It’s been a weird winter, if you could even call it that. Raleigh has hardly seen a skiff of snow, wool coats remain closeted, and oak trees are already budding. Ornamental cherry trees and forsythia were in full bloom in early March. All sorts of bulbs have been showing off for weeks. But what are the real signs of spring here in the Piedmont of North Carolina? For us at Natural Learning Initiative, it’s when plants that grow naturally in our forests start pushing out blooms.
Two of these plants are so vibrant and prolific that even zooming past them on the highway they remain visible as a blur of color through naked branches and road signs.
Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a small, understory, native North Carolina tree. Its deep pink blooms are actually edible (try them on a salad). Around NC State, the Chinese redbud (Cercis chinensis), a relative of our native redbud, bursts forth around the same time (you can eat the blooms, too). Dogwood (Cornus florida) is another early spring bloomer that signifies warmer winds are on the way. The interesting thing about dogwood flowers is that they are not actually flowers but leaves or bracts. The actual flower is tiny and can be found in the center of the white bract. But please don’t eat either part of the dogwood.
In our man-made landscapes we have many versions of these two trees. Landscape architects use them generously to create focal points and as an understory, prescribing them specifically based on their performance and suitability for each application. They have cool names like “Forest Pansy,” “Lavender Twist,” “Cherokee Princess,” “Oklahoma” and “Hearts of Gold.” Selected plants must perform under tougher conditions than ever, dealing with pollution, inhospitable soils and disease—it’s not easy being an urban tree! It has always been difficult to prescribe dogwood trees, which is particularly frustrating because they are so inspiring. Dogwood, the state flower (even though the flowers are actually bracts), is all around us in its natural woodland setting. Dogwoods have been considered a disease-prone plant, susceptible to anthracnose and powdery mildew, nasty ailments that usually result in death.
Luckily, we have researchers at like Dr. Thomas Ranney working to ensure that the native trees such as dogwoods thrive in modern-day landscapes and continue to define the North Carolina Piedmont springtime. He’s focused on creating disease-resistant hybrid dogwoords. If you’re interested in using native plants in your landscape, read the recent News & Observer article about Dr. Ranney, based at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River.
Another researcher who is working hard to deliver new varieties of our beloved native tree, the redbud, is Dr. Dennis Werner. His decade-long redbud breeding program in the horticultural science department has resulted in several unique new cultivars that allow designers to use these beautiful native trees in new ways. Through selective breeding techniques, Dr. Werner has transformed the traditional architecture and characteristics of Cercis into new trees such as ‘Merlot,’ ‘Ruby Falls’ and ‘Whitewater.’
Just as a painter gets excited with the purchase of a new tube of acrylic, landscape architects embrace the opportunity to design with a new medium—in this case trees which have graced the edges of our native forests for generations but now have been carefully tweaked to play a new role in the designed landscape. Many thanks to the scientists who give designers the tools they need to share the natural inspiration of a North Carolina springtime.