons of sap makes about a quart of syrup.  After you collect the sap, boil off all the water until the sweet residue is left, then you’ll have to strain it to get bugs and “sugar sand”-naturally occurring mineral deposits, out.  Then you can bottle it, if you aren’t dead from exhaustion. The high price of maple syrup is justified, in my opinion.

People keep urging us to tap.  I don’t think that is what Theodate Pope had in mind when she planted the maples along the driveway leading to her home.  I think she wanted a “look”.  (It has always been referred to as “an allee of trees” which is a frenchy/botany way of saying the driveway has trees lining both sides.)  And although she would in no way have been opposed to the tapping itself (she was a farmer at heart if nothing else), she would have been sensitive to our perennial, urgent need for thrift.  Museums are all feeling the pinch right now, but none more than our own lovely and precious place which lacks a financial endowment of any real kind.  We raise the budget from scratch, year after year.  I cannot myself understand why we have had no gigantic sugar daddy behind us. But there are many such unanswerable questions in my mind always.  So, as far as maple sugaring goes it is ironically too expensive for us. We have no extra to pay for the work involved with syrup-making.  Someday, we say to ourselves in a dreamy way, we’ll get a huge gift and we’ll insert the thin edge of the wedge against the idea of some farming. With, just for a start, some maple sugaring in winter to go along with the sheep farming in the summer.  Now, that would be sweet.

See you on the trails,Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Baby, it’s Cold Outside

January 5, 2010

Many of my neighbors have big thermometers in their yards that tell temperature, time, barometric pressure, the Dow Jones Industrial average and who knows what else. I don’t have one, but then, I don’t need one. I have rhododendrons. I like to think of them as nature’s thermometer. Rhododendron have a large, leathery leaves which normally spread wide. But when the temperature falls, they curl in on themselves, edges turning under, to lessen their overall exposure to the cold. Frigid air can’t easily cross the curled leaf, and it doesn’t dry out quite as much as it might. Too much water loss can kill a shrub. The branches get in on the act when it gets really freezing-they hang down toward the ground, when normally they stretch out wide.

The rhodie is a very accurate forecaster. If the leaves curl up cigar-sized, it’s cold. When they look like pencils, it’s freezing. Wear a hat. If the part of the plant closest to the sun is uncurling, make sure to dress in layers. The rhododendron fortells what the weather later in the day is going to be. You may be in pencil-leaf territory now, but later when that sun shines on everything it’ll be warm enough to unwrap yourself a little, just like the plant.

There are some darn big rhododendron at Hill-Stead. Their name doesn’t trip gently off the tongue, but if you know its derivation it helps keep the syllables in the right place. “Rhodo” comes from the Greek and means “rose”. “Dendron” means tree. Rose Tree=Rhododendron. If you look at the shrub with that in mind, you realize how much the flower actually resembles that of an old-fashioned rose.

The rhodies at Hill-Stead and in my yard too, are nursery- bought specimens, though the Hill-Stead plants are ages older than mine. Accordingly, Hill-Stead’s are quite large. There are a couple of beauties near the entrance to the Sunken Garden by the Carriage Porch, and several others around the the house. I haven’t noticed any native rhododendron on the trails, though there may be some wild ones further along on the connector to the Metacomet Trail.

To create what we now know as a rhododendron, Colonial Americans sent native plants from here back to England which were bred with Asian plants already being cultivated there. New England native plants came then as now in white and purple, but today the cultivar rhodie blooms in many lovely colors, the result of the pairing of the eastern and western types of plant.

I like looking out the window for a plant to advise me on how to dress for the day. I’m a sucker for homely virtues, I guess. It seems right to me that something earthy should spell out winter comfort. We are part of each other, united certainly in our need for protection from the cold. Comfort comes, after all, from an organic place within us. What comforts us most? A hand, a smile, a flicker in a loved one’s eye? Warm words in a cold world? All of the above no doubt, and each one as real as the curled leaf and bent branch of a plant seeking surcease from a long winter day.

When Heaven and Nature Sing

December 23, 2009

It is said that animals can speak on Christmas Eve, a power bestowed for just one night marking the miracle of Christ’s birth.    I feel as though animals communicate with me in their own silent way and frankly I think that no less a miracle. There are commonplace marvels you need to look for. I believe wholeheartedly in the miraculous nature of everyday things.

Natural metaphors have been used for centuries to inform the Christmas story, possibly because the enormity of the subject matter begs to be interpreted in universal yet simple terms. The most obvious natural element of course, is the presence of the brightly shining star over Bethlehem.

The manifestation of the star may be legend, or possibly is made up by Matthew in the New Testament.  However, some astronomers have hypothesized that the phenomenon was in fact a celestial event called a conjunction of planets.  Though rare (once every 800 or 900 years) there were three such conjunctions in 7 B.C.E. when Saturn and Jupiter appeared very closely together in the night sky.  The first time would have been in May of that year, theoretically when the three kings started their journey. Another such conjunction happened in late September, which would have coincided with the visit to King Herod.  The conjunction of planets then moved to the south (nearer Bethlehem) and was joined in orbit by Mars in December.  The bare bones of the Nativity story are supported at least by the stars.

The holly and the ivy are not just a Christmas song.  The lovely old carol refers to the holly as wearing “the crown”.  The prickly leaves of the holly represent the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at the crucifixion, the red berries are meant to be drops of blood.  Ivy must cling to something in order to grow, as we must to faith in God.  Dozens of other plants play a role in holiday folk tradition.  Pointsettias, Christmas cactus, mistletoe, Christmas fern and many others figure prominently in popular tradition.

Trees stand out in the panoply of Christmas stories.  Naturally, there is the Christmas tree, an evergreen whose perpetual living color symbolizes eternal life, which is perhaps today one of the most universal signs of the season.

The Yule log, the trunk of an entire tree, was meant to burn from end to end over the twelve days of Christmas. The log was placed with one end in the fireplace and the other sticking out into the room and was fed into the fireplace as needed.  Trees play such a big role in the holiday, and neither are birds left out. Cardinals and robins have long been associated with Christmas and the story of the robin’s role is particularly sweet.  It tells how the bird stayed near Jesus as he slept in the manger, keeping him warm by beating his wings beside a small fire and singeing his breast by proximity to the flame.

Stories with centuries behind them are rooted in something powerful.  They are an attempt to explain that which cannot be explained.  They go where current science (or any science at all) can take us.   It is no surprise that holidays like Hannukah and Christmas occur so closely together and are animated by our necessity for warmth and light.  These are the longest, darkest days of the year.  The best way to withstand them is to gather together in demonstrations of faith and celebrations of light. The winter solstice (the darkest day, literally, with the fewest hours of daylight) occurred this year on December 21, just four days before Christmas and less than a week from the final night of Hanukkah.  It’s all downhill from here, each new day lengthening with ever greater radiance. Sustain yourself and those you love with incandescence of whatever form you find illuminating.

Warm Wishes from us here at Hill-Stead.

See you on the trails in 2010,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Ever Green

December 1, 2009

It’s nice to see a little green around as winter advances.  The land is still pretty at this time of year, but it needs some definition and an evergreen is just the thing for it.  Some folks are easily able to identify deciduous trees (ones who lose their leaves in fall)  just by the bark, and there are loads of chirpy books about identifying such trees in winter, full of instructions about terminal buds, lateral buds, lenticels and leaf scars. But give me a nice evergreen any day.  Life is hard enough without adding to it the seemingly useless skill of recognizing leafless trees.

Not to say that evergreens don’t lose their leaves, in fact, they are always losing them in small numbers so we don’t much notice it. Many believe that evergreen trees have no leaves, but that’s not so, either.  The things we call needles are leaves, just really skinny ones. These needles are very waxy, too, so they keep their moisture, unlike deciduous trees whose leaves grow brittle.

Especially near Christmas people start thinking about which kind of evergreen is the best.  Many people like to bring home a nice spruce.  But how do you know you’re bringing home a real spruce to your relatives, who are busily hauling out the ornaments and fighting over who put the star on top last year? Those fellows at the firehouse parking lots are firemen, not dendrologists, so it might be a good idea to learn a few common evergreen trees to make sure you don’t get fleeced, not at least until you visit the American Girl Doll website.

There is a simple rule of thumb for identifying spruces.  Spruce needles are distributed along the twig singly, not in bunches.  Think spruce=single.  Also take a look at the cones, if there are any  left on your future holiday focal point.  Spruce cones point to the ground.  Some describe them as “sagging” from the branches.  There is a an alitterative memory device for this, too.  Spruce=sag (as in cones).   People in my family like a fir, and you see many firs for sale at this time of year.  Being evergreens, they have cones, too.  But fir cones point at the sky.  They “fly” up. Fir=fly.  This doesn’t apply to Douglas-firs.  Douglas-firs are a western tree and whoever named them might formerly have been an easterner.  He was probably homesick because firs and Douglas-firs are not at all the same kind of tree, and there is an entirely different way of identifying them. Maybe the chap who chose the name was himself named Douglas, or his dad was, or his son or favorite dog, I don’t really know. I just know the trees are not the same.

Pines are easy.  They are the number one most populous tree in America, but if you value family harmony don’t bring home a pine for use as a Christmas tree.  Their needles come in bunches, and it is like nailing jelly to the wall trying to get ornaments to stay put on a pine.   Watch for the needle bunches that identify pines.  Buy a tree that has single needles and everyone will be happy when you get home.  Another evergreen that theoretically could be used as a Christmas tree might be the hemlock, whose needles also grow singly along the twig.  I’ve never seen them sold for that, but it might not be a bad idea since so many of them are dying from the Wooly Adelgid virus anyway.  For now, my only advice on the hemlock front is not to stand underneath one in a high wind.

The fire fighters might try to get you to buy a cedar, and you should if you like the look of them and no one in your family is a hemophiliac.   Here’s the problem:  cedars don’t have very noticeable needles.  Some people and books say they have “scales”. These scales feel like sharp little pins. They may “stick” you when you try to pick the tree up to hoist it on top of your car.   The kids will be crying from being “stuck” by the “cedar” before there are five ornaments on the tree. Think about sticky, scaly, sanguinated cedars and you won’t even want to look at one, let alone buy it.

Here’s my best piece of advice.  Buy an artificial tree*.  They have really nice ones these days, some that even have the lights on already and a stand at the bottom so you don’t have to hold the tree for hours while someone snarls at you, “More to the right!”  You’ll be helping the environment.  You can use that same tree next year and for many years to come.  You also save loads of “green” by not buying cut trees that have been taken from the disappearing boreal forests of Canada and trucked here producing masses of greenhouse gasses, turning “evergreen” into “never green again”.   After the holiday you can look around at all the nice, living pines, firs and cedars and feel as though you’ve given just about everybody a really nice Christmas present.

*or a locally grown, cut down by you and yours, sustainably grown live one.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Witch Hazel

November 12, 2009

Think of it as an early holiday gift, as a season’s last gasp, or even as the foreshadowing of seasons future. Witch Hazel is in bloom.  The last flowering tree of the year, it lights up the early winter forest like nothing else. Wild witch hazel (say that three times fast) has a subtle, delicate yellow bloom. Because the flower is sparsely distributed along the branch, it doesn’t make a riot of yellow burst through the forest.  More like an Impressionist painting, there is a little dab of color here and a bit there. The tree is very easy to miss through the haze of autumn leaves. It blends prettily into the landscape and you could easily walk right by it. The delicate blooms soon give way to the winter chill so we are lucky to have quite a number of witch hazel shrubs to enjoy along our Woodland Trail. If one shrub has gone by, another further on might yet have flowers. So there is still a chance to have a glimpse before winter really gets here.

IMG_2037Nearly everyone has heard of witch hazel.   As one of the great natural remedies, its efficacy over a host of ailments led it into commercial production in the 1800’s and business continues to boom even today.  Used as an astringent, hair tonic, aftershave, bug repellant, and sunburn salve, it is also known to be an effective antiseptic, hemorroidal balm, anti-diarrheal and cure for varicose veins.  It is said that the benefits of witch hazel were passed down from Native Americans to the early settlers.  When you consider how things turned out, it would have been better if they had just let infection, dysentary, bad skin and piles send the settlers packing right back to Europe.  No good deed goes unpunished.

East Hampton, Connecticut is the witch hazel capital of the world.  Just a piece down the road from us here in Farmington, East Hampton is home to Dickinson’s Witch Hazel, the largest manufacturer of it.  They’ve been making the stuff since 1866.  They do a big business and are pretty much the dernier cri in natural skin care and first aid products using Virginiana Hamemelis, the latin name for witch hazel.  I’m zipping my mouth shut about our stash of the plant up here in Farmington, just in case they ever run short.

Like most plants, Witch Hazel has many names.  One, “Snapping Hazel”, refers to the shrub’s crafty habit of explosively spewing out its’ seeds, casting them far and wide to ensure propagation without overcrowding. Another, “Winter Bloom” is somewhat self-explanatory but I prefer it to all others.   It is pleasant to think of the pretty little tree lighting the woods with color in defiance of ever-earlier darkening skies and dropping temperatures.   It’s a reminder to be doughty in the face of harder days upcoming and a celebration of quiet beauty that merits a search through the early winter forests.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker,Estate Naturalist

Ewe Yews

November 6, 2009


It’s not exactly the swallows and Capistrano, but sheep are back at Hill-Stead.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Anesthesia's Faith & TheodateTheodate Pope wanted a country life.  Her rusticity was sophisticated, but at its core Hill-Stead was a farm.  The property boasted peach and apple orchards, greenhouses, silos, barns, out buildings and was as up-to-the minute in farming practices as was possible at the time.  Miss Pope prided herself on her award-winning livestock.  Sixty years later, Lil and Juliana, Hilda, Emma, Irma, Hattie, Poppie, Succotash, Jasmine, Crash, Elsie and Rhubarb are the harbingers of what we hope brings back the Hill-Stead legacy of farming.

 Thanks to the generosity of friends from up the hill, sheep once again dot the property.  Our sheepherding neighbors let us “borrow” their sheep during the warm months, and sweeter visitors you couldn’t ask for (the shepherds are darn nice, too).  To me, there is nothing more companionable than sheep.  “Our”  Shetland Sheep spend the summer eating the poison ivy and listening to poetry every other wednesday night during the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival.  They seem to like poetry, and baa now and again during the readings. But they don’t let on which poems (or poets) they prefer.  

 Shetland Sheep are wonderful, and have bloodlines dating back 1000 years.  They are a dainty breed, not much larger than some sheep dogs.  At seventy-five to a hundred pounds, the ewes are pretty and nimble.  Rams are only about twenty-five pounds bigger.  Though fine-boned, they are rugged.  An “unimproved” or “primitive” breed,  they retain the robust nature of their Viking forebears.  I take exception (on their behalf) to the use of the word “unimproved” when it so clearly in their case means “not in any need of improvement”.  Shetland sheep are easy-going –their tails don’t even need to be docked.   In the literature, these tails are charmingly referred to as “flute-like”.  I don’t know exactly what that means, but if someone described any part of my physique as flute-like, I’d take it as a compliment.  These sheep are good mothers, and no-nonsense lambers.   As one of the oldest British breeds they maintain the fine characteristics of ancient wild sheep, meaning, among other things, that they are plucky and trouble-free.  Our ewes are winsome and Hill-Steaders are, quite frankly, besotted with them.

 Theodate was quite an Anglophile.  Having  British sheep on the place would certainly fit her vision of Hill-Stead, which included  stone walls built by stonemasons straight from England, and Capability Brown-inspired landscape architecture. It may be no accident that there are so many yews around the place.  Yews are about as English a tree as you can find.  The wood was the steel of the day before the industrial revolution, and its strength coupled with its flexibility makes it even today a preferred wood for longbows.  Robin Hood, legend has it, used yew for his.

But yew is poisonous-except the berry or “aril” as botanists call it.  Don’t heave a sigh of relief.  The seed within the aril is toxic,too.

 There is little point in trying to suss out the Japanese cultivar from the English or American.  Suffice to say the plant is evergreen and can be tamed into a shrub or let loose into a handsome tree.  The yew grows charmingly by leaving a bough on the ground so long it takes root and becomes another tree.  Thus, it is sometimes hard to say which is the paterfamilias amongst a grouping of yews.  A yew is a shrub or a tree, a hedge or an accent plant.  They grow in sun or shade and like a nice pruning now and again.  Most evergreens don’t. This explains its outlandish popularity as a suburban plant. In ancient times, it may have been the only British evergreen. We can see why-sun or shade, shrub or tree, accent or hedge. Few plants can claim such versatility. In this, they are similar to our sheep!

 Perhaps the most impressive feature of yew is its medicinal derivative -taxol.  Widely used in the treatment of breast and ovarian cancers, I (like many), may owe my life to it.  The pleasure at seeing it in full growth around our property cannot be imagined.

On a lighter note-the yew has the honor of being perhaps the first modern Christmas tree.  Queen Charlotte (wife of Charles III)  decorated a yew with sweets and toys and illuminated it with candles for a party of local children at Windsor on Christmas Day in 1800.

So there are ewes and yews, in ways oddly similar.  We are thrilled to have them both here at Hill-Stead. 

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist


October 29, 2009

If you take the Woodland Trail from the farm road you head up a little hill.   At the top there’s a turn off to one of the other trails.  I like to stay on course for a while.  There are other opportunities to switch, and I enjoy heading down the hill to a little dell where an ecotone forms.  An ecotone is an area where different kinds of habitat meet. They can be rich locations for all kinds of wildlife.  This spot has a tiny meadow, some scrubby woodland and a  nearby wetland area.  You can find many birds and the spot just has a good feel. I often linger and see what turns up.

Looking to the left at the bottom of the hill and toward the back of the little meadow there, almost right under Route 4, you’ll see a stand of trees with very straight trunks clustered together.  It looks a little Burnham Wood-Come-to-Dunsinane, but I checked and there isn’t anyone hiding in there. 

Every one of the trees looks the same, sort of.  Trunks are similar and the height varies, but none are much out of proportion with the others.  The wacky part is the leaves.  Some look like a simple ellipse, others like a mitten.  A third kind looks to my eye like a dinosaur footprint.  What tree produces three different kinds of leaves? Actually, there are a few species like mulberry and burr oak, but the habits and the characteristics of the sassafras (never mind the rollercoaster name) are really neat.

Sassafras is the “go-to” plant for loads of folk remedies, yet at the same time has a bad reuputation with the USDA as a potential carcinogen.  Go figure.  The hill people versus science.  Who knows what to believe?  Frankly, as a confirmed lover of Cajun food, I have to endorse the use of file-a key ingredient of gumbo.  I like the old Hank Williams song-“Jambaya, crawfish pie and the file gumbo….”-my mother used to sing it to me.  The leaf of the sassafras is dried and crumbled to produce the spice and thickener essential to so much Cajun cuisine.

Among the many other uses found for it over the centuries, sassafras has taken a star turn in candy, root beer, soap and perfume.  After its introduction in Europe, it was served up in England as “saloop”-sassafras tea served with hot milk.  Everyone loved it so much that it became in 1610 a condition of the Virginia charter from England.  It also found favor as a remedy for colds, rheumatism and skin disorders. 

The sassafras, known sometimes by Native Americans as “the greenstick” tree, starts out just so-as a green stick seemingly growing without obvious genesis.  While the plant can grow from seed, the most common (and annoying I am forced to say) is its habit of growing from “suckers” or volunteers from hidden rootstock derived from mature trees. Sassafras can grow inches a year, so it gets big quickly.  Loads will grow all at once.  A full grown tree can reach sixty feet, so it’s hard to imagine you wouldn’t see the the materfamilias, but with a big crown, the mama can be pretty far away and you might not notice it. The greenstick volunteers grow in horrifying profusion and are practically impossible  to get rid of in a backyard or garden. 

In a sense, you have to give the sassafras some credit.  The suckers spring up in droves when the originating tree is cut down as if to protest the demise of its kinsman and keep the bloodline going.  Thus the army of them down by the Woodland Trail.  They are hardy nearly everywhere, and in many cases prized as an ornamental.  In places it is loved for the pretty fall foliage, which can develop in an amazing variety of colors.

Crush a leaf between your fingers; whatever else you may think about its growing habit, you’ll love the fragrance.  This member of the laurel family disperses its pretty perfume quite readily, and you may find yourself pining for a root beer. 

See You on the Trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Note:  Photo credit:  Rosanna Hamilton