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Transitions: A Fresh Look at the Changing Season

Opinion | November 23, 2009

fall foliage

As the impending season rides in on a tide of increasingly cool November winds, some in the Tufts community may experience feelings of mourning for the beautiful green landscape that the university enjoys in the spring and summer months. Trees grow brown and bare, rolling green hills turn white and gray, mushrooms and flowers disappear from view, and the vibrant botanical scene lies dormant for many months— or so it may seem, to the untrained eye.

But the expert eye of a trained botanist like Professor George Ellmore can certainly detect the diamonds in the rough winter landscape. Elmore, Director of the Environmental Studies Program at Tufts, shared his excitement through a private tour illuminating the botanical profile of Tufts in winter. Beginning outside Barnum and reaching to the Tisch roof, Hill Hall and beyond, Ellmore traversed the academic quad finding evidence of life and beauty that persists despite the impending cold. With the help of a trained eye, one can discover the beauty, intricacy, and edibility of the fall and winter greenery at Tufts.

After taking fewer than five steps from the side door of Barnum, Professor Ellmore stooped to introduce the first potential ingredient in a veritable salad of winter edibles at Tufts: the ever popular Stellaria media, commonly known as chickweed. The tiny green sprouts can be found in beds of clover that grow all over campus in every season and are recognizable by the way their leaves grow in pairs. They have a very green flavor (like that of romaine lettuce) and were apparently used as such in times before lettuce was available to consumers year round.

Circling around to the front of Barnum, another addition to our wintry salad was made. The Tilia genus, also known as a Basswood tree, sustains itself in the winter by storing fuel in small, pointed reddish-green buds at intervals along its branches. The taste is subtly green and vaguely mucilaginous, almost like a lima bean. Circling around to the front of Barnum, another addition to the salad was made. The Tilia genus, also known as a Basswood tree, sustains itself in the winter by storing fuel in small, pointed reddish-green buds at intervals along its branches. The taste is subtly green and vaguely mucilaginous, almost like a lima bean. Right next to the Basswood lies another perennial treat that has gotten a bad rap as poisonous, but is, in fact, edible to those in the know. The berries on the common Yew bush, whose short needle like leaves are useful for landscaping, are rose-red, squishy, cuplike berries whose seeds can induce cardiac arrest. However, one merely has to isolate the seed from the berry by spiting the seed out or removing it beforehand to enjoy this perfectly safe, sticky and sweet berry. “Birds eat the berries and wipe their beaks off in another place, dropping the seeds wherever they travel,” Ellmore said, spitting the seed into his hand and tossing it as a demonstration of this evolutionary advantage. “But the seeds are poisonous to humans—there was once an Agatha Christie novel where the murderer baked a pie out of the berries.”

Despite the gloominess often associated with leafless winter trees, the delicate intricacies of bark that remain can make even naked plants quite beautiful. According to Professor Ellmore, New England landscapers are especially aware of this, and specifically include trees and bushes with interesting bark to maintain appearances even when fall drains the color from the foliage. The Tufts landscapers have included several specimens of interesting bark. Along the path between Goddard and Eaton stands the Dawn Redwood, a sculpted conifer whose orange-toned bark flakes and twists along its trunk. Ellmore said that the Metasequoia genus was thought to be extinct back when communication with China was cut, but in 1948 when communication opened up, Western scientists discovered that the trees in fact existed in abundance in China, and immediately imported the seeds. Tufts University was one of the first places to receive such seeds, and, for the last 61 years, the tree has added visual distinction to the quad during leafless months.

Next to the Redwood stands another tree whose bark is worse than its bite. The Paperbark Maple is covered in ruddy, paper-thin sheaths that curl from its surface as if attempting to escape. Across the lawn, by Packard Hall, another tree offers more subtle interest. The Ulmus parvifolia looks rather ordinary from afar, a thin, short tree with unremarkable leaves. But when scrutinized closely, the bark reveals brilliant orange dots, sprinkled evenly over the surface of the small tree like fairy dust.

For those who have an insatiable appetite for arboreal alimentation, a female Ginko tree stands by Hill Hall whose fruit is edible only for the brave. Female ginkgos are coveted in Africa and Asia but loathed in the West for the same reason: their seeds. Ginkgo seeds are edible and considered a delicacy in some places, but they are encased in a fruit that contains butyric acid, a substance also found in rancid butter and equally foul smelling things. If one then proceeds to crack open the pistachio-like shell in one’s mouth and suck out the slimy inside, one can understand why the seed is considered a delicacy. The consistency is similar to coconut, milky and crunchy, and the flavor is vaguely reminiscent of seafood.

Swinging back around to Olin, Ellmore pointed out another dually natured plant that contributes to the cold-weather beauty of Tufts University. The stems and branches of the Siberian Dogwood bush come in two colors: deep scarlet and banana yellow. Also marking the landscape were a series of Burning Wahoo bushes, a plant found all over the academic quad, whose brilliant red leaves hang from branches with four curious “wings” of cork that run along their entire surface, giving them an odd, twizzler-like look.

One thing that became abundantly clear over the course of the tour was the enormous amount of thought put into landscaping at Tufts. Although this university is known for being “green,” the focus is usually on clubs or school policy. However, the actual greenness at this school (the plants that cover the grounds we tread on our way to promote ecological agendas) seems vastly underappreciated. Though expertise like George Ellmore’s is hard to come by, students can certainly take a moment to wake up and smell the ginkgo seeds, and perhaps even taste one.