If This Tree Could Talk

     Reeves-Reed Arboretum is a nonprofit arboretum and garden located in Summit, New Jersey. I have personally been involved with this arboretum, in one capacity or another, for over 20 years. Having been on their Board of Trustees for many years, I now serve on their Buildings and Grounds Committee. Our April monthly meeting had our Director of Horticulture, Marc Montefusco, give a presentation he had previously done at the APGA (American Public Garden Association). A conference held in Hamilton, Ontario in 2017, Marc participated as part of a panel discussion with the likes of Eileen Boyle of the Mt. Cuba Center, Betsy Collins from Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Mark Richardson of the New England Wildflower Society and Craig Regelbrugge of American Hort. The audience was conference attendees and the topic was Horticultural Forms of Native American Plants: Convergence or Controversy? The session was “based on the premise that selected forms of native plants offer gardeners an opportunity to enjoy many-although perhaps not all-of the advantages offered by using native plants, without sacrificing visual excitement. There is an element of controversy in this thesis, since many native species advocates are adamantly opposed to the use of selected forms in “native” plantings, gardens, or ecosystems” (2017.publicgardens.org). Marc went into his lecture with the notion that the idea of “native plants is open to widely varying interpretations. Does native mean originally native in this particular site? Or does it mean, native to this general area, or native to this type of habitat? Especially significant is the question, if a horticultural form of a native plant-be it derived from selective breeding, straight genetic mutation, or chimeric mutation-deviates from the standard species, is it still native in some sense? And a corollary: can we use selected forms of native plants to restore ecosystems and encourage healthy biodiversity?” All of Marc’s words here raise great questions, sure to drive spirited debates.

Marc’s reference to “chimeric mutation” was particularly intriguing to me. “In mythology, the Chimera was a monster, an impossible combination of goat, lion and serpent. But in biology, there are real chimeras-organisms with more than one distinct genome. In plants, examples range from the famous graft chimera Adam’s (Broom) Laburnum, Laburnocytisus adamii, to certain types of naturally-occurring variegation. Far from being monstrous, some of the real life chimeras are highly ornamental” (Marc Montefusco).

Half way through Marc’s talk he referenced the tree Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua. A native tree, with typical 5-lobed leaves, sometimes mistaken for maples, although I don’t see how. Sweetgum’s leaves are more star-shaped and generally smaller. A curious, diminutive cultivar that could fit in almost any garden is ‘Gumball.’ Marc’s enthusiastic reference to this tree was met with his dispirited attempts to secure one, seemingly as elusive as Brigadoon. Touted as having a “gumball machine” type of growth habit, ‘Gumball’ is a multi-stemmed tree, rounded at the top, with a wide tapered base. Fall color on this tree varies and I dare say is less predictable than the species? My very dear friend, Douglas Webber, former Vice President and General Manager of Blue Sterling Nursery LLC (2006-2017) told me, “like most dwarf trees, the fruit is not as prolific as the species. In fact, I can’t recall seeing ANY.” He does recall seeing consistent, brilliant autumn colors of yellow, red and burgundy though. ‘Gumball’ is often seen in a lollipop shape, produced by grafting. Introduced by Hiram Stubblefield of McMinnville, TN, I had remembered seeing this in a catalogue and on tour, years ago, from Blue Sterling Nursery in South Jersey.

Always up for a challenge, that night after leaving the Arboretum, I began the exercise of trying to remember where and when I saw ‘Gumball’ last. Blue Sterling Nursery and their obscure availability, of such a tree, did not come to mind at first. After several failed attempts, of trying to locate one, the next morning I remembered a friend’s garden that I had visited just a few months earlier. Ed Shinn’s residential garden in Wall Township, had one! I reached out to my salesperson John Mohr, of Iseli Nursery, and asked if he would reach out to Ed, whom he is better friends with, to see if he knew anyone who still grew ‘Gumball?” Less than an hour later I had an answer! Somewhat typical in our industry, having a strong network of friends who care passionately about plants, Ed offered his very mature ‘Gumball’ to the Arboretum. In fact, Ed said, “I am so happy to find a home for this tree. It has outgrown the space I had for it and I was going to take a chainsaw to it the other day. My chainsaw blade simply wasn’t sharp enough and I put it down.” Call it a premonition or kismet if you like, the tree was saved! Ed graciously dug the tree and I sent our company van to retrieve this most awesome gift. Standing nearly 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide, an original from Blue Sterling Nursery all those years ago. Within a matter of days, this elusive tree was now in another prominent garden where it will continue to impress those who appreciate such rarities.

The discussion about what is and is not native can sometimes become heated. Eileen Ferrer, my friend and colleague, whom I have worked with for two decades, is certainly more of a purist when it comes to all things “native.” Her contention is that it should be limited to just genus and species, withstanding cultivars. “Flowers that are sometimes developed on showier cultivars can impede insects from pollinating,” Eileen says. I am certainly not just a “native guy,” but I do see her point here and appreciate her passion.

Sometimes, when I see certain plants, I wonder the history of it and how they came to stand where they are? If not for Marc’s talk, John Mohr’s connection to Ed Shinn and myself being in the audience that night, this ‘Gumball’ may have been lost forever? Not to mention, a little help from a dull chainsaw blade. That said, If This Tree Could Talk, I’m sure it’s appreciative of its new surroundings. ‘Gumball’ now resides in Summit, NJ, where it hopefully will continue to live a long and “fruitless” life. “Reeves-Reed Arboretum engages, educates and enriches its visitors so that they become better stewards of nature and the environment. This mission is achieved through the care and utilization of an historic estate and gardens” (Reeves-Reed Arboretum) of which I have always been proud to be a part of.