Garden Notes: Fall is hurricane season

And thoughts on a nuclear winter.

Hawthorns are interesting small trees, not only decorative but medicinally useful and wildlife-supporting. —Susan Safford

The autumnal equinox arrived in a stormy setting of winds and rains befitting pessimism. Here, Jose’s winds at times blew fiercely: nothing even close to 155 mph. The storm’s prolonged stall in our area produced four inches of rain in the rain gauge: nothing like 30 inches. Those Category 5 conditions are an unimaginable terror I hope never to experience. Where to hide? How to begin to resume life when everything has been stripped away?

In weather like last week’s, tall plants such as top-heavy dahlias, boltonia, sunflowers, aster, and tomato plants are almost impossible to keep upright and whole. Large ornamental grasses may or may not come back up if they were knocked over; those that were smashed may as well be cut away now. Many vines will have been ripped from trellises, or the trellises themselves will have been laid over. Heavy-headed hydrangeas are leaning way out of line; deadhead and cut back.

The Cuban Missile Crisis also played out in autumn, in October 1962, and today’s head-butting and insult trading by American and North Korean heads of state reminds some of us all too well of those tense times more than half a century ago. Surveying the damages wrought by heavy rains and lashing winds on a small West Tisbury garden, and experiencing the ensuing dull and empty emotions post-Jose, I perceive — just barely — the enormity of the devastation in the hurricane zones. My imagination, however, falters, screeches short, and revolts at nuclear devastation.

The many branchlets, leaf sprigs, and bigger branches ripped off by the storm winds contribute excellent biomass to brush and compost piles, as will anything bent and broken from grasses and forbs. Island crews will be raking and cleaning up for a while. Lawn repair should receive a boost from the rainfall.

Deer chow

Scratch another supposedly deerproof plant: For unknown reasons, deer have been going after three different patches of Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum and P. biflorum) here. Most authorities consider Solomon’s seal of little interest to deer, although a Vineyard Haven gardener reports her plants chewed too. Furthermore, nearby pokeweed plants were also stripped and chomped. I would be interested to learn if deer have eaten other ordinarily ignored plants.


Bulb planting

Enticing images of spring-blooming bulbs are flooding the mailbox. (Garlic is also a bulb.) If you have not already given some thought to where more spring-flowering bulbs might go, get thinking now: Inventories are figured more and more tightly each year, it seems, and when a variety is sold out, that is it for another year of your life.

My quest is for more and intriguing species lilies. Polly Hill Arboretum has propagated North American native Lilium superbum plants in pots, which would be at home in gardens or naturalized, in sun to part-sun in good, moisture-retentive soil. The major bulb suppliers, such as Old House Bulbs, McClure & Zimmerman, Brent & Becky’s, and John Scheepers all have selections of farm-raised species and cultivars.



This year the self-sown hawthorn in our front yard (of unknown species) is covered with reddening fruit. This is something of an event, since most years by now the fruit is disfigured and shriveled, victim of hawthorn-cedar rust. Early in the season, the fruits become covered with the rust’s spore pustules; or the tree hardly fruits at all after the cloud of white flowers passes.

Along with other berried garden subjects, such as dogwood species, crabapple, skimmia, aronia, viburnum, and of course orchard fruits, fall is when ripening fruit attracts attention: The fruit and the deeper color scheme it points up are signatures of fall.

Hawthorns are interesting small trees, not only decorative and of a scale that makes them suitable for the smaller property, medicinally useful, and wildlife-supporting, but also possessing a powerful symbolism they have acquired over millennia.

The ravages of leaf blights and fungal rust are therefore a major disappointment most seasons. What to do about this rust problem? Trees may be sprayed with antifungals on a 10-day to two-week schedule early in the season, or resistant varieties planted. The second option sounds better to me, in the long run. The Morton Arboretum recommends C. viridis ‘Winter King’ as one of the most disease-resistant hawthorns available.

Various species and cultivars of hawthorn bloom in shades from white through pink to bright red. Tree shapes may be rounded, spreading, or upright/vase. Fall color ranges from nonexistent to excellent. Persistent fruit of some makes them attractive subjects for winter gardens. Fruit — “haws” — and leaves may be manipulated to make herbal tinctures and tisanes. Through the ages hawthorn’s pharmacologically active chemical compounds, antispasmodic and sedative, have made it healthful to eat and useful for heart conditions such as valvular inefficiency.

Arthur Haines, who has made it an important part of his work to look at medicinal histories of North American plants, writes that although identification of individual species may be complicated, as for herbal usage, they are all used similarly. (“Ancestral Plants,” 2010.)

Hawthorn’s pharmacologically active compounds include flavonoids, terpenes, and phenolic acids: “Collectively these phytochemicals can positively affect blood flow to the heart, heart rhythm, and contractility of the heart muscles. Multiple studies have confirmed the ability of teas made from leaves and flowers to dilate coronary blood vessels, correct mild arrhythmias, increase the mechanical activity of the heart, and serve as tonic for degenerative coronary conditions.” (Ibid.)

According to “Herbs” (Roger Phillips and& Nicky Foy, Random House), “Dried berries 30 g/1 oz. in ½ pint of boiling water may be made into a medicinal tea said to be effective medicine for diarrhea, or, made double-strength, as an excellent gargle for sore throats.”