THE PAST: 1969-1970, Tongdu-Cheon, Korea. In those days, The Republic of Korea was an impoverished nation, still recovering from the war. I was in charge of an Army education center for the 7th Infantry Division. The complex consisted of four large Quonset huts staffed by Korean nationals. Showing even the slightest interest in anything Korean among the employees brought out a national and cultural pride I’d never seen anywhere. I learned that the oldest surviving astronomical observatory in Asia (and possibly the world) is in Gyeongju, dating back to the seventh century. Sejong the Great, who reigned from 1418 to 1450, created Hangul, changing written Korean from Chinese characters to a 24 letter alphabet (10 vowels, 14 consonants). The legendary naval admiral Yi Sun-Sin defeated the invading Japanese in 1592 with an iron clad battle ship, known in English as the Turtle Ship. The impressive list rolls on through history.
In August of my first year, I expressed interest in starting a little garden of native plants in front of the education center. The suggestion was met with jubilation. We chose a plot of ground between the center’s entry and the road. We dug an oval about 10 feet wide and 30 feet long. One by one, volleyball-size river rocks began arriving to encircle the plot. I vetoed the idea of painting them white. I’d seen too much of that growing up, white stones around a flower bed planted with geraniums and petunias, zinnias or marigolds. It looked like a burst of flowers coming out of a mouthful of dentures. It made me shudder.
By October, it was time to plant what shrubs and trees we could bring in from the surrounding mountains, first among them a rhododendron mucronulatum, which, in the following April, would explode in a glorious display of pink blossoms on its bare deciduous branches. Mid-November of that year, someone arrived with a battered tub filled with a Korean fir (Abies Koreana). The perfectly symmetrical little conifer had short plump needles of dark waxy green that were gleaming silver on the underside. We kept it outside, decorated it for the holidays, then planted it in the oval on an unseasonably warm day in early January. I’d never seen a more beautiful conifer, and it did more to hearken memories of Christmas at home than anything that season.
THE PRESENT: Walking through Madison Park recently, I was startled when, at some distance, I saw a conifer that caught the light and shimmered in a silvery glow. On closer inspection, I saw it had conical cones that stood upright on the branches, like chubby candles, between 3 and 4 inches tall and half as wide. It was a Korean fir. I felt I’d run into a young adult whom I’d known and loved as a child. In his book, “Trees of Seattle,” Arthur Lee Jacobson lists eight Korean firs spotted around the city. I’d only seen this plant on this side of the Pacific one other time but knew that those cones, which were dark brown at this point, had started out a vivid purplish blue. The tree was about 20 feet tall, 10 feet wide (half to two-thirds its mature height). The evenly spaced limbs were horizontal, branching out and swooping up a bit at the ends. The dense covering of short needles stood straight up. In size, form and texture, it was as good a conifer as I’ve ever seen for an inner city garden. Best of all, it blocked the view of a telephone pole and distanced the house behind it from the street without robbing an inordinate amount of light from the rest of the little entry garden. I wondered why this impeccable conifer hasn’t been used in gardens all over the city. It is well suited to our climate.
THE FUTURE: Heretofore, so much has come to the West from Japan and China, it has been easy to overlook the gifts from what was formerly referred to as a third world country — Korea. No more. The united efforts of its stalwart people have now filled American lives with the likes of Samsung, Celltrion, Kia and Hyundai. Korean films light up our screens and sweep awards ceremonies. Suddenly, Korean restaurants are in vogue. Few are the sophisticated diners who don’t know and savor kimchi. Witness our relatively new neighborhood restaurant, Hanok, at 4021 E. Madison St. The food is exquisite. With this growing recognition of things Korean, it follows that Korean plants are, at last, catching the eye of horticulturalists.
In cruising the Internet, I see a number of reputable wholesalers and some retailers carrying Korean fir. It should not be hard to find or order. There are a few named varieties, chosen and registered for variations in their foliage, their growth habit and, I’d speculate, the vigor of their cone crops.
So here’s my Christmas gift to our readers. Add a touch of the exotic, the relatively undiscovered, and something quite perfect, to your holiday garden. Grace your deck or entry with a potted Abies Koreana, then plant it out, as spring meanders up the globe. You’ll be enchanted by it for a life time. Charge forth with the wisdom of Sejong The Great, the intrepid adventurousness of Yi Sun-Sin and the innocent curiosity of a GI who became besotted with the plants, indeed all things, of Korea. You might even surround the planting bed with large roundish rocks. Just don’t paint them white.
Happy holidays! Merry Christmas! Happy new year!