[“Parks and Plantations of Buffalo.”, a lecture by William McMillan, presented before the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, date undetermined.]
Park Plans and Plantations.
Park plans and plantations is not a scientific topic, and a paper on such a subject may seem entirely out of place to a society of natural sciences. But for this series of short papers to be read at these monthly meetings our Venerable President informed me that a pretty wide range would be allowed in the choice of topics so that each member might in turn make his remarks on whatever subject — not entirely foreign to the objects of the Society – he might at the time feel the most interest in.
A park, however, in the proper use of the term, has some special claim on the attention of students of nature, or lovers of natural science. The fundamental, the essential elements of a Park are its natural features, its surface variations of hill or dale, of ridge or ravine, of rough rock or smooth lawn, deep wood or open glade, its trees and shrubs, herbs and flowers, turf and water, even sunshine and shade, air and sky. All of these in their endless combinations are the Park, and it is to furnish to the denizens of large cities absorbed in business cares, and in the scenes and circumstances of an intensely artificial life, a chance for occasional recreation and enjoyment in the study and observation of nature as thus presented, that Parks are made and preserved.
But with many, too many people, this purpose and use of a park is forgotten or ignored, and such, when visiting a Park, take much more notice of the accessory artificial features than of the original, natural and real elements of the places. Refectories, arbors, kiosks, statues, fountains, bridges, drives, walks are looked at with interest, and all the ever-fresh, ever-changing forms and tints of the landscape elements are virtually unseen. These artificial structures are introduced solely because necessary to enable large throngs to visit the Park with comfort, to walk, drive or ride through it, to rest, eat or drink in it, in such manner as to give the least injury to the verdant elements and grounds of a Park.
To many people, too, a Park is a mere pleasure ground – a place for hilarious amusements, for games, sports, pic-nic frolics, for pompous promenades, whether driving, riding, walking or boating. All such innocent diversions all well enough in their place, ground for them useful or necessary to people, cabined, cribbed, confined in a large city. But separate grounds or special parts of the main ground may be set apart for these purposes, so that in the Park proper everything may be subordinate to the cardinal idea of the tranquil enjoyment of the presiding natural genius of the place. There is a constant tendency in every city to encroach on the Park reserve, by obtruding in it many heterogeneous institutions all more or less inconsistent with the main purpose of a Park. Military parade grounds, rifle ranges, race courses, fair grounds, ball and gymnasium grounds, concert halls, circuses, in short, room for all sorts of popular exhibitions, and charlatan entertainments have been applied for in parks and the application often pressed with such persistent plausibility as to require considerable firmness in the Park Managers to prevent the growth of such excrescences and parasites.
The establishment of such accessory institutions as Zoological and Botanical Gardens, museums of art and of natural history have also been pressed with more or less success in connection more or less close with the Parks of larger cities. These are not so objectionable as the others, but their main object is as different from that of a Park as a billiard room from a library.
The kind of recreation to be gained from them is different, the accessory conveniences are entirely different. Their perfect combination with a Park is impracticable, and while convenient intercommunication may be desirable, it is better that they should be entirely distinct and separate institutions, used apart, one at a time. There is just sufficient unity and community of interest between them to justify their introduction, if it can be done without disturbing seriously the distinctive objects of the Park as a Park.
A botanical garden or arboretum would seem the most natural and desirable accessory, but strangely enough there seems to be less actual demand for this than for many mountebank exhibitions. South Park, in the suburbs of Chicago, is the only park where any collection of this nature has been begun. This was started only last year, but it bids fair to grow and prosper. It has already a considerable nucleus of native plants, and has received by correspondence with kindred institutions in other countries, 775 species and varieties of living foreign plants and 1,132 herbarium specimens, according to the first annual report. It has several hot houses for exotic plants and for the propagation of the common bedding plants used in the park establishment. There is a so-called Botanic Garden at Washington in public ground, but the out-door space is very limited, and the green-houses are not extensive. There is also a Botanic Garden at Cambridge, Mass., in connection with an excellent herbarium. So far as I am aware there is no systematic arboretum or pinetum in any part of the country. Certainly none in any public ground.
But it is probable that the plantations of the older parks though all are quite young, furnish already a better and fuller representation of the indigenous plants that will stand our climate, than can be found in any private establishment. In Prospect Park, Brooklyn, there are already over 500 different kinds of trees and shrubs and vines. If they are added to from year to year, as is quite likely to be done, our parks will soon be practically arboretums, containing nearly every tree, shrub and vine that will thrive in the soil and climate of the locality where each park is situated. Of course, in the general plantations of a park, no systematic or botanic arrangement of the plants is practicable, but they must be grouped or disposed in whatever place will best serve the purpose of landscape embellishment, or provide the best conditions of soil, moisture or shelter to suit individual plants.
Some trees and shrubs that may be quite hardy and some even that may be indigenous in the vicinity of a park, are difficult to introduce in cultivation, because the conditions of their natural habitat may be difficult to imitate and the plants impatient of any change. For instance, such plants as are found only in sphagnum bogs, in peaty marshes or in the deepest recesses of thick woods, seem to defy cultivation under artificial conditions. There are also many native plants somewhat difficult to procure in quantities at the right age for transplantation, as not being in general demand they are not propagated or cultivated in any nursery. From this cause there are still many plants in the woods, some of them quite attractive in form or foliage which are still quite rare or entirely lacking in all our parks.
It is a curious fact that with the exception of the maples, the elm and the occasional ash, linden, or poplar, nearly all our larger forest trees are entirely neglected in cultivation, and are missing from all young ornamental plantations. The wild cherry, the tulip, the plane, the beech, all the hickories, and most of the oaks, are large trees, excellent for shade or ornament, but few are transplanted from the woods, or obtainable at a nursery. In the same category may be placed many of our smaller trees, such as the hackberry, tupelo, liquidamber, the hornbeam, hophornbeam, the sassafras, flowering dogwood, &c., all comparatively common in woods, of easy cultivation, and of comely form or distinctive character. Many desirable shrubs are still more strangely neglected, such as the sweet gale, bayberry, sweet fern, spice bush, all with fragrant foliage and the native honeysuckles, viburnums, huckleberries, andromedas, kalmias, all with showy or pretty blossoms. Fashion or habit demands foreign plants, and as nurserymen don’t grow what they cannot sell, the bulk of their stocks, excepting the elm and maples, is of foreign origin. Of course, many of these are also desirable plants that thrive fairly in this climate too, but it is curious to notice that, where a European plant is little or nothing better than its American congener, the European species is wanted and propagated and the other not. Thus an English or Turkey oak can be readily obtained, but a single one of a dozen valuable native species with difficulty or not at all. So of the beeches, ashes, planes, horse-chestnuts, lindens, mountain ashes and larches of Europe and America respectively.
In some park plantations an effort has been made to obtain a much fairer proportion of American trees and shrubs that are usually found in private ornamental ground, but owing to the difficulties I have indicated, many native plants are still rare or lacking, but the majority of the species of ornamental plants, especially in the shrubberies, are foreign. Many of our choicest hardy shrubs cultivated for showy flowers or the foliage or habit are natives of China and Japan. Among these are the Japan quince, the weigelas, most of the spireas, the forsythias, the best hydrangeas, the deutzias and the early flowering magnolias. These seem well adapted to the climate of the northern States, and are a great acquisition to our ornamental grounds, for few of our native shrubs can compare with them in their profuse and showy blossoms, or in their good habit and adaptability to general culture. The extreme variations and vicissitudes of our climate prevent the introduction in our northern latitudes of many desirable plants that can stand much cold but the sudden changes of our winters. And among those we have, their season of flowering is not only much delayed by our late springs, but on the other hand, the period of during which the blossoms of many would remain is shortened by our bright and hot suns causing them to drop, almost prematurely. For these reasons the duration of the flowering period is much shorter in our shrubberies than in those of England. Nearly all our choicest plants open their flowers in May or June, very few in April or July, and only two or three as late as August or September. In England the shrubbery blossoms quite freely in April, and July gives as fine a display of bloom as either May or June. There are there a few hardy shrubs that serve to give a succession of bloom to their gardens, not only through the Autumn months, but even without a break through the depths of winter. In a list of 200 varieties of trees, shrubs and vines in cultivation on Prospect Park, Brooklyn, all with notable flowers, 180 bloomed in May or June, about half in each month, and of the remaining 20, one-half flowered in April, and the half straggled through July and August to September. In England a similar list of 200 plants, all hardy and in open air culture would bloom in monthly succession approximately thus: January to March 10, April 20, May, June and July, each 50, August 10, September 5, October, November and December, 5.
In the South of England at least a dozen hardy shrubs flower from November to February, the time varying considerably according to the season. Among these are our witch hazel – the common hazel – the alder, the chimonanthus, the cornet tree, the Glastonbury thorn, two species of daphne, two of heath, a jasmine, a rhododendron and the dauristine. In March appears the almond, Japan quince, forsythia, forthergilia, hippophae and Chinese magnolias – all at least a month earlier than here. The ordinary flowering season of the common furze or whin is from February to May, but in mild seasons scattering blooms appear again in September and continue more or less fully all winter. There is common proverb which says “Love is out of season when the whin is out of blossom.” By this a longer season is suggested than by Tennyson in Locksley Hall where he seems to hint that only
In the spring a livelier iris changes on the burnished dove,
In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.
Among these winter blooming plants is the famous Glastonbury thorn, popularly believed to open its flowers punctually on Christmas morning. It comes into leaf in January or February and sometimes even in autumn, so that it is occasionally in bloom on Christmas day. To account for this there is a popular legend of a devout monk who made in olden times a pilgrimage to Glastonbury Abbey in the south of England. Arriving on Christmas eve, he stuck his staff into the ground near the door before entering. Next morning on looking out he was surprised to see it had assumed the form of a shapely bush and was in full blossom in honor of the day. He devoutly accepted the miracle as a sign of Heaven’s approval of his mission and he left the staff to take root and flourish in the Abbey court, where it long remained before any sacrilegious hand dare to cut a scion to attempt the propagation of the variety, which is now, however, quite common, but still known as the Glastonbury thorn.
Though with us no ligneous plant will bloom in the open air at Christmas, yet the time between the last autumnal and the first spring blossoms is not so long as some may imagine. The flowers of the witch hazel in some seasons may be found fresh looking till November, and in a mild season the silver maple blooms in March, or even earlier at times. I saw in a newspaper paragraph this last winter that this maple was in flower in the last week of January in Salem county, New Jersey. The red maple and the elms, willows and poplars soon follow. Among native shrubs the direa or leatherwood is one of the earliest. In autumn the clethra, the althea, the aralia, the wild clematis, and trumpet flowering honeysuckle, and the hydrangeas fill up sparsely the months of August and September in advance of the witch hazel.
But, if in autumn few shrubs bloom, we have ample compensation for this in the glorious display of our autumnal flowering perennials, the eupatoriums, asters, golden rods and others, which at this season adorn with such great profusion the most neglected fields, fence lines and roadsides. Then as these begin to fade the gorgeous tints of our autumn foliage take their place and illuminate the woods with the most varied and hues, compared with which the European landscape at the same season is dull and tame.
For ornamental plantations many of our native plants ought to be more freely used if only for the colors of their fading foliage in Autumn. There is ample material for the most varied combinations. Some species are uniform in their colors, and in some the colors vary so much that sometimes each tree will be quite distinctly different. The poplar, birch, tulip, hickory and larch are always yellow. The tupulo, liquidamber, sumach and dogwood always red. The red and sugar maples, especially the former, vary exceedingly on different trees, some being entirely yellow, others all scarlet or crimson or purple or orange, and others variegated with several of these colors. The white ash has a peculiar autumn tint, varying from chocolate-purple to violet-brown, and gradually lightening to dark-yellow before the fall of the leaf. It is also remarkable to the uniformity with which the same tints prevail at the same time over all the foliage. Most of the oaks also have peculiar tints of a somewhat leathery character, but very persistent, and prolonging the season considerably.
But when all the Autumn colors have faded out winter landscapes have a very dreary quality. We have a considerable number of very hardy trees of the conebearing class, but their colors are mostly deep, dark and sombre. In this respect our ornamental plantations in midwinter lack the bright, glossy evergreen shrubs which give such a fresh and bright aspect at this season to the gardens of England. Of such are the shrubs box, euonymous, holly, ivy, kalmia, laurel, laurestine, mahonia, myrtle, olive, the evergreen oaks and maghotis, phillyren, privet and the rhododendrons. All of these are too tender to stand our winters with aspect unimpaired, except one or two, that may keep their foliage bright if deeply shaded and carefully sheltered. Of late years varieties of trees, shrubs and vines, with beautifully variegated foliage, have been zealously introduced and much valued; but most of them pale their particular tints during our hot summers, and many are of slow and rather delicate growth compared with the normal types of the same species. Still there are few of the shrubs and vines that do pretty well, as for instance, the variegated elders, weigela, dogwood, kerrin, honeysuckle, eleus-ampelopsis.
In our desire for bright or curious color in foliage we are apt to pass unnoticed the fragrance of the leaves of some trees, especially if bruised – of such are the walnuts, the birches, the sweet gum, the balsam poplar, the mahaleb and the bird cherry and the sassafras. Among shrubs with this characteristic are the calycan – thus the spice bush, sweet gale, sweet fern, sweet brier, and the purple flowering raspberry.
Even among our garden bedding plants more regard seems to be shown of late years to plants with gaudy or rich colors whether on flower or foliage than to those old favorites with sweet scented blossoms. Thus the lilacs, the syringas, the native magnolias, the honeysuckles, the daphnes and azaleas, and the all-spice are now out of fashion, and plants with showy flowers and especially those with bizarre-colored foliage are all the style. New plants of this class come out each year, the first favorites drop out of sight, and the gardener finds that he must follow the fleeting fashion as promptly and blindly as the milliner.
Even to our parks this fashion is spreading, and formal beds and masses of great tropical leaved plants may occasionally be seen in the most decorated portions of the grounds. In the immediate vicinity of prominent architectural structures, or where the natural features of the grounds are subordinate to the artificial, a few such plants may be sparingly introduced. But in a true, simple, rural landscape, such tropical exotics are entirely inadmissable, because so incongruous with the sylvan elements of the scene and the plants indigenous to the climate.
The same objection, only to a minor degree, may be made to the introduction in a park of the ordinary bedding plants and flowers of our gardens. Formal geometrical or fancifully shaped flower beds, and all sorts of elaborate, gardenesque or arabesque patterns filled with tender flowers, however attractive and desirable they may be in private pleasure grounds, are unsuited to a quiet, pastoral park, or to any public pleasure ground where large miscellaneous crowds congregate.
This style of decoration is also incompatible with the economy generally required in the maintenance of our public grounds. If attempted and not supported and complemented by equal style and luxury in the finish and keeping of the immediate surroundings the showy flower clumps are apt to seem as misplaced as a diamond breast-pin on a soiled shirt-bosom.
It would be far more appropriate and pleasing to make a freer and more generous use of many of our neglected wild flowers in situations where little culture is required. To place along the edges of copses, or the borders of the old woods, and mingling more or less with the underbrush, a liberal supply of lobelias, eupatoriums, asters, golden rods would at the proper season be equally effective – in harmony and character with the woods and shrubbery – and in full flower at a time when nearly everything else in the Park is out of bloom, and tender exotics are fast fading to decay.