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Trees worth a second look.

National Public Radio reporter Ketzel Levine, known as the Doyenne of Dirt, covers everything from Big Trees to the Westminster Dog Show. This excerpt is from her book Plant This!--100 "best bets for year-round gorgeous gardens." c2000 by Ketzel Levine. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Plant This! by permission of Sasquatch Books. The illustrations by Rene Eisenbart are from The Oregonian c1997 and 1998, Oregonian Publishing Co. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



I'm just back from walking--or should I say flying?--through Portland's Hoyt Arboretum. What might have been a leisurely stroll became a forced march, thanks to the hopped-up beagle pulling on the lead (he was a new model, not yet broken in). I had gone to Hoyt to see a sourwood tree, which I was told I would find on the Wildwood Trail.

So five minutes into the walk, doing a fast scan across all manner of leafy greens, I find myself thinking, "Yeah, right, how am I going to find a couple of lousy trees in the middle of all this generic vegetation? I snickered at my own smug confidence, thinking I knew enough about plant ID to spot Oxydendrum arboreum at a few hundred paces.

By the time I got to the intersection of the Wildwood and Cherry trails, young Jimmy had just about freed my arm from its socket. I cursed myself for not bringing along a good tree book. I was ready to about-face and let him drag me home when I noticed an imposing shape in the distance. My nagging self shut up fast once we'd confirmed it was an oxydendrum, a tree too poised and polished to overlook, even in the most like-minded crowd.

The fall color hadn't quite happened yet, but the tree's leathery, slightly glossy foliage was infused with enough mahogany to suggest what would soon follow: wine-red notes lightened by the tinkling of pink and lavender with a sporadic smattering of yellow. All this plus summer's leftover flower stems at the end of each branch, French-polished fingernails set off by ruffle-sleeved leaves.

Though no two O. arboreum specimens are precisely alike--in fact, their irregularity is a given--this tree had two straight, lean trunks offset by arms of downward-curving foliage. All the better to set off the spent flower fingers, which reached down, then up at the tips. The entire plant was in motion even while still, reminiscent of Pieris japonica covered in its spring filigree. (I used to think of the sourwood as pieris-on-a-stick.)

All sourwoods are extremely slow-growing, that is, a foot a year. Though they are capable of becoming several stories tall, it's likely you'll have moved before that happens. Still, whether as street trees or garden specimens, their formal shape and forgiving manner make them exceptional plants even when young, asking only sun, good soil, and supplemental summer water to flower heavily in summer and blush brilliantly in fall.

I managed about fifteen minutes of note-taking before my higher-maintenance companion heard the fast-approaching clink of dog tags. We were off like a shot. By then, the wind had picked up, the sky had darkened, and the season was falling fast around me. As we whizzed back to the car, we passed a trio of sourwoods I'd completely missed on our way in. But that was when I'd been distracted by my own chatter, instead of letting the tree speak for itself.


Plant hunter Ernest Henry Wilson--better known as E.H.--was on his third trip to China when he came across Pistacia chinensis. It wasn't exactly high on his list. About that same time in 1908, he'd received appalling news from his benefactor, the Arnold Arboretum: The 18,000 lily bulbs he'd shipped from Ichang to Boston had rotted en route.

"Knocked all of a heap" by the news, Wilson seems to have made a quick recovery, and set about digging up and sending back 25,000 more (no comment). He also continued the work that made him famous--introducing astonishing new plants from the Far East--conquests that had so far included Acer griseum, the paperbark maple, and Kolkwitzia amabilis, the beautybush. This trip he bagged the Chinese pistache.


It's possible E.H. had already seen a rare specimen of pistacia growing at Kew Gardens, or perhaps his first glimpse of the plant came in the wild. In either case, having witnessed its wondrous fall color, you better believe he snatched seed and sent it home.

P. chinensis is a member of the family Anacardiaceae, which includes the smoke tree, Cotinus, and the sumac, Rhus. Not a bad pedigree if you're looking for a heart-stopping autumnal blaze. What makes this tree particularly valuable in my Northwest neck of the woods is that it doesn't need cold temperatures to trip its trigger, and will turn kaleidoscopic colors despite prolonged heat and a dearth of summer rain (ordinarily, a parched August/September will wreak havoc with fall color).

In addition to its showy, sumaclike plumage, the Chinese pistache is a superb choice for tough urban sites. It'll stand up to pollution, drought, lousy soil, or restricted root space and still grow into an impressive, spreading, 20- to 35-foot tree (capable of 50 feet). Its spring flowers aren't much, but the peppercorn-sized fruits on the female trees can be showy, maturing from yellow to red to metallic blue if they haven't first gone to the birds. You wouldn't want to eat them anyway, since this is not the edible pistachio tree (though P. chinensis is used as an understock for growing P. vera, the real nut).

Who knows why the Chinese pistache is conspicuously absent as a street tree in the Northwest? It's certainly not difficult to find in the trade, Perhaps the reason's been no more than an error in the Sunset Western Garden Book (since rectified), which insisted the tree was not hardy in the Northwest. In any event, expect to see more of it, thanks to the efforts of indefatigable hortheads, now lobbying to get this once-Chinese rarity into the urban mainstream.


A lone tree stands in a nursery in Portland with pendulous white bells ringing from its arms. You'd think someone might listen. But there it sits, unnoticed, choked by cherries and smothered by lilacs, with dogwoods baying to its lonesome tune.

Let's face it, if a plant trades in subtlety yet blooms in midspring, odds are good it won't get noticed. That's the only way I can explain why we don't grow more of the American native Halesia, which hit the shores of England decades before those rumors that we were using harbors to steep our tea.

The Carolina silverbell, H. carolina (syn. H. tetraptera), was the first halesia grown abroad. Commonly called silverbell, it's native not only to its namesake state but as far south as Florida and west to Oklahoma. Largely found on woodland edges, particularly along streams, H. Carolina--much like redbud and dogwood--is a classic understory tree.

In the landscape, though, this silverbell functions more as a huge, low-branched shrub with several trunks, forming an open, transparent structure almost as wide as it is tall. Its mature bark is strikingly veined in gray and black, and its pest- and disease-resistant leaves are pleasantly oval. Come winter, its showy, four-winged fruits (hence the name H. tetraptera) dangle like deflated punching bags, and are often fodder for birds.

But for 10 days in spring, the silverbell is no less than a benediction for humanity, with white, breathless bells that hand on angel hair-thin stalks and seem to enlighten anyone or anything beneath them. These simple, joyous flowers are the epitome of how I visualize faith: exquisitely simple and awesome in power.

Yup, they're that good. Like faith, however, they're fleeting; once they're gone, it's hard to believe they ever happened. Of course, one could say the same about Kwanzan cherries and lilacs, whose flowerless branches lack the slightest inspiration. What does last with a silverbell is a canopy of foliage that provides a perfect shelter for smaller rhodies and azaleas.

Having maxed out on sublimity, I now lack the adjectives to describe the later-flowering H. diptera var. magniflora, a selection of the two-winged (hence the name diptera) silverbell that is--at last!--increasingly varied in the trade. This often multistemmed variety has larger and more abundant blossoms than H. carolina (at one and a half inches, twice the size) and deeply cut, delicate lobes. The tree itself is slightly smaller, and its later bloom time gives it an edge on the competition.


But whether it's the two- or four-winged creature, siting is everything when it comes to the silverbell. Consider planting one at the edge of a path, on top of a slope, over a patio, or outside a window--anyplace where it won't be overlooked when the moment of benediction comes.



It's no easy task for a Bat Mitzvah girl to recommend a living Christmas tree. I've never had one, never bought one, and only recall decorating two. But if the opportunity came along, I'd do as many of you do and buy something I could integrate into the garden. So, as one plant nerd to another, here's my choice for a small recyclable conifer: Abies koreana.

At maturity (figure a couple of decades, since this is a slow grower), the Korean fir can be expected to reach an average of 30 feet. It needs only sun, good drainage, and time in order to thrive. Its habit, though pyramidal, is looser and more layered than that of our grand fir (A. grandis), giving it an indulgent, luxurious feel. Close-up, its needles are short and chubby, glossy green on top and silver-lined below.

Sounds pretty generic, you say? What's the big deal? Cones, I answer. Fat dollops at least as profuse as raindrops, each one an unimaginable shade of Tootsie Pop purple. From a distance they read like flowers--all the more amazing when you find out they're really composed of dry, woody scales.

These perky, promiscuous ornaments are in such a hurry they're already showing off when the young trees are barely knee-high. But before you get carried away with visions of these sugarplums, you need to know that firs develop cones only in late spring. The good news, of course, is what you then can look forward to, long after the (biodegradable) tinsel has turned to mulch.

Reasonably, mature Korean firs are big sellers--and include the narrow-spired, heavily coned 'Starker's Dwarf,' which tops out at about 6 feet; 'Silberlocke' (syn. 'Horstmann's Silberlocke') with silver-backed needles that curve up and twist around the stem; and 'Aurea,' a slow-growing, golden-yellow 4-footer.

Because of unpredictable nursery stampedes, growers are sometimes caught short. I don't say this to discourage you, only to suggest that you prepare to settle for a somewhat smaller tree than the one you see in your mind's eye--destined, nonetheless, to be a stirring Christmas memory with all the promise of a candy-colored spring.

Tips for keeping your live Christmas tree alive:

* Move it into the garage for three or four days, and water well before bringing it into the house.

* Keep it inside for no longer than a week, and keep it away from direct heat.

* If necessary, water further by placing ice on top of the soil.

* Put it back in the garage to acclimate it for life outside. A week or two will do it.

* After planting, be sure the tree does not dry out.

* Should your climate prohibit winter planting, it's important to remember to prepare the hole for fall.


It seems a bit disparaging to call a plant 'pseudo' anything, as if it lacked the integrity to be more than an imitation of something else. Here in the Northwest, for instance, we don't think of our mighty Douglas-fir as a false hemlock. But its genus name, Pseudotsuga, means just that.


I don't mean to start a chauvinist landslide in favor of reclassifying the Doug-fir. But it is odd that a dozen or more plants exist which, though different enough to be given their own exclusive genera, were not quite different enough to get their own names.

Pseudocydonia sinensis, the Chinese quince, suffers from all sorts of nomenclatural baggage. You can't really call it a false quince because its fruit are indeed quince, just not the variety cultivated for preserves (or for wine, candy, juice, or even pickles, as favored in Japan). Instead, its fruits are far more useful for playing that early-adolescent contact sport, Pass the Orange; they're big and oblong--a good shape for neck-hugging--not to mention heavy and hard.

And though P. sinensis flowers prettily (albeit subtly and sparsely) in pink, you can't call it a flowering quince, because that name's been taken too. Flowering quince is Chaenomeles, that dense, thorny, spring-blooming shrub that comes in all those incomparably rich and tarty hot colors.

But in winter, when its namesakes are downright boring, P. sinensis glows with exfoliating bark. This handsome creature is right up there with the best of the mottled crew, in tones as warm as Stewartia and in patterns suggestive of lacebark pine. Stunning visually, it's also tactually irresistible, with a fluted trunk that adds rhythm to its changing surface of warm browns, olive greens, and pearly grays.

This is a small tree with a dense, rounded crown and impressive peach to red leaves in late fall when grown in full sun. Its large April flowers are the color of apple blossoms, its late-spring peeling reveals chrome-yellow skin, and its magnificent fall fruits are a light lemon yellow (only the color is light; you don't want to be under them when they fall). Though these trees are easy to grow, you'll need a good eye for pruning, since young ones are awkward and need shaping. What you'll end up with for your labors is an increasingly handsome specimen, a prince of a plant denied a worthy name.


My father's mother had wavy hair that fit like a helmet. My mother's mother wore hers in a soft Gibson girl pile. Consequently, the nostalgic plant name 'Granny's ringlets' doesn't strike a familiar chord, though it does conjur up a rather dissonant picture of both my grandmas in dreadlocks. Oy!

I suspect that is not the image that inspired the common name for Cryptomeria japonica 'Spiralis,' a richly textured Japanese cedar with curly rings reminiscent of what (someone's) granny used to wear. The effect is created by spirally curved, inward-pointing needles that twist covetously around the plant's flexible stems--cascading locks on a seemingly restless tree.

In fact, C. japonica 'Spiralis' is the very paradigm of stability, with a body so dense and spongy you could confidently fall into its arms. The plant encourages that kind of interaction because it's just so tactile, its gold-braided limbs and twisted fringes begging to be touched.

At maturity, 'Spiralis' is a formal, conical evergreen, but in its early years it's somewhat wayward. The reason is this: New plants are grown from side-branch cuttings, so their inclination is to grow sideways.

"They need to learn apical dominance," says Oregon conifer wizard Don Howse. It takes a good four years for the plant to develop a central, upright stem (known as the leader), which will eventually become the tree's trunk.

Those early years, however comical, are likely to be misunderstood. Howse often sees young 'Spiralis' mislabeled and sold as a prostrate shrub rather than as a cone-shaped tree. His own once-gawky specimen is now 20 feet tall and eight feet wide, a proper and masterful landscape presence, flawlessly branched from head to toe.


Now for colors: 'Spiralis' comes in two. With afternoon shade, it develops soft lime spring-like growth, while in full sun it tends toward yellow-gold and can even look a bit burned (contrary to appearance, though, this plant will not sun-scald). Its color is uniform throughout, but the twisted leaves give the impression of being two-tone; until this writing, I'd remembered it as variegated, such was the impression in my (fantasy-prone) mind's eye.

If you've got some big bored rhodies in all-morning sun, plant a lime-green 'Spiralis' among them to wake things up. If you don't have the room but still want the ringlets, consider C. japonica 'Spiraliter Falcata,' a probable sport of the spiral-leaved giant.

Maxing out at 5 feet by 5 feet (it's a slow grower), it's been called the 'Harry Lauder' of cryptomerias (a reference to the contorted filbert), with stems and branches that twist and curl. It's good for a light touch of whimsy in a not-quite-mixed-enough border.
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Title Annotation:excerpt from "Plant This: Best Bets for Year-Round Gorgeous Gardens"
Author:Levine, Ketzel
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Excerpt
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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