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Miss Floribunda: Native intelligence to the rescue

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Posted on: March 9, 2023

Dear Miss Floribunda,

I’ve been in this area a little less than a year, and am only now thinking about gardening. My yard has no trees, though some decaying old stumps suggest it used to have several. While the full sun would be nice for a backyard vegetable garden, the horrific heat last summer has me thinking that at least one shade tree in the front yard would be nice. My favorite tree since childhood has been the paper birch, but I’m told it won’t survive here. Any suggestions?

Stumped on Hamilton Street

Dear Stumped,

Your predilection for paper birches (Betula papyrifera) suggests you’ve come from New England or the Great Lakes region. Hyattsville winters are not cold enough to kill the larvae of the bronze birch borer, Agrilus anxius — the paper birch’s mortal enemy. 

I share your admiration for the paper birch, not only because it is so beautiful, but it is a native tree that harbors and feeds birds and wildlife during harsh northern winters. However, in the Hyattsville region, you might consider our native river birch (Betula nigra) as an alternative. The river birch, too, has fascinating bark that peels and a similarly graceful appearance — it is stunning when planted in groups of three. Although it won’t glow silver in the moonlight, it sports a fascinating blend of browns, grays, sepias and salmon — altering with the seasons. Its leaves turn gold in autumn. The river birch feeds many insects without being seriously harmed by them, and is the main host of the mourning cloak butterfly, Nymphalis antiopa. It harbors many other beneficial insects whose caterpillars feed baby birds. The bark of the tree itself is used by parent birds to make their nests.

I can’t stress enough the importance of planting trees native to whatever region you find yourself. You’ll do yourself a favor because they will be easy to grow and likely to survive. You’ll do the environment a favor, too, because these trees support local birds and pollinating insects and do not crowd out other native species of plants. 

You might wish to visit the native tree list of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, dnr.maryland.gov, to choose an appropriate tree. You will see which would fit the size of your yard, which are fastest growing, which have the most beautiful flowers and/or autumn foliage, and which have the most wildlife value — and there is specific information on exactly which birds, insects or animals benefit from them.

 I consulted my tree guru, Dr. Forrest Greenfinger of Chesapeake Natives, for suggestions.  Always one to have facts at the tip of those green fingers, he immediately pointed out that our mid-Atlantic oak trees host 557 species of caterpillars, whereas the non-native crepe myrtle hosts exactly one. 

Dr. Greenfinger approved the river birch, but also recommended maples, poplars, sycamores, persimmons, the eastern red cedar, and even the somewhat pesky sweetgum, whose fallen seed pods are so unpleasant to step on that it shouldn’t be planted near a sidewalk.

If you want smaller trees, Dr. Greenfinger is enthusiastic about our gorgeous spring-flowering redbuds and dogwoods, the fragrant sweet-bay magnolia, and the American hornbeam with its ravishing autumn coloration. He also advises planting native shrubs and groundcovers around the trees to allow caterpillars to complete their life cycles when they leave their host and look for shelter on neighboring plants. He urges you not to rake up and carry away fallen leaves beneath the trees, but, rather, to leave them as protective cover.

You have plenty of time to do your homework here, because autumn is the best time to plant a deciduous tree. Autumn in Hyattsville is long and temperate, and saplings get a good chance to establish themselves before the ground freezes and dormancy begins. 

Dr. Greenfinger understands that it may be tempting to plant trees during our mid-Atlantic springs, which seem long in comparison to the notoriously short New England springs, or even to the two-month springs of the plains and upper Midwest. However, spring here is followed by months of blistering heat that most newly planted deciduous trees have a very hard time surviving. They should be planted in the fall, which is long and temperate enough to get them established before the hard freezes of late December and January. 

On the other hand, Dr. Greenfinger urges planting young needle-bearing conifers in very early spring rather than in fall (right now is none too soon). Because these conifers don’t shed their needles the way deciduous trees shed their leaves, he maintains that their root systems need months of undisturbed growth to avoid wintertime desiccation.

The Hyattsville Horticultural Society has invited an expert on native plants to speak to us about groundcovers, but a date has not been determined. Please keep checking our website, hyattsvillehorticulture.org, for finalized information.

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