Two Native Conifers in the Autumn Garden

(Author’s note: This column is a revision of one that first appeared in September, 2012. At that time, our Brittany, Reilly, and her companion Dixie, a shepherd-lab mix, were the dogs in our lives. Now this role has been assumed by Mia the Beagle. There have been other changes as well, including the loss of the old cedar.)

In September, demands of the vegetable garden ease and there is time to regain a sharp focus on the rest of the garden. I walk with Mia the Beagle down the drive on chilly sunny mornings and the shaggy, honey-colored bark of a yellow birch at the top of the drive greets me like an old friend. The rest of the walk is a reunion with trees, shrubs, grasses, and forbs that I have largely ignored since early spring.

All the wild fruits that the garden has to offer.

All the wild fruits that the garden has to offer.

I harvest samples of all the wild fruits that the garden has to offer: waxy blue-gray bayberries; the bright reds of winterberries, wild rose hips, and clustered mountain-ash fruits; purple-black wild raisins and elderberries; the two-winged samaras of mountain maple and single-winged fruits of white ash; the dried seedheads of grasses and sedges; beechnuts and their prickly husks. As I collect, I recall a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “How little observed are the fruits which we do not use!”

Summersweet clethra seed pods with red styles.

Summersweet clethra seed pods with red styles.

Almost at the porch steps, I catch a glimpse of red within the summersweet clethra colony surrounding the old pine tree. On close inspection, the color belongs to thousands of tiny pistils attached to what were flower spikes but now are elongated clusters of developing seed pods. What an interesting and beautiful sight!

The Tree of Life

The arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), a tree called cedar or eastern white cedar in parts of New England, can live 300 years and lift its horizontal branches 60 feet or more into the sky. Its roots are anchored firmly in New England’s past.

In The Maine Woods, Thoreau described how Native Americans constructed a carrying harness for canoes from cedar shingles and bark. The frames of the canoes were also made from arborvitae wood for the same reason that all the old lumber camps of the North Woods had cedar shingles: the wood resists decay forever.

Arborvitae means “tree of life,” a name conferred by the king of France when cedar tea, a drink made by Native Americans from the bark and needles of the tree, cured Jacques Cartier’s sailors of scurvy during their voyage up the St. Lawrence in 1535 – 36. Arborvitae thus became the first North American conifer to be cultivated in Europe, introduced to Paris by Captain Cartier on his return.

Never as tall as its neighboring conifers, arborvitae is a compact tree with a buttressed trunk and shredding reddish or silver-gray bark. The soft yellow-green foliage, apple-scented when crushed, consists of tiny, scaly leaves borne in flat, filigree sprays that are a favorite of florists. In late summer the sprays of foliage bear clusters of oval, pea-sized cones that slowly ripen from green to warm brown.

Arborvitae seedlings may persist for decades in the shade of taller trees, waiting for a gap in the canopy. The trees that grow on rocky upland sites remain small, growing as natural bonsai forms with twisted trunks and gnarly crowns.

Arborvitae fall foliage.

Arborvitae fall foliage.

We are fortunate to have several old arborvitae growing in Marjorie’s Garden, as well as plenty of seedlings to replace the black spruce that blow down each year. My favorite time of year with the larger trees is late September into October, when sprays of the old scale-like needles turn copper-brown within the shaded middle of each branch. These needles combine with the apple-green younger needles for a striking autumn scene. The old needles eventually fall through the interior of the canopy to the ground below, forming a light brown carpet.

Two years ago we cut down an old arborvitae, the center of its trunk hollowed out by a rot that started at ground level and proceeded to excavate a cavity through the center of the bole. It had developed a noticeable lean toward the parking area for our cars. Red squirrels adopted it for a playground, chasing one another into openings at the ground and out crevices several feet high where branches had decayed. (This old tree reminded me of the venerable bald cypress trees that grew in the swamps of South Carolina, deciduous conifers that had lost their crowns to lightening and their heartwood to a fungus, yet continued to leaf out each spring. Honey bees would fly into these trees at openings near their base while others exited from the top, eighty feet above the swamp.) Rather than cut our arborvitae to the ground, we asked the arborist to leave a tall stump, about twelve feet high, in which the red squirrels could continue their play. We can watch their antics from the porch while for Mia it is dog TV.

White Pines in the Garden

A towering Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) grows in Marjorie’s Garden only 10 feet from the porch steps, a tree 60 feet tall with a trunk diameter at breast height of 25 inches. During the reign of King George III, a tree of this size would barely make the cut for use in the hull of an English warship, but by modern standards it is a tall pine.

The lichen-stippled trunk is branchless for the first 12 feet, followed by several whorls of dead horizontal branches, broken to various lengths by ice and snow load, then a broad-spreading canopy of branches bearing needles and cones. Last winter the weight of ice-covered needles tore several more branches from the north side of tree, leaving the crown lopsided.

The section of dead branches, all we can see of this tree from the upstairs windows, is the stage for Daybreak Theater, complete with accompanying symphony. As the sun rises above the trees along the Union River, chickadees fly in from the porch feeder to crack open sunflower seeds, using a pine branch as an anvil. Gravity-defying nuthatches creep upside-down on the trunk or along the lower side of a branch. A hummingbird surveys the garden from a branch tip, its ruby throat sparkling. Out of sight in the canopy, red squirrels chortle as they play hide and seek around the bole, crows caw, mourning doves hoot – oo-wah-hoo-oo-oo.

And there is middle-of-the-night entertainment from the same stage. Mia barks at porch noises, waking us in time to see raccoons scurry up the pine’s furrowed bark to a safe perch on a dead branch, bright eyes shining back at us in the dark.

A white pine in late September.

A white pine in late September.

In late September, after a week or two of chilly nights, old needles on white pines begin to lose their chlorophyll, slowly turning brown. At a point in this process, at the peak of fall foliage color in white pine, and only in morning sunlight, white pines turn to gold.

Two-year-old cones of white pine fall from the tree in late summer and fall. We gather these resin-coated cones into boxes on the back porch and use them through the winter to kindle stove wood each morning. Nothing gets the fire going any quicker.

Conifers receive short shrift when it comes to fall color, yet there is nothing in the autumn forest to compare with the copper-brown color of arborvitae sprays or the golden needles of white pine. Lucky is the gardener who can count these two native conifers among the garden’s trees.

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: