Of Trees And Flowers

jackdalyBy John Daly

I have often wondered why people when planting trees or shrubs rely for seedlings almost exclusively on the commercial nurseries when we have so many varieties of lovely wild trees in Cape Breton that can be had for only a little trouble of digging them up and transplanting. Then, too, they possess the advantage of being acclimated and will withstand the rigors of our winters much better than most imported trees and will bloom for generations, whereas many nursery shrubs and trees have a very ephemeral life, more especially if the plantation happens to be near the sea and is exposed to the cold, salty winds of the spring and fall.
As for beauty, we have trees growing wild in our woods than which none can be lovelier. Our wild pear and cherry for instance, which bloom long about knee deep in June, are breathtaking in the loveliness when they appear all in white. ‘June brides’ of our native woods.

Then there is the dogwood, which is not the true dogwood, but mountain ash. This tree is lovely in spring with its close-packed clusters of yellowish white blooms, and perhaps even lovelier in the autumn when it’s laden with its grape-like bunches of scarlet berries. I have mentioned only three, but there are many kinds of wild trees and shrubs that are easily grown and lend themselves readily to transplanting either in early spring on in the fall after the heat of the summer has passed.

What I have said of trees also applies to flowers which are native to Cape Breton or have become native through long acclimatization. Many of them and our wild ferns also make lovely transplantings, especially for rock gardens. One hardly ever sees old-fashioned gardens today, gardens of perennials such as heliotrope, penny royal, foxglove and phlox. I think these are among the most beautiful of all perennials flowers and they will bloom practically untended for ages. The heliotrope has one of the loveliest of all flower perfumes, indescribably sweet and penetrating, though not strong. It will scent a whole garden or a room if it used as a cut flower.

The penny royal is perhaps the most old-fashioned flower of all. I think it was originally brought to Cape Breton from England and I believe it has the longest continued period of bloom of any of the perennials, about a month, from late June in this part of the country, to late July. Its foliage is very soft in texture, a deep green in color and its pale yellow blossoms cover the whole stem from the ground right to its tip. It too, has a delicate perfume and is lovely for a vase flower.

The foxglove or digitalis has no scent but makes a brave showing in any garden of perennials with its beautiful bell-shaped blue flowers and tall, graceful stem.
Phlox, sometimes called late lilac, blooms long and profusely through August and September. It is very sweet-scented and one of our lovelies fall flowers.

I have named only four old-time perennials here but there are many more equally as hardy and long-lived. I have seen penny royal blooming in full vigor in a country garden that had been abandoned for more than twenty years. So for the gardener who has not too much time to spend in digging and weeding these perennial are ideal.

But perhaps those old-fashioned flowers are not for the city garden. They belong in the country where many of the still bloom in untended gardens, mute but beautiful reminders of the vanished hands that set them there so long ago.

Some flowers will leave the garden and go wild in the fields if long neglected. A few summers ago I came across some Irish shamrocks which had evidently done this, for I never heard of shamrocks being native to Cape Breton. The nearest garden, our own, contained no shamrocks, and these were the true variety and not clovers, as so many flower-shop shamrocks are. The true shamrock has a tiny yellow flower, star-shaped, with give petals, and according to a Dublin gardener who told me so, no other is the real shamrock. Those were in full bloom when I found them and I successfully transplanted some to our garden, but I couldn’t get them to grow indoors.

Nature seems to have no set pattern with regard to flowers or trees. I can remember a splendid black ash tree that grew on our old homestead, one of the most perfect specimens of that tree I have ever seen and I never had a seedling or a shoot, although we were anxious to get some for planting elsewhere. One winter a very destructive storm occurred and the tree was completely broken down and we regretfully cut it up for fire-wood. What was our astonishment next spring to see literally dozens of young ash seedlings coming up around the stump within a radius of twenty feed or more. Why was this? I don’t know, but I believe it to be an inanimate instinct of preservation – the species must go on.

Speaking of native trees, I never knew untill some few years ago that we have a native holly. I had always thought of holly as being purely English, but when our walking in Ingonish one morning in early winter after a recent fall of snow, I came abreast of a little valley or lowland and there I saw two trees if full bloom or red blossoms and surrounded by snow that sparkled in the sunshine. I stopped still in wonder, scarcely crediting my sense of sight, or thinking I had come upon a fairy ring, but when I approached nearer – they were about a hundred yards from the highway – I discovered that the trees were not in blossom but were covered from trunk to branch end with tiny coral red berries so think and uniform as to give the trees from a little distance the appearance of being in full bloom. It was one of the loveliest sights I have ever beheld, and live Wordsworth’s daffodils, they still “flash upon that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude.”

I did not know until long after that they were Nova Scotia holly and I have never seen them growing anywhere else.

After that I found many other specimens, but in more remote places in the woods. The ones I first saw were, I imagine, fully mature, some twelve of fifteen feel tall, shaped somewhat in the spreading form of a crabapple or peach tree, and of perfect symmetry. I succeeded later in finding a smaller one to dig up and transplant but with the greatest difficulty, as their roots are deeply embedded and spread to a great distance. I have never send these trees in blossom and no one I have spoken to seems to know much about them.

I think it was very natural for the ancient Druids to worship oak trees, for the love of trees seems to be inherent in most men. Poets have sung of them, painters have painted them, and great prose writers have described them – all extolling their beauty. Any of us can plant them, but too few of us do. A man who plants an accord in not thinking of himself alone but of future generations, for it takes many, many years for an accord to grow into a great oak.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his delightful little volume of essays, Travels in England, tells of being entertained by an old English landed squire whose family roots went back for hundreds of years, and he was bemoaning the fact that the nouveaux riche were trying to usurp the place in society of the old landed gentry.

“Their guineas” said he, “can mould stone and mortar into a great mansion in a very short time, but thank God they can’t build an avenue of stately oaks overnight”.
No one can have a better monument to his memory than a tree he planted. It will not bear his name, but while it sends forth a green leaf in summer or poses its leafless silhouette against a winter sunset, it will contain a little portion of that man’s heart and soul. A cemetery full of tombstones is an ugly and depressing sight, but a stately grove is a thing of beauty. “Where the tall company of trees look down on the green fields below, they are truly ‘ambassadors from earth to heaven’.”

Note: this article was written by my great-uncle, John Francis Daly, in August of 1953 for the Cape Breton Mirror, a Monthly Magazine.  The Cape Breton Mirror (1951-1953) was published by Norman Lipschutz (born in Poland in 1921 and emigrated to Glace Bay in 1932).

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