Picking new treasures for springtime

Landscaping in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, January 12, 2000

People like to explore options: We go shopping, check out new cars, look at open houses and wander through markets. Nursery people are like that too: We look at new plants, check out new growers and look at techniques that will expand familiar palettes. Margaret and I go to nursery trade shows and find people whose plants seem exciting, and then go out to their farms and look over the fields and choose the best for our spring shipments. I have a list every year of things that people in Southeast Alaska have special-ordered, but I have my eyes open for something special too.

Last year I met a grower who had those Weeping European Larch trees that I've been searching for. I have two that we've carried around with us for almost 20 years. They have as dramatic a set of seasonal changes as one could wish for, and they are hardy enough to live above ground in a planter in this climate.

Larches are conifers, like spruces or pines, but they loose their needles in the winter. Larches discovered that they could endure colder and harsher winters without the burden of protecting their foliage. When winter comes they pull out the nutrients from the leaves and let them blow away, then they grow new ones in the spring. We know them as Tamarack, or Western Larch in this zone, but as a family they spread all around the world. There are Larches in Siberia, others in northern Japan, and the Baltic shores of northern Europe are home to still another species.

Two hundred years ago someone found one of these European ones that had an unusual growth habit. Instead of growing up straight and tall with a mighty trunk, this one sprawled over the ground like a vine. Pieces of this carpet were cut off and grafted onto the root system of regular Larch trees and they continued to grow in this bizarre fashion.

The grower can train the trunk up as tall as he wishes, then allow the tip to bend back towards the ground. The result is a cascade of finely textured foliage that pours down and flows over the ground like a beautiful lettuce-green waterfall. The texture of the needles is so soft that people want to stroke it like a cat. Autumn's cooling changes pale green to a dramatic bright gold, and winters aspect is as knobby, contorted and ancient looking as possible.

It is easy to see why we have been looking for these exotic plants: The man we bought them from years ago edited them out from his collection, and this fellow that I just met is doing the same. Nurserymen are like other farmers: If there is limited demand for something that it takes 15 years to grow, then it would be wiser to stop growing that selection. I love these prehistoric looking specimens and people who come to our nursery are always taken by their uncommon appearance, but we are a very small market in the worldwide horticulture business.

The chance to obtain some of these is like a flag to us, and after the big nursery show in August I drove right out to the farm to pick out the ones we would bring north. Fates intervened with a spectacular thunder and lightening storm, so much electricity was shooting through the air. The nursery owner said he wouldn't chance driving through the fields to get to the trees. I had to just tell him I wanted the best ones he had.

Our holiday trip to see relatives provided a perfect chance to get back, and we did. It was a good thing that we did too, since other people had seen those specimens and come for the same purpose. Our new friend had been true to his word, and they were told to wait until we had our choice, but I'm sure glad that we were able to speak for the best ones.

There were other benefits too: This grower had some of the prettiest bright blue Colorado Spruces I have ever seen, glistening in the sun like glacial ice. We claimed some of these that were shaped like flowing clouds instead of the common stiffly erect cones, and then went on a ``poke about'' tour. Way back in the field he had one dwarf blue Sitka Spruce. This unusual plant had been collected 15 years ago, and was as thick and bristly as if it had been sheared every year, but it was only about 3 feet tall. Picking and choosing treasures for each spring's offerings is the most fun part of this business, and this spring looks like one of the best ever.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and, along with Margaret Tharp, owns Landscape Alaska. Any responses or questions can be sent to www.landscapealaska.com.

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