In 1926 Blithewold’s 50 year old Toon tree (Cedrela sinensis aka Toona sisensis) bloomed for the first time (and was thought to be the first one to bloom in this country). William McKee, Bessie Van Wickle McKee‘s second husband, brought the flowers to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston for identification which incited plant hunter Ernest Henry Wilson and botanist Alfred Rehder to travel to Bristol to see what other amazing things the McKee’s might have on their property. Wilson and Rehder discovered a plantman’s paradise. In a letter to her daughter, Bessie wrote, “They were frankly amazed to find so lovely and interesting a place here – and kept saying, ‘Why you have a second arboretum here, we never dreamed there was a place like this.'”
Blithewold was horticulturally rich even before the Van Wickle McKees bought the property. The Gardners who owned “Ferry Hill” in the 1800’s probably planted the original Toon and other exotic trees – many of which are still living today. We know Mr. Gardner designed a meticulously kept English style garden with award winning fruit trees and flower and vegetable beds (where the Enclosed Garden is now), and he grew this area’s first orchids in his greenhouses. Clearly he and the Van Wickle McKees were plant junkies just like you (if you’re a gardener) and me.
Plants have been traveling the world with people like us since the dawn of time and non-natives have been usurping space on the land and in our hearts for pretty much ever. How many of us would hurl whole paychecks at Dan Hinkley for just a few choice finds? For a long time though it was probably only naturalists who knew to be alarmed at how the landscape was changing. Now we’re all more aware. Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) imported for its festive decorative berries is smothering everything in its path (at least in our part of the world) and invisible hitchhikers like Japanese beetle and Hemlock woolly adelgid came in with nursery stock and have proceeded to decimate whole landscapes. (Did you know that Japanese beetles eat 400 plant species? – Look around an infested garden and you’d guess it was that many.) But we addicts still want-desire-need exotic plants in our gardens and we swear we’ll keep an eye on them and we’ll never ever never let another exotic invasive escape cultivation!
It’s not just the view that’s changed – exotics are taxing the whole system. I’ve been reading Bringing Nature Home – How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens by Douglas Tallamy and am feeling so conflicted now about what to plant in my own garden that I am certifiably toons. Just ask Gail. I knew there were arguments for using natives in the landscape – we all talk about using the right plant in the right location and what’s better (less maintenance and fuss) than the plant that would have grown there in the first place? But Tallamy makes a convincing argument for planting natives from a bug’s and bird’s and butterfly/moth’s eye view. Our native creepy crawlies have specifically adapted over the millenia to eat specific plants. Sometimes an exotic plant has an edible leaf chemistry but a lot of times, not. Some people might think “but I don’t want bugs eating my garden because then I’ll have to use pesticides for goodness sake!” and this is Tallamy’s retort: “Somehow along the way we have come to expect perfection in our gardens: the plastic quality of artificial flowers is now seen as normal and healthy. It is neither. Instead, it is a clear sign of a garden so contrived that it is no longer a living community, so unbalanced that any life form other than the desired plants is viewed as an enemy and quickly eliminated. … a sterile garden is one teetering on the brink of destruction.” Nature’s own checks and balances kick in when natives are planted – preditors follow the prey. (If you build it they will come.)
I think Tallamy is (and I am) preaching to the choir. We true gardeners know there’s a balance to life and we want our gardens to be with nature, not against it. My head spins because I still feel justified as a gardener/horticulturist working in one of this country’s only coastal arboreta to try new plants as they become available (plus I want them). But I think we’ve got a bounden duty to plant and teach with our natives as well. (And in my own garden I’ll be going toons but probably not growing them.)