Tree Talk: Our horticultural museum

Tree Talk: Our horticultural museum

Tree Talk: Our horticultural museum

Madison Park is something of a living museum of trees. Any horticultural historian would have a heyday strolling our streets, poking a nose over a garden wall or hedge. As exotic plants began making their way into our far top left corner of America, they often landed here, first.

1889 was a big year for The Park. With the new Madison Park dock and steamer ferry slip and a cable car connecting the lakeshore with downtown, a summer playground began to take shape. Summer cottages sprang up.

A resort mentality took hold, and, along with it, front yards were planted with whimsical imports, which weren’t considered quite dignified for the gardens of the stately homes up the hill and to the west. Among them, Monkey Puzzle trees, Hollywood junipers, Windmill palms, a few still here, over 130 years later.

As the 20th century dawned, the burgeoning Japanese population in the city gave us Japanese gardeners whose plant choices and esthetics can be seen in the venerable and impeccably groomed and pruned Japanese maples filling lot corners and spilling over rock retaining walls.

Even towering conifers fell under their influence. These trees were often thinned of their limbs by 30 percent, opening up the beds below to more sunlight, producing a more sculptural silhouette, and allowing wind to pass through the trees, making them much less likely to come down in a strong, errant wind.

By the 1920s and with the advent of the automobile, summer cottages gave way to streets lined with year-around family homes. At this point, the nursery industry was in full swing, serious ornamental gardens emerged, and our byways were lined with shade trees.

Now, a century later, these plantings not only provide us with handsome and mature specimens of any number of plants, they are a living record of horticultural trends.

In the late 1970s the “Gardening Boom” thundered across America. It coincided with the physical fitness craze and the love of good cooking and fine dining. All three cultural explosions outlived trendiness to become established parts of our culture. Nowhere did any of the three fare better than in Seattle.

Nurseries, large and small, opened all over town. The Seattle Times, The Post Intelligencer, even The Seattle Weekly published regular gardening columns. Television shows did regular spots; garden clubs took off. The Madison Park Garden Club blazed the trail in neighborhood horticultural fundraising with their annual garden tours. Front yards were enclosed with garden walls and hedges to create outdoor rooms.

Everywhere, new plant introductions became the topic of discussion, equaling in enthusiasm (well, almost) the chatter about Huskies football and crew. Pandemonium? Well, certainly plantdemonium.

Use the gentle end of summer days to stroll our streets and look at the colors, shapes and beauty of our trees and gardens. Give thought to how this all came to pass. Pledge to be a part of it going forward.

A good place to start your exploration is at the northwest corner of East Galer and 39th Avenue East. Look south and east at the towering blue conifer (pictured above). It soars proudly, about a quarter of the way down the block.

This elegant giant is Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Boulevard.’ Native to Japan, these trees were introduced in the 1920s, prized for their clouds of steel blue foliage that was somewhat soft to the touch. Gardeners loved them and planted them for their startling color, especially effective against our dark greens or paired with deciduous foliage that runs to the reds and burgundies. Put in place as shrubs and often sheared into balls and cones, few were ever allowed to achieve their rightful stature, topping out at 30 feet or more.

But should you make the pilgrimage to see this tree, you’ll be looking at a majestic plant that has graced Japanese temples for centuries … and is, today, yet one more exhibit in our wonderful Madison Park Museum of Horticulture.