Monday, December 28, 2009


I’m sure the gardener who lives in this prefab house in downtown Carnation had no idea how big a giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron gigantea) would get. Actually the current gardeners, who I noticed barely find the time to mow the lawn, probably didn’t plant the tree, and the house even now seems like an afterthought. Which it probably is, replacing one of the older Craftsman style houses one finds in town. This tree is a sentinel in town, dwarfing not only the prefab with which it magnanimously shares a lot, but also the one story strip mall across the street, where we grocery shop. And actually all of Carnation’s humbly low architecture.

This tree, a sentinel above this ticky-tacky house made predominantly of conifer wood with some metal, glass and plastic thrown in for good measure, is a landmark on Tolt Avenue, Highway 203. It lets me know where my turn for the grocery store is. I still navigate by landmarks. Someone gave me a GPS once, but I never use it. It gives me more of a headache than looking at a map and following an inky line across the page with my index finger, and then paying attention when I drive. Like crossword puzzles I think this sort of navigation is good for keeping the mind fresh and the awareness alert. Besides I still don’t like being told what to do. Especially by an annoyingly nasal computer generated female voice.

Sometimes I wonder if the person who planted that tree had any idea what they were doing. Were they merely trying to screen their bedroom window from the glaring lights of the Shell station across the street? Did they have any idea that they were creating a landmark for future Carnation inhabitants? There is no better use of conifers than as landmarks. Their constancy, ‘O tannenbaum, O, tannenbaum’, is remarkable. When I plant conifers I like to think of them as landmarks and place them accordingly. Not that I’m trying to create landing strips for UFOs. But you have probably all been guided by a conifer into a gas station, or parking lot without even noticing it. It amazing how many arborvitae ( Thuja occidentalis), or creeping junipers (Juniperus horizontalis) let drivers know where the boundaries are at Shell stations. You are all familiar, no mater what part of the country you live in, of the ubiquitous arborvitae hedge [follow link to my article on arborvitae] guarding a property line, or screening a view.

When using conifers as landmarks in the garden, I think of them as architectural punctuation. Sometimes they are full stops, like a hedge, and sometimes a languorous pause, or a bridge when used as specimens. They are everywhere used to this end. Though their status as guardians is buried under the hurry of modern life.

I used Italian cypress ( Cupressus sempervirens ‘Glauca’) in these mixed borders, not only as exclamation points, but also as bridge between the tall native conifers behind these borders. Their columnar habit mimics the massive trunks of these trees and carries the colonnade up to the lawn, like you are walking through a tumbling ancient temple.

I also like to use arborvitae ‘Rheingold’ not only for it’s unique coloration and texture which blends and contrasts with the perennials and annuals I use in these kaleidoscopic borders, but also as commas in a border that might seem to ramble on if it weren’t checked by their coniferous presence.

I like to use the somewhat floppy ‘Heather Bun’ Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides). Because it takes a bit of shade and heavier wetter soils than most conifers, it is indispensable in this perennial border on clay. Its feathery texture works well with astilbes and Japanese iris.

I am also a great fan of yews ( Taxus sp.) There is a cluster of ancient yews near Forthausen, Germany, where my friend Eckhard had a farm. They are said to be the sight of ancient druidic rituals. On one of those rare hot days in Germany, we went to the shady valley where they live and sat at their roots which spilled into a bright sonorous creek. There was something magical about this spot. Was it just the escape from my urban life in Cologne? Was it the positive ions thrown up by the creek which bubbled and tumbled through the rocks and ancient yew roots? Or was there a lingering druidic presence we could sense when we finally quieted down and went into a hypnagogic trance induced by the creek's song? Powerful trees,a thousand years old. A portal between this world and the next? They are now held high by a different governing force, the German forest service which considers them a national treasure. And no one was there. There was no sign at the road advertising them, no parking lot close by. Just an impenetrable silence and sanctity I have only found a few other places.

I like the funereal heft yews lend to the garden. A darkness which most clients don’t like. Their long association with grave yards, where they served not only as emblems of resurrection but also because they're said to purify the air, and their poisonous berries have given them a sinister association contrary to their natural beauty.

I used this dwarf golden Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata ‘Nana Aurescens’) in some mixed borders for its year round bright impact. And to slip a little druidic magic under my clients’ noses, creating a landmark not only at the edge of a border, but possibly between this world and the next.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Even in winter it is hard to image a world without flowers. Where would our fruit come? How would we make a romantic intentions known? Yet once this was a flowerless planet covered in mosses, ferns, cycads. And conifers.
It’s equally hard to imagine a flowerless garden, though there are plenty. To most a garden is about flowers. But not to Bob Fincham owner of Coenosium Gardens a mail order conifer nursery near Eatonville, Washington. His 5 acre nursery has over 600 different conifer. And if you think that’s a little redundant, a tad boring, or just plain crazy, you’re like me. But after I visited the garden in November, with a tour by Bob himself I changed my mind. This garden was anything but redundant or boring. And though Bob’s passion for conifers may seem a bit crazy, he is a very level headed guy with an incredible passion for conifers. My visit has turned me from a conifer worshipper in the “O Tannenbaum” kind of way to a devotee.
The absolute kaleidoscope of textures and colors made this place endlessly interesting. Anyway I’ll let the pictures do the talking, after all their worth 1000 words, or at least 974.

Bob is integral in creating the dwarf conifer collection at South Seattle Community College which I visited on a very cold and sunny day a few weeks ago.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Each day I drive through a canyon. Not of stone, but of conifers towering 5 stories or more above Highway 202. They are mostly Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii), the most popular Christmas tree in the U.S. There are a few western red cedars (Thuja plicata) and even fewer Sitka spruce (Picea sitchesis), along with arbor vitae (Thuja occidentalis) and white pine ( Pinus strobus) thrown into the mix by man. I drive through this gauntlet from country life to suburban work and back. All summer long I barely notice these conifers, but his time of year when all else slips back their magnificence is revealed and I can’t help but admire our stunning native trees.
My sister Eileen calls all conifers Christmas trees, more out of affection than ignorance I suppose. And I’ve had clients want conifers planted in strategic spots for lighting up at Christmas. And others who didn’t want conifers because they think of them only as Christmas trees.
I was surprised in my limited search for the history of the Christmas tree, how conflicting that history is. Apropos of The Bible the prophet Jeremiah decries the bringing of cut trees into the house and decorating them as heathen and warns the Israelites to stop, on the other hand the prophet Isaiah decorated his sanctuary with, among other things, fir boughs.
The fir tree is definitely what the Germans are singing about when they sing “O Tannenbaum”. Before botanist got nit-picky with plants "fir" was a more general term for needled conifers including spruce. It is not coincidental that the name is close to the word "fire". These trees, easily ignited were thought of as fire trees, some even considered them the storehouse of the sun. Now “fir” refers to species in the genus Abies. The word spruce, the botanical Picea, comes from spruce fir or pruce fir meaning the fir tree of Prussians. And Douglas fir is not a true fir at all, but I don’t want to make this as confusing as the holiday they’ve come to represent.
Decorating with conifer boughs at winter time and in particular at Winter Solstice has a long history of practice and prohibition. The first Christians in Rome considered it a pagan act as did the early puritanical Americans; both forbade the practice. The history of what we know call the Christmas tree started in Rhenish Prussia, western Germany, in the 16th Century and remained there until Queen Victoria persuaded her German Husband, Prince Albert, to put one up in the palace in 1840. The rage for Christmas trees that this began in England and subsequently America and the rest of the world has not stopped to this day.
Most people I talked to in the last weeks said they get a tree because they love the smell in the house. This comes as no surprise to me. Shamans in North America, as well as ancient Celts used the fragrant boughs of conifers, especially firs and spruce to chase away evils spirits. Conifers are even ritually planted in graveyards to protect the departed from malevolent forces trying to capture their souls while pointing heavenward like road signs.
When I asked my in-house, speculative biochemist, Michael about this, he said there were probably some mood elevating compounds in the essential oils of conifers. My google search turned up evidence from folk wisdom to scientific research to support his suspicions. I know like many I love the smell, but I always thought it was the spiked egg nog elevating my spirits.
The subtle power of conifers is buried under the tinsel. The other day I was in a Pho’ restaurant for lunch. On the counter next to the Buddha, you know the big fat smiley Buddha, “a right jolly old elf”, was a little purple foil Christmas tree with over-sized red balls all over it. I was sorry I didn’t have my camera, or ask one of the barely English speaking staff what it meant to them.
Luckily the meaning of Christmas, and it’s tree, are as jumbled as the proverbial box of Christmas lights you swore you’d put away tidily. It has freed Christmas from dogma and allows each to find their own meaning, whether it is Christian, Pagan, Capitalistic or Unitive. In my own evolving relationship to the holiday, which used to set me spinnin, I am finding a simpler way. Less shopping, less eating, less stress. And as they say less is more. For me the more became a deeper interest in conifers as garden elements, as plants, and as emblems. I am only at the beginning of this new relationship to conifers. It had Michael and I heading out to the rain forest a few weeks ago. Yet it did not stop us from going to Carnation Tree Farm and cutting down a Norway spruce (Picea abies) and decorating it.
But it also has me looking a lot harder at these plants which have accompanied us through our history, silently, and potently.

One of my favorite conifers, and a popular Christmas tree, the noble fir (Abies procera). Here is the cultivar called 'Noble's Dwarf' which I photographed at Coenosium Gardens near Eatonville in late November. I'll be posting more photos from this incredible collection in a few days.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


The Germans say “The weather changes at the full moon.” Ever since I heard that I‘ve been a casual, even erratic, yet ernest observer. I love to find truth, or falsehood, in superstitious axioms. Strangely, from my scientifically unreliable observations, this one holds some truth.
A little over a week ago the clouds parted like the Red Sea, only this time it was the full moon not Moses and his magic staff. It filled the valley with moon shadow-- “leapin’ and hopin’ on a..”-. The light was silvery blue as I walked down to the river and I could feel it ushering in our first truly killing frost. Just the day before the mix of last spring’s pink snapdragons and this winter’s first pink camellias made me a little dyspeptic. After all it was the first day of December. I was starting to think winter would never come.

But it came.

So I got the song “My Favorite Things” stuck in my head, again. And though snapdragons and camellias are definitely 2 of my favorite things, so are frost and clear skies and biting cold. My nordic genes and Wisconsin upbringing can't imagine a year without “a silver white winter melting into spring”. We don’t get much of that here in the Northwest. Not even out in the Snoqualmie Valley where Michael and I live a stone’s throw ( if you have a good strong arm) from the snow covered Cascades. So this past week, with its record breaking cold, has been a nice respite from the seamless gray of November. I have not yet started to think about my clients’ hebes and rosemaries, 2 other of my other favorite things.
Once when a client of mine was handing me a lemon merengue pie I said, “Lemon merengue is my favorite.” Which it is.
My client retorted, “You always say that. Last week pepita brittle was your favorite.”
I was humbled by this observation. Was I a liar?
Not really. “I guess I’m a lucky guy to have so many favorites,” I told her.

I’m lucky to count the leafy patterns of frost among my favorites. And the nordic ditty “Frosti” by Bjork one of my favorite winter songs. And the cabbage “January King” which is being put to the test in December. We’ll see if it’s wearing a crown come January.
I’ve been trying not to cringe when I see our rhododendron, leaves curled up and drooping, at the end of its cold endurance, or the blackened leaves of the fatshedera, which was just coming back after last years cold and flooding. Sometimes you just have to let go, and all it takes is a good stiff frost.
There is no better time to appreciate conifers, though. I just can’t help but sing “ O Tannenbaum”, nor understand what religious importance these evergreens held for early nordic people who saw their ability to stay green through the winter as a truce against the avenging weather gods. So I’ve been doing a little free wheeling conifer research over he past weeks and will be sharing information and photos over the coming month as a Christmas card to you, my readers.

The light faded gloriously silhouetting conifers along the Snoqualmie River.

Friday, December 4, 2009


I realized last weekend that my obsession with age lately is not mine alone. I actually convinced Michael, and the dogs, to drive to the coast with me to see the world’s oldest (more about that later) living spruce.
I have been busy researching and writing about Sitka spruce for my column, “The Story of Plants”, in Garden Notes the quarterly of the Northwest Horticultural Society. Consequently I have spent a lot of time reading about spruces of all kinds. But it was our Northwest native the Sitka spruce, or tidelands spruce, (Picea sitchensis) which captured my imagination. It is a tree I rarely noticed until I decided to write about it. Now I see it everywhere. Well, not everywhere, it has a rather limited distribution fairly close to the coast, and has only a few garden worthy cultivars, which are rarely available. This fast growing conifer has managed to become the most popular plantation tree in the British Isles, though. Here there are still enough wild stands. It is a large part of the lumber industry in Alaska, where it is also the state tree.
Saturday we drove through Tacoma shopping traffic, the worst of our travails, on our trip to the coast. I usually travel to the rain forest in the summer. After a few days of sun on the coast, the cool mossy shade of the forest is a pleasant respite. As we neared the coast I had to crank up the windshield wipers. Yet my excitement rose. We would see the rain forest “in the rain”. That Michael was a willing companion is a testament to his good nature and general affability.

Our first stop at “The World’s Largest Spruce Tree”, a tourist attraction on the south side of Lake Quinault was quick. It was dumping buckets as we pulled to the side of the road, scuttled quickly through puddles and swampland to find “The World’s Largest Spruce Tree” had a paved parking lot only 100 feet away. In our impermeable arrogance we did not put on our rain gear, so we were wet, soaked I should say, quickly, as were the impervious dogs. But that didn’t dampen our awe of this magnificent tree. With a circumference of 55 feet 7 inches and a height of 191 feet, with warty buttresses supporting this massive column of wood, and branches dropped in the recent wind storm lying beside it like felled trees who wouldn’t be awed (in the most virtuous sense of the word.)
The sign before it announced that it was also 1000 years old. Yet this same sign which boldly claimed it “The World’s Largest Spruce Tree” (the previous record holder, in Oregon, fell in a wind storm in 2007) said nothing about it being the oldest. In all the research I had done most authors said Sitka spruces range from 400-750 years old, a few stretched that to 850. But none had mentioned a 1000 year old tree. Had they missed the sign on Highway 101? Or had they, like me, driven by many times with the Reagan-esque thoughts of “ if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”?

“Wouldn’t this tree also be the oldest?” I asked Michael.
The poor guy had no answer. He just shoved the sopping wet dogs back into the truck dutifully.
The tree I had in mind when we set out was one I read about. It lives at the campground at the end of 12 miles gravel road in the Queets Valley. Might it be the oldest? We drove passed scores of fishermen parked along the road which runs parallel to the lower Queets River and deeper into the rain forest. The dense moss that hung, clung and literally coated everything lead me to believe it was not only the conifers which gave Washington the nickname “The Evergreen State”.
Eventually we found that the signed which warned us that the road was closed 7 miles ahead was right. Just before the barricade we could see the mudslide that had wiped out the road years before, though our brand new map still showed the road as complete and the campground accessible.

So we parked and ate our turkey sandwiches and clementines behind the the mist pebbled windshield. Then headed out for a walk. Between the gargantuan trees, and moss and fern plush under story this place was other worldly. Was it the rain that lent the magic? I had been to the rain forest before marveled at its beauty. But this time...It was utterly primeval, even with a road through it. Understandably I wanted to wander off into the green, take a nap, feast on mushrooms, and resume the life of the forest creature I had evolved away from. To dwell once again in this ramshackle splendor, the exquisite collapse and defiant rising up of it all. In this cacophony of silence.

But we wanted to run the dogs on the beach yet that day. So back in the truck we hopped and down the road to the beach. The land seemed to melt into the misty roar of the Pacific, as the little light we had under the cloud cover drifted off toward night. The rain pelted us again and though we had lost our impermeable arrogance we had gained a dog like imperviousness. An imperviousness shared with the Sitka spruce growing right up to the tide line. Here away from the protection of the river valleys they became twisted, threadbare and stunted, probably never reaching great age, as the stormy Pacific often dragged them into the waves.

When we got home I began the clickity-clack of a google search: Oldest Spruce. There was no mention of the massive tree we saw at Lake Quinault. Nor any Sitka spruce. There were only some small twisted Norway spruce (Picea abies) on a mountain top in Dalarna, Sweden. The oldest, recorded as being 9550 years old, stripped the 4767 year old bristle cone pine (Pinus longaeva) of California for the title of “The Oldest Tree in the World.” Actually the oldest living being.
I don’t know that I am truly impressed by “the tallest”, “the fastest”, “the most” or “ the best”. But the superlative “ the oldest” stops me in my tracks. “The World’s Largest Spruce Tree” wasn’t exactly the oldest, not even at 1000 years, yet it woke me to my youth, my brevity in this world. And that was enough.
We have one Sitka spruce on our property, a youngster of around 50 years, my “guesstimation” because I like to share my age with something 60 feet tall. I call it the bear tree because the bear’s path in and out of the swamp wraps around it. And it acts as a sort of end point of cultivation and beginning of wildness. Owls roost in it at night, and in the morning song birds cling in clusters to its branches eating aphids. And in a storm rsaven bounce and swing on it’s wind blown branches. I look forward to growing old, or at least older with it, knowing that neither of us will probably ever be “The Oldest” anything.