Unilingual at the Experimental Farm

October 15, 2008

One of the most splendid public institutions in Eastern Ontario is the Experimental Farm in Ottawa.  Originally conceived as a model farm to demonstrate developments in agriculture such as winter wheat, the farm has continued to fulfill its mandate long after progress should have passed it by.  The farm is the city’s jewel, an outpost of spacious greenery in a bustling urban landscape.

Walnut grower Neil Thomas has accumulated data on most stands of black walnuts in Eastern Ontario, and in his opinion the trees on Experimental Farm property near the Civic Hospital are the best he has seen.  I dropped by to gather some seed after a morning appointment.  Staff encourage the gathering of nuts from these trees, and Ottawa friends have reported seeing tree lovers stuffing the green nuts into shopping bags and baskets, laying in their supply for winter while the squirrels scold from above.

After filling all of the grocery bags I could find in my vehicle, I decided to venture over to the Arboretum in search of a shagbark hickory.  Leeds County Stewardship Coordinator  Martin Streit found one in our woodlot, but it’s a small, scrawny specimen, locked in a death struggle with a towering walnut and unlikely to survive.  Martin told me about the edible nuts this strain of hickory produces, so I thought I might try to plant a few if I could find seeds.

Not quite knowing where to look, I did the logical thing:  I flagged down a golf cart and asked the driver.  She directed me to the Friends of the Experimental Farm building, in the Arboretum just off the traffic circle south of Dow’s Lake.  I wandered through a corridor of offices until someone looked out an open door.  I asked if they had any shagbark hickory in the area.  Blank look.  An obvious language problem.  I had no idea how to translate my request, but the pleasant-looking middle-aged man turned to the younger man beside him with a quizzical look. “Carya, I think. Let me look it up.”  With me in tow he dashed down the corridor to a sort of closet, where he started rifling through a set of index cards.  “Yep, carya ovata, not carya cordiformis. There’s one just outside, across the parking lot.  Would you like me to show you?”

Away we went out a side door, and across an open space to a beautifully manicured park with a large shagbark hickory as its centerpiece.  The man looked at a tag implanted in the bark on an ingenious spring system anchored by two long brass screws.  It listed the tree’s Latin name, as well as the translation into the vulgate, “shagbark hickory” and the year of the tree’s planting.

I asked how often it produces seeds.  The guy didn’t know, but pulled down an overhanging branch and showed me some.  “Go ahead and pick any you can reach.  Check back with me if you need anything.”  I offered my surprised thanks, and away he went.

Pockets bulging with hickory nuts, I stumbled back across the parking lot, only to encounter the lady on the golf cart again.  I thanked her for the directions and asked if they had any butternuts with seeds in the Arboretum.  She gave directions to a couple of trees, but saw my blank look every time she used the word “walk”.  Hey, my pockets were bulging with hickory nuts!

Before long we were gliding over the lawns in an electric, four-passenger Club Car, her personal ride at the Experimental Farm, where she is a head hand, Ornamental Gardens division.  To my dismay I have lost her name.  (Madam, if you read this, please post a comment with your name, and that of the other guy, O.K?  I need them for a Review Mirror column. Thanks.)  Down a grassy hill we zoomed, fetching up at the bottom next to a small aesculus glabra, or Ohio Buckeye.  That’s American for a chestnut, I guess.  I picked up a nut on the ground.  She nodded, so I tore the thick, spongy husk away, to reveal a bright, chestnut-coloured, uh, chestnut.  Cool.  She told me you can eat them, as long as you don’t overdo it, at which point they become poisonous because of the high concentration of tannin in the nut.

Off we went on our quest for the perfect caryocar nuciferum, or butternut tree.  She stopped at two more carya ovata to show me how the young ones grow.

Conversation veered to heartnuts, so the cart took a detour through a tall stand of spruces to the juglans section.  I knew that one.  Juglans nigra is the black walnut.  What I hadn’t known is how many subspecies of black walnut they have growing at the Arboretum.

A large juglans ailantifolia – that’s a heartnut – graced a small knoll next to a dwarf black walnut and a magnificent full-sized black walnut planted in 1885, according to the tag on the trunk.

I explained my desire to learn how to graft heartnut branches onto black walnut rootstock.  My guide led me to believe that it might not be hard to time my grafting with some pruning of the heartnut tree at the Arboretum.

Off to the butternut tree.  We passed below a tall bluff with a carefully maintained grassy slope to the river below.  Sitting on the railing of a parking lot at the top of the hill were a number of dog owners, tossing frizbees and tennis balls down the slope for their eager retrievers who didn’t mind at all having to race up and down the steep hill.  The Arboretum has a leashes-optional policy and the dog owners flock to the exquisite park with their charges.

We arrived at the butternut tree and lo and behold, there were butternuts on the ground under it!  I’d never seen this many butternuts in one place before in my life.  The squirrels nab them first thing in our area.  I guess the grays in the park have so many hickories they haven’t had time yet for butternuts.  Whoever mowed the lawn had kindly moved a good quantity of the nuts into a pile out of the way next to the trunk

My guide encouraged me to take them and plant them, so I headed back up the hill to the office and my vehicle with a bagful of butternuts for seed, as well as the hickories, two buckeyes, and one pecan.

My V.I.P. tour of the Arboretum could hardly have been more pleasant or informative.  This large, friendly park is truly the jewel in the crown of Ottawa’s green spaces, and I encourage tree-lovers to visit frequently.

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