Farewell, Mr. Lincoln

Mister Lincoln has passed on to his reward, wherever that might be. The loveliest, largest-flowered, most gloriously fragrant of all the roses in my garden, my absolute favorite, is no more.  In his place, as expected, blooms the hardier Dr. Huey rose, with its scented blooms formed of deep red petals and golden center eyes.

Dr. Huey is a nice rose, so tough that it is often used as the rootstock onto which more delicate varieties are grafted. But in appearance and scent, it is to Mr. Lincoln what a robin is to a male  peacock in full display.  Mr. Lincoln is a superstar hybrid tea rose, first released in 1964, designated a 1965 All-American Rose selection, with flowers as large as five or six inches in diameter. It is a wow.

We’ve had other Dr. Huey roses emerge, once when the Gold Medal grafted onto it died, and once when one of our three beautiful pink Queen Elizabeth rosebushes faded away.  Doc keeps coming up in the Queen’s old place, no matter how many times I’ve pruned it down to the roots. It’s hard to kill a Dr. Huey. In terms of toughness and determination, Dr. Huey is to Mr. Lincoln as a mockingbird is to a sickly finch.

 Mockingbirds on the prowl

It’s extremely hard to daunt a mockingbird, particularly when there is a nest of baby mockers to be defended. I’ve seen them angrily drive away crows three times their size, and hawks easily twice the size of the crows. An enraged mockingbird is all noise and flapping and pecking, a cohort of kung-fu fighters unto itself.  But when it sings, it sings sublimely.

We didn’t see these when I was growing up in New Jersey; we had noisy catbirds.  But now that we are technically below the Mason-Dixon line in Maryland, we experience the joy of mockingbirds.

Sublime is a good word to describe the garden at this time of year. The azaleas have finished their riots of color, and their sisters the rhododendrons are losing steam.The few remaining native dogwoods in the area, Cornus florida, dropped their white bracts a couple of weeks ago. Now the lovely Japanese kousa dogwoods are displaying their oddly pointed white bracts, looking like late snow atop their green leaves. People have been planting kousas to replace the native dogwoods, which are dying from the disease anthracnose. Kousas are somewhat resistant to the disease, but they are a far cry from the white drifts of the native trees that used to dot our woodlands.

As a side-note,  true dogwood flowers are the tiny yellowish green things in the centers of the four large white or pink “petals” known as bracts. If it weren’t for those spectacular bracts, dogwoods would hardly be noticeable. As in showbiz, you gotta have a gimmick.

 Dying dogwoods

First reported in 1978 in New York and Connecticut, dogwood anthracnose has spread and destroyed vast numbers of the beautiful trees in the eastern and southern states. It is caused by a fungus named Discula destructiva, an accurate name if ever there was one.  A similar disease  is killing off western dogwood species.

Fortunately, my alma mater, Rutgers University, has come up with promising alternatives to the native dogwood.  Dr. Elwin Orton of the department of plant biology and pathology spent a quarter-century or more developing  hybrids of Cornus florida and Cornus kousa that resist  Discula anthracnose as well as a pest called the dogwood borer. The first group is known as the “Stellar Series”®, Cornus X rutgersensis, and includes  white  varieties as well as one named Stellar Pink.

Rutgers dogwoods to the rescue

In 2008, Rutgers released disease-resistant  Jersey Star® dogwoods, crosses of kousas and the western native dogwood Cornus nuttallii. One variety, Venus®, has absolutely gigantic bracts.

A few years ago we decided to plant the Rutgers hybrid dogwood called Constellation®, which has rounded white bracts similar to the native trees, though it blooms later. Ours managed to survive despite having part of an old mulberry tree fall against it while being removed, so I class it in the mockingbird-tough category. It is in bloom now, and looking more beautiful every year.  I thank the goddess of all flowering things, and Dr. Orton, and Rutgers for its springtime display.

As I poke through the internet trying to learn more about dogwoods and Mr. Lincoln roses, I believe I have detected the culprit that caused Mr. Lincoln’s passing.  This rose  is said to be susceptible to spring time freezes, and we had several episodes of that last month, drat it. It never occurred to me to put some covering over poor old Abe when we heard the frost warnings.

The suspected killer

The only visible frost damage I found in the garden after the first episode was to the hydrangea bush and the young deutzias, which lost their buds to the cold. There were two more light freezes, but I thought all was well.  The deutzias generated a new set of buds and are just now beginning to bloom – they look something like a white forsythia. Ours are still young, dug from the garden of  a delightful editor I used to work for, back in the days when I still had a job.

We are enjoying the early bloom of the perfumed white Sir Thomas Lipton shrub rose, the gorgeous deep rose Hansa, the amazing profusion of pink blossoms on the William Baffin climbing roses, and the dependable but unscented pink and red Knock-outs. Pretty Bonica, weighed down by more buds and leaves than ever before, started winking its pink eyes this morning, and the sturdy pale pink Cape Cod rose in the side yard is flourishing. The remarkably fragrant white Frau Karl Druschkii is just getting started.  I think the kelp meal I fed them last year worked wonders.

Will others meet the same fate?

The later bloomers, the pink Queen Elizabeths, coral Tropicana, coral-pink Fragrant Cloud, deep pink Perfume Delight and the deep red Chrysler Imperial, have yet to open buds, and I worry that some of these more tender varieties may have met the same fate as Mr. Lincoln. And I fear the pretty, fragrant Reine des Violettes, the Queen of Violets, is on its last legs from intractable black spot. The miniature yellow and orange roses will bloom in a few weeks, I hope.

But Mr. Lincoln took an icy blow to its tender heart. And again. And yet again. Slain by unexpected cold, slain in the month of April like its great namesake 147 years ago.

All those teasing warm days in March lured out the young delicate rose leaves weeks before their usual time, defenseless against frost. I knew we would pay for that preternaturally early springtime, and we have. As my mother used to say in Estonian, Suve silmad, talve hambad. The eyes of summer, but the teeth of winter.

Farewell, Mr. Lincoln. Rest in fragrance and peace, in that vast and glorious rose garden of the land of eternal summer.

And now the cherries…

This morning, after yesterday’s rainstorm, the cherry trees have come into their own.

Two days ago they were gray branches on gray trunks, but now they are mists of palest pink, proudly decorating the streets of Gaithersburg.

This is cherryblossom country. The century-old Japanese cherries down at DC’s Tidal Basin are a famous sight, worth seeing by day and magical in the moonlight. But those famous blossoms receive mobs of visitors, and it can be a hassle to get there.

The early Yoshino cherries on Professional Drive in Gaithersburg, and the ones at the Asbury Methodist retirement community, and scattered along streets around town, are gorgeous enough for me, without the attendant crowds and traffic.

One of the loveliest displays of blooming cherry trees that I’ve ever enjoyed was in Branch Brook Park in Newark, NJ. Years ago my Estonian-American friend Kati invited me and several others to a chilly picnic in the park when the trees were in full bloom. We shivered in our winter coats, but it was breathtaking to sit among the flowering beauty.

Even our redbuds are bursting forth, I noticed today. They are relatives of our common peas and beans and clovers, members of the legume family.

Redbuds are so vivid and surprising to see in the faintly greening woodlands. Personally, I like to think of them as the kisses of the Goddess on the awakening land.

And the cherry blossoms are Her dreams made manifest.

Almost heaven

It is the middle of March, an unusually warm March in Central Maryland, and  everywhere  there are white and palest pink clouds of blossom. The Bradford pears, both the tame and the wild, are in full white bloom (the pink trees are cherries). They are gorgeous, and if there is a heaven, I picture it filled with these blossoming trees and daffodils and violets  and new green grass.

At our old house, there was a great beauty of a Bradford in the front yard, one of many that lined the neighborhood streets and created an ethereal glory around us for a week or two every spring.  It was a perfect tree for climbing, and my daughters quickly learned to scurry up and hide in it like squirrels.  One of my favorite memories is of Tara around age 11, perched among the blossoming branches on a sunny afternoon, reading a book.

This particular Bradford was so large that it almost concealed the house; unusual because this particular variety of ornamental pear is short-lived.  The branches are easily broken in storms or heavy winds, which is one reason they fell out of favor as street trees.

Introduced  from its native China and Korea to the U.S. in 1916, Pyrus calleryana, the botanical name for the Bradford pear, was promoted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture beginning in 1963 for its lovely pyramidal form, two-week spring blossoming period and beautiful fall colors. In our area it is one of the first trees to bloom, preceded only by the stellar magnolia and its pink cousins.

And when almost every other deciduous  tree has lost its leaves,  the Bradford’s tough leaves turn every shade of crimson, gold, flame, orange, maroon and even purple, in a spectacular show that often lasts until Thanksgiving.

Bradfords gone wild

Alas, the Bradford has several flaws: the aforementioned tendency to split apart in heavy winds and snow, its growth of pesky suckers from the base of the trunk, and the unpleasant smell  of the flowers.

And there is one more. It’s gone wild.  Birds eat the tiny brown fruits, and spread the seed everywhere they go.  Declared an invasive species in many states and communities, they nevertheless put on a pretty show when they bloom.

As I drive along sections of I-370 and I-270 this week, I see the sides of the roads decorated with dozens upon dozens of wild Bradfords, rising like ghosts from the terrain.  One section of Route 355 just south of Shady Grove Road used to be lined with stately rows of them. Inevitably, they fell prey to the weather, but their descendants now fill the entire field behind Route 355.

“Take Me Home, Country Roads” is about Maryland

Sights like this bring to mind a song that the late John Denver popularized in the early 1970s, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. I’ll start humming “Almost heaven…” as I drive past the flowering madness, and then realize once again that this song was not originally about West  Virginia, but a road right here in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Back in 1970, I’m told, Gaithersburg was “nothing but cows,” according to a former colleague at the Newark Star-Ledger newspaper who hailed from Bethesda, MD.  Through this wilderness, musicians Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert  were headed to a family reunion of the latter’s relatives. During the drive, Danoff started making up a ballad about the winding country roads, specifically thinking of Clopper Road, which heads west from Gaithersburg to Germantown and Boyds.  Because they couldn’t think of a way to rhyme Maryland,  the song’s setting was changed to West Virginia.

In December, 1970, Danoff and Nivert, performing as the duo Fat City, opened for Denver at the Cellar Door in Washington DC.  Afterward they sang the road song for Denver, and the three of them stayed up all night rewriting it. They performed the song for the first time on December 30, 1970 at the Cellar Door, to a long standing ovation, then recorded it in New York City the following month.  It appeared on the LP Poems, Prayers and Promises, and the single of the song sold a million copies by August 1971.

“Take Me Home, Country Roads” often pops into my head unexpectedly when I’m on Clopper Road, particularly where it runs alongside  Great Seneca Park. Maybe the song really belongs to the road, even though the area has changed greatly over four decades.  And it’s so true. In springtime, this part of Maryland, suburbs and all, still looks almost like heaven.

Bye bye, Bradford

Our old Bradford pear tree succumbed to storms a few years after we  relocated to a nearby neighborhood, but members of my family will drive through the old streets to see the other pear trees in bloom.

The house we moved to in 1998 doesn’t have a Bradford pear, though it boasts two gigantic silver maples that give good shade in the back yard, but drive us crazy with their big roots that push through the lawn and into the vegetable garden.  Over the years we’ve planted a couple of kousa dogwoods, because the native dogwood, cornus florida, is falling victim to disease, and a hybrid Stellar dogwood developed by my alma mater, Rutgers University.

We’ve also put in a river birch with its odd peeling bark, a pair of hybrid America-Chinese chestnuts,  a red maple, and a Sargent crabapple. But my favorite is the Cleveland pear, a variant of the Bradford that has a stronger branch structure and good resistance to various blights.  It’s a taller, skinnier version of the Bradford, and this year it has really begun to look mature and beautiful in bloom.

And it has one more feature that I like: its blossoms don’t smell nearly as unpleasant as a Bradford’s.

It’s almost heaven in Maryland as spring begins today, but all this beauty is fleeting. In another week the green leaves will show through the white blossoms, and other ornamental trees and shrubs will bloom in their allotted times or sooner, if this warm weather persists.

There will be crabapples, and Kwanzan cherries that fill some neighborhoods in Rockville with their pink powderpuffs, and scatter pink snow on sidewalks and lawns. The native  dogwoods, though fewer in number,  will put on their lacy show, and redbuds will burst with vivid lavender-pink. Then come the azaleas in every lipstick shade there is, followed by their sisters the rhododendrons, and finally the kousa dogwoods looking like snow in summer, pointed white petals piled over green leaves.

Then comes summer, and roses.

I wonder, though, whether we would go crazy over these white and pink spring trees if they stayed that way for half the year.  Would we eventually get weary of the blossoms and long for the sight of cool green leaves, or the color explosions of autumn? Would I really enjoy a heaven perpetually in the bloom of spring, or would I yearn for roses and tomatoes?  Or for the bare grey branches sparkling with ice and snow, and no sidewalks to shovel?

Would you?