every which way but up

I got this “Russian hawthorn”, Crataegus ambigua, at a Denver Botanic Gardens plant sale about 1989. It was just a stick. I like it a lot.

By that time, the tree had already acquired a reputation for being a “low water” plant, which is about as meaningless a description as can possibly be. As far as I’m concerned, “low water” is the same as “not in constantly running water”, and it’s worth remembering that Xeriscape ™ is about “zoned irrigation”….irrigation….so one person’s “low water” might be another person’s “constantly watered”.

That’s how I see it. I have no use for concepts that have infinitely variable definitions depending upon who’s employing them, and “low water” is certainly one of those. It’s as devoid of communication as a statement made by a politician.

But back to the hawthorn. It’s haw, because that’s what the fruits are called, and thorn, because most species have them. This one has thorns. They’re not very big, but if you grab onto a branch, you’ll notice them.

This is easily the weirdest-branching tree I’ve ever seen.

No amount of pruning, artistic or functional, can make this tree grow the way I want it to; it seems not to want to grow up, but backwards. It’s like having a conversation with someone who only listens to every ninth word and then takes that as a springboard for some bizarrely tangential thought; prune this here, so it will grow that way, and it takes the pruning exercise as a cue to do something completely different, and, considering the thing as architecture, utterly unjustified. A tree so fond of its own shade that half the branches grow back into it, away from the sun that living plants are supposed to worship.

It’s blooming right now. The white flowers have such a concentration of indole that up close they give you a whiff of rose, or vanilla, or anise, but back up a few feet and the thing smells like the south side of an outside in July. I mean, whew.

This glorious stench is followed by an extremely beautiful display of dark red haws, until squirrels, the jerks of the animal world, take them all. Border collies enjoy the fallen haws, too, rooting around in the rock garden like pigs, even when I point out that this is undignified for pedigreed dogs of supposedly high intelligence.

(Speaking of dogs, the tree has attractive bark, too.)

Other than the “low water” stuff, there’s not much information to be gleaned on line about this tree. It was described by Becker in 1858 from collections made by Hohenacker in Georgia (the country) twenty years earlier. It’s also native to eastern Turkey, but is rare there. The only other reference I’ve found is to an isolated colony in Kazakhstan.

Why “ambigua”? If the specimens in the wild grow like mine does, maybe the botanists who saw the thing for the first time thought it was a new life form, a tree with a will of its own.

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