Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Landscape Plants: A Walk Through Fall Favorites

By Erika Zambello

I love the outdoors, I always have. Though I have recently begun practicing my skills identifying birds and butterflies, I have never learned how to identify plants and trees or decide which ones would look best in a garden setting. Given that they are the structural elements to all ecosystems, I was excited to begin learning the basics in the fall course of the seasonal Landscape Plants for North Carolina Gardens series, and to file away some thoughts for a future garden of my own.

For our first class we began by gathering in the classroom, where Jan Little, director of education and public programs, gave us a brief overview on what we should be looking for when studying a plant, such as leaf configuration or flower structure.

Moving beyond the theoretical, she then turned on the projector and gave us an introduction to the plants we would be learning that day. For each plant, Jan discussed identifying characteristics, as well as design uses, including the right mature size for different gardens, planting trees or shrubs to best enjoy their particular features, and selecting plants based on their physical attributes throughout all seasons. We focus on 12-15 new plants per class, and afterward I feel like I have made significant progress in my identification and design prowess. I know that my fellow gardeners in the class felt more confident in making their future plant choices.

In our inaugural workshop, we started by discussing paperbark maple, followed by Japanese maple, musclewood, persimmon, seven sons flower, black gum, pistachio, lacebark elm and New York ironweed. After briefly covering preferred habitat and good garden uses for each plant, it was time to head out into Duke Gardens and look at the landscape plants in person!

Our classes have been blessed with beautiful weather so far, and as we walked on that first day the air was still warm and the sun just beginning to set. First stop: paperbark maple (Acer griseum), growing right alongside the Doris Duke Center. It reaches a height of 20-30 feet, with a spread of 15-20 feet.  But its unique copper bark really sets it apart from other trees, a feature that is stunning even in the winter.

We wound around the Gardens, stopping at each plant on our list. Though I liked them all, my favorite of the day was definitely the black gum tree (Nyssa sylvatica). Birds love its black berries, but I especially loved its bright red fall foliage, beautifully on display as we approached the tree near the Gothic Gate.

The best moment however, came not during my first class, but a few days afterward. I was strolling through Duke Gardens with a friend, enjoying the warm weather and fall foliage. Walking up to the Doris Duke Center, she pointed up at a particularly scarlet tree, admiring its color. With a wide smile, I pointed, too, telling her, "That's a black gum!"

A few days earlier, I would have had no idea what we were looking at, but now the identification sprang to my tongue, as did other facts we had learned in class. As I continue on with the fall plants, I know I will have more "Aha!" moments like these. My plant world will begin to take on more species names and attributes, and I will be able to mentally construct different landscape gardens incorporating the plants we learned about.

I've enjoyed the classes so much that I am planning to sign up for the next series, "Landscape Plants for North Carolina Gardens: Winter," which will run for three Wednesdays, Feb. 18 and 25 and March 4, from 3-5:30 p.m. Students will learn identification skills and design use, and they'll get a better understanding of the culture of each plant. While the fall "Landscape Plants" focused on those species that look best in the autumn season, the winter session will introduce plant silhouettes and evergreens.

Participation is limited, so join me and sign up for a slot today! 

Landscape Plants for North Carolina Gardens: Winter
Participant limit: 15
Fee: $110; $90 for Gardens members & Duke staff/students
Information/registration: 919-668-1707 or gardenseducation@duke.edu

Blogger and photographer Erika Zambello is a graduate student studying ecosystem science and conservation at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. 

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