Garden Notes

Boston ivy
Boston ivy is the "official" ivy of the Ivy League. Photos by Susan Safford

Autumn, color and bounty

By Abigail Higgins - October 25, 2007

The windy, rainy weather last Friday night started the autumnal leaf drop, which is now accelerating. Millions upon millions of hardwood leaves are sailing earthward to form deep drifts and eventually, leaf mold. This, according to the forest ecologist Tom Wessels of Antioch University New England, is the basis of all soil in New England and the fertilizing matter that trees use to grow. Each year in autumn I go a bit nuts at the thought of the myriad bags of collected leaves sitting curbside, waiting to be trucked away, to who knows where, for subsequent destruction.

Keep those leaves, and other biomass, at home! While composting biomass at home on site is the most sustainable way to dispose of it, a close second would be municipally supported central composting on Martha's Vineyard. But instead, we have truckload after truckload of mixed waste stream sent off on the freight boats. The entire operation is heavily dependent on fossil fuel. Now that oil has hit $90 per barrel and beyond, it is time to beef up Island-wide composting.

Abundant fruiting year

This year has been one of exceptional productivity for fruiting plants in New England. Pome fruits like apples and pears, stone fruits like peaches and plums, drupes like raspberries, berried fruits of all sorts all seem to have borne heavily. The New England Wild Flower Society recently put out a press release concerning berried trimmings: For Healthy Holiday Decorations Avoid Invasive Plants. It is specifically concerned with the use of oriental bittersweet and multiflora rose.

Solidago caesia
Is this Solidago caesia?

"'Even though these plants may seem attractive, and some people would like to use them in dried flower arrangements, New England Wild Flower Society urges you to avoid them. Too often birds carry the fruits right off wreaths and garlands, or the fruits end up in landfills where they resprout. These plants create severe environmental damage in many parts of the country. They invade open fields, forests, wetlands, meadows, and even your own backyard, aggressively killing off whatever plants are nearby. Bittersweet can even kill mature trees. Both plants are extremely difficult to control-when they are cut off they quickly resprout.

"Even though you may still see them for sale, because they are so dangerous to natural habitats it is now actually illegal to sell bittersweet and multiflora rose in any form (plants or prunings) in the state of Massachusetts." For more NEWFS news and information on the Internet, go to

It was vexing to see that the photo descriptions were switched in the last Garden Notes column, on the subject of goldenrod. The print edition carried the caption intended for an image of seaside goldenrod beneath an image of an unknown goldenrod, which I hoped was Solidago caesia. (In the web edition the image and caption matched correctly.) For those who are interested in goldenrods it was probably confusing. If you are a reader who knows which goldenrod the spindly stem with the interrupted yellow tufts of bloom is, please inform me.

Parthenocissus: Wall hanging deLuxe

The delights of autumn include foliage effects that stun us with their contrasts. The colors of the other seasons are beautiful too, but more monotone. Winter is quietly shaded in black, brown, and grey for the most part. Spring shimmers with a gauze of pastels, punctuated at times with clouds of flower-covered plants. Summer is green everything. Fall is unique for splashes of surprising and ephemeral Technicolor that stop us in our tracks for the visual pleasure of it.

I had no need to leaf-peep in Vermont but only in my own neighborhood to savor the tapestry of reds in this Boston ivy foliage (pictured) on an east-facing chimney. "How beautiful is that!" as the colloquial question-as-statement goes. Boston ivy, known botanically as Parthenocissus tricuspidata, is a member of the Vitaceae, thus putting it in the family of plants that includes grapes, ampelopsis (porcelain berry), and other creepers. Boston ivy is the "ivy" in Ivy League and is closely related to our native Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia. Both species color dramatically in fall, but the latter's leaves are always divided in fives.

Originating in China and Japan, Boston ivy is fully hardy in North America from zone 4 to 8. As a deciduous vine, it is able to clothe the walls of a three-story building, extending to 50 feet or more. This ivy is not picky about cultural conditions, but in my experience it "sits" for a while after planting, before taking off and growing strongly after a couple of seasons.

The foliage of Boston ivy is variable. The basic form is a glossy three-lobed leaf on a four- to six-inch petiole (stalk), reminiscent of a maple leaf perhaps, but young pioneer shoots just venturing out wear a smaller leaf that is entire but somewhat frilled. Fall color is best in sunny sites.

The mature foliage held out from walls on the petioles accounts for the plant's being stipulated by architects as a literally green form of air-conditioning for masonry buildings. The shaded airspace helps create air currents and a cooler thermal mass.

There are five principal cultivars of Boston ivy. Two are of greater interest than the other three, which seem mainly to have the distinction of growing more vigorously than the type. P. tricuspidata 'Fenway Park' is a chartreuse-leaved variety found by Peter del Tredici of the Arnold Arboretum while on the way to a Red Sox game with his son. One never knows when one will spot a great plant! In growth and habit it is similar to the type. An excellent use for 'Fenway Park' is to light up a shady or dark area, making this introduction a good problem solver.

P. tricuspidata 'Lowii' is a sort of mini Boston ivy, having much smaller, deep green leaves, deeply cut and frilled. Overall, it has a dainty, fine-textured effect, but the vine itself extends to the same dimensions as the type. It may actually be tougher than the type with respect to temperature, as its hardiness is described as zones 3 to 9.

Thought needs to be given when planting Boston ivy near structures. The plant attaches by disc-like appendages that cement themselves to surfaces. Masonry is unaffected by them, but painted or wooden surfaces may be damaged when overgrowths of Boston ivy are pulled away.

Members and supporters of the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society are invited to the annual Barn Raisers' Ball on Saturday, Nov. 3, from 7:30 to 10 pm. Bring finger food to share and dance to the music of Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish.