Woody Ornamentals

Last week’s message was supposed to be about herbaceous ornamentals, those flowering plants which die back to their root system at the end of each season. What became of my intent to wax eloquent about such visually intoxicating yet fragile exemplars of life digressed into a confessional about my inability to retain much in the way of gardening terminology after nine weeks of intensive training in the Wisconsin Master Gardener’s program.

This week’s lesson is about woody ornamentals, but the word play thing remains the same. I am hopelessly at a loss to remember what words like xylem and phloem mean and their importance to the growth of the trees, shrubs and vines, which defy my ignorance in order to fully demonstrate their lustrous allure.

Ornamentals of any kind, whether herbaceous or woody, bear a fruit that is not edible. The whole goal of their lives is to simply be glamorous. We plant them and tend them because they are the centerfolds of our manufactured landscapes. And when we talk about woody ornamentals, the objects of our affection are the trees, shrubs and vines that have a bark exterior, are generally long-lived, and eschew the type of reproduction services their woody fruit-bearing cousins are known for. The latter require a more intricate type of care than the refinements involved for showcasing the more elegant ornamentals. There are simply no mom-bods among the beauty queens of our gardens when tended properly.

The text of our workbook extols their virtues as adding beauty and natural character to our lives. They “… increase property value, screen undesirable views, define spaces or landscape continuity, reduce noise and air pollution, and provide shade in summer, privacy, serenity, and habitat for wildlife.” In the more familiar management terms, on which my professional career was based, woody ornamentals are the quintessential administrative assistants, whose beauty, intelligence and multi-tasking ability make you look good to your board of directors and stakeholders (aka neighbors and friends and even the unknown passers-by).

The first thing people tell me when they arrive at my home for the first time is how beautiful the oak tree in my front yard is. In fact it, along with the elm, pine and ivy vines growing up the brick walls of our old farm house, they sold us on buying the place before we even got out of the car. We ended up accepting a host of deficiencies with the manmade physical structures on the place because the natural beauty did its job of charming our senses to the usual extent where the heart rules the head and an exorbitant debt is the outcome. Twenty-plus years later that mortgage has been retired.

I have never been quite comfortable with the time honored cliché that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It seems to me that those of us who are perpetually at odds in our interpretations of events, motives and results can find ourselves uniformly captivated by a beautiful form, whether it be animal, vegetable or mineral. So when it comes to woody ornamentals it seems to me that nature wows us all with her statuesque sequoias, the class of the crepe myrtle, and the wistfulness of her wisteria. And I sincerely believe that one can find great joy in service to the majestic, who deign to lend their grandeur to our yards, parks and avenues during our lives and long after we have departed the scene.

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