Gardeners are time travelers. Our ties to good earth, green plants, and all the creatures that rely on them anchor our bodies while simultaneously transporting our minds through a river of time that flows both ways, forward and back. When we plant a seed or a young tree, we see in our minds what that plant will become. When we see a mature oak, its full green branches laden with acorns, our minds travel back to the time when the acorn that became the mighty oak was planted. As I plant and tend a garden, I slip into the timestream, seeing clearly the ripe tomatoes I will pick in a few weeks, ivory flowers that will perfume the air when a Bigleaf Magnolia attains blooming size, and the berry-eating birds that will flock to the holly and viburnum fruits produced by the shrubs I settle into the ground today.
Experienced gardeners and other adept readers of the land, such as ecologists, slip easily into the Green World timestream as we go about our lives. Visions of past and future landscapes unfold with our footsteps; trees and rocks whisper their stories to us.
Such was the case when I first encountered a gnarled tree with heart-shaped leaves standing stoically beside the pond of the Piedmont Patch demonstration site on the grounds of a small church in Chapel Hill, NC. The vicar of that church was eager to show me the tree because she was deeply attached to it, even though she didn’t know its identity. Her parishioners had wanted to cut it down, but she resisted the suggestion. To her, I think, it represents resiliency; despite its apparent suffering, as evidenced by gnarled branches sporting spindly green shoots and obvious dead branches, the tree had not died. The vicar showed it to me that day hoping that I would be able to give her beloved tree a name.
Heart-shaped leaves narrowed down identity options considerably, which helped. It wasn’t a redbud; leaves and branches were all wrong for those species. It wasn’t – thank heavens – an invasive non-native Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa).
By that time, the vicar had told me the story of the land her church occupied. It was a piece of an old farm; they use the old farmer’s home as their parish house. The small pond was part of the farm too, stocked with fish and regularly visited by local fishermen for generations. The church is committed to maintaining the pond for those fisherfolk, even supplying poles for those who care to stop by and try their luck.
As I listened to her describe the history of the pond, the puzzle resolved. I knew instantly that the gnarled old tree was a Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides). Technically native to slightly more southern states, these trees have naturalized in North Carolina, likely in part because humans have been planting them beside fishing holes for generations as bait trees.
Southern Catalpa is the host food plant for the caterpillar of a sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpae) that is commonly called a catalpa worm. The outer skins of these caterpillars are tough enough to anchor a fish hook, and their insides emit a scent – even under water – that is catnip to catfish and other fish likely to inhabit farm ponds. Practical fisherfolk of earlier generations soon learned to plant Southern Catalpas beside their favorite fishing spots, so that bait would be handy when they got a hankering to toss out a line.
When I had my aha moment of identification, my mind carried me back to earlier times – probably at least 50 years in this case – when a time-traveling fisherman planted this Southern Catalpa because he could see that it would grow large beside the pond, be visited by moths that would lay eggs that would hatch into fat catalpa worms, providing irresistible bait for fish caught to feed hungry families.
I pointed out the tree to a fellow plantsman, who was intrigued by its story. He remembered it when he was acquiring plants at a local nursery and noticed in a corner two very pot-bound saplings of Southern Catalpa that the owners were planning to discard. He asked if he could have them, they happily said yes, and he brought them to me to plant beside the pond that has become the home of the Piedmont Patch demonstration site. Wonder Spouse helped me plant them last year, not far from the gnarled original. They are growing well, and the vicar was pleased that if her old gnarled friend succumbed to time’s travails, its tale would be carried forward by the two new trees.
Fast-forward to late May of this year, when I was visiting the site to slip in some beautiful donated plants from another nursery, lovingly dug up and delivered to me by a wonderful plantswoman who works there. I had finished my work and was taking a few photos of what was blooming on this patch of piedmont that is transforming rapidly, thanks to the addition of over 1000 native plants added this year by volunteers who support this vision of creating a sanctuary of native plants to feed and shelter local wildlife being displaced by the rapid urbanization of the region.
I walked down to admire the young Southern Catalpas, which now stand near a honeybee hive added this past spring – a fortuitous location, given that flowers of these trees – when they are old enough to start blooming — are beneficial to these pollinators. That’s when I noticed that the elder Southern Catalpa had more fresh leaves growing on it than I had seen since I met it two years ago.
When I approached it for a closer look, I realized it was covered in gorgeous flowers! They reminded me a bit of orchids, hanging in pendulous clusters. My mouth gaped long enough that I was lucky one of the nearby honeybees didn’t fly right in.
Of course, I took photos – lots of photos. When I told the vicar, she was astonished. “That tree has never bloomed!” she exclaimed. “How is this possible?”
I can only speculate, of course, but I do have a couple of theories. My first is that perhaps the tree felt valued again when we planted two more of its kind nearby. That is an entirely subjective explanation I realize, but if you want to put a scientific veneer on it, I could offer that perhaps increasing the plant diversity of the site as a result of the Piedmont Patch project somehow enlivened the plants already growing there.
My second theory has no scientific basis, but as a time-traveling gardener, I have to wonder if perhaps this tree slipped into the Green World timestream back to a time when it was more vigorous. Maybe the work of Piedmont Patch volunteers on the site carried it back to more vibrant times, causing it to burst forth in an enthusiastic flower display more typical of past decades.
Transformation is definitely the motif of the Piedmont Patch demonstration site. Already, every day brings new wildflower blooms, new birds, and a continuous stream of volunteers bearing plants and offering labor to further the creation of this native haven. Already, it is a place of peace, beauty, and above all, hope.
As I travel forward in my mind to envision this site a few years from now, I see volunteers – the Piedmont Patch Stewardship Team – tending the site. As they pull out unwanted plants and add more native species, work to eradicate nearby stands of invasive non-native species, and document the site’s continuing transformation, I see this site serving as inspiration for new piedmont patches springing up in the region. Every patch will be different – as unique as the group creating it and the site upon which it is established. But all will be growing green havens of native beauty that shelter and feed wildlife, from pollinators to birds to lizards, frogs, and cottontail rabbits.
All will be symbols of hope, refuges also for souls of weary humans who too often lose touch with their connection to the Green World. Perhaps these havens will help more of those disconnected souls regain a knack for time travel, to see what a healthy future for the region – and the planet – looks like. As a time-traveling gardener, I hold on to that hope for transformation. How can I not, when I see a seemingly dying tree burst into spring bloom, and a pond-side full of random weeds become a vibrant assembly of native grasses and wildflowers?