The Mountain Gardener: Tree beauty, functionality important for any home
by Jan Nelson
Mar 20, 2014 | 1485 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Flame tree at Stanford University. Courtesy of Jan Nelson
Flame tree at Stanford University. Courtesy of Jan Nelson
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Floss Silk tree at Stanford University. Courtesy of Jan Nelson
Floss Silk tree at Stanford University. Courtesy of Jan Nelson
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Red Mulberry tree at Stanford University. Courtesy of Jan Nelson
Red Mulberry tree at Stanford University. Courtesy of Jan Nelson
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The other day I visited the campus of Stanford University to view something from their archives. The campus is beautiful with flowering trees in bloom everywhere you looked. I was told by a colleague that Stanford has a huge collection of trees, some planted back in the late 1880's when the university was first built and the landscaping installed. The designer, the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, also created New York's Central Park. I wanted to find a mature specimen of a California native, the Catalina Ironwood, which is listed in their “Encyclopedia of Stanford Trees, Shrubs and Vines.”

The campus is huge and with so many areas to explore, I missed the grove of Ironwood. There are over 400 species, 150 genera and 60 families which total more than 27,000 individual trees growing on the central campus. Senator Leland Stanford vowed that no healthy oak be cut down and even today, the dominant tree on campus is the coast live oak. There has been a loss of diversity from the original tree and shrub plantings of the 1880's and 1890's, which is well documented for conifers. Still the sheer number and variety of trees is impressive.

In the main quad by the Memorial Church and the grounds surrounding the Music library and the Green library, I found dozens of trees which were all surveyed and named on a map I found online. It was fun to locate each tree.

I'm always on the lookout for mature tree specimens to photograph. When I recommend a tree to be included in a design, I like to be able to share the image of what the tree will look like in the future. Trees anchor your house to the land. They are more than just a pretty face to look at from the kitchen window. They provide habitat, food and shelter to birds as well as giving shade in the summer. Some of the trees I saw on the Stanford campus may not be suitable for all gardens but they are interesting to learn about. Here are a few of the highlights of my campus botanical adventure.

In the main quad there are eight circular planting beds containing more than 80 individual trees. One that I was attracted to because of its unusual trunk and branching structure was the Flame tree or brachychiton acerifolius. Although not yet in bloom, it will soon be covered with scarlet bells. I learned from the campus encyclopedia that this tree was planted in 1998 after the original specimen died. That flame tree, originally planted in 1891, was famous for the brilliant display it put on in May and June, covering the ground with a mantle of red bells. The pod-like fruits contain masses of irritating bristles but also nutritious yellow seeds that were eaten by the Aborigines after toasting.

The next tree that caught my eye had such formidable thorns that I wondered where it grew naturally. How could it come by the pretty name, Floss Silk tree, with those deadly spines? I learned in September this tree redeems itself with masses of showy pinkish-white flowers so numerous they hide the foliage. Hummingbirds enjoy the nectar of the flowers which are used in Brazil as threads in upholstery. But the most distinctive feature of the tree is the wicked looking array of stout spines that crowd the trunk and protrude by an inch or more. Who knows why they evolved this way?

The fruit of the Floss Silk tree is very large and on ripening the pods open to expose masses of white cottony kapok-like material that perhaps acts as a barrier to rats seeking the tiny seeds. Is it rats that the trees are hoping to deter by growing the huge spines?

Redwoods, giant sequoia and Bristlecone pine live a long time, but there's something impressive about an ornamental tree that is over 100 years old. Planted in 1889, the trunk of the Red Mulberry tree growing in the quad has attained great character and girth. Mulberry leaves are the food of the silkworm and if you grow your own silkworms you can make silk. One silkworm produces about half a mile of incredibly strong monofilament to make its cocoon. The pale berries of the red mulberry are not as good to eat as the black mulberry but both grow quickly to provide shade for your home or patio.

A tree planted for beauty shade, habitat and posterity is a gift to all.

- Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California certified nursery professional, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. E-mail her at janis001@aol.com, or visit www.jannelsonlandscapedesign.com to view past columns and pictures.

 

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