Those candles on the mugho pines are ones you have to pinch

Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2005

David Lendrum

Landscaping in Alaska

Friday there was a great burst of green pollen from the Sitka spruces; it drifted like a huge cloud up the face of the mountain across from the airport. An hour later it was gone, but while it was here it reminded us all that the whole world is roaring back into life, and that sex is really in the air. It's not just the spruces that feel it.

All over town there are these little pine trees with green fingers reaching up toward the sky. They're called mugho pines, and they're carrying this years growth in the form of candles reaching up from the ends of every branch. They look like birthday cakes, or aliens from the 10th dimension with antennas. These candles are really the new branch ends with the needles still wrapped tightly around the stems, and in a couple of weeks they will all be unfurled to become new tops of little trees.

Mughos are great plants for us here in the urban wilderness. They fit into the sizes of our yards, they can take wind and snow loads of the winters, they look good all year long and they're so cute when you see them in their baby state in the nursery. They look like miniature little moundy pine trees, all dense and compact. You take them home from the nursery, plant them by the front door, and look away for a couple of years. The next time you notice them you're tripping over them as you try to get into the house, because they're lying across the sidewalk. They just grew, and you never even noticed. Look at the ones planted around the end of the Mendenhall Mall; they were just little babies a couple of years ago.

Their growth is so sudden, it all comes in a rush at one time of the year, a particularly busy time, when school is drawing to a close, winter is a memory, the first salmon are here, and all the world is opening up to hiking and boating again. With all this going on who has time for a few pine trees?

Mughos are originally from the Italian and Swiss Alps; they evolved in an area where snows get 20 feet deep and last well into the summer. This makes their growing season pretty short, so mugho will make its burst of growth as quickly as it can, well before the Sitka spruce or western hemlocks. The native trees are a month away from bursting into their new growth, but Mr. Mugho is ready to go now.

This is all significant because this is the time to prune the new growth to keep them neat and compact, or to guide them into habits we will enjoy before we have to resort to the "tough love" technique with a chainsaw. This time of year the work's fun, and can be done with fingers rather than big pruners or saws. These candles represent the entire year's growth. They are not fully extended yet; they're still soft like asparagus so they can be easily snapped off. Don't snap off all the new growth; leave enough that the tree can still set new buds for the next season, at least an inch, or the ends of the branches will die back to the previous branch whorl. The brown nimbus of dead branches will make your tree look like it's been tortured with a flamethrower.

Each year you have this opportunity to redirect the growth of these sturdy little folk, to shape them into the supportive, long-lived members of your outdoor family that you will be happy with for generations. They respond extremely well to this annual harvest by remaining short, with closely set branches and covered with needles right down to the ground.

Ignore this window and they become gangly adolescents with slovenly habits, dropping clothes wherever and showing an incredible amount of skin. Their hairdos become idiosyncratic with puffs and poufs at the ends of their branches, and they begin to actually grow taller than we are.

Does this sound familiar? Are these symptoms becoming familiar in any other phases of your life? Do you long for the ability to give some positive guidance in the world? Well this is your opportunity, so make the best of it.

These branch tips are full of the juice of growth, and it's sticky as pitch (which it is). Wear flexible gloves, some with which you can pick up a penny, and begin tipping off the little darlings. Have a bucket nearby because the volume of foliage you will pick off is impressive. You will never imagine that there can be so many branches trying to grow, and you will also be increasing this number. The plant's response to this predation will be to set double the number of buds for the next season, but that will be just fine. More buds means tighter growth habit and that will mean a denser, shrubbier form.

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