Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today

 
 

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Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Black Swan Beech

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'Black Swan' is one of the most weepy of weeping beeches, but you can't tell from these twigs:  They are growing skyward as fast as they can, without hesitation or apology.  'Black Swan' is a bird with a split personality.

 

A vertical twig like this—which soared to almost two feet tall in just one season—is likely to be neighbored by twigs whose only interest is to grow earthward with equal fervor.

 

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Indeed, the cascading twigs below are only inches away from the vertical twig above.

 

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'Black Swan' is a great choice for the challenge I've given it.  Part of the tree has been trained horizontally, atop a waist-high railing of galvanized pipe.  The twigs that cascade from this horizontal trunk will be encouraged. 

 

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The occasional vertical twigs will be cut off—except for the one highlighted today, which arises at one end of the railing.  It will be trained up and over a high arch. 

 

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Some of the twigs that will spring from this vertical growth will themselves be weepers.  I'll encourage a few of them to stream downward at either side of the arch, to form a pair of curtains.  Another will be tied to the second pole of the arch to complete the arch's frame.

 

Two other 'Black Swan' beeches continue from that arch to another railing, then up and over a second arch, then down the other side and across a third length of railing.  Two arches separated by three railings:  In a few years, this trio of 'Black Swan' beeches will create an exciting double-arched entrance into a grid of nursery beds.

 

 

Here's how to grow this unusual weeping beech:


Latin Name

Fagus sylvatica 'Black Swan'

Common Name

Weeping Purple-leaved Beech

Family

Fagaceae, the Beech family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous tree.

Hardiness

Zones 5 - 9.

Habit

Upright; distinctly narrower than tall.  Always smaller in both dimensions than a typical weeping beech, whose overall habit is (usually) the reverse: broader than tall. 

Rate of Growth

Medium, but happy beeches grow much faster than you think.

Size in ten years

If growing free-range, eight to ten feet tall and three to four feet wide.  Potentially to forty-five feet tall but only nine to twelve feet wide.

Texture

In leaf, an irregular and unusually high-and-steep mound of foliage.  Out of leaf, the contrast of the stiffly-weeping and irregular branches arising from a central trunk or two of such determined verticality is extreme.  The tree is strikingly sculptural and thought-provoking. 

Grown for

its habit:  In leaf, 'Black Swan' beeches look like a haystack that Dr. Seuss might have drawn: Much too narrow, and so tall that the whole thing looks like it would collapse in a high wind or after a mild tremor.

 

Beech wood is unusually strong, capable of cantilevering for a surprising distance without sagging.  At any thickness, the wood has remarkable span-strength, which is why beech wood is favored by carpenters for chair arms and legs.  Beech wood is also used for piano hammers.  When that wood is the growth of a weeping beech—especially a variety such as 'Black Swan', where limbs seem to be either soaring skyward in all haste, or weeping to the ground, also in all haste—the potential for unique and almost whiplash contortions is, literally, unparalleled. 

 

its foliage:  There are many beeches with purple foliage, and for many decades nurserymen have brought to the market cultivars whose foliage starts out ever darker purple in the cool weeks of Spring, and stays darker longer through the hot weeks of Summer and early Fall.  'Black Swan' shows how far those efforts have come:  Its new foliage is generally held to be the darkest of any beech.  While it moderates some in Summer's hot weather, the leaves are still very much a true burgundy right until hard frosts of Fall turn them the pig-skin color they maintain all Winter.

 

its relatively compact footprint:  Even at maturity, 'Black Swan' is a fraction the width of a full-size weeping beech.   

Flowering season

Spring: Beech flowers, however, aren't showy, although the subsequent nuts—loved by squirrels and tasty enough to have given their name to the Beech Nut cereal line—have a modestly-showy prickly covering.

Color combinations

The leaves of 'Black Swan' beeches are such a dark burgundy they're almost chocolate, whereas the bark, flowers, and beech nuts are neutral grey or brown.  Burgundy goes with any other color, no matter of what shade or saturation.

Partner plants


Weeping beeches are so extraordinary in form that their partners need to be beyond mere ornament if they're not to seem frivolous at best, a desecration at worst.  No beech needs to be swagged with a rambler rose or infested with the tendrils of clematis.  If their branches are permitted to grow to the ground, the dense shade and shallow roots of beeches rule out groundcover underplantings, too.  The tree's mysterious branching and irregular (as well as ultimately unknown) overall shape make it a challenge to partner with plants even though they may be only vaguely nearby.  Even with a narrow weeper such as 'Black Swan', it would be impossible to know if, someday, the tree might send out a limb that, before weeping, would prefer to cantilever right into what you thought would have been a perfect partner plant planted safely—so you thought—ten feet away.  Would you cut that limb off?  Better to celebrate its startling individuality by removing whatever partner plant it has started to crowd.

 

Only if you're able to operate on a larger scale—with your 'Black Swan' beech happily growing in the midst of a lawn, courtyard, or even a small meadow—are partner plants practical.  Although 'Black Swan' is a fraction of the mature bulk and dimension of a full-size weeping beech, it still achieves a mounding monumentality.  The beech is at its most head-spinning in the cold months, when the writhing of the branches isn't softened by foliage. 

 

Conifers would provide evergreen interest when the beech is leafless, and also a welcome contrast in texture and overall shape.  The beech's geometry could scarcely be more exceptional, so don't add still more complexity in the conifers.  Giant arborvitae keep their limbs to the ground, and their canopies are dense enough that you don't usually see their limbs; each becomes an immense but simple cone of feathery green foliage.  A trio of such Thuja plicata plants, twenty feet apart from one another—and at an overall distance of fifty feet or more from the beech—would be a combination to savor for generations. 

 

Similarly, a large grove of the tallest species of bamboo that's hardy where you garden would be an effective counterpart.  It's evergreen, whereas the beech is deciduous; uniform in a simple form (many similar feathery and tall canes, growing closely together in a grove), whereas the beech is a concatination of crazy quirks. 

 

The usual large-scale gesture of a mounding spreading shrub—sumac, say, or bottlebrush buckeye, Aesculus parviflora—would be good in its uniformity but repetitive or even competitive in form.  Worse, it will lose that competition.  No other mounding plant looks anything but diminished in the company of a weeping beech. 

Where to use it in your garden

Unless you're training your 'Black Swan' beech into a specific shape, in which case its overall size and dimensions are inherently under control, the species is only appropriate when grown stand-alone in large and open spaces.  Although the mature width of 'Black Swan' will never be that of a full-size weeper, its growth is still too unpredictable to use the tree as the terminus of a narrow vista:  What if the tree took a fancy to growing more to one side than the other?

 

Growth is full to the ground along the entire perimeter if the tree receives full sun, so weeping beeches can be effective when seen in-the-round, as in a large meadow or the center of a big planting island in a courtyard.  Free-range growth is unique in configuration as well as overall size, so it's more honorable to plant a weeping beech where you've allowed for any possible expansiveness, no matter how quirky or off-center.  A planting area fifteen feet across would be the minimum for the 'Black Swan' itself, but to ensure full sun all around, and the breathing room its sui generis shape deserves, allow another ten feet on all sides.

 

Perhaps the best backdrop for a 'Black Swan' beech would be a large and simple building, several stories tall and several times as wide as the beech could ever grow.  A full-size weeper would merit the expansive brick building of a university, civic, or corporate campus, say, with one or a very few windows placed to reveal the beech to the interior, and to array with the beech when seen as an overall grouping from outside.  'Black Swan' is more intimate in scale, and could be the centerpiece of the garden of a brownstone. 

Culture

Full sun in any well-draining soil.

How to handle it: The Basics

Beeches aren't picky about soil—decent is good enough—but they are fanatics about drainage.  The rule of thumb is Never Plant a Beech on Level Ground.  In other words, be sure that surface water can quickly drain away from the plant even if this means planting it on a slope of only inches, or on a broad but low mound.

 

If you have the room for a weeping beech's full-to-the-ground habit, you need do nothing more than plant it and allow it to burgeon.  Open areas will usually be grass, and they'd be kept open by regular mowing.  Weeping beeches shade out almost any plants that attempt to grow beneath them; thank goodness, because the limbs of free-range beeches are often so close to the ground that access for mowing would be impossible.  You need only mow the grass that's still outside the beech's slowly-expanding canopy.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

Beeches can have such a monumental and powerful-limbed maturity that it's pleasantly counter-intuitive how much they enjoy (or at least tolerate) any amount of pruning.  Beeches train with surprising ease, too, because the young growth is very flexible; the mature growth is so strong and durable that the older trained individual can hold its geometric shape almost without support.

 

I'm training a pair of purple beeches into an arch; my thread-leaf and variegated beeches into a Belgian fence.  I have three 'Black Swan' beeches, each of which is being trained horizontally along a ten-foot section of galvanized pipe that's roughly waist-high.  These three segments are separated by two six-foot gaps; the beeches will be trained to arch over each gap.  The odd combination of 'Black Swan' growth—either stiffly weeping or proudly vertical—provides twigs of both orientations.  I clip off the twigs that want to head the wrong direction.

 

Training is easy as long as you align branches when they are still young enough to be flexible.  I use clothesline for my tying; loop a given length of line a couple of times around the branch and the training structure, so it's easy to winch the branch closer and yet still be able to complete the tie.  Each Spring, check all the ties; remove any that are no longer needed, and retie any that have become too tight. 


Beech trees branch eagerly, and because each branch of a weeping beech seems to have a mind of its own, it's often the case that they don't combine to form the ideal overall configuration.  Don't hesitate to have a zen moment with the tree every year or so, with an eye to pruning any branches whose particular weirdness isn't harmonizing with the whole.  

Quirks or special cases

None.

Downsides

As long as they get the sun and drainage they require, beeches are unusually self-reliant and disease-free.

Variants

Fagus sylvatica is available in an ever-widening circle of cultivars.  Leaves can be any number of shades of purple, or chartreuse or even yellow, or green, or variegated.  Leaf shapes can be round, thread-like, lacy-tipped, pointed, or contorted.  Mature sizes range from shrubby mounds to monumental creatures as big as any mansion.  Habits can be wide and upright, narrow and tall, low and spreading, medium-sized and mounding, or massively weeping (either widely or narrowing).  And your choice can be across several characteristics:  A purple-leaved thread-leaf beech?  (Indeed!  See it here.)  A yellow-leaved weeper?  (I'll be planting a pair of those in Spring of 2012.)  A purple-leaved dwarf?  The choices only increase. 

 

Fagus grandifolia, in pointed contrast, has never shown any interest in being anything other than green-leaved and broadly upright.  Its leaves are several times as big as those of F. sylvatica so it's worth growing even if your other beech is "just" the green-leaved F. sylvatica.  Like F. sylvatica, it is also happy to be clipped into an incredible hedge.

Availability

On-line and, sometimes, at nurseries.

Propagation

By grafting.  Some forms, e.g., 'Tortuosa', also come true from seed, but they are exceptional.

Native habitat

Fagus sylvatica is native to Europe.  'Black Swan' originated in the Netherlands.

 
 
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