The Other Pachysandra

Last week my town had a record high of 79. At the start of this week, the low tied the record of 14 and dropped even lower in my yard. This extreme fluctuation is tough on plants, both wild and in the garden. There was 4” of snow which helped protect the shorter plants, but shrubs were hard hit. As could be expected in the garden, the buds of Camellia and Chaenomeles were browned. What I didn’t expect was the flowers of wild spicebush, Lindera benzoin, were also severely damaged. They are my most common understory plant, with at least a thousand in my woods. Fortunately, some shrubs had not yet flowered, and those buds are beginning to open.

In my garden the pachysandra came through the cold and snow with flying colors. As soon as temperatures rose, they were peeking out of their snow cocoons, and they kept blooming as if nothing had happened, as seen in this photo. I appreciate their tenacity. Pachysandra was one of the first plants I put in my garden almost a decade ago. I added a few dozen small starts to my yard, and they have thrived and gently multiplied in the decade since.

Japanese pachysandra is often sold in garden centers and recommended to quickly cover ground for impatient landscapers, but it is a terrible thug and quickly leaps from yards to wild areas. This is the other pachysandra, also known as Allegheny spurge. It is a pretty and polite groundcover, with beautiful, mottled leaves year-round. The flower spikes provide important pollen and nectar to late winter insects, along with a very sweet fragrance to reward gardeners. Now that I have observed their habits, growing in half a dozen spots in the informal trial garden also known as my yard, I am gradually spreading them out to the woods.

The original owners of the house seemed especially fond of plants to quickly create landscape impact. I spend a lot of time clearing remnants of their gardening. A bank below the house was covered with ivy, which still intermittently pops up, but at least I have successfully removed it from the trees. One of the most aggressive of their plantings was liriope, or monkey grass. As a former primatologist, I am usually fond of anything remotely relating to monkeys. After many hours of battling this weed, I have discovered I am into everything monkey except monkey grass. This plant has literally grown under the sidewalk and has jumped into multiple parts of the yard as a staging area to colonize the forest. I don’t think I can ever totally eradicate it but am finding ways to discourage its exuberance.

The adjacent park on one side and apartments on the other are endless reservoirs of invasives. Living in city limits means there are many sources for unwanted vegetation blowing and flowing into my yard. I have spent more time removing than adding plants. I believe in the importance of gardening by subtraction. One of the most aggressive unwanted floral visitors is Ailanthus, made famous by the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Based on my yard, it grows not only in Brooklyn but pretty much anywhere and everywhere else. There is also honeysuckle in several forms, both shrubs and vines. Bittersweet is another Asian vine that has infiltrated most of my trees, and it is a constant battle removing it since the birds love the fruit and spread their seeds. Vines are incredibly destructive, strangling saplings and even killing mature trees by blocking out sunlight and toppling them by the literal weight of old vines.

When you manage a disturbed forest, you need to make difficult choices. I understand the value of gardening only with natives, but compromise can be necessary. Grape vines provide food for lots of wildlife, but with just 6 of my 10 acres in forest, everything is essentially an edge habitat. In mature forests they are eventually shaded out. Here with constant light throughout the woods this means even the native grape vines have grown too big for the trees and must also be removed. With a small woodlot, there is also sunny bare ground surrounding the forest edges where many native wildflowers can’t grow, and invasive plants quickly colonize and begin spreading into the forest. I am experimenting with planting both natives and non-natives that provide food and cover to wildlife at times when existing vegetation does not. I only grow plants when they can thrive here and play well with others. I am content to let them take their time and want to avoid introducing the next kudzu.

Using this week as an example, just as many pollinators were emerging, the usual supply of spicebush blossoms was unavailable. The pachysandra filled in and provided pollen and nectar to these early risers. With climate change, there will be more disruptions to both plants and animals, as temperature extremes become more common. My goal is to build a resilient garden, and one that extends the growing season to animals that may not always be synchronized to shifting seasons which may arrive too early, or too late. With tiny lives measured in days, every hour can determine their survival.

Aristotle first suggested that nature abhors a vacuum. So does my dog Dazzle, along with anything that buzzes, beeps, rings…. But I digress. The many invasives growing here illustrate empty space tends to be filled by unruly flora unless the land is managed. Allegheny pachysandra is native to the southeast, with a distribution extending just a few counties south of me and it has easily adapted to my local conditions. It has held its own without interfering with local flora, spreading very slowly but determinedly, covering bare ground.

In my gardening largely focused on removal, it is one of my few additions. But its success gives me cautious optimism eventually I can create a new kind of landscape here. My garden will never be pristine. I must travel many miles to find a landscape largely untouched, a preserved memory of what my own woods was long ago. Fragmented forests such as mine lose species and are more vulnerable to invasion by foreign plants and animals. Animals sharing my yard are literally living on the edge. They struggle to survive in habitats degraded almost beyond repair.

My primary goal is to save the plants and animals that have been here for millenia, coevolved in delicate harmony. But sometimes these plants can’t adapt to changing conditions. I study and experiment with plants that are not historically found here but may better tolerate the landscape as it exists today. They will provide resources for animals attempting to survive in the fractured forests that remain. I am working to create a refuge for my own small corner of the changing planet. My woods will never again be a pristine wilderness. With my help, I am empowering it to become the best forest it can be.