(illustrated version)

Death and Resurrection

By Clement Kent

October 4, 2003

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what Iíve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Robert Frost, "Fire and Ice", 1920

Last year my biggest concern for the garden was the effect of several years of drought and extreme heat. Then we had a nearly normal winter, with snow cover to replenish the depleted water table and protect buds from January-February cold spells. March brought many sunny, mild days during which the snow banks shrank apace, and by the end of the month snowdrops and crocus were blooming. Buds were beginning to swell on many shrubs and trees, and the birds were singing spring melodies. Some maple trees were blooming, starting hay-fever season for some unfortunates.

I'm too much the optimist when I garden. By April 1 I had some of my hardier plants out of the cool greenhouse onto the back porch. I had planted several pots with pansies. That's when the snow pellets began to fall, followed soon after by freezing rain and ice. Everything froze solid, often under a thick coating of ice.

When the ice finally left later in April, many plants looked quite dead. My climbing roses had lost their buds and the canes were browning. The pansies in the pots drooped flat. Only the snowdrops and other hardy bulbs had taken things in stride.

By May I was just about ready to conclude some plants were goners. One deep red climbing rose was dead down to the ground, many others were only sprouting from the base. My Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) was brown sticks. The newly planted Tuliptree in our front yard had not one leaf. At our Lake Huron cottage two Sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua) looked like hat racks, not trees. A Butterfly Bush (Buddleia) appeared dead, and my Caryopteris (Bluebeard) which usually die back about a third way down from the top showed no growth. The only signs of revival were the pansies, which mounted a gradual recovery, and the maples on the streets. The maples that bloomed prematurely in March lost flowers and some young leaves, but were now beginning to leaf out again.

Finally around June 1 I began to prune. I had been reluctant to start earlier because I wanted to see which stems would recover. Recovery can happen whenever the sap-carrying cambium tissues just under the bark are still alive. These often have a pale green colour, which is the basis of the often heard advice to prune winter kill back to the green wood.

Recovery is based on making use of the plant's insurance policy: latent and adventitious buds. Robert Gough of Montana State University gives these definitions:

Latent buds remain dormant for many seasons and act as the plant's life insurance. If tissue above the bud is damaged, the bud produces a new shoot. Adventitious buds develop where there were no buds before. They are often initiated after a branch is cut back to mature tissue. These buds differ from dormant or latent buds in that they are not directly connected to the plant's vascular system. Branches that develop from adventitious buds are not strongly connected to the trunk or main branches and can be easily broken.

Latent buds are often very small but found in the same locations as regular buds - sometimes as a tiny bump near the stem. If a branch is pruned, or the normal buds are killed by frosts, this allows the latent buds to grow. If even the latent buds are killed, adventitious buds can form from tiny growth centers located elsewhere on the stem or even underground on roots.

I trimmed my rose canes back to green wood, but in many cases it was well into June before some buds developed. My New Dawn climber had stems over 6 meters long which looked quite dead, but finally leafed out near July. The deep red climber was given up for lost when no growth was seen by Canada Day, but then sprouted a 4 foot long stem in August! I watered and fertilized the Sweetgum trees repeatedly and by August they had new leaves and looked normal.

The Summersweet lost half its height but eventually grew new leaves. Normally the fragrant flowers come in July or August, but this year they bloomed in late September and October. The Caryopteris recovered to full height but bloomed at least a month later then normal in fall instead of late summer. The Buddleia, like the red rose, recovered from a basal sprout and was a sparse fall bloomer.

A few plants delayed their bloom apparently because of fire, not ice - midsummer dryness rather than the April frost. As I write in early October the Cimicifuga bottlebrush flowers whose buds formed in late July have finally opened, the abundant rainfall around the time of Hurricane Isabel having at last persuaded them to open. They mix with the showy cherry red bracts of Seven Sons Tree (Heptacodium miconioides) in a rarely seen composition.

The moral of this story , as so often in gardening, is patience, patience, patience. Many of your plants have extraordinary abilities to revive from what appears to be certain death. Don't give up too early - instead water, feed, and pray!

Copyright 2003 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t