A 40+ year old forest garden

A yard can be more than a flat space of lawn. If we add to a flat space hillsides, rock walls, shrubs, and the like, the changes in soil and climate are exponential. A prime example of the powerful product these complications deliver is my neighbor’s ‘yard’ where she has been “cramscaping” for the last forty years.

img_5226The south-facing slope ( foreground )

Her yard is not a food forest, and wasn’t built as a food forest, but is not purely ornamental either. Blueberries flail their branches from the depths of overgrown boxwoods.

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Seedling peaches of rare variety loom in the high corners of the hillsides.

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Pawpaws enjoy the sun out in the open spaces.

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Hardy begonias and wild yams ramble up stems and tree branches to feed edible roots below ground.

With me around taking an enormous interest in her arborateum of yard, nitrogen fixing plants have of course begun to pop in on the scene. Although long before I came around she had such nitrogen fixers as lespedeza, indigofera, thermopsis, a lovely golden leaved locust tree, and wild black locusts.

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She weeds a good bit, but she also mulches with wood chips when she can get them. Weeds at her place are very different from mine. Grass, which is a fortress weed at my place, is a rare species there -and not because she doesn’t grow it. Her lawn grass has such shallow roots it can accidentally be smeared from the soil surface if walked on. The dreaded quackgrass (Agropyron/Elymus repens), while it has of course found its way to her place, is so spindly there you could hardly recognize it for the leviathan beast it is at my place. The traveling roots of this species hardly pierce the ground in her yard, weakly crawling along the soil surface. As you can imagine, ‘weeding’ for her is simply picking the miserable creature off the ground.

This isn’t to say plants don’t grow well in her yard. In fact, many, many plants that flourish in her yard won’t live at my place just over a large hill from her. This is because of several factors: For one, the soil is very fertile and sandy at her place compared to my red iron and even gray clay. The soil is so soft that even several year old trees can be lifted from the soil by hand as if they were growing in the clouds. Some parts of the yard have a layer of pure worm castings on top.

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But it hasn’t always been this way. Some parts of the yard where she has not cultivated forest are still clay and coal, or almost pure sand. We figure some glacier must have broken down at her place to deposit so much sand.

She has brought in few amendments. The spots she did, but did not build up the number of species, the soil has returned to very poor states. The plants have managed up-cycling the nutrients and feeding the ecosystem of worms and other soil life that have built up -and apparently maintain- her soil. The plants would not have had near the success if it weren’t for her unusual climate.

For instance, she has especially warm winter temperatures. Some years frosts take effect in her yard as much as a month after they do in the lower parts of my place. I seldom get away with any plants not hardy to USDA growing zone 5a  or -20 (-28). She easily gets by with zone six temperatures, and even a few zone 7 plants. In warm years, she has even overwintered plants hardy to zone eight. This means the yard never experienced more than a hard frost!

The reason for this stark difference in climate is mostly protection. Her yard is a near perfect example of what in permaculture design is known as a suntrap.

img_5744From Permaculture 1

The model of a suntrap is protection from cold winds from prevailing westerlies, and eastern or northern cold snaps. The south side is open to solar exposure. This design greedily sucks warmth in, but only parsimoniously lets it out, producing enormous alterations to the climate within.

Speaking purely of the geography, her yard is only half a suntrap, with a steep slope to the east  and north, but exposure to the west. This she has mitigated with windbreaks made up of hemlock, and other evergreen shrubs on the west side, making her yard a still haven where sun beams like to hang around.

In addition to the geography, the slope to the east is covered with pine trees. This actually blocks sun in the early morning, keeping the yard cool until later in the day. But the trees themselves make up for this lack of sun. The pines accumulate sunlight, and hence warm air throughout the day. When cold air begins to come down the slope in late evening from above the pine trees, the effect is a flush of warm air at the bottom of the trees into her yard -another classic permaculture design for improving climate.

The hill between my place and hers is south of her yard, and is covered with trees. This is further protection from wind. At the same time, the hill is set back far enough it doesn’t cast a shadow on her yard. My side of that hill has very windblown, unhappy trees, which goes to show how much cold, beating wind this hill averts from her still haven.

There is in fact an open place on her side, at the foot of this hill, where power lines cut through.

img_5493See the bamboo at the bottom of this slope

Here she has pawpaw trees, which greatly appreciate the protection from wind, but get sun most of the day.

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Another wonderful spot in this cut-through is her bamboo forest of Phylostachys bissettii and areoesculata.

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Harvests from this ‘forest’ provide many useful poles for staking and fence building throughout the garden. One winter, when she cut a lot of the bamboo, she generously shared the evergreen leaves with a neighboring dairy. The cows of course appreciated this, and I’m told made noticeably more milk from the food. What bamboo she leaves standing provides homes for many birds.

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Another major force in this garden are all the rocks she has around. She collects them, as all great gardeners do. These add even more warming and cooling stability to the yard.

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To cut down on weeding, she is now using more ground covers. She has in fact taken an interest in my Mastering the Growing Edge. Some parts of her yard already have amazing ground covers that help taller plants flourish, while keeping weeds from popping up below. After hearing my idea of using these plants as tools, she is pushing the limits of ground covers with very exciting results.

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Check out this Lysimachia nummularia ground cover. It kept the ground under this year’s dahlias free of weeds, while the dahlias above grew and bloomed with abandon. No weeding in between.

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For fertility, I am introducing some of the nitrogen fixing plants I talk about in PASSIVE Gardening. Linda already has an excellent chaos ratio of mulch plant, but is adding a few beautiful true comfrey (Symphytum officionalis).

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Because she likes the beds to be especially aesthetic, she uses a compost pile to break down her mulch plants, or chips up the nitrogen fixers before applying them as mulch. With ground covers managing the weeds, the mulch plants can easily function purely for fertility, leaving the beds alluringly beautiful, and lush. 

If there is any one thing I have observed from this garden for food forest science, it is that plants can flourish with much less sunlight -and build soil more effectively than anyone would guess- when they can form a forest biome. Such a biome needs wind slowed down, and a specific diversity of species at work together.

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Picture credit: Graham Burnett

I apply this tactic in Mortal Tree by planting as many N fixers and plants in all levels of the 7 layers model once I remove grass using grass. This transforms the open yard into forest biome rather than grass biome. It’s obvious to me that once this change begins to take hold, the forces of growth change, and a forest of food becomes the rule you reap rather than the exception you must work to maintain.

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I am pleased that this post completes 2017, because this knowledge has been the underlying theme of most posts this year. The rules of spacing most clearly explores this phenomenon. To sum up: If anyone asks me what is the key to creating a healthy food forest from lawn, it is to make a forest, then figure out how to get food from it. So many simple elements build on each other in these biomes, creating truly remarkable results.

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Citrus of the north: Maypop

There are scarce few plants in this cold north that offer the sour snap of lemons. I was surprised to find this electrifying flavor the other day in Maypop.

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Maypop (Passiflora incarnata) is the sliver of the passion fruit family able to withstand northern frosts and freezes -to a degree. Many of my attempts establishing maypop in Mortal Tree have failed. But my neighbor, who has a much more protected yard, finally had success.*

She got a white flowered variant pictured above of maypop ‘Bill’s Delight’ from Companion Plants three years ago. She planted it in a warm, but shady position, on a terrace. Morning sun hits it much of the growing season; evening sun hits it pretty much all the growing season. Pine and beech trees are directly to the south, blocking out midday sun.

Although this situation isn’t ideal, the maypop has rambled over everything else in the bed with happy vines, and underground runners. It has spread out two feet from the original point of planting, mostly in one direction where we dumped a pile of very nice compost over the soil. Perhaps the plant is just sensibly getting what’s good.

In its first year, it just grew vines; last year it bloomed late; this year it grew, bloomed early, and has ripened cadres of fruit.

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I was rather unimpressed with these fruits earlier in about July. They were just hollow balls with small strips of white fuzz. She thought they smelled like movie theater popcorn. I just thought they smelled generally green and inedible.

A few months later, now in October, she mentioned she had opened another, and they were full of white fr lining the inside. Next time I was over I picked some, and found they indeed were much heavier, and that the insides were full of opaque, white little balls of juiciness.

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She had told me they tasted like lemon to her, and on that point I totally agree.

I can’t say the flavor is as pungent and powerful as lemon, but it is close. I stuck the insides of two pods in a blender with a cup of water, gave it a whir.  The resulting liquid I strained to get the seed chunks out, and added a little more water. The result -without any flavoring or sweetener -had a fruity hint, and slight creaminess I have never found in lemon juice. Everyone I had try it said it didn’t need sweetener. I think this was more due to the mildness of the flavors overall than the presence of sweet. In order for most palates to really enjoy it, a little flavoring would help.

But this was watered down. Straight fruity juice from around the seed was prominently sour in comparison; perhaps just use more fruit in less water.

There is a house far down the road from me that has also had success growing maypop -the common type with lavender colored flowers. So I will keep pressing on to get some of these in Mortal Tree. Until then, my neighbor has an abundant supply she is more than willing to share, and I am more than willing to play with. I’ll update with any developments.

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*For those who have requested I write a post about her wonderful yard, it’s on the way.

Notes on Aronia (How does it taste?)

I'm sure many have partial shade, perhaps wet areas around their yard, they desparately wish they could plant the North American native Aronia in, but wonder about the reports on taste? 

Or perhaps you've never heard of the plant to begin with. A. melonacarpa, A. prunifolia, and A. arbutifolia are often considered ornamentals for their blazing, orange-red leaves shown off in fall. They can tolerate salt to the point many authorities recommend planting them as a privacy hedge by the road. In cold climates, where salt is spread for ice and snow, most plants in this area would be salted to death. It can abide a decent amount of shade, and doesn't mind moist soils, and blooms rather late in the season helping it slide its flowers by frosts even in low areas. All this is especially attractive when reading reports of a mature plant producing 20 lbs of dark blue, highly nutritious berries every year. 


I suspect they are right on that point. I have a couple in the food forest; and one, this year, although only two feet tall and two twigs wide, has made several healthy, dark blue fruit clusters. 

I think many are put off by the common name for these plants -"chokeberries. " Statements in shrub books that say 'The fruit is unattractive to birds, so stays on the bush for months" also cast a shadow of doubt. What's the point of tons of fruit in poorer sites if it's inedible?

I was quite excited to see the fruit from this "Viking" cultivar (Aronia prunifolia) because I could finally taste some fruit myself. 

I found the taste quite mild compared to what I expected. Really, it's almost bland, and rather dry, with white inner pulp, and a couple crunchy seeds. A pure sourness twinged in the background. 

I don't have the average palate though, because I don't eat any sucrose sugar, and am sparing with even unrefined sweeteners, so find pleasure in many food others find repulsive. To give a more trustworthy report, I took the copious harvest and handed them out to my sugar seeking siblings. 

Invariably their faces scrunched up. One said she had to force herself to swallow, another said it reminded him of pomegranate (including the seed) with a touch of blueberry. My mother had come across the dish of them when I wasn't around, ate one, and apparently spit hers out promptly. 

I really have no problems eating more of these for their health benefits. To quote: 

Aronia berries contain higher levels of antioxidants, polyphenols, and anthocyanins than elderberries, cranberries, blueberries, grapes, and most other fruit.

-see the rest of the article here.

I'm sure also that a little cooking and flavor work on these rather bland fruits could do something for them. They are so dry I can see them sucking any added flavor like a sponge. 

The next time you are at a nursery then, keep an eye out for one of these Aronia species. As they are self fertile, and quite willing to grow, it is likely most yards will have a spot that can grow out these happy shrubs to productive fruiting. I'll update when I have more than one handful in the coming years and can play around with flavor. I have a feeling it will be well worth the wait.

Taste of chaos

Years ago, a hillside was tidied up. An apple tree growing there was pruned, grass around it ripped up. At the roots of the tree, clear plastic was laid; a layer of black plastic was laid over this, on top of this was laid colored woodchips

Alone, surrounded by short, browning grass in the heat of summer, its lower limbs sawed off, the apple tree died.

The owner changed. A new hand touched the wounds on this mortal tree, felt sorry, pulled back the layers of plastic, let the grass grow wild.


It was chaos. Briars and thorns grew up amidst the grass. Alongside these were fruit trees, vines, and shrubs.

Today I walked up the stone steps of this hillside, followed the meandering path that cuts through the long grass, and grasped one of many rusty-red peaches dripping from my trees.

Several of the peaches are fruiting abundantly this year. Because I have several kinds, some are ripe now, others a couple of months from now.


A fruit here, a fruit there has been the norm for years. This year there are just loads of fruit, beyond fresh eating, from goumi, gooseberry, saskatoon, currant. I often emerge from the food forest with fruits and berries for others to try.  Some look at the fruit, look at the food forest, look at me puzzled and ask: “Where did you get those?”

I have actually done the least in the food forest this year than any year before. I haven’t even mowed much of it. The rose bushes and blackberries I let grow up in the back of the food forest actually provided some fine mulch when I trimmed them back.


The amorpha and comfrey provided some very nice mulch also. I mainly mowed beside the road in order to mulch a new bed. Yet, as I walk around, plucking clusters of shining sweetness, I‘m quite pleased to see my beds are expanding themselves. Within the beds, several plants have achieved some of the most lush growth yet, with the turnip rooted chervil way above my head, and forming new patches in new beds.

To bite into the dewy sweetness of a fruit warm with sunlight here is unlike that of anywhere else. All fruit is a process. It is the workings of a place, coming to such a refined state as food. To bring in a fertilizer here, and bring in a spray there, is like making a patchwork of places and processes, in my mind. I much prefer fruits with vibrant flavor from comfrey mulch growing at the trees’ feet,  (comfrey mulch and tea does produce a notably rich flavor in garden vegetables too) and the spice of essential oils wafting around the air from such pest confusers as oregano or Spiraea.


I’ve had the privilege of working with chaos after letting it back into the garden. I think it’s got the idea of what I’m after. At this point in the food forest’s development, I am sure the chaos quite eagerly gets to work as I walk away from Mortal Tree, a fresh pit of a peach at its roots.

The many harvests of perennial garlic

The luscious bulbs of garlic (Allium sativum) are all the rage. But planted in fall into as fertile of soil possible only to be dug up in June-July, they’re essentially a vegetatively propagated annual. You might be surprised how much garlic yields to those who refuse to bow down and grub for bulbs and rather harvest the topside of garlic as a perennial.


From year one to twenty of leaving a garlic bulb in the soil, the harvest is about the same. In early spring, tender shoots rise from the soil that can be snapped off, and sautéed, or the like. Snapping them like this leaves the root intact. A sprout grows up from that portion of the root, replacing the harvested sprout in short order. This gives you opportunity for another harvest sooner.

Green garlic goes on until about the end of May for me, when the days lengthen enough to cause the formation of scapes, and a tougher stem to hold them. The scapes, straight away, can be harvested. I treat them like green garlic. You might find The Season of Scapes, and several other posts from Heather over at My Urban Homestead helpful in figuring all the uses for these.

In the care of annual garlic, these really must be removed, or the bulbs will be small. When garlic is perennial, there is no rush whatsoever to get the scapes off, because they eventually yield the best harvest of all: the bulbils.


Garlics, unlike The conglomerate of perennial leeks, don’t bloom,* but rather make little bulbs en mass atop their stem. These burst their papery wrapping, perfect for harvest in early July for me -about the time I have to dig the bulbs of annual garlic. I prefer the bulblets though. They have a milder flavor, and are very tender. No peeling necessary for these but peeling back the outer paper that covers the clump as a whole.

These bulbils are delicious when broken up and sautéed in butter to flavor whatever dish that could use a vibrant flush of garlic.

Once the bulbil high is over, it’s not long before cool weather in fall (about September for me) brings another flush of new shoots. The process from here repeats ad infinitum.

You could, if there are ever more bulbils than you can use, let them fall to the ground to make more garlic plants. Unfortunately, these don’t make sizable garlic bulbs as we’re used to from planting cloves. Helen over at Growing Out of Chaos has posted some interesting notes in The Garlic’s Surprise lately. Even in the first year they attain descent size, and might make a stand-in for the high labor of bulb division. Some sources say that if a bulbil is left in the ground for two years it will form a full garlic bulb. So perhaps spread around a couple extra of the bulbils, and wait two year to see what your situation yields. You might have the big garlic without the work.


What I most appreciate about the perennial garlic harvest is its willingness to grow and yield excellent harvests even when crammed against weeds. There are several garlic specimen near me growing in the roadside ditches surrounded by grass and young trees, but yield excellent little bundles of bulbils for harvest come July. If paired with more sensible neighbors in a forest garden setting, a perennial garlic clump can grow and give copious harvests of shoots and bulbils without any problems.

So perhaps try sticking bulbs of garlic in the ground this fall in one of your perennial polycultures, and forget digging it ever again. The yields are lower in the winter of course, unless you store the bulbils in olive oil or the like. It beats bending over to work the soil, hurriedly getting the scapes off on schedule, and digging in the heat of summer a bulb you’ll in part have to pay forward to next year’s harvest. Just leave them in the ground I say, and try the perennial, above ground harvest.

Tasty Food Photography eBook

I really enjoyed this book from Lindsay Ostrom over at Pinch of Yum, so decided to advertise her. Click to check it out. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!

*This is technically the definition of a leek vs, garlic. The Oepri Perizweib though, which I mentioned in the former leek post, actually makes bulbils, not blooms. Technically it ought to be a garlic. On the other hand, the Sacred Forest garlic from Oikos I mentioned actually blooms, further showing it’s really a leek. If such details don’t bother you though, then by all means don’t mind them. The name may not make much difference on your plate and palate. Just a note in case you want bulbils but get flowers. A name that usually goes with the real garlics that produce bulbils is rocambole garlic.

N-fix 7: Vetch

I was rather dissatisfied when finished with the Top ten ground covers for food forests series because I didn’t include an N-fix in the lineup of dynamic mulch. Vetch would be my first choice.

Crown vetch (Securigera/ Coronilla varia) is indeed the tyrannical ruler of the genus. It’s industrial grade ground cover, produces medium levels of nitrogen, stretches 3-4 feet tall, and eats as much as 60 ft of new territory in all directions via rhizome spread every year.

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I’ve only seen this number in reports. I’m guessing the ground where these measurements were taken was the most fertile sandy loam on the face of the planet, or someone dropped a bag of fertilizer. I’ve never seen it spread more than four feet a year -if it spreads at all. many readers have likely seen this plant along highways where governments have seeded it. Erosion is a thing of the past once this perennial is established, so they have encouraged its use.

Once established though, they can start new colonies via seed. As a result, many governments have removed it from their official list of recommended plants.

It’s a little late. I have some patches appearing by the road at the edge of my food forest, and one of my clients has several healthy patches around their property. I have in fact installed this plant in one client’s system, because it really is quite useful, and easily controlled, if you know its habits.

The one system where I installed this for instance was a very high production food forest with long rows of shrubs and fruit trees running along swales (not my designs. I was brought onto the scene in the later stages). The owner wanted a system that could be managed by laborers simply weed-whacking the place every month or two. With this mentality, the owner had started by laying black woven plastic mulch under the plantings -despite my disapproval. It didn’t take more than two moths before weeds found their way through. He was aghast when I showed him. Finally open to my suggestions for a dynamic mulch, crown vetch was the perfect candidate.

As a dynamic mulch, it can exclude grass. Sometimes, if the grass is well established, the two may persist together. If well established, it’s nigh inpossible for weeds to get a foothold in the crown vetch’s domain.

It grows well seeded among daylilies, and most any plant that grows more than three or four feet -a food forest cover.

The crown vetch in my food forest has to creep across the upper grain patch before it can invade any of my plantings. This is one of the most poor spots in the food forest even the crown vetch can’t stomach crossing. I simply tax it for its nitrogen rich growth about the time it comes into bloom. Because it can be pulled so easily, I simply yank up whole armfuls to feed other parts of the food forest. As you can imagine, the patch is expanding at a snail’s pace.

My clients have done the same, and find their patches stay put.

Hairy vetch (Vicia villosa) and wood vetch (Vicia sylvatica) are both annuals, but have scarcely less ability to spread. Hairy vetch is used commonly used as a ground cover in vegetable gardens to be tilled in as a green manure. It and wood vetch are also medium level n-fixers. I have seen vilossa reach about four feet tall as it meanders around, such as below with wine-raspberry. Reports say it can reach as much as eight feet. So long as it doesn’t bloom and seed, there isn’t a problem.

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I actually let the thing seed in my food forest because it grows right among weeds, grass, you name it -without complaint. I love it. When it blooms, I nab as many as I can for mulch, leaving the rest to seed. I really just wish I had more.

I came hit the jackpot the other day at my step-grandmother’s garden. She has the wood vetch, and a lot of it. I gathered a bunch of the pods as pictured below, which popped, flinging seeds every which way even as they sat in the bowl.

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I planted them in a problematic part of the food forest to see how well they might compete with the grass. Perhaps they’ll clear the place for me in a similar way sunchokes can. in the bed I found it growing so happily, it was hardly three feet tall. I’ll just yank them up or cut them down before they make any very much seed.

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The right name for Amorpha

There are many species of Amorpha. The species I most recommend to clients, and in my published works, is A. fruticosa. This is because it is hardy in much colder regions, and grows taller -hence producing more biomass, than most species.

It is also the species that is best known worldwide. Several varieties have been bred from it making A. fruticosa one of the best foundational N-fixers on which to build gardens of lush fertility.


The fact is many of the Amorpha in Mortal Tree came from a company that listed the plant as A. californica, not fruticosa. I’ve called it that after I personally identified it. Allow me to explain:

Amorpha californica, according to the literature, grows a maximum of 6 ft. tall, and is only hardy to USDA zone seven. I’m in zone five, where this plant has lived through winters that fully reach the limit of what this zone offers, without the slightest dieback. I also find the Amorpha I have quickly pass up six foot tall. I looked into this further by researching the USDA Plant Database. Here I found information that backed my theory, and even pictures of the different seeds, which look nothing alike. Mine resembled fruticosa. I took liberty of calling the plant what I thought it was ever since.

I still have not the slightest doubt this Amorpha is Amorpha fruticosa. I don’t make such decisions lightly. My rather bold statement in Growing Amorpha that the company had incorrectly identified the plant got me more flack than I had ever expected.

My motive to make this statement was of course to dispel any fears the plant this company is selling won’t live for them if they are in zones 6 and 5. They are a major supplier of this plant, and I am telling people left and right to get it. I did try twice to contact the company to talk about this discrepancy, but their contact system never worked. I figured a small blog like myself was obviously of no consequence in their minds, but I was wrong.

The owner of the company was quite skeptical of my deduction. I was quite surprised when he showed skepticism of even the USDA’s accuracy, since the pictures clearly showed the seeds were not A. californica. He was in fact skeptical of most of the internet’s images of A. fruticosa seeds when I brought them up as examples. The only authority he considered trustworthy was none other than Gerd Krussman’s Manual of Cultivated Broad-Leaved Trees and Shrubs. This of course had been out of print for years, so I wondered how I would get my hands on the volume that had Amorpha in it. Thankfully, I have connections who graciously brought all three volumes to my desk in short order.

Krussman simply confirmed everything I had read previously about the plant. But we needed to identify this plant down to the very details of the flowers before this could be resolved.

Here are the results:

Flowers laid over fruticosa illustration from Krussman

Krussman’s work was not especially helpful in identifying the seeds. The real detail that sets apart A. fruticosa flowers from californica is the width of the petal, and spots on the californica flowers for what the line drawing shows.

Petal next to californica illustration
Petal next to fruticosa illustration

The flowers from my plants grown from the companies seed have especially wide petals I could not even make lay flat without ripping. So I spread it as best I could on a pen tip to show the plush width and lack of spots. I’ll let you derive the ID. It seems quite evident to me.

In our conversation about the plant, there was of course suggestion that we had a hybrid on our hands. If it is, it does not show the attributes of californica in the least. Fruticosa has the broader range, the greater popularity, and most importantly, the greatest utility for sustainable agriculture systems. I hope what I have done helped someone find success in this blossoming branch of agriculture through confident use of this amazing plant.