September in Eastport is a feast for the eyes. The native landscape cascades down granite escarpments into backyards and roadsides and you are surrounded by color, bright orange-red berries of mountain ash, pink and blue wild raisins, sky-blue asters bunched among the lichen-crusted rocks and along the deer paths, carpets of dark-green juniper and blueberry. And always the bays, Cobscook or Passamaquoddy, sparkling in the near distance.
There is a sense of place in Eastport in September. The landscape defines the place and there is no other place like it.
Oh sure, there are the transplanted weeds from away, the Norway maples that line Washington Street down to the breakwater, their seedlings turning vacant lots into wastelands, or the occasional Japanese barberry trying to look at home among the natives. But in large part the juggernaut of commercial horticulture that has turned the rest of our country into sameness has passed Eastport by, and good riddance.
There is no local garden center in Eastport, no one pushing European mountain ash, non-native viburnums, or that weedy maple. Somewhere gardeners find what they need to cultivate flower beds and vegetable gardens next to homes nestled in the native landscape. It seems the purest form of cultivation.
And so on September afternoons I wander deer paths over the granite outcrop behind the elementary school, across the street from the high school where I teach. At the top I might stop to watch the soccer team on the field below, but not for long. You can’t stop for long in this place without the imported red ants finding you, grabbing hold of your foot or leg. It is an encounter that you will not soon forget.
I try to stay on the rocks, avoid stepping on the groundcover of native blueberry, juniper, bunchberry and rhodora. In pockets of soil between the rocks grow wild raisin viburnums (Viburnum nudum var. cassinoides), large, bushy shrubs that are covered in mid-September with clusters of ripening fruits, berries that turn from pink to blue to black as they mature. The fruits do not all mature at the same time, even within a single cluster, producing a striking mix of color on every shrub.
It is easy to miss this sudden display of color, for the transformation from fiery pink to dark purple is rapid. Henry David Thoreau described plucking cymes of pink berries and putting them into his hat for their beauty, half of them turning dark purple before he arrived home. “And, moreover, those which before were hard and bitter, as soon as they turn dark purple are soft and edible, having somewhat of a wild-cherry flavor — but a large seed. It is a singular and sudden chemical change.”
Wild raisin grows elsewhere in Maine, in woodland swamps and bogs, old fields and forests, but nowhere have I seen them grow as large or numerous as they do in Eastport. Marjorie and I found one growing at the edge of the garden in Ellsworth a few years back and cleared around it, hoping to enjoy its flowers and fruits. The viburnum leaf beetle, an extremely destructive non-native beetle that feeds on wild raisin and other native viburnums, found it quickly.
Last year my students and I found viburnum leaf beetle egg casings on a wild raisin in Eastport, but only on the one plant. No doubt there were others, but so far there does not seem to be an infestation. Maybe the red ants are helping.
No, I am not recommending wild raisin for the home landscape. Unless, of course, you live in an area where it grows wild, and it happens to find you.
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