Spruces, the genus Picea, have always seemed somehow out of place in our mild, moist, often-overcast weather west of the Cascades.
Spruces are a prime conifer for high altitudes and dry climates with cold winters. It’s a familiar picture on December or January calendar pages: one steel blue Colorado spruce (Picea pungens) standing to the front of a group of pines and other dark green spruces, lit by the sun above a carpet of snow. It’s a spectacle.
Here, however, the same carefully chosen spruce cultivar must be set alone, in full light, and still it never seems to pop with comparable brilliance. Ergo, we tend to dismiss the spruce and stage our garden theatrics with other conifers.
That changed for me, recently. I’m thinking a lot about spruces these days.
On a trip to the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula in early April, I followed a path that led to what is said to be the world’s largest Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis). Winding through the wilderness, I suddenly found myself before it. There I stood at the base of a Sitka spruce that was more than 1,000 years old.
Think of that! It was a seedling during the Norman conquest, 750-plus years old during the American Revolution. I sat down on its massive roots, feeling that I was in a holy place. Had this tree been in Japan, shrines would have been built at the trailhead; pilgrims would silently walk to it; bells would ring, and chants would be heard, as incense wafted through the air, eclipsed by the pungent scent of the forest itself. It was a religious experience, and I cannot get that tree out of my mind.
Gardeners seem to develop through series of obsessions. Most of us have gone through the hellebore or heuchera phase, perhaps scented geraniums, maybe Japanese maples. OK, I just fell into the spruce rabbit hole. It has made me reflect.
Years ago I wrote about the legendary Oregon gardener Jane Platt. In her Portland rock garden she had planted a low, creeping groundcover piece pungens “Glauca Procumbens.”
It sprawled among a grouping of flat — in fact, reflective — rocks. She had chosen this plant for its vivid, silvery-blue color. [Keep in mind, named varieties can differ in color and even form, just as siblings may or may not look alike.]
Full and lush, this spruce hugged the ground in a loose and wonderfully near-flat circle. The kicker was, under it, Jane had planted a creeping Scotch broom, Genista pilosa “Vancouver Gold.” This broom is deciduous, but the bright green branches poking-up through the silvery spruce made a lovely contrast in winter. When the plant leafed-out, it was even more vivid, and when it bloomed an electric yellow, the combination went from excellent to profound!
Dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca albertiana “Conica”) grows into a handsome, almost lime green, cone that can reach 6 to 8 feet in height with a 4- to 5-foot spread in 35 years.
Grown in full sun and where it is open to our rainfall, it is seldom plagued with the spider mites that bedevil it in drier climates. If they do infest your plant, a long, strong blast of water from the hose, up, down, all around and into the interior of the plant, knocks them out and keeps the spruce happily moist and inhospitable to the mites.
Long ago, I found an almost turquoise Colorado spruce on a nursery lot. It was marked Picea pungens “Blue Totem.” I planted it facing south and west at my house in the north Cascades. Then, with good luck, in a wacky moment, I planted a clematis durandii next to it.
Over a 25-year period, that clematis has crawled up and through the spruce.
In leaf, it embellished the twiggy, stiffly-needled branches of the spruce. Neighbors come to see this combination when the clematis is in flower with its large, four-petaled blossoms, colored on the lavender side of periwinkle blue.
I don’t credit any horticultural brilliance to this planting. It’s the product of dumb luck.
As I cruise the internet, I see that the Oregon wholesale outlet Iseli Nursery, famous for their conifers, offers dozens of gorgeous spruces. It’s worth looking at their website and then speaking with your nursery owner to see if they can order what you like. Check out the blue spire-forming Picea pungens “Iseli Fastigiate.”
So now, I’m off to find a source for the native Sika spruce to plant at my upper Skagit property. One day that tree will reach nearly 200 feet in height.
I want my great, great, great ... offspring to stand before something as awe-inspiring as what I’ve recently seen in the Quinault Rainforest.
I want them to feel that religious connection with nature that I felt, that near-trembling sensation of being part of the earth. I’m counting on that.
I fully expect to be a waft of mist perched up there in those limbs, smiling down on them, helping them as they garden, guided by the spirit of the spruce.