Twenty years of gardening and its fruits
The Hortus Arboretum and Botanical Garden
There is a place in Stone Ridge called the Hortus Arboretum and Botanical Garden that has been slowly evolving over the past 19 years, thanks to the ever-evolving expertise of its owners and caretakers, Allyson Levy and Scott Serrano.What they are creating, said Levy, is “a nonprofit garden with an educational mission of being a ‘Living Textbook’ of the diversity of what can be grown in the Hudson Valley with an emphasis on underutilized specimens of both ornamental and edible plants.” The couple were featured in the Rochester Environmental Conservation Committee’s lecture series for the month of August, and they were more than generous with their plant lore, given free of charge to all who tuned in on Zoom. They chose to focus on edible plants for the evening; what follows is just a sample of the surprising, intriguing and useful facts that accompanied a gorgeous slide show of plants from their gardens.
The American chestnut tree was the first subject.“Most people know it was wiped out by blight,” said Serrano. He then told the story of Howard Dunstan, who, starting in the 1950s, crossed and recrossed American and Chinese chestnuts until “he ended up with trees that are about 80% American and got them to survive.” The arboretum’s Dunstan chestnuts (you need at least two for cross-pollination) are doing very well and producing plenty of nuts – “broad, spreading trees, very handsome.”
The next slide showed an American hazelnut. An image of its long, dangling male “catkins” glowed on the screen.
“People forget that fruiting trees are highly ornamental,” said Levy. “Like chestnuts, hazelnuts will continue to ripen after harvesting, and they also require two of themselves to produce nuts. We try to get to stuff before the critters do … we’ve learned that you can harvest the nuts by shaking the tree.”
While they were showing the American persimmon tree, whose fruit Serrano described as having “a butterscotch molasses flavor,” someone asked, “Do you have to spray them with anything?” No, Levy answered, “we focus on plants that are lower maintenance. That doesn’t mean you don’t take care of them. We believe in feeding our shrubs and trees with compost, not only during the beginning, but also in mid-season … The single worst thing you can do with a new tree is not water it enough. The second-worst thing is to allow thick grass to grow right up against it. It secretes a chemical compound which retards and often kills trees.”
As the next slide appeared, Levy exclaimed, “Look at how gorgeous this is!” And indeed the blossoming beach plum tree in the photo was as showy as any cherry. Serrano commented, “They don’t need a beach, what they need is well-drained soil. We have really lousy clay soil that’s been amended with compost, and these are thriving, with thousands of little tiny wild plums … The flavor is variable. If you don’t care for them, wildlife loves them!” “In two days, we believe chipmunks wiped out pretty much all of the fruit,” said Levy with an air of resignation.
Black currant, a Catskill native, flowers in early spring, “chains of flowers like little bells,” said Levy. Like most of these wild fruit and nut plants, she said, you need more than one to get fruit. “It’s one of the few fruiting bushes that doesn’t mind not being in full sun.” It was banned for a long time, she said, because it was believed to be a carrier of white pine blister rust, but recently the ban has been lifted in a lot of states.
American elderberry, said Serrano, is so tough that “it grows in the absolute worst conditions. It thrives in sandy soil, in bogs, in clay soil, and can grow in full sun or in shade. The flowers can be used for making wine” and other drinks. The fruit’s most well-known use is as cough syrup; “They’re slightly toxic and need to be cooked.”
Native American wild passion fruit “is really a Southern plant,” said Serrano. “The secret is to get a very thick root system. Then you plant it in the best possible soil – rich compost – get it to grow through one long season and bury it in mulch, then it’ll survive.” He suggested, “Keep it as a houseplant for a few years – buy two for cross-pollination. This will produce edible passion fruit.” The flowers pictured in the slides were spectacular. “Every part of this plant was used by Native Americans, and is still used by herbalists.” Over many years, it’s completely taken over their greenhouse, he added. “We can see why down South this is considered a weed,” although the tart fruit makes great jam.
Serrano called pawpaw “the queen of American fruit … the worst thing is that it’s going to take 10-12 years to get that fruit, because this is a taproot-driven plant … Once the roots have grown out long enough, the it’s like a switch turns on and you suddenly have fruit.” Also, it seems, you have to baby them. Little ones need shade, but when they get big they like sun. The flowers are big and burgundy-colored and are pollinated by flies of all kinds, but leaving nothing to chance, Levy and Serrano sometimes resort to the paintbrush method of pollination. The fruit grows in banana-like bunches and according to Serrano “tastes like banana and coconut or pineapple. They’re truly a treat, if you’ve never tried one … the wait is well worth it.” It’s “native from the the upper Midwest through the South.”
They talked about mayapple, and how people don’t usually think of eating its fruit. “You can’t eat the fruit until it’s kind of squishy.” You can’t eat the skin or the seeds, “but the pulp –it tastes like you’re in the Caribbean!” enthused Serrano.
To grow cranberries, said Serrano, “we have a plastic container buried in the ground. Soil is put over it and the [roots] are put inside of it. So in essence this is a little 2 foot by 2 foot bog. You don’t need a ‘bog’’ for cranberries to grow, they don’t need to be standing in water, just moist soil…one part soil, one part peat moss, and one part sand.”
Prickly pear, spikenard sarsaparilla, spicebush, chokeberry – each plant in the slide shows was accompanied by detailed advice on planting it, maintaining it and harvesting its bounty. Space limitations dictate that the curious go to the Hortus Arboretum and learn about them from Levy and Serrano in person. The good news is that “we do encourage visitors,” said Levy, “and you can sign up by looking at the calendar on our website.” Serrano added, “Because of COVID, it’s one family at a time, so you don’t have to wear a mask” when you come visit. Levy: “Or have a party! We have a little area that we call the event center that has a couple of picnic tables.” And yes – they do have plants for sale.
Levy continued, “About five or six years ago we realized that our county didn’t have an official arboretum/botanical garden. Most arboretums were started by wealthy families many years ago, and there was a competition about who could get what plant to show off … we know our garden collection is still very young. Our goal is that [by the time] we’re in mushroom bags in the ground, that Ulster County, maybe with the help of the Garden Conservancy, will see the importance of the diversity of plantings that we’ve done over time and will take this on.”
For more information about the Hortus Arboretum and Botanical Garden, visit www.hortusgardens.org
Read more ~ Edible Hudson