Friday, May 20, 2011

Picking Out the Pines

Do you have trouble telling one conifer from another? Do pines, cedars, firs and spruces all look the same to you? Well, after you read this post, you'll be able to tell the pines, at least, from all the others.

Here's how: pay attention to evergreen trees in your neighborhood this week. You'll notice that some of them have new shoots emerging from the tips of their branches that look like fingers pointing toward the sky.

These shoots look as if the tree is making the kind of rude gestures that humans do when they've been cut off in traffic. But don't take this personally, because these "fingers" are simply the beginnings of this year's growth for the pine tree. No other conifer produces shoots that look like these, so when you see them, you know the tree is a pine.

Over the next few weeks, these shoots, called "candles," will grow longer and shortly after that, new needles will appear along them. Depending on the type of pine, this will add anywhere from one to eighteen inches to the size of the tree.

You'll notice that some pines have white candles. (My guess is that these white shoots are what inspired people to start calling them candles.)

And that some have yellow candles. But they all work the same way.

You can shape a pine tree over the years by pinching the candles to stop or slow the growth of a branch. If you don't want a branch to add any new growth for the year, cut the candle completely off. If you want it to add some growth, but not too much, cut off just a portion of the candle. This technique is used in formal Asian gardens to train pines into a specific shapes.

As a bit of pine trivia, you might be interested in the fact that pine trunks offer a sort of record of the amount of rainfall from year to year. If you look closely at the tree on the left, you can see that there's bare trunk for several inches, then a whorl of branches, then more bare trunk, another whorl of branches, and so on. The distance from one whorl to the next is one year's growth. In rainy years, the trees grow more and the distance between whorls is longer; in drier years, it is shorter.

There are many pine varieties that grow well in the Seattle area. If you want to know more about them, the Sunset Western Garden Book has a lengthy section on types, growth rates, habits and more.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Favorite Plants: Solomon's Seal

One of my favorite woodland plants is beginning to unfurl in my garden right now. It is Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum odoratum).

This herbaceous perennial (herbaceous meaning that the foliage dies down in fall; perennial meaning that it comes back year after year) is always one of those great surprises in the garden in spring. Even though I know where it is planted, it is astonishing to see it rise up out of the ground in just a matter of days, from little pointy "noses" barely poking out of the soil to 4 foot tall arching stems.
The underside of the stems is lined with double rows of bell-shaped flowers that are slightly fragrant. The flowers fade in time, but the arching stems continue to grace the garden until late October, when the leaves turn yellow and fall, and the stems die back.

Solomon's Seal likes shady, woodland garden settings. The cultivar, 'Variegatum,' has white edges on the leaves and its stems are dark red when they first emerge.

This plant spreads via underground rhizomes. To propagate, divide clumps in early spring. You'll need a sharp shovel for this job, as the root/rhizome balls are dense.

This plant is in the same family (Liliaceae) as the Northwest native, False Solomon's Seal, but not in the same genus. If you are looking for the native at local nurseries, the botanical name is Smilacina racemosa. The plants are easy to tell apart when they are in flower. False Solomon's Seal has a conical spray of tiny white flowers at the end of each stem and no flowers under the stems. Without flowers, the plants look very similar.