Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Paulownia tomentosa

I missed the thousandth anniversary of the world's first novel in 2008. Better late than never, I am making amends by observing the thousand and first. The Tale of Genji, which depicts the cloistered world of the imperial Japanese aristocracy of a millennium ago, is thought to have been written in about 1008. An abiding presence in the novel is the empress tree, Paulownia tomentosa. The delicate lavender hue of the Paulownia flower is the color of romantic attachment throughout the tale. That color is murasaki, the first name of Genji's author, Murasaki Shikibu. Genji's adoptive daughter (and concubine!) is also called Murasaki. Genji's mother, who dies shortly after Genji's birth, is the Lady of the Paulownia Court. Genji carries on a romantic affair with his stepmother, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Lady of the Paulownia Court.

A tree with the aristocratic associations(1) and exquisitely beautiful blooms of Paulownia might be expected to keep only the best company. Sadly, the tree's star has fallen. In Plainfield Paulownias are most likely to be found in the neglected precincts of the railroad tracks, keeping company with disreputable black locusts (http://plainfieldtrees.blogspot.com/2007/05/black-locust-robinia-pseudoacacia.html). You can see the two species commingling in the wooded strip of land that borders the tracks along South Second Street. America doesn't share Japan's enthusiasm for Paulownia. Despite the beauty of its blooms, Paulownia is regarded as a weed in this country.

I'm glad to report that Plainfield has at least a few beautiful and well cared-for Paulownias. One is in the front yard of 1038 Central Avenue, pictured below. I despaired of finding a photogenic Paulownia in town until Hugh Goodspeed directed me to the Central Avenue tree. (If you visit to have a look, don't miss the white oak only yards away, one of the grandest white oaks in the area. It is pictured at the end of this posting.)

Pictured below is another large Paulownia on Leland Avenue in front of Stillman Gardens.

Jo-Ann Bandomer pointed out this tree to me last spring. She sent an email describing it as looking like a tree-form wisteria. A Paulownia in bloom could easily be mistaken for a wisteria. The huge flowers, which appear before the leaves, are of the same general shape and color as wisteria blooms. Once the leaves appear, the resemblance to wisteria is lost. The large, heart-shaped leaves of Paulownias closely resemble the leaves of catalpas (http://plainfieldtrees.blogspot.com/2007/06/catalpa.html).

Paulownia is not often planted in the United States except on tree farms. It's considered messy, prone to splitting, and invasive.(2) We grow the tree on farms to export its wood to Japan. The wood is highly prized in Japan for its light weight, easy workability, and resistance to rot. It is also said to be fire-resistant. Paulownia wood is a traditional material for the fabrication of chests in which to store kimonos. Several sources relate that it was once customary in Japan and China to plant a Paulownia on the birth of a daughter. The tree would grow fast enough to provide wood for a dowry chest at her marriage. The wood is also used for traditional musical instruments and clogs.

The Japanese still value Paulownias for their beauty, not just as sources of wood. The Paulownia tree is honored by depiction of its flower on the seal of the Japanese prime minister. It would be hard to imagine a flower as the symbol of any American government office. What might Dick Cheney's flower have been?

Schooled by samurai movies, Americans think of the Japanese masculine ideal as silent, loyal, duty-bound, fearless, and skilled at swordplay. The Tale of Genji reflects a different pole of Japanese culture. Genji's era preceded the one depicted in samurai films, and the milieu is the court, not the battlefield. The masculine ideal in Genji's world bears little resemblance to the hero of the samurai film. Not hesitant to shed a tear in contemplation of a beautiful view, he seeks to impress the ladies by the skill with which he mixes the colors of his robes and by the cleverness of his poetry. He prides himself on his ability to blend scents for his own personal perfume. He knows nothing of the world outside the hothouse environment of Kyoto and is afraid to leave central Kyoto at night for fear of highwaymen.(3)

I'm on the lookout for another tree to celebrate an anniversary. This year is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns. Does anyone know of a photogenic Scotch pine?

White oak 1038 Central Avenue

(1) Not only Japanese royalty, Russian as well. The tree was given its Latin name Paulownia to honor Russian Princess Anna Pavlovna.
(2) Paulownia has earned a place on the Plant Conservation Alliance's Alien Plant Working Group Least Wanted List. http://www.nps.gov/plants/alien/fact/pato1.htm
(3) The World of the Shining Prince, Ivan Morris, Kodansha International 1994, p. 145.
Copyright Gregory Palermo

Thursday, April 9, 2009

New American Chestnuts

Plainfield mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs will honor the American chestnut at 946 Madison Avenue at the City's Arbor Day celebration Friday April 24.

The tree was planted by Bill Santoriello in 1992 and is now about 10 inches in diameter at breast height. The tree is currently owned by Vicki Blasucci. Lacking a nearby chestnut to pollinate it, the Madison Avenue chestnut has been sterile. But things are looking up for the tree. It will soon have neighbors. The American Chestnut Foundation provided germinated nuts for planting new trees nearby. Bill Santoriello, Vicki Blasucci, and Robin Gates planted four of the nuts this past weekend, two on Vicki's property and two on Bill's, which backs on Vicki's. The nuts are the progeny of a 19" diameter chestnut in Middletown (which was pictured in Plainfield Trees November 21, 2008.) One of the tree's nuts, with newly formed rootlet, is shown below.

The plantings were done with concern for chestnut blight at the forefront. The Madison Avenue chestnut is quite unusual in being absolutely untouched by blight. The last thing anyone wanted was to introduce blight to Madison Avenue with the planting of infected new trees.

Extraordinary measures were taken. First, nuts were planted instead of seedling trees. Why? Unlike seedlings, nuts are extremely unlikely to harbor blight. Second, plant protectors, needed to shelter the tender new trees from predatory deer, were virgin. Sterilizing previously used ones wasn't good enough for us worrywarts. Tony Rosati, a Chestnut Foundation volunteer from Monmouth County, drove out to Hightstown to acquire new ones for use in Plainfield. Third, the nuts were planted only in very close proximity to the Madison Avenue tree. Why? Blight fungi spread on the wind from tree to tree and can also be carried by birds and insects. Spreading chestnut trees around Plainfield could create blight "waystations" that would allow spread of the disease to the Madison Avenue tree.

With luck the new trees might begin flowering in five or six years and cross-pollinate the existing tree so that they can all produce chestnuts. Let's wish them luck.

Chestnut esoterica:
Crown gall, a disease that affects numerous plant species, is caused by Agrobacterium tumefaciens. The name of the bacterium is as ugly as the disease itself, which is pictured below.

I encountered this disease last fall when I bought some hollies to plant on Martha's Vineyard. When I took the hollies out of their pots and "roughed up" their roots for planting, I saw warty, tumor-like growths at the tree bases.

I sent a photograph to American Holly Society trustee Charles Wiley, owner of Vineyard Gardens(1) in West Tisbury MA, who diagnosed crown gall. The disease-causing bacteria enter the plant through a wound near the base of the trunk. The bacteria then engage in genetic engineering. They insert genes into the plant cells that cause the cells to grow rapidly, producing an ugly, tumor-like gall at the tree base. The cells of the gall generate unusual amino acids that are useless to the plant but nourish the bacteria.

What does all of this have to do with chestnut blight? The thuggish bacterial genetic engineers can be co-opted and turned into model citizens. Adopting a technique called Agrobacterium-mediated transformation, researchers at SUNY Syracuse modify the gall bacteria to make them helpful to chestnuts. The scientists replace the genes that direct gall production with genes that are known to be associated with fungus-resistance in some plant species. The modified gall bacteria are then mixed with chestnut embryos. When the modified bacteria inject the chestnut cells, the embryos acquire new genetic material that might help combat chestnut blight. A exciting line of research. See http://www.esf.edu/chestnut/tissue%20culture.htm for more details. (2)

(1) For the record, Vineyard Gardens, a top-notch plant nursery on Martha's Vineyard owned by Charles and Chris Wiley, was not the seller of the infected plants. Having plants infected with crown gall in one's garden is to be avoided. The bacteria persist in the soil and can spread to other plants.

(2) Many thanks to Sara Fitzsimmons of The American Chestnut Foundation and Pennsylvania State University for educating me about Agrobacterium-mediated transformation research on chestnut blight.

Copyright Gregory Palermo

Saturday, January 17, 2009

White Ash

White ash Evergreen Cemetery

Fish gotta swim. Birds gotta fly. Baseball bats gotta be made out of white ash, right?(1) Maybe not. The baseball bat tree is dying off. The very existence of all of our native ash species is in question, threatened by an imported pest called emerald ash borer. The losses to the ash population could be on the scale of the destruction caused by chestnut blight or Dutch elm disease.(2) The insect culprit, first identified near Detroit in 2002, has already killed tens of millions of ash trees in the midwest. Emerald ash borers, metallic green bugs about a half inch long, are headed this way, and they have already been found in western Pennsylvania.

White ash and green ash are both widely used as street trees because they grow fast and are very tolerant of difficult conditions. Plainfield doesn't have a great abundance of ashes, but white ashes, Fraxinus americana, are among our oldest and grandest trees. The two massive white ashes in Evergreen Cemetery on Plainfield Avenue are thought to be more than 150 years old. The one pictured at the top of the page was photographed from Plainfield Avenue. The same tree is pictured below photographed from within the cemetery.

The other ancient ash in Evergreen Cemetery is not visible from the street. It is pictured below.

The Friends of Plainfield Evergreen Cemetery, a volunteer group organized in 2008 by Donald Leichter, plans to rehabilitate the historic graveyard, which has grave markers that date back to the early 18th century. The group hopes not only to restore grave markers and undo the damage caused by vandalism, but also to care for the magnificent trees. We can hope that the volunteers do not find themselves forced to cope with emerald ash borers, but there are weapons available for the fight. Systemic insecticides applied to the soil or injected into the tree annually can control emerald ash borers. These treatments are expensive and are probably suited only to specimen trees. Options available for the large majority of ashes that aren't prized specimens aren't as sure a bet. Researchers are experimenting with parasitic wasps that prey on ash borer eggs and larvae. There are bans on transporting firewood out of quarantined areas to slow down the insect's spread.

Some towns in the midwest have resorted to cutting down healthy ash trees over time before ash borers arrive in order to avoid suddenly finding themselves obliged to remove huge numbers of hazardous ash trees all at once after the borers have killed them. Does this sound extreme? For municipalities weighing their options, Purdue University even offers an online calculator to help determine the comparative costs of tree removal, tree removal + replacement, and antibiotic treatment over a 25 year time frame.(3) A grim calculus.

Adult emerald ash borers live only about three weeks. The females lay their eggs in crevices in ash bark during the summer. The larvae burrow through the bark and spend the next year or two excavating serpentine tunnels through the tree's vascular system, which is just beneath the bark. Destruction of the vascular system prevents the tree from transporting water and nutrients up and down the trunk. Death of the tree typically occurs within five years.

White ash 825 West Front Street
(1) The wood of northern white ash is prized for its combination of strength and light weight. It's perfect for making baseball bats and hand tools. At a time in my life when I thought that a baseball bat was part of the basic required equipment for living, I owned a Louisville Slugger. My friends and I knew that Louisville Sluggers were made of white ash, but we wouldn't have been able to tell a white ash tree from a white spruce. I don't know what ever happened to my Louisville Slugger, but these days I get plenty of use out of ash in the form of garden spade handles. It must be admitted that it's hard to work up the same enthusiasm for a spade that a bat can inspire. Recently maple bats have become popular. Many professional baseball players switched to maple bats when it became known that maple was the choice of Barry Bonds (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/11/us/11ashbat.html).

Copyright Gregory Palermo