Thursday, June 4, 2009

adaptation, species, and time

Just because we see beautiful plants and forms in the natural landscape, like these Juniperus on the eastern end of Long Island, does not necessarily mean that the same species are going to look like that when nursery grown or planted in your landscape. The following is a little email back and forth about how plants adapt to varied environments and the different forms a single species can take. I thought you might be able to get something out of it. Enjoy:

a professional question -- I would like to plant a "MONTAUK" shadbush in my garden- twisty gnarly branches. I see them all over, but I can't find the botanical name and the guy who does our garden brought me two straight-branched Serviceberries…. I know SHADs are supposed to be Amelanchier (s) but no photograph I've seen on line shows twisted stems or branches. Are they a unique sub-genus or a mutation - maybe a type of Amelanchier nantuketensis? I know NOTHING about me please, I'm going nuts...

To which I repsonded:
Good questions. Within the genus Amelanchier there are a couple different species and it can get confusing because each species has a number of different common names. Amelanchier arborea is commonly called downy serviceberry, shadbush or servicetree. Amelanchier canadensis is commonly called a shadblow serviceberry or thicket serviceberry. As the botanical names would suggest the arborea has a growth habit that is more of a tree form while the canadensis is more of a suckering shrub. There are other kinds of Amelanchier of course. I am sorry to say I do not know Amelanchier nantuketensis though.

Whatever the landscaper brought could have been the plant you want. The difference is that he is bringing you nursery grown stock and it will never look like the weather-contorted forms you see around the neighborhood. Those natural shrubs grew from tiny seedlings and only after years and years of beating have they become the amazing forms they are. Nursery stock is given the right amount of sun and water so they will always be much more perfect than what you want.

So basically you have two options. Plant nursery grown stock young and know that it is going to take a while but will get there. But it will take time. It will probably take a bit of a beating just getting acclimated, and that will take a few years, but then the new growth will be more stunted and interesting depending on the exposure to the elements. When ever I am teaching people plant selection I am always reminding them that a plant acclimated to your landscape is going to look quite different than the way it looked when you bought it. Plants grow, change, and adapt to live most efficiently in different situations. A nursery grown plant might be a few feet tall after only a couple years, but the contorted shrubs around which might not be much taller than a few feet themselves could easily be over 20-30 years old easy. A naturalistic form of bonsai if you will. The other option is to see if any of the big nurseries ever get "specimen" pieces of Amelanchier. Marders would get odd-ball specimen pieces they would buy off of locals looking to re-landscape. Of course the trick there is that a one-of-a-kind piece like that could cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.

I would say buy young and let it acclimate and see what form it takes. Spending big money on a more mature specimen that might not acclimate as well is not worth it. The forms they will take might not be as contorted as the ones more exposed on the streets and bluffs but then down the road you can have me over to give you a pruning lesson.

Then CB replied:

Hi, thank you... wow...the trees they brought were VERY tall (10 feet plus roots) so, as you said in your note, probably too late to adapt to the environment. A native plant retailer said there is something odd about the Montauk Shads - more than growing up in a windy environment, might be a sub-genus. That's why I thought this might be a good question for you.

Possibly the ones here could be Amelanchier nantuketensis, not canadensis -- as the name implies we are closer to Nantucket. But I will take your suggestion and buy one of his smaller bushes and watch what happens. He said construction jobs sometimes clear lots (I HATE SEEING THIS) and bring in specimens for him - so he might have one or two.

To make my garden guy happy, however, I might plant the big one somewhere, but I don't want it in my face every morning if it doesn't have that lovely undulation that is so unique.

I imagine that locals who 'get' Shads dig them up in the woods...not sure that's kosher. My neighbors' trees are quite old ("they were there when we moved in/built the house.")
Thank GOD I can talk to you about this! If I can find my camera I'll take a picture of the twisty montauk shads - there are NO pictures of them on the internet - and you can post them.

come see us next visit!

Cool, you know I had never heard of Amelanchier nantuketensis before now. I worked with a conservation organization a few years back but the focus was more on woodland plants. If you want to try and find a source for Amelanchier nantuketensis you can try emailing Katherine Powis, the librarian at The Horticultural Society of New York. She has some great plant and nursery source books to help find obscure plants. That species is classified as endangered in New York, threatened in Maine, and of special concern in Massachusetts which makes me fear you are not going to find it in the trade, but worth an ask I suppose. Katherine's email is and she is the nicest with funny requests like these. I would love to know more about native coastal plants myself. Obviously there is always so much to add to the repertoire. Right now I'm focusing a lot on color and formal perennial design, and trying to climb as much as I can in the off-time. But my love and I just got new surfboards so I am sure we will be out in your neck of the woods at least a few times this summer. And yes, speaking of woods, any poaching of plants from their natural habitat is absolutely terrible and it makes my blood boil, but if it is a property about to be plowed over then I admit I too would try and save whatever great plant material I could.

Wow, well 10' plus, then I would guess it to be Amelanchier arborea. According to Michael Dirr they can get to 25’ with variable spread. Without seeing it though I'm totally shooting in the dark. God knows I have seen 15' clumps of Amelanchier canadensis too. You can definitely plant and maintain more mature plant material, I don't want you to think you can't, but often it can require extra care and coddling to get established. The main thing with trees that big transplanted that you should know is that people never seem to water them enough. And especially out there were the soil is so sandy, it doesn't retain moisture the same way, so big trees like that need a good 2-hour soak at least a few times a week through the summer drought to get established. If you get a specimen/older piece then definitely invest in soaker hose, regular hose, and a battery powered timer. Its the smartest $100-$150 you will spend if you ever want to play with bigger changes to your landscape. You know, protecting your investments.


Thanks again for your advice. The big trees (one is still outside waiting to be picked up or planted...hmmm) that they brought were tagged Amelanchier canadensis. The slender branches are absolutely straight, though flexible and the tree seems to have been tapered, though it might be how it was trussed for shipping.

How's this for a theory: Montauk shads are unique - could they be a genetic variation, not just a response to the environment? I see twisty ones in sheltered places all over Montauk, but driving west, they did not have that kinkiness. (Well, you know Montauk...everyone's a little screwy here...) Anyway, when I find my camera (or buy a new one...) I'll send you an image.


Probably environmental adaptation over genetic variation but they are both aspects of natural selection and therefore totally possible. It just goes to show species and their incredulous determination to live on. Genetic crosses and mutations do happen, creating dwarf hybrids and things like that, but I bet it is more the exposure and environment of a few basic species. Even in a sheltered spot we know how that wind and salt spray and sun out there can be nasty, moreso than the protected streets further inland. Ah Montauk, yes, as they say, ...the end!

The conversation went on and CB told me about the Grimes family out in Montauk, who own Fort Pond Native Plants. She had amazing conversations about the species the different generations have seen in the wild and the potential hybrids or sub-species that have arisen over years of natural selection brought on by the challenging environment, disease issues like Cedar-Apple Rust, human development, and so much more. For many years I have been meaning to check out Fort Pond Native Plants out in Montauk because I hear they do a great job. Obviously we are very much on the same page so now I really have to make a point of getting out there.

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