Exotic Plants in Vancouver, eh

So I’m just back from Vancouver – well, actually, a couple weeks ago – and I thought I’d share a little bit about my trip. I’ll start by thanking my very gracious hosts, the Pacific Northwest Palm and Exotic Plant Society (henceforth in this post abbreviated as PNWPEPS). Special thanks go out to John Brimacombe and Jay Akerley, for their hospitality; and Rudi Pinkowski, Larry Wick, and Michael Bostok for the garden tours. More on that below. Anyway, I had a great time. The society invited me to give a talk for their November meeting, and I chose “Hardy Proteaceae” as a topic. As far as I could tell, my talk was well received. The only drawback is that I was not able to bring any plants across the border to sell, but we may be able to work with that in the future. Perhaps it’s not as difficult as I thought, and I’m worrying too much about shipping-to-Canada “horror stories” that come up from time to time among other specialty nursery folk in the USA.

I also learned a few interesting things about Vancouver. Despite having a huge population of friendly neighbors to the north, the Seattle news media seem to completely ignore anything that happens in the Vancouver area in favor of airing stories about how scary it is to walk out your front door, and how cute puppies are. So imagine this. You buy a house in Vancouver in the mid 1980s for $280,000 (that’s in Canadian money, so (without looking it up) probably equivalent to somewhat under $200,000 in US dollars). Then in 2011 your house is worth… wait for it… $4.5 million dollars. And we think our real estate market is out of control. So what’s happening? From what Vancouverites tell me, foreign investors, and particularly Chinese businesspeople, are pretty much buying Vancouver, driving real estate values through the roof. An interesting quirk that has resulted is that an empty lot in Vancouver is typically worth a little bit more than one with a house on it. (Yeah, I’m going to spend $5 million on an 0.2 acre lot?) That is because the existing house is just in the way of a bigger house. I was told of one example in which a fancy 6,200 square foot house built in 1992 with all the trimmings was torn down and replaced because it wasn’t big enough. So if anyone is wondering where all the money has gone in here in the United States (via China), now you know. Fascinating stuff, ya? (Also had the brief businessman-ish thought, “I have to figure out how to market plants to these people!” First things first, though…)

So anyways… this was actually my first trip to Vancouver since high school. It was fun to meet a lot of PNWPEPS members who I had previously only known over the internet, for many years in some cases. Some of these folks are gardening legends, having maintained gardens with huge treeferns, palms, bananas, etc. for decades. Others were new to the game. It was interesting to watch the club dynamics and recognize that this is a rather diverse group in some respects, yet still hangs together as a club. Meanwhile the Washington and Oregon chapters of the PNWPEPS have not retained enough interest to meet in a long time, and are considered as “inactive.” (There were, however, a few Oregon meetings around the year 2000, and I attended two of them.)

This leads to the question, what’s so special about Vancouver that the society hangs together there yet nowhere else? After visiting the area and contemplating the question for a while, the answer seems obvious. It is about Canadian identity. If you’re Canadian, the southwest corner of British Columbia has by far the most gardening possibilities of anywhere in the country, including exotic and subtropical garden style. Since Vancouver has the mildest climate available (well, unless you count some of the islands, etc.), it’s easy to assume an attitude that says, why not make the best possible use of it? Seattle, on the other hand, isn’t excited about this gardening style because we in the USA have southern California, and no one wants Seattle to remind them of Los Angeles. We often feel this sense of a “uniquely Northwest” identity, meaning that relative to the Southwest we often subconsciously think we should grow plants of more northerly affinity. “Palm trees in Canada” sounds a lot more exciting and unexpected than “Palm trees in the USA.”

One could also say that, due to political heritage from times past, British Columbia draws more from the gardening culture of Victorian-era Britain, with it’s “I can collect more plants from the farthest corners of the world than you can” passion for obtaining exotic plants from everywhere possible and bringing them back home. Meanwhile the Pacific Northwest (though we certainly draw a bit from Britain as well) has, as I see it, been comparatively more influenced by a gardening culture from the eastern United States, emphasizing hardier and deciduous plants, with a significant dose of temperate Asian influence thrown in. Of course, I am speaking very generally here: all kinds of exceptions could be noted. There is certainly no shortage of deciduous trees in Vancouver, and many Seattle gardens full of lush and exotic evergreen foliage can also be found.

I also noticed that the PNWPEPS in Vancouver has enough of a presence to be well known in the community, with (as far as I could gather) positive working relationships with appropriate persons among the prominent botanic gardens of the area and several of Vancouver’s best nurseries. One nursery owner, Gary at Phoenix Perennials, even turned out for my talk. Meanwhile in Seattle, I doubt most of the staff at the UW Arboretum or Miller Garden, or owners of most prominent area nurseries, have even heard of the PNWPEPS or would care. Perhaps, though, I should not assume that: the Miller Library at the UW Center for Urban Horticulture, at least, has a subscription to Hardy Palm International (last time I checked). I wonder if having an active Seattle area chapter would change this, but the PNWPEPS has been constant and active in Vancouver for 25+ years.

There was much talk at the meeting about the PNWPEPS needing something “new” to rally around, since their original mission to saturate Vancouver with once-uncommon Trachycarpus fortunei (the most popular and easily grown hardy palm in the Northwest) has largely been realized. And so what is the next big thing going to be? I’m not exactly sure. It seems helpful to me to move on from the simplistic “palms and bananas” approach to exotic gardening style and pursue more of a Victorian England “collect everything you can” ideal tempered with a good sense of garden design for the best possible effect. I think the PNWPEPS kind of gets this and is moving at least somewhat in that direction, with some members having apparently felt that way for a long time.

Related to this, some in the PNWPEPS expressed a concern that most of the society is aging with almost no younger folk coming along. This, however, appears to be a common occurrence across all garden clubs today. When I had a brief encounter with the Dungeness Bonsai Society last year (most people my age are disconnected enough from old-school gardening culture as to be surprised such an entity could even exist! Including me, when first introduced to it), the problem was the same: no young people want to pick up this hobby or join a club. Most conventional and generic garden clubs tend to lack young people as well. It would seem “younger” people just aren’t into clubs and societies. I may have to consider this topic further in a future blog post. For now I’ll just leave it there since this is getting way too long and I have pictures to show!

So, enough of me getting all philosophical. You want to see plants and gardens! And here some are.

First I visited Michael Bostock’s garden, but it was dark. Still, one has to photograph a real Cyathea australis when he sees it. All the more impressive is that he and John Brimacombe raised these from spore themselves!

Here’s a shot of John’s back garden. Unfortunately I had to come up during the one cloudy day in a mostly sunny week. Oh well.

This simple structure keeps the rain off of John’s Agaves without, I think, looking too weird.

John has an impressive tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica) which he protects most years.

Even more surprising is this Dicksonia squarrosa, which is a difficult species to maintain in the Northwest. It has frozen to the ground several times.

I then got to see Larry Wick’s garden in North Vancouver. Larry is a great guy who has done a lot of traveling and brought back innumerable artifacts (and purchased some locally as opportunity presents itself) which decorate both the interior and exterior of his home. He is also an avid plant collector with a great diversity of exotic plants, subtropicals, succulents, and pretty much you-name-it. I actually have wanted to meet him for years and finally I did it. Imagine having a back porch like this to hang out in all winter.

Here’s a corner of the back garden. Larry also has a huge bonsai collection!

Here is one of two greenhouses. In summer these beds are bursting with exotic foliage, but with it being late fall for this visit I guess you have to use your imagination.

Here’s an outdoor sitting area in back of the house and you can spot a few more interesting garden-art pieces. Larry says he planted the monkey puzzle tree back in the 1950’s!

Along the west side of his house, he diverted part of a stream (back when this was legal) to run along the property and right up against his house at one point. The rock work here is great.

And here’s Larry himself with a cool dolphin sculpture.

My final stop for the day (since I had to try to get out of Vancouver before traffic got too bad) was Cory Pinkowski’s garden (where Rudi Pinkowski seems to be mostly responsible for the plantings) right on the waterfront in West Vancouver. This is an interesting neighborhood as it is south-facing and very steep going straight up to a 5,000′ mountain peak with the Cypress Bowl ski area only a couple miles to the north. Living here, one could not complain about air drainage. We really have no setting like that in the Seattle area. With the proximity to such large mountains, it is quite a bit wetter than the main part of Vancouver. Here’s what you see when you come to the front of the house.

The treeferns love this climate, though. These are protected through colder weather but look flawless.

Here’s a shot of the well-planted side garden with Yucca gloriosa ‘Superba’ at centre. (Someone tell my spell-checker this is in Canada!)

Here’s the back garden, which drops off steeply to the beach.

And here’s a shot of the water with, of course, more palms and treeferns. There is probably quite a bit more to show, and to comment on, but those are the main highlights.

So, to my Vancouver readers, thanks again for the great experience. And I’ll have to come back as there is much more to see. I have still not seen Van Dusen (except at night, where the meeting was held, which doesn’t count) or UBC Botanic Gardens. They might be better in summer anyways. For everyone else, I hope you enjoyed this tour!

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mark and Gaz
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 01:49:35

    A most enjoyable read, and thanks for the tour of some of the gardens you’ve visited in Vancouver. The planting scheme is so similar to the exotic gardens here in the UK, with the climate being similar in more ways than one.


  2. Ian
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 21:14:42

    Glad you liked it! If I return again, and I hope to, I’ll certainly take more pictures and post them here.


  3. Loree / Danger garden
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 22:54:46

    Those tree ferns are all amazing, do you know how exactly they protect them?

    Also…just thought it might be interesting to note I find that the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon has quite a few young members….maybe not many 20-something’s but certainly lots of 30-something’s…


  4. Ian
    Dec 18, 2011 @ 21:43:01

    Loree, they cut off all the fronds then wrap them tightly with fiberglass insulation and plastic with a few holes poked in it for “breathing.” This is standard practice for tree fern protection in the Northwest pioneered by folks like the late Torben Barfod (Barfod’s Hardy Ferns) and Judith Jones. I used to be really into tree ferns and I actually met Torben once.

    That’s interesting about the HPSO – I guess they must be doing something right! The NHS, I would say, has a slightly younger demographic than many garden clubs, with just a few 30-ish age people, but not many (well last time I checked anyways – I could be entirely wrong by now!)


  5. Tom Hulse
    Dec 22, 2011 @ 12:55:03

    Great post Ian! Loved the pictures. That macro-bonsia in the next-to-last photo inspired me to go out and prune mine today. Loved the tree ferns too. Bet you had a really fun time.
    That agave roof looks interesting too. It would sure be nice not to have to schlep them all indoors every winter. Have you had much success with agaves outdoors down here?


  6. Nat
    Dec 31, 2011 @ 01:26:12

    Interesting thoughts, a nice post. It’s funny how growing palms in Canada seems exciting, you make a great point. Being an exotic plant collector up here in Victoria B.C isn’t exactly practical but it’s a lot of fun. I do agree we still maintain a bit of the British plant collecting bug, I have more tender plants then I know what to do with. Being in my mid twenties I too notice a lack of enthusiasm in joining clubs, talking with the succulent society they’re worried they’re a dying breed. On tired evenings I curse my collection of cactis, succulents, and tropical plants, and dream of moving to more tropical lands. Although if I want to remain a proud Canadian, Victoria is as south as I can get.


  7. Ian
    Jan 03, 2012 @ 10:04:56

    Nat, it’s funny, you’re probably just 20 miles away from me, yet I haven’t been to Vancouver Island in 12 years! Victoria is a great place to grow stuff. You’re probably sunnier and warmer than Sequim even if we are drier. Well it’s great to hear that you’re out there and collecting plants – a dying breed perhaps, but not nearly dead yet!


  8. Bernadine
    Aug 02, 2013 @ 00:22:31

    Excellent post however , I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this topic?
    I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit more. Appreciate it!


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