Saturday, January 9, 2010


If you’ve been following my blog over the past month you are fully aware of my focus on conifers. But did you notice something missing? A conifer overlooked? Well, I’ve been avoiding pines ( Pinus sp.). Not out of disrespect, actually quite the opposite. I adore pines. And like a good host I am saving the best-- or at least my favorite-- for last.
I did not grow up with pines. We had only one conifer in my childhood garden. A prickly blue spruce, that in our often malicious games we would push each other into. You can image on a sweaty barely clothed mid-summer day what a torture that might be. It was all in good fun I guess. But how much more fun it would have been if we had been pushed into the springy softness of a pine.
As I scrambled through my memories this last week thinking: pine, pine, pine. I was remarkably void of any sort of seminal experience that I could call the moment I fell for pines. It was probably a gradually process that led to this love. But one day definitely pointed me in the direction.
I was in my 20s and had hitchhiked out to Kettle Moraine, a glacier rumpled landscape west of my hometown, Milwaukee. There, in a eastern white pine (P. strobus) plantation, I sat to have my lunch. Why I chose to stop in this very unnatural landscape I’m not sure. The ground was softly padded with years of decomposing needles, yet prickly with newly fallen dry needles. It was indian summer, I guess, since my memory is of pollen- and insect-free air. There was no disturbance of wind. Was it this stillness that drew me in? The sun was warm, heating the needled carpet drawing a smoky almost combustible fragrance from it. The scent cleared my thoughts almost banishing them. It made my lunch, a swiss cheese sandwich on caraway rye and a bartlett pear, one of the most tasty and memorable meals of my life.
Curious why I had ventured into this mono-cropish monotony, one red squirrel barked at me. Was he scolding or welcoming I’ll never know not being versed in squirrel-ese. His attention span was short and I was left alone again, far from the hikers on the trail, far from my apartment. Yet I had a strange sense of belonging, of being at home. Was it the familiarity of rye and swiss? Was it October, my favorite month, and it’s gentle melancholy before the drop? Was it man-made nature, rectilinear, yet not groomed? Was it the prickly comfort of the needled carpet? The crackling clear blue sky penetrating the canopy?
Or the canopy itself?
The pines?
I feel wistful for that place and time as I write. January is damp with post holiday malaise. I should be thankful it’s warm enough for witch hazels and daffodils-- yes, daffodils-- but I’m not. I actually like Jack Frost’s nippings. Even though I can look out the window over my desk and see snow capped mountains. I still miss winter. The white. The aridity.
I think that is what I like about pines. There is a certain aridity to their nature. When I first moved to our little farm in the flood plain the first thing I wanted to do was plant trees. And in particular conifers. I ignored the pines though, well, actually that’s a lie. I have 3 in pots on our deck, as if I don’t have enough places to plant trees around here. But I thought that was the only way to have pines here.
But today I thought again. Maybe I don’t know pines as well as I think I do. So I got out Managing the Wet Garden, by John Simmons --an indespensible book around here-- and found 4 pines recommended for heavy wet soils: southern pitch pine (P. palustris), lodge pole pine (P. contorta), surprisingly, ponderosa pine (P. ponderosa) and Coulter’s pine (P. coulteri).
Now I would almost jump for joy, but Michael doesn’t like pines. Or as he put it more politely, “I prefer not to have pines on the property.” Many of my clients have the same propensity. Even removing pines 30 feet tall to put in perennial beds. I was involved and stand guilty, though I voted adamantly to keep the pine.

I will never understand other peoples’ dislike of pines, because my own interest and love is so strong it blinds me to any shortcomings of these trees. I even love the needly debris.

Yet there ubiquity is evidence that I am not a lone pine lover, and planter. The low maintenance mugo pine (P. mugo) anchors half the parking lot landscapes in this part of the country. And white pines (P. strobus), especially the cultivar ‘Fastigiata’ seems to be appearing in more and more corporate landscapes. Here in the Pacific Northwest, where you can find many gardens emulating Japanese gardens, you find Japanese red pine (P. densiflora) and Japanese black pine (P. thunbergii) widely used, but rarely well maintained.

In the traditional Japanese gardens these 2 pines play extremely important roles, the red pine representing the female principal and the black pine the male. They are also heavily maintained: candled, pruned, bent, propped and weighed down with stones. Anything to make them look windswept and older than they really are. The Japanese word for pine is matsu, it’s homophonic verb means “to wait” as for a lover or a resolution to an impossible situation, much like the English verb, and homonym to the tree’s name, “to pine” means to long, often to the point of dissolution. Maybe it is this association, certainly it can’t be their beauty, which makes some people dislike pines.

Though the heavily maintained pines in Japanese gardens become poetry under a skillful gardeners guidance. These same principles applied in an American small town garden become a mockery.
Poodle ball pines become part of a comical pastiche of lawn, rambler and chain link.

I must admit I'm a sneaky gardener. Or at least a sneaky pine lover, so where i ccan't plant big pines i plant dwarf pines. In the garden were we removed the 30 ft pine, I planted the dwarf white pine (P. strobus ‘Nana’) with the deciduous azalea ‘Mt. Saint Helens’ to frame the base of this totem pole.

At South Seattle Community College, there are many examples of dwarf pines.The new cultivar of our native shore pine (P. contorta) ‘Chief Joseph’ is as yellow as a daisy’s eye in winter. It makes it hard for me to take it seriously. Yet I can't look away either.

But what I really like are big pines, like these stone pines (P. pinea) in Pisa, Italy. They also give us pine nuts another reason I love pines

On the edge of the Grand Canyon there are many pinyon pine (P.edulis), the state tree of New Mexico. It is one of 39 North American pines 9 of which are state trees attesting to the genus’ popularity. So you can see I am not a loner in my love a pines.
Even Barbie loves pines.