Plants, trees have distinct personalities

Posted: Wednesday, January 15, 2003

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to

Loading up trees, rounding up rhododendrons, stacking up shrubs and picking up perennials, it's moving time again. Our nursery has been a transient business since it's first days, and the latest incarnation is once again sent on a quest for another home. The process of moving causes me to reevaluate each item in my collection - every single rose dug up in someone's yard knowing that someone else wants to have it, every wounded lilac I've been nursing back to health for 10 years and each of the Japanese maple seedlings collected at the edges of the maple grove in back of a collector's garden.

Nobody ever wants a single tree. They want a small grove. The single trees could be part of my collection for the rest of my life - do I really want that? Well probably not, but I won't be able to just throw them away... they're alive and utterly dependent on me to stay like that. If I didn't water them, or shift them up in can size they would just die and I've been carrying some of these for a dozen years.

Some may say this is a sex thing - that males cannot bear to let loose of anything once they own it. I believe it's more benign than that.

These are like our pets. some are cute and fuzzy and everybody loves them. They are easily adopted and reproduce so rapidly there are always plenty of them around. This category includes Sitka roses, little princess spiraeas, Miss Kim dwarf lilacs and those cute little pointy Alberta spruces. They're sort of like Labrador retrievers, sweet and easy and ready to go home with anybody, secure in the knowledge that they are going to be loved.

These are so numerous because they're able to fit into almost any landscape and we all like what we know, so they get picked by almost every person who is shopping for a shrub. No matter if they are seen in groups of 200 at a time, they will all find a home.

There is another class of plants, the ones that need just the right spot. They are not so easy as those bouncy Labradors - they are more like schnauzers. They're picky, and finicky, and a little hard to handle. You have to love them to begin with or you would never choose one. Weeping European larches, dwarf Norway maples that look like balls on sticks, and the incredibly slow growing extremely hardy northern red oaks with flaming fall colors are in this category. A person needs just the right place, and they already have to be inclined that way, and they have to see just the right one for the match to click. Not only that, but they are hard to find. Very few growers will invest the time and energy, and precious space in the growing field, to produce a plant that is one-tenth as popular as those darn Labradors.

There's another category even more difficult to place in a new home, these are the rough adolescent types, they will eventually be great beauties, but that will take 20 years. Now they are unruly, a little coarse and often prickly. They don't have much curbside appeal. They are like those silky Arabian hunting dogs, or a Red bone hound, or those gigantic Irish wolfhounds. They are strikingly beautiful as adults, but in younger stages they're almost impossible to tolerate. They howl, or try to kill everything, or run away every time you open the gate. We used to have an old English Setter that would run just far enough to be out of reach, for hours if you would chase her, and then saunter back home as if she had just gone across the street to chat. I wanted to tie her to a dumbbell, so she would always be just where I left her.

These are weeping beeches, or narrow columnar hornbeams, or cylindrical totem pole blue spruce. When they get mature, they will be majestic, but at this stage they look gawky, and weird. Who else would love them but me? How will they ever find a good home?

The real question is why would I ever have anything except Labs? Just crazy I guess. But I have a number of plants I'm going to discard, if you want a few give me a call.

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