Lessons from Marcescence Trees

I love how you are always learning new things in a garden. There are so many mysteries in the plant world and getting to ponder them is something I especially enjoy.

We have two trees that are practically curb side on our front lawn that hang on to their leaves in the fall. Last spring, our first one here, I thought it was just an anomaly. Sometimes winter comes so fast the trees are caught off guard and are caught still wearing their summer greens. A few times-not often-our aspens have failed to shed their leaves because of this. Eventually they turn brown but they hang there all winter long. Just like on our two trees.

This year, when our two trees once again hung onto their brown dead leaves I started doing some research. Since I knew it wasn’t because of an early winter, I figured it was due to lack of water or inadequate nutrition or some failing on my part. Instead I learned a new word.

Marcescence.

Marcescence is a classification of trees that hold their brown leaves all winter long, only releasing them when the new green leaves push them off to make way.

Apparently our Young’s Weeping Birch and Tatarian Maple are such trees. Or if they’re not, they certainly behave as if they are.

The bare branches of our crab apple wave its naked arms in front of our Young’s Weeping Birch while to the far left the Tartarian Maple holds its whirlybird pod-like leaves intact as well.

Whenever I learn something like this I am always certain I’m the last one to step up to the information wicket. Everyone else reading this is thinking, Duh! Who hasn’t heard of marcescent trees? And, obviously, the answer is me.

Why marcescent trees hang on to their dead leaves is a bit of a botanical mystery, which makes me love it even more. Some researchers think it is a self protection mechanism to hide the spring buds and make them less appealing to deer.

For being in a city, we get a ton of deer in our front yard. They are always eager to pitch in and help prune the crab apple and lilacs, but I haven’t noticed so much as a nibble on the two trees that hold their leaves, so it seems to be a valid theory.

A second plausible explanation is that the trees hang on to their leaves so they can deposit them at their roots in the spring, when they need the mulch and nutrients the most. The practice minimizes the risk of the leaves blowing away with the autumn and winter winds. If that is the reason, it isn’t working so well this year. It’s been a gusty spring. Most of the leaves have been sent skittering down the street, taking their nutrition with them.

Watching the leaves take off serves as a reminder of the uselessness of hanging onto negative things from the past, in hopes that it will somehow serve you in the future. It won’t. Well, unless it is something like lighting your hair on fire because you bent too close to an open flame. Hanging onto that memory could help prevent you from doing it again and that would be very helpful. However, other than those sorts of things, nothing good comes from hoarding old hurts.

It doesn’t do a lot for your appearance neither. I hate to diss my own trees, which I love dearly, but the look of dead brown leaves (in my view) are not nearly as attractive as naked branches against a cobalt winter sky or the fresh green buds that are unfurling on our other trees even as I type. Which doesn’t mean I will replace the trees or fail to appreciate them for who they are, but it is a warning that it can be better for body and soul to just let it go. These are now my Warning Trees.

I look out at these trees a few times a day, as I do the dishes. Now instead of wondering, “What is wrong with those trees?” I can think, “They are Marcescence. Hangers on of the past.” and it will serve as a warning that it is better to suffer a few deer nibbles than to try and protect oneself in a coat of bitter memories from a time that is better released to the winds.

A garden is a great provider of therapy, as well as flowers, fruit and vegetables. if we just hang out in a garden and ponder our questions long enough, the garden will provide profound answers. I was going to add that it is also cheaper than therapy, but (ahem) my credit card bill often says otherwise!

Well, enough philosophizing. A glorious day is shaping up outside. The sun is shining, there’s not a cloud in the sky and (most) of the trees have leafed out. Another day of lessons await. It’s a great day to be a gardener.

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