October 21, 2012

Well, This is Odd

Two sassafras trees, planted side by side.

Planted in the same year, from the same nursery, both were five gallon whips in containers. Both have grown on the hillside for six years now, mingling with maples and oaks and other young trees establishing there.

One looks like a strongly tiered wedding cake of a sapling, bright orange in October.  It makes a wonderful view from my kitchen window. In fall it twinkles, looking back at me from between the spruce and holly, very shapely, very structured, and looking like a golden pagoda.

It remains a small sapling after six years.

It is only three feet from its companion on the left, a big green, leafy sassafras twice the size of the little one. They both have the distinctive mitten lobed leaves sassafras are known for, but what different shapes and growth habits! It is most noticeable in fall when the little one colors, and the bigger one remains green.

Really, it is so odd.  There are no cultivars of sassafras albidum. There are only species plants. I bought identical ones and planted them at the same time.

The tree on the left, big and green, is about two feet lower than the one on the right. It was planted in a little dip in the rocky scree that made up this hillside when I first began planting a forest to screen the roadside behind.

The pagoda shaped one on the right is a little higher, sitting up above the dip in the hill, but not by much.  It, too, is in rocky scree.

The only thing I can think of to explain such different growth patterns is that the bigger tree in the hollow gets more moisture, being in a lower spot that collects any water as it runs off the hillside.

Can that explain this oddity?  Could there be such drastically different growth and fall color patterns just from the occasional puddle of water one gets compared to the faster run off the other experiences?

Plants are the weirdest people.

21 comments:

  1. Laurrie, I think it is important for a plant how much water it receives, but also important how many nutrients it receives from the soil.
    And what his neighbors are and what remains to him after these neighbors from the soil.

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    1. Nadezda, I agree. The two trees are only two feet apart, but they get very different nutrients from the soil. It makes such a difference!

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  2. I've noticed sassafras tends to be highly variable in tree shape as well as leaf shape, though I haven't noticed this color difference before. Does the green one never color at all, just drops brown leaves? You certainly don't want to try to move a sassafras. That would probably kill it. Perhaps you could do some surface digging and change the flow and accumulation of water at its base (if that's possible), and see what happens.

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    1. James, the green one does color spectacularly, bright orange and fiery, about two weeks after the little one loses its leaves. (There is another large sassafras out of the picture, and the two are big orange fireballs right now.) I really think the little one is stressed. I will try to channel some water to it if I can, maybe dig a trench around it.

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  3. Your last line says it all, Laurrie. Two people, living next to each other. One is small, living a life of many colors, the other big monochromatic. Enjoy them both.

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    1. Lee, I do enjoy them both. The bigger one has finally colored spectacularly this weekend while the little one has lost all its leaves. It gives me an extended season and a lot of variety in my little sassafras grove!

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  4. I'd go with the "more moisture = bigger tree" theory. Is there a big subterranean rock impeding the growth of the little tree? I've had that problem before.

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    1. Tammy, the area was so rocky and poor when I planted both, that I would not be surprised if the little one is sitting smack over a boulder or ledge that the bigger one doesn't encounter. I really do think the smaller one is under stress and I want to find a way to channel or pool more water around it. Somehow.

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    2. Dig it up and see what's going on underneath. Or maybe dig around it and see if you can find/remove some of the rocks. Your next post might feature a new rock wall or another dry riverbed. :o) If you do dig it up, add some BioTone to the soil when you replant it. It's full of beneficial bacteria that the plants love. Liquid kelp will also help counteract any plant stress.

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  5. I'm so thrilled that you planted Sassafras! A great tree that hardly gets the recognition that it should.
    Have you checked the planting depth on the stressed tree? Also does the trunk have any injuries or damage? I hear that rabbits will actually eat the bark of Sassafras in winter.

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    1. Forest Keeper, I am actually trying to get a small grove going, and have planted several sassafras. They are not easy to establish (I have lost many small saplings), even though they are volunteers in disturbed areas and they grow wild in our Connecticut woods. I'll check the things you noted!

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  6. I'm going against the grain and suggesting that you've got a variant strain, genetically different. Sure, ground water, soil and light conditions can play a part in how the tree grows, but this one has that strong layering of branches. It would be interesting to find out if the originating nursery propagated from cuttings or seed grew them. This is something most growers look for to start producing new varieties. Maybe this is your million dollar find, but first you need to see if it's a stable mutation for lack of a better term. I like the tiered look better than the bushy one to the left, it feels just more refined.

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    1. Rob, that's an interesting thought about this being a variant strain from seed. It really could be the next horticultural hot trend with its highly structural look, nice shape and perfect size for a patio tree. I am going to spend the afternoon thinking up cultivar names.

      Maybe I will take cuttings from it and see what I get (although I have read that sassafras needs to be taken from root cuttings, not tip cuttings, and I have never done that). Science experiment!

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    2. Well, after contemplating cultivar names, I came across this article that states no genetic variation in sassafras has been found. Harrumph.
      http://www.na.fs.fed.us/pubs/silvics_manual/volume_2/sassafras/albidum.htm

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    3. When it comes to mother nature; never say never! If frogs can change sex from female to male, than a Sassafras can have variation. Propagation is your biggest issue, that why we rarely have them in here to sell. Check around with some of the big growers who work with new plant introductions, like J.Frank and Schmit or Iseli nursery
      in Oregon to see what they say about your sassafras. Best of luck.

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  7. I have a similar conundrum with two Euonymus europaeus planted next to each o0ther. One is always glossy green, the other changes to a fall burgundy hue and has delightful pink and orange fruit. My guess is there may be a male/female thing going on that I haven't found out about yet.
    Garden mysteries are fun though!

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    1. Marie, a mystery indeed, with such variation side by side! Something genetic is going on with your euonymus plants, they are so very different -- especially if the fruit is the distinguishing factor.

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  8. It is strange indeed. But I've purchased two identical plants before and had one thrive while the other one struggled or even died. I haven't a clue why that happens.

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    1. Rose, each plant, like each human, has its own set of genetics even if trees and shrubs all look indistinguishable to us!

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  9. Laurrie - a mystery indeed! I would venture a guess that the additional moisture received by one tree makes the difference. I see sassafras growing the best in very moist places in my neck of the woods. Also, since they are not cultivars, one of them might just have poorer genetic hardiness or adaptation to whatever soil you have there. I bet your gardens are beautiful right about now with your variety of trees and shrubs...

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    1. Ellen, I agree. It is surprising, though, how the moisture varies by just a few feet of elevation (just a dip in the rocky soil). And the little tree must also have some genetic weakness that makes the moisture difference even more striking, I am sure.

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