Plants I Ogle on My Way to Work


Like a yo-yo on a string, there I am, driving to work and back somewhere upwards of 300 times a year. While most any daily commute gets old, I am fortunate that mine takes me through mature communities with rich landscapes. Basically, for a plant geek like me, it’s 60 minutes a day of borderline creepy pleasure as I enjoy lingering, lecherous stares at the fabulous beauties that have come to be regular elements in my life. The trees and shrubs along my way? I track them through the seasons, root for favorites, admire the majestic, and lament the dearly departed. The annuals and perennials, they catch my eye and exercise my neck.

Under the guillotine of a deadline preceded by a bout of writer’s block, it miraculously occurred to me that the most important thing in the world right now is for me to regale you with completely random thoughts about the most notable specimens on my route.

For instance, this sycamore in Mt. Lookout is a real stunner. A favorite in winter, especially on sunny days. Some people call sycamores “dirty” trees. I call anyone who says that a “vile” person. (Note that the word “vile” uses the exact same letters as “evil.”)

After Mt. Lookout, I find myself in Hyde Park, where new loans on surprisingly modest homes temporarily weaken the dollar on international markets. Lots to look at here–well-tended front gardens, towering canopy trees, and a seemingly endless supply of ridiculously good-looking joggers. It’s also home to Ault Park, which has a great plant collection and really good gardens. Worthy of a slight detour on the way home, when I have the time.

Hyde Park is also home to the Cincinnati Country Club, tantalizing with its bald cypress, massive oaks, and other old trees seen in quick glimpses through a fence clad in winter creeper. I once tried to plan a horticultural tour for a group of like-minded tree geeks, but was rebuffed. I have found that rich people are never the problem. They are always generous in sharing their gardens with others, even plebes like me, once they know your motivations are legit. But ex-lawn jockey Facilities Managers who work for country clubs are generally suspicious of strangers, ignorant of everything, and instantly mystified as to why anyone would appreciate a glorious collection of old trees. Consequently, they are not so accommodating.

At the traffic light where Observatory becomes Dana, a light I have never once made in well over 5,000 attempts, I turn left and drive through East Walnut Hills–an old money neighborhoods of expensive condos and drafty, giant mansions that are occupied by one-percenters who sit on verandas sipping fancy drinks while listening to the constant three-digit decibel symphony of mowers and blowers that are perpetually preening their neighborhood to noisy perfection. These fortunate sons also benefit from old, rich soil that knows how to grow amazing cherries, oaks, and incredible beech. For me, tooling along in my working class car from my working class house to my working class job, it’s a mile or two of sheer blissful tree geeking. Hell, I don’t care who makes what. I get by. I just want health care, a couple of drinks at the end of each day, and no chainsaw wielding, door-to-door rednecks who might talk vulnerable, semi-demented, old, rich people into topping or removing that awesome oak!

Beeches. While any single one of them is inevitably a study in artistic perfection, it is this one that routinely leads me to crime. I’m compelled to trespass frequently on a private lane where I am not welcome to get good, new shots. Sure, it’s majestic all year round, but it makes me weep the most in Spring when its carpet of squill comes into mind-blowing bloom.

Something else that makes me cry is this allee of ash, which the city thankfully treats for EAB. It is a daily reminder of how many native trees we’ve lost (and continue to lose) to invasive insects and other environmental stresses.

The ride in is capped by a crazed scidattling through the gauntlet that is the “hospital district.” No idea why all of Cincy’s major hospitals are clustered together in one honking, constipated grid of trauma and disease, but they are. And dodging screaming ambulances is a regular occurence. Nevertheless, when I can, I steal furtive glances at this mass planting of Hydrangea paniculata. Probably ‘Limelight.’

On the return trip, I take a different route along the backside of the hospitals to mix things up. I do enjoy this southern magnolia that threatens to eat this house. The next photo depicts a southern magnolia that did, in fact, eat a house. In Hyde Park. Back in 2012. I’ve heard that people died.

This exuberant and colorful flower garden in the median between two parkways was planted and is maintained by volunteers. For some reason, this is about where I always need to use my wipers to wash away pollinators from my windshield. Just kidding. Across the street is a venerable, gnarly Catalpa. Beat up and busted over too many years, it is surely just too damned ornery to expire. But it’s sitting on a prime piece of real estate and I’m trying–without much success–not to get too attached to it.

As I drive past Xavier University, (hand over my heart) my beloved alma mater, I marvel at how the school has succeeded since I graduated. Amazing. Along one side of the street, the city has planted dozens of swamp white oaks, a favorite. And on the other side, they used a bunch of ‘Brandywine’ red maples, which was an excellent choice if you damn the torpedoes and the wires. In the razor thin median between speeding commuters, Xavier planted ‘China Snow’ tree lilacs, which was an admirable if courageous decision. Most notable, however, is that my favorite watering hole, Listerman’s, is right there, and I often stop in for a brew or two and to bother anybody who will listen about trees. Or politics. Or about The Heart of Darkness, our terrifying cat. Just depends on my mood, the number of beers I’ve had, their ABV, and how recently the cat has made us flee our home in the dead of night.

Finally, I’m again stuck at the light I never make and then it’s back through Hyde Park and Mt. Lookout to home. But there is one week per year that I take the long way home. This tree adds a good twenty minutes to my commute, but it’s worth every microsecond during its short, annual, and spectacular, 15 minutes of fame.

So yes, I’m an unabashed plant nut, and I’m required to appreciate plants at a higher level than most people. I imagine that you are probably right there with me. But I’m going to say this. I’m willing to bet that many of my fellow motorists, most of whom couldn’t ID two or three of the plants along their route, love many of these plants just as much.

And I’m thinking what a service it is when homeowners and businesses do their part to make their streets and neighborhoods shady, colorful, and attractive with plants. Seriously, is there much you can do that is more giving to your neighbors and visitors than that? Likewise, I’m thinking what a duty it is for cities to invest in street tree programs, parks, gardens, and plantings. Consider all they do to make a community more welcoming, healthy, friendly, and safe.

And who even knows, maybe we as a nation can do more to make our interstates a little more horticulturally appealing. Okay, they were built to shuffle cold war missiles from silo to silo and to haul Ramblers to dealerships and Kodachrome to Photobugs more efficiently, but what brilliant overachiever imagined that a fescue median was the best we could hope for? All of us spend so much of our lives on these arteries. Maybe a planting or two would create the foundation for new, exciting motorist-plant hookups. Maybe, just maybe, every orange barrel could be planted to overflowing with bountiful thrillers, spillers, and fillers. Oh dear Lord, wouldn’t that be a better world!


  1. It would be nice for our community parks to feel more inviting. Planting clumps of trees and planting gardens of perennials that are more plant than mulch would go a long way. My memories of the best places to play and explore at parks were in the wooded areas, not on the jungle gyms and swings.

    I would hazard a guess that few enjoy lawn-like parks that are only meant for little league baseball or soccer. The kids only enjoy the space for the period of time that they are practicing or playing a game.

    I just don’t have the time to maintain gardens at the park like I wish. I can barely keep up with the weeds in my own (I stop weeding by July and find other things to do with my time).

  2. Nice article, Scott. The Jesuits at X U should be proud. There are so many surprises as you drive through our town. Your mother keeps reminding me to keep my eyes on the road. Have you noticed plantings at some McDonalds? The one near us (near Cornell and Reed-Hartman) has a great crab apple, Japanese maple and a wisteria covered outdoor dining area. McD’s, take a bow!

  3. What wonderful trees, and what an unfamiliar landscape, houses included. I am a Californian transplanted to Provence (France) and most of those trees are very rare here, or even non-existent. Its very hot in summer, and dry. There are magnificent old native oaks, but not so many beeches, flowering cherries, etc. I really enjoyed your daily commute.

  4. I absolutely loved this post. I commuted for 20+ years. I had some of these same thoughts that you so eloquently described about certain trees, shrubs and gardens. Some gardens I had wished I could take a stroll through but never got the courage to knock on a door to ask permission so rubber-necked many days that I passed by. It is funny how attached I would get to a certain tree or shrub and find that the home/garden had passed to a different owner and would be torn out or chopped to bits changing the personality of old friends. Yep, I enjoyed your commute.

  5. Great post! I too love to watch the changing of the seasons in the various landscapes on my commutes!! Although I am apparently a “vile” or “evil” person – for I have cursed the sycamore in my yard for being “trashy”!!

  6. Thank you for a wonderful article! I, too, love to see sycamores gleaming in a winter landscape and a blooming Yoshino Cherry and a magnificent Oak and a huge Magnolia and a big Pecan tree branching low to the ground and what about ancient Live Oaks and….on and on….

  7. During the Depression cities like NY poured money into streetscapes and civic space beautification, many through WPA etc. – understanding the impact of surroundings on morale, negative and positive. Now planting specimens and medians often fall to the bottom of the list in challenged neighborhoods Great motivating piece, makes me want to visit Cincinnati again.

  8. What a wonderful reminder for us to “stop and smell the roses”, although in this case, to notice far more than roses! I can’t tell you how many times while driving around that I’ve noticed new things about the landscapes around me, both natural and man-made, that have made me wonder and stoked my imagination. I think you’ve stumbled on to an antidote for screen time, even as more and more screens appear in our cars.

    Meanwhile, I look forward to a post about Heart of Darkness!

  9. Love your post! I can relate. As another certified plant nut, I do the same and often detour to see certain plants. I don’t have a regular commute every day, yet over the years I’ve memorized where certain plants are located, and I’ll swing by to pay them a visit. Always a relief to see they are there and healthy; devastating when an old friend has been removed for new development or yet another McMansion.

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