Fronderosa! Manzanita update. Naming plants.

That’s right, it’s three blog posts crammed into one. Perhaps even four, since we ought to start by confirming our next open house, which will be September 1 – 3. I am giving an exciting presentation on Sept 1 that you will not want to miss! Details here.

And, while I have your attention (because the remainder of this post gets pretty plant-geeky): if you missed our open house, don’t worry – just come and see us this weekend at the Fronderosa Frolic: Details here. It is one of the funnest and geekiest plant sales in the Northwest, and is in Gold Bar Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 to 3:00. Many of the best specialty nurseries in western Washington, and a few from Oregon, get together and bring their coolest stuff; and this year it looks like we might actually have normal, pleasantly warm weather (ever since we have participated it has either been unusually cool and wet, or blazing hot)!

And, just in time for Fronderosa, we have newly updated our list of available specimen plants! It was almost a year out of date for some reason, which I did not realize, but that has all been fixed now. This means if anything on the list interests you, we would be happy to bring it to Fronderosa for you! (Of course, anything on our mail-order list is fair game as well.) Or if you can’t make it, we will probably still have nearly all those plants available at the September Open House.

Here, of course, we must add a few pictures of Fronderosas past to show how exciting it is certain to be.

Not our booth, but this year we will be bringing a fancy canopy like this, so that we can be as cool as all the other nurseries.

This was “the hot year,” 2010. Of course our plants didn’t mind at all!

OK, so about those manzanitas. I finally managed to finish potting up last fall’s Arctostaphylos cuttings a couple weeks back: much later than ideal, but as you may have read about in our previous blog entry, we were just too dang busy with other nursery work. So our new Arctostaphylos introductions are generally coming along well, but especially the ones that got potted up early in the season. Certain forms of A. patula x A. uva-ursi, A. x media, and A. columbiana x nevadensis are developing into vigorous plants that are certain to make excellent plants for the dry garden. Most of the “pure” A. patula forms did not root well, providing us only one or two plants of each. These we will have to coddle along until we can propagate them again and introduce them years down the road. The A. columbiana, A. nevadensis, A. columbiana x patula, and A. patula x nevadensis forms have produced varying results, with a couple not rooting well at all, some that rooted well still looking good but not putting on much new growth, and a few vigorous forms doing very well and looking splendid.

Why do we note these things? Well first of all we want to be able to sell some of these plants and get them into circulation as soon as we can, because they are just pretty dang cool. We want to get our new introductions out there so that more people can have a chance to try them. We have already released one Ceanothus (C. prostratus ‘Goldendale Grey’) and a good selection of Penstemons, which grow to salable size much more quickly than our native Arctostaphylos. We’re also interested in assigning names to some of these forms as we release them, so that gardeners will have something to remember them by besides just a collection number, and because good cultivar names (registered or not) are an excellent promotional tool for nurseries that might want to produce and sell them in the future.

This form of Arctostaphylos columbiana x A. nevadensis from Skamania County is certain to be name-worthy.

Who says Arctostaphylos x coloradensis (A. patula x A. nevadensis) has to be from Colorado? This hybrid also occurs in Chelan County, Washington. These plants are doing great and showing excellent potential.

How do we know what plants to name? Sometimes it is possible to take a good educated guess that a plant will be good in the garden just from looking at it in the wild, and comparing it with those around it. Not all wild plants are equal (particularly when you’re looking at a hybrid swarm of Arctostaphylos!) and some will exhibit better ornamental qualities, disease resistance, and vigor; even in habitat.

Observing wild plants only gets you so far, though; because most of the time nurseries (except certain native plant specialists) are not selling plants to people who are going to grow them “in the wild.” It is also important to observe whether a plant is easy to grow at the nursery. For example, we would never have guessed that our Ceanothus prostratus ‘Goldendale Grey’ would vastly outperform all our other accessions of this species in the nursery, since all the plants around it in the wild looked pretty much the same.

Here’s how Ceanothus prostratus ‘Goldendale Grey’ is looking; I hope it’s not just a fluke!

In conventional horticulture, plants are not released with names until they undergo a series of rigorous trials in various locations around the country to prove their ornamental value and durability in the garden in a wide variety of situations and climates. (At least, that is the theory: I think a lot of breeders bend these rules.) Some would say that all nurseries should do this before releasing and naming every plant, but to do so would present some problems for us. We have only one place to test plants, and that’s here. If we send plants all over the place and then try to find out how they did later, it may be too late to try to apply a name retroactively to a successful plant. Some may propagate it without the collection number leaving no way to trace it back to the name. In some cases nurseries interested in protecting their product have gotten around this problem by putting a trademark name on a plant that was originally collected in the wild (Delosperma FireSpinnerTM being a recent example). Great marketing move, but we’re not going to apply trademark names to plants that originate from the wild. I’m not sure why, we’re just not. Perhaps it’s because we feel that no one should have to pay a royalty to market something that wasn’t developed by a breeder.

This is a good selection of Arctostaphylos patula x nevadensis from Klickitat County.

And this is another really good one from the same area, which will certainly get a name. These cuttings rooted 100%, and very quickly, which I thought was amazing. I know, I’m saying great things about all of them, but that is because I am not showing pictures of the ones that don’t look as good.

So we believe, for the most part, in naming things preemptively, which has certain advantages, the main one being it’s a lot easier to keep track of what name belongs to what plant. Nor are we alone: a lot of specialty nurseries have done this, and continue to do so. For one, we have less at stake since we are not looking to protect patent rights or invest money in trademarks to market our selections (after all, we didn’t breed these things). But perhaps more importantly, since it’s specialty horticulture, not conventional horticulture, nothing we grow is required to perform well in a wide range of climates. Although we like to emphasize plants that are easy to grow, to a point; we are also increasingly devoted to plants that may be rare in cultivation partly because they have a narrow range of tolerances. Does that sound self-contradictory? Well, what can I say: at least we write our descriptions to indicate which plants are which and give you the best chance of success!

The only thing that can potentially go wrong is the possibility that a plant might get named after someone, then prove to be generally difficult or a poor grower in cultivation, resulting in the association of that person with a poor garden plant. This concern will not stop us entirely, though: we’ll just proceed with caution. Anything remotely questionable will be named for something other than a person, and then if it doesn’t turn out to be a good plant, it can go extinct from cultivation and no one ever has to propagate it again – nothing wrong with that.

So on that note, you’ll be seeing more named selections of western and Northwest native plants coming out of our nursery in the coming months, and years. We even have a vague system in place for doing this. Collections from Washington will mostly be named for locations in Washington. This is because some people (Richard Hartlage being one, as per a presentation I heard from him in February) think we have almost no native plants with ornamental value — to which we say, “Faugh” — and we want people to start associating some of our better native plants (Arctostaphylos, Ceanothus, and Penstemon being notable examples, but not the only ones) with the great state of Washington. We shall also name certain really outstanding collections for notable plantspeople of Washington who have had an interest in them.

For Oregon and California (and someday, I hope, Arizona: I am still “Arizona dreaming” big time) we will get a little more frivolous. Sean Hogan has a system for naming his Oregon accessions for Oregon locations. We admit that we are stealing this idea from him, and applying it to Washington. But we will not intrude into his territory. We’ll be giving our Oregon and California collections fun names, mostly after songs.

A Window to the Past

So, I hope we all survived the holidays with class – I know I did. Yesterday was my 33rd birthday. Though I may now congratulate myself for having exceeded the average male lifespan in 9th century England, I’m not really old enough to call myself old, nor do I especially want to. Some of you reading this are probably like “oh, he’s still a young’un.”

So, being relatively less old than many people, I don’t exactly have a great feel for what horticulture and gardening used to be like, say, 50, or 100 years ago. And many from among the earlier generations, from whom much could potentially be learned, don’t tell me about this subject; because as the nursery business has morphed over the years many of them have inadvertently abandoned the specialty nursery market to get sucked into the boring world of conventional horticulture, and/or been deluded into buying all their plants at box stores, so our paths never cross. But whenever I manage to learn something about this topic, it’s usually interesting.

So recently I happened across a book at Goodwill, called Rhododendrons of the World, written by David Leach in 1961. At 50 years old the book is pretty much an antique, yet it was in perfect condition. With 550 thick, letter-size pages I had thought it may be worth a fair sum of money (for example, in Powells’ vintage book section, or whatever it is) though it is listed online mostly in the $30-60 range. But at Goodwill it was $4, which, I thought, was good enough for me. $4 isn’t much to part with even if I’m not really that into Rhododendrons.

Anyway, it’s a spectacular book. Every aspect of Rhododendron history, culture, and descriptions of species are spelled out in meticulous detail. Then there is an appendix at the end listing several thousand (!!) Rhododendron hybrids and their ratings and features. Intended to be comprehensive, it shows that even 50 years ago the number of Rhododendron hybrids already in existence was truly immense.

Here are some thoughts I had after spending some time with this book. It is apparent that people were really into plants and gardening then, leaving one to wonder what happened later that things seem to be so different now.

First of all, the internet and all that comes with it is definitely making people stupider. Oh, wait, did I really say that? I mean, attention spans continue to be on the wane – mine too. I can’t think of many serious horticulturists today who could read a book this long and comprehensive, let alone write one!

This book is some incredibly deep plant-geekism coming from a horticulturist. The only work that compares in scope and detail (that I can think of) that I have in my possession from the modern era would be The Grevillea Book, by Olde and Marriott. I suspect this book did not sell as well as the Rhododendron book because Grevilleas are still not widely grown outside of Australia. But more importantly, these two are trained botanists first and foremost (though I think Marriott has, or had, a nursery). I find it curious that great monographs seem to be always written nowadays by botanists, not horticulturists. Could one consider this an area of deficiency in the horticultural realm?

But you don’t just get the feeling that the author was the only one who was into Rhododendrons. Hundreds of other people are cited and many of their actions involving Rhododendrons are described. An extensive list of Rhododendron breeders and their work is provided. There is also the definite sense that this book is written to an established readership of avid horticultural fanatics. From his writing style, one gathers that he’s not trying to win anyone over to Rhododendrons: everyone just loves Rhododendrons. Nowadays you can start reading a gardening book and feel midway through that the book is still trying to sell itself. This tells me that people just aren’t that into plants or gardening anymore, in general. I sort of knew that already, but it is interesting how that fact comes through by comparing garden books now with 50 years ago.

And (did people ever stop to think? Do they now?) why Rhododendrons? That’s really a great question, considering there are so many other kinds of plants in the world. There’s no denying that the decades-long obsession with Rhododendrons has permanently influenced the gardening culture of places where they can be grown, including the Pacific Northwest. Just look around; now we have a million Rhododendrons everywhere. They’re a part of our culture we can’t shake off. You could say their popularity still hasn’t ended. Any retail nursery in the Northwest is pretty much expected to have a Rhododendron section, and usually an extensive one with an excellent variety from which to choose. You could say the “fad” continues to this day, though the excitement has diminished somewhat along with gardening in general. We are left with the remnants of a passion that we forgot we had, or why we had it. But, looking to the future, as I tend to do; I like to think that the genus Arctostaphylos, our western-native “Rhododendrons,” (think about it – they’re in the same family!) has the potential to be just as exciting.

In the back of the book were numerous appendices, including one providing a list of nurseries where you could buy Rhododendrons, including quite a few of them in the Pacific Northwest. I only recognized a couple of their names. Now you have to wonder: what happened to all those other nurseries? What did they look like in 1961? What kinds of plants did they sell? I would be intrigued to learn more about that. Sometimes the past is the key to the future. Sometimes old geezers who think young people don’t care anything about what they have to say and therefore don’t make the effort should speak up and share some of the horticultural history they keep within their memory.

Meanwhile (because it wouldn’t be a blog post from me without one really cynical paragraph) everyone in my demographic has finally abandoned World of Warcraft to try to figure out how to get into the housing market which usually involves cutting all costs not deemed as absolutely necessary. This cost-cutting means there’s no point in shopping at your independent retail nursery (let alone a mail-order or specialty nursery!) when “we all know” that the cheapest source for landscape plants is the big box.

So before it starts to sound like I’m completely rambling, I’d better attempt to tie things together. The changes I note in the last fifty years of Northwest gardening, are but a few small pieces of a much larger and complex puzzle; which involve societal change and fragmentation, globalism, changing trends, a growing discontent among younger people, a shrinking middle class, and a challenging job market and housing market.

So what does it all mean? Is the past the key to the future? I have also been at times politely critical of nurseries that seem to go on as they always have, pretending nothing has changed. What is the appropriate balance when assessing the past vs. the future of Northwest gardening and nursery culture? Now I must admit, I have no shortage of ideas and views about this (what a surprise, right?), but they’re complex enough to be worth several blog posts; so, more to come! For the present, I leave this post open-ended: I am sincerely interested to hear your thoughts.

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!

Backyard Botanical Adventure!

Although many cool plants come from exotic destinations, it is also possible to drive 35 minutes from my doorstep and reach a rather interesting site in the northeast Olympic Mountains, just up the Dungeness River. This site is certain to “wow” anyone who thinks native plants are all boring and ugly. Sure, some of them are; but there are plenty of exciting ones, and here you can find a lot of them in one spot!

So last weekend Mark and Lila, owners of Fairmeadow Nursery in Olympia, came up to visit; and we all drove to this area. We had a lot of fun looking around at the plants. Lila noted that we should return in the spring when all the wildflowers are in bloom. In addition to the plants I will show you below, there are also many little forbs, bulbous plants and other wildflowers growing here that are sure to put on an excellent show. I have never been there in the spring yet myself; it seems I am always too busy then.

The most conspicuous of these exciting plants are some truly gigantic specimens of our native Arctostaphylos columbiana (hairy manzanita). It is difficult to get a feel for the scale from this picture, but the plants are mostly 6 – 8′ tall and 10 – 20′ across or more!

There are a lot of variations in form here: my favorites include this one with large, blue leaves. There is also one with super dense growth, and another with exceptionally hairy stems and grey-green leaves (not pictured).

Good forms of Arctostaphylos x media can be found here. This natural hybrid of A. columbiana and A. uva-ursi (kinnikkinnik) exhibits considerable variation. Although mentioned as a popular Northwest garden plant back in the 1950’s, it seems to have never caught on widely, as it is still rather rare. This is unfortunate since many of these forms are great plants, and each is a little bit different.

Impressive, tree-sized junipers are found in plenty here: this is J. maritima. With this past summer having been so cool, these fruits may not ripen, and certainly not until after access to the plants are snowed in. Although marginally distinct from J. scopulorum, I consider this to be one of our more special native trees.

The juniper populations tend to be centered around these large rock outcrops where Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas-fir) and other forest trees cannot compete, resulting in sufficient light to sustain the juniper populations.

This low growing Juniperus communis var. montana occurs more widely in alpine areas and rock outcrops in the Olympic and Cascade Mountains. In the northeast Olympics it is quite common above 4,000′.

Farther up, one can find rock walls covered with Sedums, Penstemons, ferns, forbs, mosses and lichens – the ultimate no-maintenance vertical garden!

The views aren’t bad either. This is looking northeast towards Mt. Zion.

In any case, diversity may be somewhat less than what one finds in the Siskyou/Klamath bio-region, but it is still a fun area to botanize; and I seem to find something new every time I go up there. Of course, it was great to have the opportunity to share this experience with someone else who was excited about it! Following my planned return in the spring, I may have to update my Plants of the Olympic Peninsula pages.

Big web update news!!

FINALLY, for the first time in… sheesh, I can’t remember how long. Maybe ever?… the Desert Northwest Mail-Order Catalog has been updated to where it agrees in its entirety with the availability list, and everything on the list has a description! I even cross-linked everything so you can click on a plant name from the main list and get a description, as well as adding cross-links within each page of the catalog where appropriate. I still have a little more work to do, like making some inventory adjustments and adding more images. But all things considered, this is a MAJOR accomplishment especially considering the size of our inventory right now. I am aware of a few links that still don’t work (and here I’m mostly writing to myself as a reminder of what to fix) – notably most of the links on the “downloads” page and the downloadable lists under “Local Sales”. Also for some reason the Sequim webcam was offline, but it was not mine anyways. I’ll have to search around for that if it doesn’t come back. If you find other broken links besides that, I will appreciate if you let me know!

Anyhoo… check it out!!

Danger Garden Interview

Loree at Danger Garden sent me an e-mail interview about the concept and goals of the Desert Northwest. Check it out here! We are most appreciative of her efforts in getting the word out about us.

Really Miscallaneous News

I don’t usually like to randomly jump from topic to topic in just one blog post but so much is going on right now that I thought it would be fun to share some of it. You could say randomness reflects the state of our lives right now. Unlike most nurseries we always seem to be busiest in the fall. It might be 48 degrees outside but we like to pretend that summer is still going and we still have time to catch up on all the stuff that got neglected earlier in the season when we had to stay focused on potting up plants.

We are done with regional plant sales for the year, and we wish to thank everyone who came and visited, and supported us! Our second-to-last was the Northwest Perennial Alliance Sale, which was on a beautiful sunny, warm day in early September (remember those?) at Bellevue Botanic Garden. The highlight of this for me was meeting Rick Lupp of Mt. Tahoma Nursery, whose table was next to ours, and which we shall have to visit very soon. He is a great plantsman with some super plants. We were also present the Northwest Horticultural Society’s big fall plant sale. This year it was at a new location at North Seattle Community College. Despite the challenge this presented, and the tough economy, the sale still went reasonably well. Next year there will be some changes to our plant sale schedule. The next one where you will be able to find us will be the Sequim Garden Show which is the third weekend in March. We like this event a lot, and want to get the word out about it, so stay tuned for more information about that.

Our booth at the Northwest Perennial Alliance fall sale – look at those September shadows!

NHS Fall Sale after it had wound down a bit. (That red wall sure stands out, doesn’t it?)

We are fortunate to have had the chance to get out and visit other nurseries lately. One visit I particularly enjoyed was Colvos Creek Nursery, where I had the chance to chat with Mike Lee and Vor. Mike is a super-hort-hero, having founded Colvos Creek before I was born, and actually knows almost everything there is to know about growing plants in the Seattle area, and about wild plants; and is a widely acclaimed landscape architect and botanical illustrator to boot. He has been a major positive influence in getting me interested in water-wise plants and the nursery business in general. Vor I don’t know as well yet but he has been working with Mike for the last few years. It is great to see that the nursery is still kicking despite some challenges. They have had to move their production location and are now setting up all over again, but Mike emphasizes they are certainly not giving up, which is convincing since I know how much he loves plants and the nursery. They still ship mail-order as always, and remain open for retail at the Country Store on Vashon Island, too – most of the plants are actually there at the moment, where you can go and visit and you will find a lot of cool stuff you cannot get elsewhere! They are taking many more new cuttings this year in anticipation of expanding their selection next year.

A sneak peak at Mike and Vor’s cuttings including some great forms of Arctostaphylos patula and A. columbiana.

Back home, we wanted to be done building a third greenhouse by about the second week of October, but that isn’t going so well. Actually, we have barely started yet. A few years back, shortly after we moved here, I had dug some giant trenches in the ground with the backhoe to set posts, before figuring out that it was not impossible to do the job with an auger. It is going to take a while to fill these back up with posts set in them. Once that part is done the rest should go quickly enough. We hope that winter holds off until then, but if it doesn’t, there is (hopefully) just room for everything important to fit in the existing greenhouses – though it will be tight, and temporary.

If you’re considering placing an order, fall is a great time. This is because the plants we potted up in spring and summer are now well grown and rooted out. The availability list on the web site says “summer” at the moment but it is still quite up to date. We will do one final inventory for the end of the season before the end of the month, but it will be almost the same as what is on there now. Along with that I have remained ever so close to having that new catalog up to date and online. I know I have been promising to do it all year, but the thing is I have been so close all year and then more plants fill out and are ready to sell. In any case, we’re doing our best, and getting it updated remains a top priority. We have also had a few plants bloom here this fall for the first time, which is exciting, including some cacti and this spectacular Protea punctata. This ought to be one of the hardiest Protea species for outdoor trialling here, though we haven’t actually planted one out yet. It is exclusive to high altitudes in the wild and very easy to grow. We hope to have enough to offer by late summer next year.

Protea punctata in flower back in September.

In other exciting news, I have managed to get out and do some multi-day plant hunting for the first time in, oh, I can’t remember how many years. (I had done quite a few local one-day and half-day trips the last couple years but you can only get so far that way.) No, I still haven’t made it back to the Southwest – perhaps in a year or two – but there is actually plenty of exciting stuff to see much closer to home. First we went to Chelan County hunting for, among other things, Arctostaphylos patula and a stray Ceanothus prostratus far away from its home – well not really but it’s a widely disjuct occurrence, and we found it! And we managed to find some very intriguing Arctostaphylos (but no real A. patula) and other great plants. Then I took off by myself the following weekend, pretty much following the region’s best and most diverse Arctostaphylos; on a trip that led me to eastern Lewis County, Klickitat County, and Skamania County with a one-morning detour into Hood River County, Oregon. The trip was, dare I say, everything I dreamed it would be; and will result in some fabulous new introductions of awesome native manzanita species and hybrids in the pipeline for next year. I also encountered other genera such as Penstemon and Ceanothus in plenty. (And I don’t even feel bad for missing out on greenhouse-building time since on both trips the weather was far better where I went than it was back home.) I will have write-ups of both on the web site, with lots of exciting pictures, once I am sufficiently caught up with the nursery catalog – check back for that soon! – but here is a sneak peek.

This captures the exciting moment when we found Ceanothus prostratus in the Mad River basin, Chelan County. Actually Madelin saw it as I nearly drove past it!

Here’s one of many Arctostaphylos hybrids I saw with great ornamental potential, this one near Big Lava Bed, Skamania County.

On the return trip I stopped off at Cistus Nursery for a chat with Sean Hogan about (what else?) plants, and especially Arctostaphylos. Sean has amassed a fabulous collection of these with an emphasis on species and hybrids native to Oregon. Not only that, he has managed to figure out what most of them are, which isn’t easy! Sean states that this is a genus far more exciting than most people think, and deserving of wider attention and use in the Pacific Northwest, and we of course wholeheartedly agree! We also share a love for Opuntia cacti.

Sean and his Opuntias… well some of them anyways.

Finally, we wish to thank some good folks for promoting us. First, Kelly and Sue at Far Reaches Farm, who reciprocated our blog post about them with a huge promotion in their e-mail newsletter. Actually I think they must have a much larger e-mail newsletter readership than does my blog, so we sure do appreciate that! Loree at Danger Garden has also been promoting us repeatedly, for which we are very grateful. Check out a project she and a couple collaborators are working on called PlantLust, where they are working towards assimilating many sources for hard-to-find plants, including us.

Far Reaches Farm: A Plant Geek’s Fantasy!

Sometimes we put off doing things that are easy because we think we can do them anytime. For me one of those things was visiting the enigmatic Far Reaches Farm in Port Townsend, which was only 45 minutes drive away when we had the nursery in Poulsbo, and is still about 45 minutes away now that the nursery is in Sequim. So I have no excuse for not having visited a long time ago. So finally last Saturday I took advantage of the beautiful summer weather and brought the family out for my first visit to this exciting horticultural destination.

Far Reaches portrays itself as “a plant geek’s fantasy” and it’s easy to see why the moment you drive up. Anyone who thinks there’s nothing exciting going on in Northwest horticulture, and the frontier of rare and exotic new plant introductions, has obviously not been to Far Reaches, and owes himself a visit. In the past few years Far Reaches has rapidly become western Washington’s premier source for rare and interesting botanical treasures (although we like to think we have some pretty cool stuff at the Desert Northwest too!). While proprietors Kelly Dodson and Sue Milliken frequently travel abroad on botanical expeditions bringing back various treasures, they are also actively engaged in an often overlooked practice that is just as important; that is, the preservation and propagation of a wide variety of plant introductions old and new that have excellent value in Northwest gardens yet have still never caught on in general nursery commerce, remaining very scarce. There is such a broad variety of unique plants that deserve a chance in our gardens, and here you can find many of them in one place.

In addition to the extensive outdoor sales area and two or three sales greenhouses, Far Reaches also has well-established display beds full of interesting plants, including some of their unique collections, and also featuring a pond with a newly planted bog garden, a green-roof gazebo, and more. A major highlight is the shade garden, which is spread out underneath a grand-scale classic lath house, and packed full of very special and unique shade perennials, ferns, and shrubs. It is a great place to stroll or sit and relax, although I didn’t bother since I was too busy looking at all the plants. Unsurprisingly, in less than two hours I had assembled an incomparably diverse collection of goodies to bring back with me, including a handful of hardy Agaves and cacti, two Leptospermums, and a wonderfully horrendous-looking climbing Ephedra from South America. (And no more than one of each, of course!) Among Far Reaches’ collections is a large number of Kniphofia and Crocosmia varieties, and you are certain to always find an excellent selection of these for sale.

The nursery is easy to find, but hours vary so you will want to check their web site before heading out; or better yet you can subscribe to their newsletter. Although I haven’t seen the official word yet, I suspect they will be open most weekend days through September and October.

Switching gears here, I must include a quick Desert Northwest business side note: If you want to find us in the Seattle area, we will be selling plants in Seattle twice in September. On the 10th, we will be at Bellevue Botanic Garden for the Northwest Perennial Alliance fall sale, which runs from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm. We will also be at the Northwest Horticultural Society’s big fall sale, which is the 16th and 17th. It has traditionally been in the hangars at Magnusson Park but this year the sale has moved to North Seattle Community College (check the NHS web site for details!). I hope to see you there; if you’ve been following our blog stop by and introduce yourself!

Finally, here are a few more shots from my September 4th visit to Far Reaches.

Shade garden.

Lobelia tupa still doing it’s thing in September – magnificent!

Great containers.

Kelly talking to shoppers – it was pretty busy the whole time we were there.

Dragonfly Farms Nursery: here’s to abnormality!

I recently had the privilege of revisiting a very special nursery. If you haven’t been, you owe yourself a visit to Dragonfly Farms Nursery in Kingston, where according to their motto “abnormality is the normality.” And once you’re there, it’s easy to see why: you can expect to find an astounding selection of plants both common and rare, with an emphasis on way cool stuff you didn’t know you needed in your garden. Owner Heidi Kaster is a true plant nut and can tell you a lot about the plants she sells, as she has grown many of them herself in the nursery’s extensive display gardens. So it’s really not about having unusual stuff just because it’s rare – it’s about all the cool stuff that has really performed well over time and thus deserves wider use in gardens. And to that I could add, it’s not just about the plants themselves, but how they’re used: the planting beds showcase a delightful array of contrasts in color, texture, and form. So you get the idea: cool stuff, that does well here, from anywhere she can get it – it’s easy for a dedicated gardener to get lost in the nursery for a few hours.

While many nurseries are struggling to survive in this tough economy (and this year the weather isn’t helping much either), Dragonfly holds its own. I’d say this has to do with a number of factors besides just the draw of unusual and interesting plants. Perhaps most importantly it is the owner’s passion for plants and commitment to building relationships with local gardeners. Heidi remains strongly locally focused and, unlike many nurseries around here, appears to show little interest in annoying marketing schemes from worthless national mega-nurseries and branding campaigns (I don’t recall seeing any “Proven Winners” there for one. Hint, hint, other Northwest nurseries.) She also buys more from local growers more than anyone else I can think of, including us here at the Desert Northwest! Also, the nursery is well laid out and appears to operate on quite low overhead. If you’re looking for hardy Grevilleas or Banksias and live in Kitsap County, go buy them from Heidi so we can sell her some more… ha ha.

Dragonfly Farms Nursery is located at 34881 Hansville Road NE, Kingston, WA. Current hours are Thursday-Saturday 9-5 and 9-4 Sundays. For more information visit

The scope of interesting plants is far beyond what I could list, but here are a few more photos.

Carrie Blake Park, Sequim: Hell for plants?

I think I may have discovered the place of eternal torment and damnation for ill-fated plants, and it’s right here in Sequim, at the popular Carrie Blake Park. I go there with my family quite a bit to walk around and enjoy the wildlife, and so my son can play on the toys. One part of the walk is planted with native plants, and looks like this:

Looks like it has potential, right? The native plants section is planted with perhaps 15 species, some of which will be pictured below.

One of our most special native plants is Garry oak (Quercus garryana) – although common in Oregon, it is quite rare this far north. Here in Sequim we have the remnants of an outlying oak prairie, which we would think is rather special except that most of it has been destroyed as a result of urbanization or agricultural practices. Here’s one that’s managed to survive being urbanizated; in fact they cared about it enough to route Hendrickson Road around it:

As you can see they are stately large trees, looking as much like a western oak as any of the California species, yet specially adapted to the Northwest in drier areas. And because they are quite slow growing and lack bright fall colors, they have not really caught on as a popular shade tree for gardens.

So, getting back to the park, there are a number of these planted along the trail pictured above, and near the north entrance to the park. In my visits I had been enjoying watching them develop and slowly assuming their typical rugged shape. So imagine my shock one day when I was walking along the path and saw this:

That’s right, you’re looking at a Garry oak that was once full and beautiful, with almost all of its branches pruned off. But wait! It doesn’t end there:

I’m sure this one (above) was pruned slightly less severely only because some of the higher branches were out of reach.

A row of three Garry oak sticks (above). If this is a bit difficult to make out it’s because, well, there’s not much left to look at.

Here we’ve managed to prune off every last one of the side branches while retaining the forked leader – brilliant.

Sometimes Garry oaks grow with multiple trunks, so it’s great that the natural form of this specimen has been, shall we say, emphasized.

Welcome to stumpytown, ye sad little trees.

The mad pruner strikes again!

Even Oregon ash is not immune to this treatment.

The funny thing is this pruning tactic is not achieving its desired end, which I can only suppose is to direct growth to the top of the tree. These trees are fighting to live by sprouting branches all along the trunk. These goofy looking sticks are about to look even goofier, like columnar little oak pom-poms, or something like that.

Let’s take a look at the other side of this path. Overall this seems like someone’s well-intentioned concept was poorly executed. This site appears to have heavily compacted, poor soil. I’m guessing this was planted with the usual “native plants require no care” mentality which really isn’t as true as most people think.

Here (above) is one of several flame maples (Acer ginnala) that is obviously under stress – note the numerous shoots arising from the base, and dead branches. I may be wrong, but if I had to guess I’d say the soil was probably not amended when this was planted. This is a challenge for balled and burlapped trees, even native species. Think about it: if a tree has half its roots cut off when harvested from its site of production, wouldn’t it need to be babied along a little bit at planting time? Of course, there may be something else going on here as well; I didn’t look closely at it.

Kinnikkinnik (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) was heavily used here, but did not look good with extensive dead patches. I have to wonder if these plants were from a natively sourced kinnikkinnik, or a cultivar such as ‘Massachusetts’ which is poorly suited to our dry summers. Again I don’t claim to have the answer but my suspicions are aroused.

Evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) is a great plant but it hates compacted soils. This was one of the better ones – many were stone dead (could someone have thought to remove dead plants from the planting before taking the time to slice and dice oak trees? Anyway…). Actually, a lot of our native plants will handle dry soils, but not compacted, dry soils. Additionally, when many native plants seed themselves in nature, they have the advantage of being able to quickly put down a very long taproot from an early age to ensure a constant moisture supply from the subsoil, an option not available to containerized plants that are planted out with branching root systems. In the background you can see some rather stumpy looking Mahonias which are making it but not really thriving. This planting illustrates very well that even native plants are not 100% tough and care free, and sometimes need a little help.

And then we have this random European birch (Betula pendula) tree. Why? I don’t know. It’s neither native nor drought tolerant. Actually, I think birches are among the worst possible choices for dry-summer Northwest gardens, and vastly overused here in general. Yeah, I know we have a native one, but even it still isn’t appropriate for dry sites like this. (Looking closely you can also see two more dead evergreen huckleberry plants in this picture.)

One plant that has actually performed well in this setting is this excellent form of our native Arctostaphylos x media, which combines flower and leaf appearance, vigor, and adaptability as well as I have ever seen with this hybrid.

In other parts of the park, one wonders if caretakers have heard of the term mulch. If you’re a balled an burlapped tree with half your roots cut off, imagine trying to get established competing against this much grass, and with no summer water.

Here’s the top of the tree – not looking good.

Again, an investment has been made but is not being well cared for.

This tree on close examination was obviously planted at least a few inches too deeply. It’s really a waste of money and effort to just plunk things into the ground without proper planting knowledge for things to survive and grow.

You can see that the base of the trunk was covered right up. One little branch of this poor tree is still trying to live!

This tree is certainly alive, and doesn’t look half bad on top, but has obviously been a repeat victim of “weedwhacker blight.”

On the same tree we have this really splendid pruning cut.

To line the south entrance to the park, purple leaf plums have been chosen. Unfortunately, their visual impact suffers from the fact that you can about see right through them.

Purple leaf plums are among my least favorite trees (though, I acknowledge, some cultivars are worse than others). In general, they only do something interesting for about a week and a half in spring when they are in bloom, and then look ugly the whole rest of the year. They have poor form and many of them seem to be pest and disease magnets.

And three random cherry trees. I’m not sure why. At least they look better than the plums.

Many of the flowering cherry trees in the park are in poor health, though. For example, Mr. Mad Pruners might have expended a little effort on this one, like, right at the base.

Another example of great design, poor planting choice – this worthless Nandina ‘Plum Passion’. This is one of many plants that has obviously been developed for impulse appeal at the nursery rather than long term performance in the landscape (the subject of a future blog post!).

The lack of upkeep in this meditation garden would probably not make Sequim’s sister city in Japan proud. The only thing to meditate about is how long it would take to pull all those weeds out of it.

This extensive planting is almost well done if a bit too orderly and unnatural for my taste.

As you can see, Monsanto-manufactured RoundUp remains the weed control method of choice. Although I suppose things would be worse if they just let everything go.

In places this planting perhaps seems to have some potential. But perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to note that Euphorbia myrsinites, which reseeds itself freely in Sequim, is a Class B noxious weed in Washington State.

This is new. I’d call this really a colossal waste. Any of these that manage to survive the summer will be eaten by deer this winter. Even from a design standpoint, this would still bother me if better plants were chosen. No further comment.

Nearby is posted this sign showing plans for a large undeveloped area. Click to enlarge.

A close up of the garden plan (click to enlarge). Not to be rude or anything but to me this looks like the confused, uninspired bastard child of a bunch of people’s competing interests. (But then that is pretty much how the City of Sequim functions in general, as far as I can tell from reading the paper.) The space allocated for each concept/section is insufficient to effectively demonstrate any of them well. And why reduce “drought tolerant” to one small area? Why not have the whole thing be drought tolerant – or at least most of it? Perhaps more importantly, shouldn’t the whole thing be deer proof? Who’s going to stand guard to protect all the other plantings from voracious naughty Bambis?

Well I’ve probably gone on long enough about that. Now to some positive news. First, it should be noted that not all of the trees and plantings in the park are dead, ugly, or abused. A proportion of them, even including some newer trees, are healthy and look great.

Also, I really like this:

Under each of those little cages grows, we hope, a little Garry oak (the cages must be to protect them from loppers-wielding Sequim city maintenance workers). You can also see more of the remnant of the Sequim Prairie oaks on the hillside behind them. I’m curious to know whether the restoration area was in fact previously oak prairie, as the soil there appears to be more moist than they usually prefer. The grasses there look nothing like the dry bunchgrasses of a true oak prairie – it’s going to take a lot more work to restore this area fully if indeed that is the goal of those behind this project. One other thing that would be nice to know is whether these oaks were in fact sourced from Sequim Garry oak populations, or brought up from Oregon, which would be less ideal. (The Northwest oak prairie, by the way, is not an entirely natural construct: they have largely persisted from the Holocene warm period (c. 5,000 – 9,000 years ago) when our climate was warmer and drier, by the repeated controlled burning practiced by Native Americans who used the Camas that grew on these prairies. Left to itself this ecosystem would have been out-competed by native conifers long ago.)

My take: the city of Sequim needs to hire someone with true qualifications in horticulture including at least an associates degree in horticulture and CPH (certified professional horticulturist) status, and preferably some formal training in botany so that person will actually have a clue how plants grow. (I have no idea who is responsible for this – perhaps someone was just doing as they were instructed by someone higher up – but if they ever studied horticulture I can’t recommend their place of study!) With a major overhaul in the management of Carrie Blake Park including knowledgeable caretakers, and a lot of luck, perhaps what looks like a plant hell now will someday prove only to be plant purgatory.

Cacti: they’re not just for weird people

I’m debating whether I’ve given up on bringing cacti to plant sales. They never sell well and people always give me funny looks. “Ooh cacti, well we don’t live in a desert.” “I don’t want something prickly like that in my garden” (says the shopper carrying a barberry). I find it curious that, broadly speaking, Northwest gardeners may be interested in a wide variety of plants; but they are decidedly NOT into cacti, even those that are perfectly hardy, and easy to grow. In general cacti are viewed as novelty items. Something to just have one of in a pot, if that. Something that only weird people collect or use in gardens. Because this isn’t Tucson. Or so they say.

I also hear quite a bit of, “I don’t want a xeriscape, because I don’t want my yard to be full of prickly cacti and succulents!” or “I don’t want my yard to look like the desert!” This one really bothers me. First of all, a xeriscape need not be composed of cacti and succulents, since there are many drought tolerant plants that are not cacti or succulents, and if you really don’t like them, you don’t have to use them at all – there are plenty of other choices. Second, and more importantly: why would anyone not want a garden full of cacti and succulents? This is truly beyond my comprehension. Of course they’re prickly; just don’t plant them in the wrong place, and don’t tell me you’ve never planted anything prickly. A xeriscape also does not have to look like a desert: done right, it can look quite lush. But anyway, what’s wrong with deserts? Deserts are an important part of the world ecosystem. Wouldn’t things be a lot less interesting if there were no deserts?

The fact is cacti are great plants. They are suitable for dry, harsh sites with difficult soils where little else will grow. They seldom need water. They make beautiful flowers, and the deer don’t eat them. If you think cacti are unsuited to the Northwest’s “rainy” climate, well, there are cacti, and there are cacti; but on the whole, this is untrue. It’s true that many cacti will only grow in the desert, or in tropical climates. But I can list off the top of my head more than 50 cactus species that (provided adequate drainage) will RELIABLY perform in the Northwest, including colder gardens.

But it is not just about their performance – cacti truly belong here, as an important part of our flora. You can drive to all kinds of places in North America and encounter cacti. While they’re most prominent in the Southwest, native cacti also occur in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, Massachusetts, and British Columbia, and everywhere in between! (Tell me again why they won’t grow in the Northwest?) Everywhere you look cacti associate with our native plants. Yet when it comes to planting our gardens, we neglect this association, preferring to leave the cacti out of it. Cacti are a part our native flora. A part of living in the West. A part of dryland gardening. There’s no justification for thinking of them as weird or inappropriate. There’s no reason to marginalize them as “odd” or “novelty items”. We should readily incorporate them into our gardens where appropriate, just like anything else.

I admit it’s possible to see how this has happened. The Cactaceae family has a very unique set of morphological features and adaptations resulting in a distinctive appearance differentiating them markedly from most other plants. Their frequent association with deserts is a natural result of their ability to adapt to dry and hot conditions. So while the Northwest can grow many cacti well, it’s true that Tucson can grow all of them, and many more, just as well or better. Maybe I need to be patient because the education curve is steeper on this subject than usual.

I should mention that we are on track to restore and increase our offerings of hardy cacti in the future, particularly Opuntia species and forms. We have an extensive collection of them but they have been neglected for a long time and we have not been able to make many of them available for sale yet. Look for an ever increasing selection of hardy cacti from us as time goes on!

If you’re just getting interested in cacti, here is a list of ten species I can recommend to start with. Remember not to plant them in a swamp.

Opuntia fragilis – native to much of the US and southern Canada, including western Washington
Opuntia polyacantha – many variable forms, native throughout the western US as far north as Northwest Territories
Opuntia compressa – native to the eastern US
Opuntia basilaris – beautiful flowers and “beaver tail” pads
Opuntia phaecantha – native to Four Corners area, big pads and flowers
Echinocereus coccineus
Echinocereus fendleri
Echinocereus triglochidiatus – forms an impressive mound of columns, lots of flowers, pretty much indestructible.
Escobaria vivipara – grows throughout the intermountain west, as far north as Alberta
Gymnocalycium bruchii – very tiny, native to South America, hardy to zone 6 (5 if dry)

Opuntia polyacantha, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Tacoma

Opuntia phaecantha (or something similar) in open pine forest, Gila National Forest, New Mexico. This area receives heavy snow every winter.

Groundcover Banksias

So how about a post about plants? Fancy that. Long overdue, I know.

Our Banksia repens specimen on display at the WSNLA garden at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show seems to have generated quite a bit of attention, as people are still talking about it, as in: what a weird plant! I’ve never seen one before. I didn’t know it could grow here. You can’t grow that here. Where did they get it? Well I can answer the last question: I grew it from a seed in 2005, which came from Nindethana Seed Service.

As for the other questions, well, here’s what I know: certainly not everything. There are six species of groundcover Banksia that spread in this rather bizarre fashion of completely prostrate and sometimes underground stem growth, big leathery leaves sticking up from the ground, and flowers that also appear to arise from the ground itself, sometimes out ahead of the foliage. These are B. repens, B. blechnifolia (the foliage of which really does resemble a Blechnum fern), B. gardneri, B. goodii, B. chamaephyton, and B. petiolaris. All of these are native to Western Australia, which has a similar climate to ours in that summers are dry and winters are relatively wet, but it is somewhat warmer year-round. Nevertheless some of them seem to have impressive (considering their Western Australian origin) frost tolerance. B. blechnifolia has survived unharmed down to the upper teens in a Grants Pass, Oregon Garden, where summer temperatures are probably very close to what it is accustomed to in the wild. In this same garden, B. repens survived 12°F in the December 2009 freeze with only a bucket over it for protection, which I consider to be quite impressive. This species is generally regarded as less hardy than B. blechnifolia in Australia, but who knows?

And that is about all we know, as the other species have not been tried in the Northwest that I know of. In other words, quite a bit of experimentation remains to be done with them to find out just what they can tolerate. I’m not really planning on any of them to be hardy enough for general use by normal people; rather, they’re fun subjects for the adventurous gardener with the perfect sheltered corner and excellent drainage. They have a reputation for not handling wet summers too well, so it’s “no summer water, please” once established. Imagine one creeping along a raised gravel bed at the corner of a driveway… or on the west side of a house with a stone foundation… hmm…

A few other groundcover Banksias that might be considered more “conventional” in habit (i.e. branches above ground) are also known. These tend to be forms of species that generally grow upright, but are also known as prostrate or low-growing plants in a few restricted parts of their range in the wild: B. media, B. spinulosa, B. integrifolia, B. serrata, and probably a few others. I’d be surprised if there’s not a groundcover form of B. marginata out there somewhere, and I’d sure like to grow it as B. marginata is one of the hardiest species, and it is certain to be a good garden plant. (B. marginata ‘Mini Marg’ is a nice low, spreading form but as it appears to grow 2′ tall doesn’t quite qualify as a “groundcover.”) There’s a photo on the web of a nearly prostrate B. canei ‘Celia Rosser’ with commentary that it may be extinct in cultivation. If that’s true, well, what a pity.

We hope to make B. blechnifolia, B. repens, and perhaps B. gardneri available for sale over the next year or two. Stay tuned! We also have managed to procure the prostrate form of B. serrata, which is rather exciting; but I’m not sure when I’ll manage to produce any for sale.

A quick reminder: don’t forget to visit us at the Bloedel Premier Plant Sale coming up April 16 – 17. If we have been talking it up quite a bit, well so have they – in fact, they told us to “bring a lot of plants” (like we weren’t going to do that anyways?) since they are expecting a huge turnout. I guess we’ll find out! In any case, it sounds like it ought to be exciting.

Here’s a quick sampling of information about groundcover Banksias on the web. There’s lots more out there if you search. Enjoy.
Banksia repens
Banksia blechnifolia
Banksia gardneri
Banksia petiolaris
Banksia goodii
Banksia marginata ‘Mini Marg’
Banksia canei ‘Celia Rosser’

Banksia repens at UCSC Arboretum, Santa Cruz, California.

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