All Shades of Green—-A Plant Perspective

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Washington’s Best Kept Secret

This is what people think about Washington—It rains all the time, the skies are always gray, everything is gray, we all wear gray polar fleece and disappear into the fog, hibernating most of the winter.  Don’t let out our little secret, but this is what it’s really like in Washington in January.  There are flowers, bright and beautiful, teasing us out of winter. I just took these pictures today at the Washington Park Arboretum and I wish somehow I could capture their scents with a photograph.  It was brilliance! Sweeter than sweet. Sparkling and rich. Delightful, fresh and transforming. Unforgettable love at first scent.

Which winter flower is your favorite?


Baby Monkey

Monkey Puzzle Tree Seedling

Monkey Puzzle Tree Seedling

Now that I’m working at the Horticultural Program at Lake Washington Institute of Technology I have access to a greenhouse.  The students grow all types of crops, from vegetables to fuchsia baskets to perennials.  The season is in full swing and I’ve been learning a lot about greenhouse growing.  Everything is different inside.  Watering and controlling pests and diseases takes on a new perspective from inside a 65F greenhouse.  Some of the students have been trying to germinate the seeds of Araucaria araucana, the Monkey Puzzle tree.  It took about two months, but just a few of them have begun to sprout, and they are so cute!  Tiny little baby monkeys coming from a surprising seed.  This tree is so pokey and sharp that it was said to  be a puzzle for a monkey to climb it.  I first met this tree in Spreckels Park in central California.  It grows directly over the childrens playground and not a good tree for tender little feet.  The branches dry up and fall off onto the sand and are as sharp as a knives.  A dangerous tree in that respect.  It’s also rather pokey in the nursery and best handled with care.  The monkey puzzle tree is dioecious and has separate male and female trees with the female producing edible nut-like seeds.  Unfortunately, this tree is listed as endangered in it’s native Chile due to fire, logging and grazing.

Just the Facts
Araucaria araucana    Monkey Puzzle Tree or Chilean Pine
Height 50-80 (15-24m)
Width 20-30 (6-9m)
Zones 7-10
Full sun
Native to Chile and Argentina


Bike in Tree

Click the link below to read the fascinating story of the bicycle in the woods! This is a good bit of sleuthing by author Eric Johnson from Komo News in Seattle.  Has anyone ever seen a tree grow around an object like this?


Bike in Tree on Vashon Island, Washington

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Magnolia and Bees

Here is a reminder of summer, when the sun was bright and the bees were buzzing.  This is a Magnolia grandiflora, which blooms in summer and has a sweet scent, drawing in both bees and people.


Winter Interest Plants

On a recent early morning outing to the Bellevue Botanical Gardens I enjoyed seeing the winter garden.  The plants that really stood out for me were the grasses.  Most were drying and golden brown, but the texture and shape was outstanding.  While many plants drop their leaves and disappear below the frosty substrate, the grasses are standing tall.  They are moving and sparkling in the sunlight.  It seems as if the earth is inhaling and exhaling, like the air rushing out of the a whale’s blowhole.  The earth is spouting grasses!  They haven’t melted into the earth, but rather are upright and true, greeting the distant winter sun.

Other plants were noticeable for their berries, fruit or flowers. Camellias are a sure bet for the winter, but I was surprised to see this Daphne still in bloom.  The rose hips were shiny and bright and are a great point of winter interest.  These were from a white rugosa rose.

Finally, winter would not be complete without the beautiful and graceful silhouette of a Japanese Maple.  Normally hidden from view, winter is the time to admire the searching stems and breathless branches of Acer palmatum, one of my favorite trees.

Japanese Maple

Japanese Maple


Swedish Aspen


Fall color is always striking against a deep blue sky and this Swedish Aspen is a great example.  Populus tremulus ‘Erecta’ is a columnar tree, growing 40 feet high and 10 feet wide (12x3m).  It thrives in zones 2-8 and grows best in full sun.


Bald Cypress—The Theory on Knees

This summer, while wandering through the beautiful VanDusen Gardens in Vancouver, British Columbia, I saw the remarkable bald cypress, complete with knees.   I had written a short post on Deciduous Conifers previously, and had always wanted to see this tree, and especially those knees!  There are theories swirling all around about the purpose of the knees.  Could these projections of the roots act as a support and stabilization for trees that grow near water?  That seems a likely theory.  Or perhaps they aid in oxygen absorption?  Possibly.  Others theorize that the knees provide nutrients to the tree.  Hmmm, maybe.  Well, I have a few theories of my own:*

1. As the knees rise up through the soil they aerate and loosen the dirt, providing a healthier environment for beneficial microbes which help the tree grow. Go mycorrhizae!

2. The projections surround the tree like a barricade, creating a defense or fortification against browsing animals and unwelcome intruders.  Booby-traps to trip the unwary.

3. Taxodium was jealous of Metasequoia who has armpits, so it grew knees.  Much more elegant.

4. The knees are allelopathic, secreting a secret substance around the base of the tree and inhibiting germination of unwanted plants.  No competition allowed.

5. These attractive knobs are really a distraction and a diversion from the real show which is happening in the treetops.  The tree wants us to keep our eyes on the ground, focused on these lovely little bumps instead of looking up to where the real activity is taking place.  Unfortunately for us, the tree has succeeded and no one knows what’s going on in the leafy treetops because we’re ogling the knees all the time.  You won this one tree!

6. Living furniture.  The forest gnomes and fairies have created tiny seats by using their woodland magic to call up the knees out of the earth.  You can often find remnants of pixie dust on the bark.

7. Communication.  The tree is sending up the knees in a complex mathematical pattern, which, if we could only interpret it, would probably be a profound message from the universe.  Alas, at this point in our evolution it’s way beyond our understanding.

8.  Tree song.  When centered in the middle of the knees, very close to the trunk, a person can sing the tree song of an individual Taxodium by reading the knee notes, indicated by the height and width of the knees.  Unfortunately this type of music has been lost to modern scholars.  Only a few existing tree notes have been preserved and these are etched into a fossilized knee found in the swamps of South Carolina.  Do re mi fa so la tree do!

9. Tree fun.  It just feels good.  Vanity.  It just looks good.

10. Lighting.  The bio-luminescent algae from the swamp form a symbiotic relationship with the Taxodium knees, creating a soft evening glow to light the way for the nesting warblers which carve their home into the knees, keeping them free of bothersome pests.  The circle of life.

*All theories are based on a complete lack of evidence and the wild imagination of the author.

Just the Facts
Taxodium distichum   Bald Cypress
50-70′ (15-21m) High 20-30′ (6-9m) Wide
Zones 4-11
Deciduous conifer of pyramidal habit
Attractive reddish brown fibrous bark
Grows best with plenty of moisture, but adaptable to many soil conditions. Grows in swamps in its natural habitat
Full sun
When planted by water, knees will form in the shallow water at the lake’s edge and seldom on the land side.

‘Peve Minaret’ is a variety with a tight, upright dense habit to 10 feet (3m).  Closely spaced needles and large fattened trunk on small tree create a beautiful specimen.  Easily pruned.


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