Spotted in Easton, MD: a properly mulched street tree! This is a sighting as rare as that of a Yeti – in fact, every other tree on that street sported the usual volcano of mulch heaped up against the tree’s trunk. Why just the one triumph of good horticultural practice? Perhaps there is just one town employee who has listened to the pleas to stop burying trees alive in shredded bark; perhaps the anomalous groundsman was disciplined after deviating from the norm.
I was down in Easton, the center of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, to visit Ruth Clausen, my horticultural mentor and co-author (with me) of Essential Perennials. We were putting together a workshop on propagating perennials which we will teach at the Philadelphia Flower Show on March 3rd at 2 p.m., and visiting Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely, MD, where we found the skunk cabbage already in bloom – if skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) enjoyed a more flattering common name it would be a garden fixture with its fascinating, early season flower and luxuriant foliage. Skunk cabbage plants actually heat up in late winter, metabolizing nutrients stored in their roots to melt the surrounding surface soil so that they can poke up their precocious blossoms for the benefit of early pollinators — flies and other early insects find a warm refuge inside the hooded flowers.
As special as the flowers were, however, and the Arboretum’s fine specimens of native hollies and other trees, the real excitement of the visit was that street tree’s mulch. It was spotted after a dinner with wine and was initially suspected to be an alcoholic apparition. Why is the urge to fatally smother tree trunks so universal in this country? How did such a destructive practice become the norm? More important, how do we stop it?