Having been an avid runner for most of my life, my first footrace came when I was just five years old. On a beach, down the Jersey shore, I completed that 5K run, 3.1 miles, and really never looked back. Having had some national experience and success at the high school level and a brief stint in college, today I run just so I can eat what I enjoy. For a good part of my life I was focused on the finish line and my coach’s stopwatch. Today I find my time better spent appreciating the scenery. I have a loop, from our home, that is exactly 3.1 miles and it has me running botanical names in my mind while striding to reach the next point of interest.
Leaving our driveway, even before I get off our street, there is a small grove of Sassafras, Sassafras albidum, on my left. A native tucked into the woods, I appreciate their interesting leaves, in three distinct shapes, that have reliable yellow, red and purple fall color. Not to mention their small pendant clusters of dark blue fruit.
As I begin the hardest part of my run, a half mile uphill climb, I really need to keep my mind focused and myself motivated. Fortunately, there is plenty for me to look at. Black walnut, Juglans nigra, prove that not much can grow under them as their roots produce a toxic chemical called juglone. Yellow-green fall husks, hanging in the tree, help identify this in the fall. Just past the initial incline are a few Shellbark hickory, Carya laciniosa. My friend and fellow columnist Stephen Schuckman, aka “The Dr.,” reminds me never to transplant this and only grow it from seed because it’s so finicky. Russet yellow-orange fall color and an ability to survive juglone have made these companion trees for the black walnut.
Another reward to help see me to the top of this hill is Lilac Chastetree, Vitex agnus-castus. Along the roadside are a few larger plants that I love to run my hand through. Aromatic, compound, palmate, grayish-green leaves, with fragrant lavender flowers smell so good. The fragrance these leaves have, when lightly bruised, lingers on my hand for at least a ¼ mile or so until I get to the top of the hill. Cresting the top and turning towards home I am met with an enormous Sugar maple, Acer saccharum, sitting on someone’s front lawn. Forty feet tall and wide, who can deny the stateliness of a mature hardwood tree? Complete with a dense, rounded crown, its yellow-orange fall markings are a beacon for all. This tree is primarily responsible for all the vehicular traffic migrating towards New England to witness outstanding fall color.
Having earned my ½ mile descent, at this point, I eagerly await a mass of yellow alongside the railroad tracks. Bright yellow flowers, an almost prairie-like experience, stand atop stiff, narrow-leaved stems about 3 feet tall. Goldenrod, Solidago speciosa, is as tough a plant as you’ll ever see. Rhizomatous, this herbaceous perennial blooms all summer and into the fall. My friend and colleague, Eileen Ferrer, classifies this native as not invasive, but rather “successful” in gardens today. A euphemism for sure.
Making a left and heading for home, on our county round, another slight incline has me looking ahead. Passing a front lawn, I marvel at several tree of Heaven, Ailanthus altissima, whose presence is as much obnoxious as it is fascinating to me. An invasive species, this small colony is well on its way to becoming a larger one quickly. Just pass this and quite honestly, behind our home, is a state recognized Catalpa, Catalpa speciosa. Beyond the bell-shaped, orchid-like white flowers of late spring lie large slender seed pods held against giant ovate-oblong leaves, about a foot long. My dear friend and esteemed plantsman, Mike Jones, refers to these seed pods as “Johnny Smokers,” while others nickname Catalpa, cigar tree. As I run beneath this giant, I wonder what this tree has seen in its lifetime?
Today my finish line is not marked with a white line but rather, by a magnificent pond cypress, Taxodium ascendens ‘Nutans’ at the west end of our property. A tree whose texture is so soft and ingratiating, yet a virtually indestructible tree. ‘Nutans’ cylindrical outline is draped with pendulous, delicate fern-like foliage. In October, it is these russet colored leaves which say to me, “welcome back.” For most, exercise is about keeping your body sound. For me, it goes beyond that. After all, “A sound mind in a sound body is a short but full description of a happy state in this world” (John Locke).