My $5.00 Redbud Trees

A landscape designer friend told me I should not be buying those $5.00 trees that line the sidewalk in front of the grocery store. “They won’t last,” she says.  That might be true in many cases but, bargain shopper that I am, I cannot resist.  I figure it’s a cheap gamble and I’m a planting fool. Sometimes it does not pay off but sometimes it actually does with gusto. Let me tell you about my wonderful $5.00 redbud that has become my oddity specimen tree.

I really love the Eastern redbud tree (Cercis canadensis). It seems to be drought resistant and has a high tolerance to salt. Before the leaves appear, thousands of small pink flowers burst open along the truck and branches. It can be planted in full sun or part shade and it thrives in a variety of soil types. If you check out the tiny blooms,  they look much like the pea bloom for it is in the same family. Following the James River along the Colonial Parkway to Williamsburg, the pink redbud blooms usually open about a week before the dogwood. I find myself planning additional trips to Williamsburg to be a witness to the redbuds blooming among the glorious dogwood trees. It is a sweet welcome to spring each year.

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Well, here is my oddity $5.00 redbud tree. It bloomed pink with one trunk for several years. When additional trunks began to emerge, I allowed them to develop to balance the tree and the tree began to bloom white AND pink. This baffled me for a couple of seasons. The lovely heart shaped leaves were identical. Did I have a grafted redbud that grew on a white redbud root?  No, I did not. I discovered as the tree aged that it is actually two trees from one pot.  The white redbud (Cercis canadensis f. alba) may have developed from a seed that sprouted in the same pot.  Examining the trunk, one can see that the pink redbud has a rougher trunk than the smoother white redbud trunk.

click to enlarge trunks

Mystery solved.  My landscaper friend just scratches her head and agrees that this $5.00 was very well-spent. This summer, I am taking cuttings from the white redbud and trying my hand at propagation.  In a few years, I may have a border of white redbuds!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Just Passing Through…

Cedar Waxwings dining on fosters holly

I heard their high pitched whistles before I saw them on Sunday morning. The sound was piercing enough to serve as my early morning wake up call.  I hopped out of bed and dashed to the window to search for these traveling gifts from nature.  In the pre-dawn light, I could only see the dark silhouettes dotting the limbs at the very top of the sycamore tree but there was no mistaking the unique calls of this bird. The whistling bzeeee bzeeee, a little like a high pitched dog whistle, was coming from cedar waxwings, about 80 of them, dark against the sky.  They’ve finally arrived. They never made a stop on their fall migration but this small ‘aristocracy’ or flock of waxwings was making its way to their northern breeding grounds.

Acrobatic waxwings often eat upended!

I was so honored to welcome these well-dressed birds to dine at the foster hollies again. The three trees were full of red juicy berries waiting for their arrival. Cedar waxwings are frugivores, meaning they eat small fruit during the fall, winter and spring, but they are also invertivores, or insect eaters, during the summer months.  They are acrobatic in flight and are excellent insect catchers in mid air. I must alert my daughter in Maine that the birds are on their pilgrimage back to their nesting grounds near her. They breed around the lake near her home and entertain her as much as they do me. She once ‘saved’ a moth inside her home by tossing it from the back door… only to have a cedar waxwing snatch it in midair.

Click to enlarge photos

The fosters hollies are practically cleaned of berries today. They are nibbling on the seed balls of the sycamore and may linger for another day before they are off on their arduous northward journey. If you’d like to invite these well-dressed birds to dine with you, consider planting native fruit trees or maybe their favorite, fosters holly.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Another One Bit The Dust

On a calm afternoon recently, another of our maple trees fell. This gigantic tree was so tall that it fell across the yard, through the bamboo grove, with the canopy spreading across our neighbors’ lane.  A phone call from our neighbor sent mister gardener scurrying with his chain saw to help clear enough of the mangled boughs and branches to allow their invited dinner guests, due to arrive shortly, enough space to squeeze around the tree with their cars.

This fallen maple tree prompted mister gardener to have the two trees that lay on the frozen ground removed.  On the day of the removal, we were told that one other old maple was completely hollow and could fall at any time.  Oh, but I was very fond of this tree with the many pockets, a tree that I passed every day on my walk. I could visualize just taking the crown and leaving the trunk as a snag for animals of all sorts.

Because of the location, mister gardener made the decision to take the entire tree and I think his decision was the right one.  At the end of a long day, our three old friends made the journey off the property together. They have left us with a big empty space in the yard where they stood for many, many years.  Where there was once shade, there is now full sun. It is much too bare and I am already on the case, trying to decide what trees plant in place of our maples.

The site is well away from salt water in slightly acid soil.  Any suggestions?  I know one thing: whatever I choose, the new trees will have mighty big shoes to fill.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Sycamore or less?

At the time mister gardener and I acquired our property, I was dismayed to note that the only shade tree on the river side was a large American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), a pretty ordinary native tree, I thought, that would leave us with a massive leaf cleanup in the fall and an exfoliating bark cleanup and a seed ball cleanup as well.

Found in most states east of the Great Plains, the native sycamore tree can grow to massive heights of 100′ or more and can live 500 years. It possesses the largest leaf of any tree in America, a maple-shaped leaf of three to five lobes that can be a foot wide. It’s a very easy tree to identify on the horizon. The most distinctive feature is the mottled, camouflage-like bark with stretches of smooth, pure white near the crown that stands out in the winter landscape.

An early landscaper suggested we replace our medium-sized sycamore.  I am extremely glad we did not heed his advice for we have grown to know this tree and admire the goodness about it in spite of the mess it shares each fall. The tree has thrived in its location in the center of our yard. In ten years it has grown quite large and it does supply us needed shade in the heat of summer.

The most surprising discoveries for us were the benefits and safe harbor the tree provides our fine feathered friends.  At any given season of the year, the tree is a Tower of Babel for the world of birds.  With my binoculars aimed into the branches, I see families of bluebirds, flocks of finches, cedar waxwings and other birds eating the seeds from the fruits, the ‘buttons’ that hang one from each stalk. Mourning doves, cardinals and all the well-known ‘tweety birds’ species find a haven in the branches of our mighty sycamore tree, including a hawk or two.

Sycamore stories abound in America as the tree has a rich heritage.  Not only was the tree of value to the Native Americans, it was a familiar sight to our westward progressing forebears as they settled near rivers where the trees thrived along the banks.  One book I remember reading years ago, Where The Red Fern Grows, tells of a boy living in the Ozarks in the early 1900’s, whose passion was hunting with his dogs.  I still can picture the scene where the boy chopped down a beautiful old sycamore to kill a raccoon.  Perhaps that distant memory is why I could not chop down our sycaMORE, not less…

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester


Weather conditions have been unusually wet this winter. We’ve had rain, snow, sleet, freezing temperatures and now we are having unusually warm days. Fog often greets us on these mild mornings. It’s a bit of an eerie feeling to stand on the pier that virtually disappears into a blue abyss.  Sounds on the river are sharper. Geese and ducks are out there somewhere communicating with one another.  Although they can’t discern shapes or movement, the labs know very well that someone or some dog stands on a neighboring pier.

On land, wooded scenes that we hardly notice as we pass on a regular basis take on a ghostly and unnatural appearance in the blue haze. However, the story changes as we view each tree separately.

In the seas of fog that we have been experiencing, the most interesting features are always the individual trees. Details that we miss on any given day are embellished in the most humble of trees. We notice the form, the shape, the separate trees in a copse, the angles, and the splendor that we may have overlooked yesterday.

I keep a library of photographs I have taken of trees in the fog.  Although photos are an imperfect reproduction of what the eye experiences, they are reminders of the grandeur of a tree and of the benefits to the natural world.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

The Osage-Orange

It was a thing of real interest when Meriwether Lewis sent osage-orange tree (Maclura pomifera) cuttings and seeds back from St. Louis to President Thomas Jefferson in 1804 and in 1806. According to a letter from Lewis, the trees did not take, but since then it has been planted throughout America and can be found just about everywhere.

I am thankful for the two female trees that drop fruit nearby my home.  It’s the time of year that I gather them, for, like many Virginians, I use the fruit for Christmas decorations. Colonial Williamsburg often uses them instead of apples, impaling them on nails on cone-shaped wooden forms, then using boxwood and holly to fill the spaces between each fruit or they are used on wreaths and swags along with other natural items like nuts, berries, cones and fruit.  I always have a bowl of osage-oranges mixed with nuts, berries, cones and pine on the dining room table at Christmas.  It’s a festive look and the fruit can release a delightful citrus aroma.

Called osage-oranges by most folks, the fruit is also called hedge apples, horse apples, or monkey’s brain. It is a bright green wrinkled ball about the size of a grapefruit, a relative of mulberry and fig trees.  The Osage Indians prized the wood of the tree for bows and war clubs and early settlers prized it as a living fence for livestock.  Until barbed wire, thousands of miles of this thorny pruned hedge kept farm animals in place on The Great Plains.

It is native to a small area of Texas and Oklahoma, but the absolute largest osage-orange tree, the National Champion and American Forestry Hall of Fame osage-orange tree does not grow there.  It grows right here in Virginia at Red Hill, the home of Patrick Henry.  It has an eighty-five foot span and is sixty feet high.  No one knows the exact age of this remarkable tree.  We know it postdates Henry as he died in 1799 before Lewis and Clark sent the first seeds to Virginia.  A wonderful legend has it that a tree was given by Lewis and Clark to his daughters after his death and they immediately planted it in front of Red Hill.  I like that…

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Ida, Go Home!

Today's rainfall....Tropical Storm Ida, we’ve had enough! The dogs, the cats, mister gardener and I, the plants, the trees, the shoreline, the pier… we’ve all had enough. You caught us by surprise.  Instead of bringing us blustery, inclement weather, you just had to merge with that low front in North Carolina to bring us The Perfect Storm, a Nor’easter.

Did we lose a huge old maple yesterday (Wed.)?  Yes. Did it take power lines with it?  Yes.  Could we then start our generator? No. Did the maple fall across our lane blocking our exit by car? Yes. Thank goodness a kindly neighbor met mister gardener at the end of the lane for a trip to Walmart for a new generator battery.  And as of 11 a.m. today, we’ve had limited power forFarewell old friend lights and refrigerator, tv and… computer.

Right now, at 3:30 p.m., Thursday, we have 41 mph wind gusts with white caps over the river and high tide in one hour. The lower section of pier is completely under water and the waves are breaking over the high pier.  Mister gardener is watching his small boat that is raised as high as it can go on the lift.  So far our property is high and dry but much of Tidewater and coastal North Carolina is badly flooded with a state of emergency declared for Virginia.

Ginkgoes against the windowsRain continues to pound us and trees are tilting precariously. Temperatures outside hover around 50 degrees.  Temperatures inside hover around 59 degrees in every room but the family room where a roaring fire keeps all of us toasty warm. By the weekend, this slow moving offspring from Ida should be moving toward the northeast.

Good riddance!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

The Yellows Have It!

After days of warm, dry weather, a cold front moved into Virginia over the weekend, dropping temperatures to the 50’s and bringing us a trace of rain.  We woke this morning to a landscape filled with attention grabbing golds and yellows. Here’s what I saw on my walk today:

It won't be long before the ginkgos leaves drop

It won’t be long before the ginkgo leaves turn lemon yellow, then all fall in a day’s time to cover the ground like melted butter.

Crepe Myrtles frame mr. gardener's fence in yellows and golds

Crape myrtles frame mr. gardener’s winter vegetable garden in yellows and golds.

Yellows from maples, poplars, and hickories greet you on the lane.

Yellows from maples, poplars, and hickories greet us on the lane.

Old maples carpet the lawn.

Old maples carpet the lawn.

Young maples vie for space

Young maples vie for space

A young sassafras gets in on the act.

A young sassafras gets in on the act.


Netted chain fern (woodwardia areolata) yellows beneath evergreen holly.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester