The most significant comment I can make about the landscaping at the new West Village apartments in downtown Durham concerns what the developers, Blue Devil Ventures, chose not to do. You won't see several of the most overrated and problematic trees and shrubs possible in the Triangle: Bradford pears, red-tip photinia or Leyland cypress. Unfortunately, however, you won't see much variety or innovation, if plantings are carried out as specified in the plans.
The late, beloved N.C. State horticulturist J.C. Raulston used to lament that the nurseries and landscapers of North Carolina continually relied on "the same 40 plants." He felt there were hundreds of shrubs and trees easily propagated and adapted to conditions here. A tireless man, he dedicated his life to growing and promoting new trees and shrubs for the Southeastern United States at the N.C. State Arboretum in Raleigh that now bears his name.
Partly in response to Raulston's gentle evangelism, commercial nurseries now offer an astounding diversity of sturdy shrubs and trees, sporting colorful foliage, unexpected flowering seasons and other virtues. Some commercial developments have ranged beyond those 40 plants in order to bring variety to their plantings, as well as establish an identity for their site.
So what will you see in the way of landscaping at West Village? The designers have chosen exactly three tree species and two kinds of shrubs to define the look of their site. Only one of the shrubs is outside of the safe "40 plants" still to be found at every garden center. The trees are red maples, river birches and crape myrtles--a sturdy troika that announces "any parking lot in America." At the time of this writing, about a third of the trees shown on the planting plan have been installed in the parking lots between Main and Morgan streets. To the developer's credit, the trees are being planted in pleasing arrangements, and the red maples appear to be larger than the minimum size required by Durham's landscape ordinance.
The parking lots will be skirted by hedges of either abelia, a common evergreen with small flowers in summer, or yaupon holly. This last choice is a worthy innovation. A native evergreen, yaupon holly supplied Native Americans with the source of a caffeinated drink. While other hollies have prickly leaves and opaque red berries, the yaupon has smooth leaves and bright, almost translucent red berries. It takes pruning well and is a brilliant choice for a hedge. Yaupon holly has also been bred as a slow-growing, dwarf form without berries, which might be more suitable for a home garden as a replacement for boxwood.
All three trees and two shrubs are reliable choices. They should live long and be free of diseases and insects. The red maple, river birch and yaupon holly evolved here in the Southeast. The abelia and the crape myrtle are native to parts of China with a climate and soils that resemble the Southeastern United States. By choosing native and adapted plants, the developers have made sure there should be little or no reason to spray them with chemicals.
Red maples and river birches evolved in river floodplains, and that is where you'll find them in the wild. The biological adaptation that allows them to survive having their roots submerged in water for days at a time also allows them to tolerate the Death Valley conditions found in parking lots. That's why you'll often see these and other river-bottom trees--willow oaks, sycamores and ironwood, for example--planted along streets and in parking lots. Unfortunately, however, the reverse is not true. Dry-land species like crape myrtle won't tolerate wet feet.
The plantings that remain to be done include an attractive double row of crape myrtles running north and south in the broad walkway between buildings. This double row or "allee" will be intersected by another allee of river birches running east and west. The planting plan shows underplantings of abelia and yaupon holly.
With this planting scheme, the most beautiful time of year at West Village will be fall. Although the river birch foliage will be tepid, the autumn colors of the crape myrtles and red maples will be like red, yellow and orange flares. In winter, the peeling bark of the birches and myrtles will contrast well with the green and red of the hollies and the russet of the abelias. In summer, the modest flowering of the abelias will be overshadowed by the candy colors of the crape myrtles. Aside from any plantings of pansies or bulbs that may come later, West Village will be visually quietest in the spring.
All in all, a competent, but not stirring landscape for a striking set of buildings. While Blue Devil Ventures has avoided the pitfalls of some common landscaping plants, they've also missed some gorgeous opportunities. To see some other possibilities for attractive landscaping beyond Raulston's "40 plants," drive the downtown loop from Mangum Street heading west directly into West Village. The street trees behind the post office are sturdy Oklahoma redbuds that have glossy heart-shaped leaves and early spring flowers. Surrounding the Armory, you'll see fine-textured, gray-colored santolinas and spiraling junipers. In the Civic Center Plaza, there's a small grove of linden trees that begin bearing fragrant flowers in May and produce a fanfare of bright yellow fall color. In raised beds next to the Carolina Theatre, you'll find dwarf magnolias with fragrant flowers from June until November. Planted with them are soft, purple-leaved shrubs called lorapetalums.
Follow the loop around to Five Points on Main Street and see the playful plantings in front of the Durham Arts Council: ornamental grasses, roses that don't need spraying and a purple-leaved smoke tree.
Turn left again back onto Morgan Street, into West Village, and imagine the possibilities.