Scott Reiter of Kansas City is groundskeeper for Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering and Technology, LindaHall.org. This conversation took place on a walking tour of the Library’s 11-acre arboretum, which has more than 100 different species of trees. The arboretum is free and open from dawn to dusk year-round; guided tours are offered at 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays.
When do you expect fall color will peak at the arboretum?
What are some of the showiest trees for color?
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This large sugar maple in the island near the parking lot becomes a huge blaze of color. It’s one of our most dependable fall-color trees. That’s probably an 80- or 90-year-old tree. This was originally an estate, so there’s an element of an estate garden that we try to build on and experiment with to see what works and what doesn’t work.
What is the library’s philosophy when it comes to selecting trees for the arboretum?
We want to identify and plant underutilized trees that are adapted to the Kansas City environment. We want visitors to see things beyond what are planted in most city parks and residential developments.
Part of our mission is education. That’s why we have the metal signs next to all the trees, so if you like, say, this tree (pointing) you can read that it’s a Lacebark elm. It’s resistant to Dutch elm disease, is relatively fast-growing and has very decorative bark. There are several varieties, and this one has the upright vase shape of the old American elm.
What is this tall, skinny tree?
This is a persimmon. It is native to the Kansas City area, and it has this very unique alligator-skin bark. Its wood is very hard; they used to make golf clubs out of persimmon.
These fruits on the ground are ripe persimmons. They are edible. I can also forecast the coming winter by examining their seeds.
How does that work?
(Takes a knife out of his pocket.) You remove the seed from inside this gooey flesh, then cut the seed in half lengthwise. The kernel inside the seed will be shaped like a spoon, a fork or a knife. (Cuts it open.) What does it look like to you?
That means there’s going to be a lot of snow that you will have to shovel. A fork means there will be a lot of ice and a knife means winter will be dry and cold.
Over here we have a tree with a very interesting back story. It doesn’t have a lot of fall color, but it is a type of redbud, and redbuds are very in vogue these days. Ours is called pinkbud.
The typical redbud is a dark pink, this one is a very light, clear pink. The fascinating thing is it was originally discovered growing wild just outside Kansas City, and it is now very rare. We have two of them, this older one that is declining and this younger one next to it that came up from seed. Anybody who wants to come and grab some seeds is welcome — these brown clumps are the seeds pods. The tree is in the northeast corner of the library grounds next to the wall.
There are beautiful birds flying around today.
Yes, between all the trees they can nest in and all the seeds they can eat they are pretty happy here. We’ve had red-tailed hawks nest here, but not this year.
What things should a homeowner look at when choosing a tree to plant in the yard, besides the mature size?
The shape: Do you want a tree that spreads out wide or grows more upright? Do you want a straight trunk that doesn’t start to make branches until 15 feet up, or do you want a tree that branches low to the ground? Do you want deep or dappled shade? Do you want spring flowers? Do you have a spot near the patio where you need a tree that will stay smaller? Do you have a hot dry spot where a tree needs to survive near a driveway? Do you have a wet area in the back where you need a tree that will take swampy ground?
We have trees here that fit all those situations.
A lot of Kansas Citians are interested in evergreens for winter color. What should you not plant here and what should you plant?
Our heavy clay soils are not conducive to pines. The Bootheel of Missouri has a few native pines but that is a different climate. And Kansas is the only state in the lower 48 that has no native pines, zero. So we are in the no-grow zone for pines. It you try to make them grow here, they are not going to be happy and they are going to be under constant stress.
Spruces are a better choice here. Norway spruce works well and Serbian spruce.
And nobody wants to hear me say this, but red cedar. A lot of people think it’s a junk tree, but they do really well. They are adapted to our climate and there’s nothing more beautiful in my mind than a red cedar loaded with snow in the winter.