Tree Talk: Travels with a Monterey pine

Tree Talk: Travels with a Monterey pine

Tree Talk: Travels with a Monterey pine

It’s fascinating how a drop of information, an idea, can lead to an ocean of knowledge. The drop rolls into a stream, the stream flows into a river, then a bigger, faster moving river, and suddenly you find yourself sailing the high seas of liberal education.

Such was the case recently for me with the Monterey pine (Pinus radiata). I invite you to join me on my journey.

My friend and trusted copy editor Aubin stopped over to watch the recent golf tournament at Pebble Beach, California. Knowing that I didn’t give a hoot about the 30-foot eagle putt that sealed Daniel Berger’s victory (he won over $1.4 million), Aubin wisely decided to point out something to placate me.

“Look at those beautiful Monterey pines behind the green,” he said.

Now I’m interested. I’ve seen them in their native Monterey Bay habitat and thought them to be beautiful trees. Then I wondered, are they adaptable to the Pacific Northwest? So, I went to the books: Sunset’s Western Garden Book, Bailey’s Hortus Third and a few more.

According to the books, Monterey pines are fast growing to a height of 80 to 100 feet, with a spread of 35 or more feet, statuesque in form. The massive limbs reach out and up. The tree is deep rooted, the needles are bright green, 3 to 7 inches long, with handsome, 3- to 6-inch cones. The bark is deeply fissured, dark gray-brown.

Beyond that, there’s not much about them, except that in California, they are plagued with pine pitch canker, introduced from the American southeast. The disease is spread by bark beetles. This was followed by a very interesting note. Introduced to New Zealand in 1859, Monterey pines represent 89 percent of that country’s plantation forests, including the Kaingaroa Forest, one of the largest planted forests in the world on the central plateau of the North Island, at about the 39th parallel south. This makes sense. Pebble Beach is at about the 37th parallel north.

But would this tree grow in Seattle? Other California natives are readily adaptable to our climate, in fact they flourish: redwoods, Sequoias, Ceanothus to name a few.

Next stop, as I navigated these tributaries of knowledge, was Arthur Lee Jacobson’s monumental inventory: Trees of Seattle. Sure enough! Arthur lists seven Monterey pines, one less than half a block north of Bert’s Red Apple on 41st East, west side. So, off I went.

Wow! The tree is magnificent. It stands regally in front of a house that I suspect is a remodeled original Madison Park “cottage.” That would put it in the late 19th, early 20th century.

Planted when the house was young, this tree is likely over a century old. It appears to be in vibrant health. I happened upon a next door neighbor, Scott.

“We love the tree! It gives us great shade,” he said. “It’s a screen between us and Madison Street. It drops lots of needles and cones, but it’s well worth it.”

Then Scott went on to tell me that there was a twin pine in what is now his front yard, but it was lost during construction when a new house was put on the lot.

At this point, I’m thinking about the pine pitch canker and bark beetles.

Long ago, I was astounded by the canopy of century-old American elms that line 36th East, south of Madison. I’d grown up in Ohio, where the Dutch elm disease had devastated many residential streets as the beetles invaded and killed all of the trees. The plague broke the collective hearts of many Midwestern communities.

Yet, while the disease was detected a number of years ago in Seattle, it never took hold, leading me to speculate that the beetle could not survive our chilly, wet winters. Could this be the case with the pine pitch canker and its beetle?

Standing there, admiring that venerable and stately horticultural specimen, it dawned on me that I’d savored its beauty before. Probably, in the early 1990s, I was walking in the Park with my friend Akira Takeda. At the time, he was the cultural affairs attache for Seattle’s Japanese Consulate. Aki seemed swept back to his youth.

“Kodama,” he said.

He then explained that it is believed in Japan that when a tree reaches a century in age, it is often inhabited, and protected from the ax and vandals, by forest spirits. Aki went on to talk about his cousin who had grown up in the countryside. There was an ancient tree in their little village.

In the summer, people would gather under it for its cooling shade and the sounds of the wind in its leaves and the chirps and rustlings of the critters who inhabited it. Furthermore, the tree was revered because the people felt a god lived in it. I find this easy to understand.

So that drop of information, that pebble from the Pebble Beach Tournament, has had me traveling from books, to conversations, to observations, memories and speculations. I’m sailing the sea of education on a raft constructed of Monterey pine. The journey will go on.

Any gardener who has a lot of space, and is willing to invest in a future that they will not be here to enjoy, might consider planting a Monterey pine. Yet, given the difficulty in finding this tree and the uncertainty of the diseases known to plague it in California, I cannot, in good conscience, urge readers to grow it.

Still, there the Madison Park Monterey pine stands, majestic, to be revered and to soothe the senses. Add this tree to the adventure of seeing other historic trees in our neighborhood, like the Hollywood junipers that grow in front of the Windermere office on Madison Street, east of McGilvra, south side.

Take some time to savor the splendor of this incredible living organism. Stop and look up. Listen. Worship. Given your ability to engage the supernatural, you might discover a spirit, or a Kodama, inside the tree. Such spirits are known to be kind, generous and accommodating. If you are so inclined, you might ask it for a better golf game.