An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

September 11, 2015

Christmas Trees

     Years before my parents retired, they purchased a piece of land from my uncle on which they would eventually build a new house. The property was bordered by a freshwater pond, salt marsh, a scruffy brackish woodland, and acres of farmland, all within in earshot of the Atlantic. The land that wasn't wet or water was wide open and treeless. While the house was still a dream, they began planting trees, mainly pines, cedars, and an assortment of fruit trees. When I began my life in horticulture I started giving them trees for Christmas, each year something different, and something I wanted to grow myself, but didn't have the room for.

     One of the first trees I gave them was a blue Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca'). I got this tree from the first garden center I ever worked for, and when I planted the tree, it had a distinct curve in the trunk, which I thought looked artistic, but it eventually grew straighter. Over the past few years the sapsuckers have managed to put it into a bit of a decline. The tree to the right front of the cedar is a fruitless sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua 'Rotundiloba'). I came across this cultivar while working for another garden center, and thought surely it would be a great seller, but was wrong.
Liquidambar styraciflua 'Rotundiloba' and Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca'

     Another early tree was a London planetree (Platanus x acerifolia), which was planted to shade their deck, and from which its handsome bark and bone-like winter structure could be admired. Despite a little late-summer foliage funk every other year or so, it has done very well and is now beginning to tower over the house.
Platanus x acerifolia

Platanus x acerifolia (1)

Platanus x acerifolia (2)

     When it looked as if the garden center where I first worked was getting ready to fold, I got a job at one of the big box stores as a Plant Specialist. As it turned out, Plant Specialist meant someone who spends more time schlepping bags of mulch, fence panels, and concrete blocks from one place to another, then he does specializing in plants. While I worked there I purchased three crapemyrtles labeled as Natchez, envisioning a space, sometime in the future, underneath three mature and identical trees. The years progressed. and it became apparent that one of the trees was not Natchez. As it was, this big box store did not survive the onslaught of Home Depot and Lowe's, probably in no small part for selling mislabelled plants.
Lagerstroemia (4)

Lagerstroemia (1)

Lagerstroemia (3)

Lagerstroemia (2)

     While I was still working at the big box store, I wanted to get my parents a ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), but we had already sold all of our nursery stock at stupid low prices, and literally tossed what didn't sell into the dumpster per my boss's instructions, to make room for cut Christmas trees. So I drove way out into the country to a garden center where I was told you could get anything, including ginkgoes. I fell in love with the place and got a job there the next year.
Ginkgo biloba

     While I worked there I came across many unusual trees, including a dawn redwood with golden foliage (Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Ogon'). It once had a single trunk, but male deer, rubbing their antlers turned it into a multi-stemmed shrub. I still like it though.
Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Ogon'

     While at the garden center in the country, the owner had a yard sale of sorts, and I was able to pick up a variegated zelkova (Zelkova serrata 'Variegata') for a good price. Overall, it has never done that well, but on close inspection, the foliage looks nice. At my new job I am beginning to curse this species, as I am needing to pull its seedlings like so many dandelions.
Zelkova serrata 'Variegata'

Zelkova serrata 'Variegata' (2)

     One of our big sellers at the garden center in the country was Chindo viburnum (Viburnum awabuki 'Chindo'). Technically it's a shrub, and this post is about trees, but this plant has reached a tree-like height next to my parent's chimney.
Viburnum awabuki 'Chindo'

    One year at the garden center in the country, we gave away free trees with a coupon. I got in several hundred bare-root saplings from the state forestry department, and we potted them into 1 gallon pots. We had several species, but everyone's favorite were the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum). Even though I had the pick of the crop, the one I got for my parents was barely wider than a pencil when it was planted. Now it is lush and full, and every bit a healthy, still-young tree, and a fine example of one of my favorite species.
Taxodium distichum (1)

Taxodium distichum (2)

     Over the last few years, I have had to switch to Christmas shrubs and Christmas perennials. You can only put so many trees in a yard before you turn it into a forest, though that's not necessarily a bad thing.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Les! The retrospective of your experience with trees and your gifts to your parents is interesting and refreshing. The photos of the Crape Myrtle bark are fabulous. I can't grow them here, but I remember seeing some wonderful specimens of various colors in Branson, Mo., when we were there for a family reunion a few years ago. My favorite in this post, though, is the Bald Cypress. There's just something about the form of foliage and the tree, itself, that I find very appealing.

  2. There's something very satisfying about this story. I think it's your subdued humor.

  3. Lucky parents, and great species selection!

  4. There is nothing like giving the gift of a tree: it keeps on giving.
    What a lovely place for you to visit and see them mature over the year. The dogs seem to be loving it too.

  5. I marvel that you remember each tree's story. My favourite is the tree rubbed by the Deer's antlers. BTW Les, several of your images are "broken" starting with the Ginko one.