Down To Earth

Rosa rugosa, bayberry, bring the beach home

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Hardwired in my DNA is a deep refusal to ever be landlocked, aside from maybe a week or two of vacation. I have to live within sniffing if not spitting distance of a large body of water, preferably salty. I don’t need to see it from my living room window, though if I won the lottery... But I do need a daily drive-by or walk-to and am grateful that nearly every outing offers the opportunity of a view. Aren’t we lucky to live here!

Part of what I need from the water is a momentary disconnect from this earth-y life. An equilibrium reset. My inner gardener needs a break to watch the waves, listen to the catch of water on sand, and to collect smooth stones and jingle shells. Except around this time of year, when the colors of fall on the near and far shores pull me back to earth again, I see plants.

The horizon is beginning to blaze orange, red, and yellow looking perfectly perfect from a distance. Up close there is tattered variation, every bit as stunning. On a recent walk along a Portsmouth beach boardwalk, I noticed a colony of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) with red and yellow tinged blades waving splayed seedheads in the breeze. I watched bees, mostly bumbles, visiting cloudy-sky blue asters. Waxy gray-green berries knobbed bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) stems. A handful of cerise pink flowers on beach rose (Rosa rugosa) clashed with fat orange-red hips, and clusters of tiny paintbrush achenes turned groundsel-bush (Baccharis halimifolia) into cumulonimbus.

I didn’t realize I was bringing the beach to my garden by planting Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ and allowing a weedy aster to self-sow but had some idea of that when I put in a beach rose and bayberry.

Beach rose would be an unthinkable choice if I lived on the beach and didn’t write proper management into my will. Almost as soon as it was introduced here it ran roughshod over native shoreline species and forever altered the ecosystem, though maybe not quite as catastrophically as Phragmites australis.

In my garden, Rosa rugosa spreads from the roots without taking over because I edit its suckering advances using a sharp spade and strong(ish) back. It’s worth every thorn scar for proving to be a low-maintenance winner in lean, mean soil. Even now, after a droughty summer, its foliage is robust and beginning to yellow into a fall display, and it’s still pushing out a flower or two among its Vitamin C-rich hips. Go figure; this rose thrives in sand. The spicy scent of its flowers transforms my suburban plot into beach-front property.

I would guess only gardeners, candle makers, and birds notice bayberry on their seaside rambles. There’s nothing showy about a not-quite-evergreen shrub with stem-studding berries that look more like warts than anything delectable. But birds, from songbirds to shorebirds, find them nutritious and necessary. Like the rose, mine (a gamble-winning female berry producer in a dioecious toss) produced a good crop of berries with no supplemental water. Calling all shorebirds — and candle makers — to my piece of the coast.

I can’t imagine why groundsel bush, an aster-family member, isn’t in everyone’s shrub border. It’s that lovely right this minute. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were to experience a groundswell in popularity as natives have come back in vogue, but it may only appeal to gardeners with acreage since it’s a sizable shrub — a twiggy 6-to 12-feet tall. Given its salt and spray tolerance, it is particularly well-suited to gardens much closer to the ocean than mine.

Much as I’d like to gaze out at the water from my living room windows, I don’t have to live on the beach. Sometimes it’s enough to have the plants that evoke a view.

Kristin Green is the horticulturist at Mount Hope Farm and author of 'Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants that Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter'. Follow her blog at trenchmanicure.com.

Kristin Green

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.