The latest edition of Meristems, the publication of the Polly Hill Arboretum (PHA), is out. As usual, it is beautiful and informative, and announces the welcome news that PHA has met the conditions for a two-to-one $500,000 challenge grant, amounting to a tripling of individual contributions. Well-earned congratulations, PHA.
Included in Meristems is a timely piece on Island members of the Myricaceae, the bayberry family. Timely because bayberry is a broadleaf "semi-evergreen" Island native, whose presence stands out more clearly against a snowy background. Repeated snow and ice over the course of the winter tend to strip most of the foliage from the bushes, on which account the term "semi-evergreen."
Renamed Morella pensylvanica by those pesky taxonomists, bayberry (formerly Myrica pensylvanica) with its beloved spicy fragrance, is the native landscaping material for those who appreciate a quintessential Island look for their premises, with the additional bonus of its being an important wildlife food source.
Now that the slowed-down time of year is here, pause to take a drive, a walk, and a look around our beautiful Island home. You will see that bayberry, and sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) too, the second member of the Myricacae on the Island, are prevalent in sandy, open settings where they receive plenty of light. Look in former pastureland, back-dune habitat, or places like State Beach, Cedar Tree Neck, Menemsha Hills, Moshup Trail, Katama, and the Lagoon causeway and bridge. These are all spots to observe how bayberry likes to grow.
In utilizing bayberry in your own landscape, attempt to duplicate those conditions. Bayberry and sweetfern might be found in wooded situations, especially among pitch pine, that have grown rapidly and overtaken a pre-existing clump of the plants; however they will likely fail, victim of the shady conditions.
As the Meristems profile notes, bayberry and sweetfern are able to form nodules on their roots that help them fix nitrogen into the soil, which is gathered from the atmosphere. To do this they utilize a bacterium in a symbiotic relationship that is similar to those of leguminous plants. Over time, the slight and steady nitrogen enrichment of the soil started by the bayberry or sweetfern helps later plant alliances to flourish in what was previously barren soil.
In making a planting of bayberry, choose both male and female, container-grown, young plants in order to produce good amounts of the handsome grey berries. Starting with smaller, rather than larger, plants makes establishment easier. Use as hedging, massed plantings, or individual specimens. Plant two to four feet apart. Do not enrich or amend the bed, which is completely unnecessary, but do remove competing vegetation and mulch the bushes after planting. When the plants are well established they form colonies, spreading by underground stolons. Bayberry seems to prefer not to be pruned or shaped, at least in my experience. Older, taller bushes can be brittle and vulnerable to damage from winter snow or ice loads. Be prepared to clear them quickly.
Those pesky taxonomists
Of course, it is disappointing to master at length the botanical name for bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica, only to learn that it has been changed to something that sounds as if it belongs to a cherry, or maybe a mushroom, Morella pensylvanica. Who are these people and why do they go around changing the names?
Taxonomists formally classify living things, including plant families. They obey the dictates of improved scientific information and understanding of relationships. With the publication of the APG III system (Angiosperm Phylogeny Group) lots of plant classifications are being re-evaluated and more name changes may be in store. It is all in the interest of understanding plants' relationships to each other.
I read about these developments in the December issue of The Garden, the publication of the Royal Horticultural Society, which describes APG III as the most comprehensive flowering plant classification system yet developed. "Angiosperms" are plants that flower, fruit, and form seed from an ovary. "Phylogeny" is the evolutionary development and history of a species or higher taxonomic grouping of organisms.
The focus of the project is the grouping of plants based on their DNA "rather than their visual appearance, resulting in an improved understanding of how plants are related to each other. It has revolutionized modern plant science and revealed dozens of hitherto unsuspected links between plants, proving, for example, that plane trees (Platanus) are closely related to South African proteas."
The flowering plants, or angiosperms, are not the only seed-forming plants; the other grouping that makes seed is the gymnosperms, conifers. Gymnosperm seeds develop either on the surface of scales of cones, or at the end of short stalks, like the living fossil tree, gingko, not in an ovary.
Angiosperms come in two forms, the monocots and the dicots. Monocots, short for monocotyledon, are plants that germinate with one shoot or cotyledon, like grasses, bulbs, and orchids. Dicots, short for dicotyledon, are plants that germinate with two seed leaves, like bean sprouts or pepper plants.
With that we have come round to where we need to be, which is looking over the seed catalogues, and ordering our monocots and dicots. Order early for best selection: there will be great competition for available supplies this year, I predict.
The Polly Hill Arboretum series of winter walks is an enjoyable way to get some fresh air and exercise as well as brush up on the winter behavior and appearance of many plants on the arboretum grounds. January's walk is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 9, at 10 am. Additional walks are planned for February 13 and March 13. Meet at the Visitor Center and dress for the weather. Tours are free to all.
Happy New Year and welcome to 2010.