Some Serious Hangtime
[ mahr-ses-uh nt ]
withering but not falling off, as a part of a plant.
With the first frosts of fall and the peak of leaf peeping behind us, some of my favorite trees and shrubs start to show a different type of beauty. Known scientifically as marcescence, the leaves turn brown but hang on to the tree branches through winter. Marcescence is the term used to describe leaf retention, and is most common with many species of oak, American beech, witch hazel, hornbeam (musclewood in all its vascular beauty), and hophornbeam (ironwood). Certain species are more likely to exhibit this trait than others, and the phonomena can vary from year to year and plant to plant. Certain woody stemmed shrubs can also exhibit this natural characteristic for a beautiful foliage display straight through the winter.
Marcesent leaves are sometimes more prevalent when there is an early cold spell that kills leaves quickly. The early freeze interupts the normal abcission process where leaves become un-glued from their vascular lifeline. So the leaves hang on and frequently won’t let go completely until new leaves emerge in the spring. Even without early frosts or cold snaps, trees sometimes act more marcesent than in other years and the reasons for this are not really understood. Hypotheses include protecting spring buds from animal grazing (deer seem to prefer bare branches over those covered with flaky leaves accoring to a Denmark study) and nutrient cycling (timing the release of vital decomposition nutrients into the surrounding soil). Mother natures has her reasons. Whatever they are, take note of marcesence in the winter landscape to appreciate a little understood process in nature.
Though not native to North America, over the years, I’ve become enamoured with a certain marcesent shrub. Lindera angustifolia, (sometimes labeled lindera glauca v. saliicifolia) is more commonly referred to as Oriental Spicebush or Korean Spicebush. This multi-stemmed shrub is native to thickets and wooded areas on mountain slopes in parts of China but also grows well in NA Zones 5-8. The lindera shrub is named for Johann Linder (1676-1723), a Swedish botanist and physician with this specific lindera epithet meaning “narrow leafed”.
Unlike the more common linderas (benzoin is most common in the U.S., AKA Northern Spicebush), native to the US, the lindera angustifolia, hangs on to its narrow leaves well into winter, with some persisting until new leaves appear in early spring. What some horticulturalists describe as a tawny-beige color resembles “cinnamon” and high desert sandstone to me and is absolutely stunning in the winter landscape. Green leaves emerge in the spring with jet black berries appearing in late summer. Leaves turn a brilliant red before drying to their desert sandstone marcesent color.
I first noted lindera angustifolia at a nearby botanical garden and arbortetum many years ago. Observing these shrubs change over the seasons and year to year is a true joy. The shrubs are thoughtfully placed as an understory to some native deciduous trees lining the pedestrian walkway from the parking lot to the garden entrance. The shrubs do not draw much attention to themselves as specimens but rather act as an introduction and subtly set the mood for the entire garden experience to come. Perhaps more importantly, visitors are unknowingly calmed with a sense of zen when leaving the garden and returning to their cars. As people stroll along the pathway contemplating their visit, the linderas are emitting a calm, peaceful energy that runs deep the soul. It seems most people don’t notice the actual shrubs but do unknowingly pick up on the energy they emit. I have no idea if this zen flow within the landscape was designed with that intention (or perhaps a great mistake) by a master landscape architect, or if the plants themselves have conspired for the greater good.
After searching nurseries and online resources for several years I was able to source several of these calming shrubs for our own garden in the hopes of replicating the beautiful energy they provide. We have tried to intersperse marcesent plant matter throughout our landscape and our hope is these will flourish to compliment the witch hazels, oaks, beeches and hornbeams already hanging on. The challenge will be to see how the linderas interact with the juglones prevalent in the soil from the native black walnut trees that dither our landscape. The native lindera benzoin is supposedly juglones tolerant, so we are optimistic that the glaucas will thrive and bring along their truly unique beauty and energy.
I encourage everyone to experience the natural beauty of the winter landscape. There is an abundance to be taken in if your eyes are open and you allow yourself the freedom to breathe it in.