A few nights ago, Al Gore came to me in a dream. Dressed in white robes and sporting a beard, he sat at the foot of my bed and stared at me.
“What’s with the robes, Al?” I asked him.
“They’re cooler than pants,” he said. “Have you ever seen how they dress in Qatar?”
“Yes,” I said, remembering a VH1 documentary about Michael Jackson. Still, I was puzzled. “What’s that in your hand?” I asked him.
He held it out so I could see the little, withered sugar-maple seedling.
“Behold,” he said, sounding like an Old Testament prophet. “This plant is unsuited to a warmer Earth.”
I had to agree: It looked terrible.
I awoke in a sweat; on my pillow (along with a little drool) lay a tiny scroll. Unrolling it, I found a list titled “PLANTS SUITED TO A WARMER EARTH.”
Global warming, if you happen to believe in it, is a pretty unsettling thing. The little glimpse of it I’ve had this summer has been creepy—lush, verdant Asheville turned into a province of dust and wilted plants. Even the Bradley tanks of the summer landscape—the salvias and purple coneflowers—look awful. Of course, what we’re suffering through now might just be some smaller cycle within the big wheel of climate, but it’s worrisome nonetheless.
Climate scientists tell us that the Southern Applachians may become warmer and wetter as the earth heats up. But they also predict that the wetness will come in hefty doses, most likely in the form of tropical storms and toad-choker thunderstorms. Between those big rains, we’ll need plants that can take the heat. So no, the future doesn’t belong to sugar maples and firs, at least not around here. Instead, it will probably favor scaly, thorny plants with ill-smelling blossoms.
I can’t predict the future, but I can share with you a few of the plants from my little scroll that might thrive when the heat is on:
• blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica): You don’t have to be a Terps fan to like this tree. It’s odd for an oak, with big, fan-shaped leaves that are glossy and thick as poster board. The bark is dark gray, nearly black. The blackjack seldom grows to more than 30 feet. In the mountains, it’s restricted to barren soils along south-facing slopes; elsewhere it grows on dry ridges. But wherever it grows, it fairly scoffs at heat and prolonged drought. (In the Midwest, it’s typically one of the last trees standing before forest yields to prairie.) Its wood is dense and slow-burning, making it a perfect fuel for barbecues (assuming you still feel like cooking when it gets so very, very hot)
• purple passionflower or maypops (Passiflora incarnata): This flowering vine is native to much of the eastern U.S., though on first glance, you might guess outer space. The blossoms lie flat when fully open, with an eye-dazzling, two-toned fringe around the knobby stamens. Some strains smell sweet, others rubbery. Native from Pennsylvania south to the Gulf Coast, maypop is deep-rooted and accordingly very heat-tolerant. By late summer, the flowers form yellow, edible fruits. A tough outer husk cradles seeds with a sweet/tart coating, a la pomegranate. Global warming calls for a thirst-quencher; here’s one you can grow in your own back yard. (Passionflower is prone to running, so you might want to contain it if you don’t want it reaching for the neighbor’s dog.)
• chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus: Native to Asia, it’s now naturalized through much of the South. The lavender blooms emerge in late June and are peaking right about now. Chaste-tree grows to about 15 feet tall and has a broadly rounded form, making it a perfect front-yard specimen. Once established, it’s extremely drought-tolerant.
• rugosa rose (Rosa rugosa): These hardy shrub roses are unusually tolerant of both extreme heat and cold. Native to coastal Asia, they’re big, bossy and require virtually no care. Most species-type rugosas are immune to the black spot and mildew that afflict so many of their cousins. Varietals include “Fru Dagmar Hastrup” (a low, spreading variety with single pink blossoms), “Roseraie de l’Hay” (nearly 6 feet tall with velvety, cerise blossoms), and “Blanc Double du Coubert” (similarly large with double white blossoms). Most rugosas are very fragrant and bristling with thorns, making them suitable for a hedge between you and that annoying neighbor.
• horsemint (Monarda punctata): Native to much of North Carolina, this cousin of bee balm is seldom seen in gardens. It has frosty-green leaves borne in whorls around the stems, bright pink calyxes and yellow flowers stippled with brown dots. Growing on barren soils, horsemint displays a “bring it on” attitude toward global warming.