Photograph: Raymond Gehman/NGS/Getty Images
Sunlight filters through the leaves of an umbrella tree, North Carolina, US.
On rare occasions, the townsfolk of Amherst, Massachusetts, would catch a glimpse of a ghostly figure dressed in white, leaning over to tend her flowers by flickering lantern light. The mysterious recluse, who was better known to neighbors for her exquisite garden than for her lyric poems that revealed a passionate love of nature, differed from fellow 19th-century American writers whose thinking became the bedrock of modern environmentalism. While Thoreau famously declared wild places to be “the preservation of the world,” Emily Dickinson was finding nature’s truth and power in an ordinary dandelion.
Among the plants that survive on the family property where Dickinson confined herself for much of her adult life are picturesque old trees called umbrella magnolias (Magnolia tripetala) — so named because their leaves, which can reach two feet long, radiate out from the ends of branches like the spokes of an umbrella.
The trees, believed to have been planted by Emily’s brother Austin, have jumped the garden gate in recent decades and established wild populations not far from the poet’s home. This new location is a couple of hundred miles north of the tree’s native range, centered in the sheltered woods and ravines of the Appalachian Mountains, and is the first evidence that native plant horticulture in the United States “is giving some species a head-start on climate change,” according to Smith College biologist Jesse Bellemare.