Friday, February 3, 2017

The Skinny on the Skinny

As with women I like to look at plants with a narrow form, the former because it indicates good health and the latter because they don't hog space in the garden. In the old days (pre 1950's) some cultivars were named Fastigiata due to their narrow upright habit, and the origin of the word comes from Latin fastigi which meant “height.” We commonly call fastigiate trees “skinny” and that word – skinny – is an adjective for “resembling skin,” or meaning “lean” or “emaciated.” As a noun the skinny meant “the truth,” as in “the naked truth,” or “nothing but the facts.” So this blog will be the skinny on the skinny.

Picea pungens 'Iseli Fastigiate'

One narrow Colorado blue spruce received the name Picea pungens 'Iseli Fastigate' or sometimes 'Iseli Fastigiata'. Since that occurred around 1980 the Fastigiata name would be invalid, but I guess Fastigiate would be ok, and indeed that is how it is listed in the Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs. The Iseli part is the name of the Oregon nursery that introduced the cultivar, and regular Flora Wonder Blog readers already know that I find using your name for a plant is poor form. At some point the same clone was introduced from Washington state as 'Blue Totem'. I used to grow both but kept them separated in case proof that they were really different should present itself. I still keep a few 'Blue Totem' around but I usually sell them in small sizes. Our recent foot of wet snow is the reason as (some) plants grow too fast in Oregon and that much snow splays them open. Another problem with the cultivar is that blue spruce is susceptible to attack from the blasted pine shoot moth (Rhyacionia buoliana), originally a bane from Europe. The creature lays its eggs in the leader of the tree and the larvae kill the top, and later in summer you'll notice brown where blue should be.

Pseudotsuga menziesii 'Fastigiata'

Pseudotsuga menziesii 'Fastigiata – once known as Abies douglasii 'Fastigiata' – has been known since 1858, although there could be more than one clone. Our trees display blue foliage which indicates that they are probably var. glauca from the Rocky Mountains, but the 'Fastigiata' name stands since rules against its use were not in place in 1858. If you tromp through Oregon woods long enough you're bound to find fastigiate Douglas firs as well as weeping forms and dwarves. You must be careful though because I know places – like Idaho – where at high elevation all of the trees are narrow, and if one of those skinny trees was transplanted to a low elevation it would grow more broadly.

Abies lasiocarpa 'Hurricane Blue'

Abies lasiocarpa

The same is true with Abies lasiocarpa. A favorite place for me to see the species is in the Indian Heaven Wilderness of Washington state, and trees there can soar to a hundred feet in height and be less than ten feet wide. Some landscape supply companies buy wild harvested “Alpine firs” from sketchy collectors and their “mountain” look – the trees, that is – is very appealing...until they eventually adjust to their new environment and grow out of the narrow form. Another problem for A. lasiocarpa in the lowlands is that they don't really want to be here because it gets too hot and they miss their clean mountain air. We grow a number of dwarf or extra-blue cultivars and they can be nice for a while, but I think most are not long-lived in most American landscapes.

Taxus baccata 'Green Column'
Taxus baccata 'David'


The “English yews,” Taxus baccata, have a number of skinny selections and they provide an evergreen vertical accent in the landscape. I hesitate to prostitute the blog with a sales pitch, but for you customers you might notice that our sales availability does list a number of choices, and of course they are well grown and fairly priced. But wait! If you order today...

The English yew is actually native to much of Europe and even to Iran and it was described by the Greek Theophrastus who noted that the evergreen preferred shade and grew slowly. Taxus is the Latin word for yew, and it shares the same root as toxic as the seeds are poisonous and bitter. In Spanish yew is tejo, in Russian tis, in Italian tasso and in Portuguese teixo. The specific name baccata is Latin for “bearing red berries.” In Iran, the tree is known as sorkhdar, meaning “the red tree.”

Deutzia gracilis 'Nikko'

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Gracilis'

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Gracilis'

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Bess'
Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Golden Pillar'

Gracilis means “slender” and was derived from Latin gracile. There are a number of times that it is used in horticulture, for example Deutzia gracilis 'Nikko' where it's the leaves that are slender, and maybe also the branchlets. Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Gracilis' is more narrow than the type and features outspreading branches like arms wanting to hug you. It was imported into Europe from Japan in 1862 by Philipp von Siebold. Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Gracilis's' name implies dwarf and narrow, but they don't always grow that way, as in the 30-year-old specimen in the photo above. In fact the growth habits of the hinokies can vary greatly, and a lot of that has to do with where the cutting was taken. By far my favorite green obtusa is 'Bess', and the plant in the photo above is about 50 years old (6' tall) and was given to me by the conifer expert John Mitsch. For golden obtusas with narrow forms we grow 'Golden Pillar' and 'Gold Post', but occasionally you need to prune off an errant arm that has mutated.

Cupressus sempervirens
Cupressus sempervirens 'Swane's Gold'

Cupressus sempervirens is the “Italian cypress,” a species that Hillier calls “The cypress of the ancients.” It thrives in hot climates with horrible soil, and in those conditions a tree can reach 50' tall and you can still practically put your arms around it. It is not uncommon in Oregon landscapes, but after our record snow two weeks ago many now have some wanging horizontal branches. I doubt that they are broken and by summer they will raise themselves vertically again. I used to grow the dwarf cultivar 'Green Pencil', but in my well-watered garden it just grew too fast. With only one specimen left in the garden, I forgot to tie it up and a snow storm ruined it. I asked myself why I was keeping a plant that I had to tie up every year so it was dumped. A fast-growing golden cultivar originating in Australia is 'Swane's Gold', sometimes incorrectly listed as 'Swane's Golden'. When new to America it was billed as a “dwarf” but I have seen specimens in California nearly 30' tall.

Fagus sylvatica in the Arnold Arboretum

Fagus sylvatica 'Dawyck Gold'
Fagus sylvatica 'Dawyck Purple'

Fagus sylvatica 'Red (or Rohan) Obelisk'

“European beech,” Fagus sylvatica, can grow to enormous size both in height and width, and I saw some monsters last fall at the Arnold Arboretum. While they are not suitable for a modern landscape, there are a few selections with narrow forms. F.s. 'Dawyck' originated at Dawyck in Scotland in about 1850, and it is columnar but can broaden at maturity. 'Dawyck Gold' was a seedling that was probably pollinated by the golden-leaved 'Zlatia' and was raised by the late van Hoey Smith in 1969. 'Dawyck Purple' is similar, except pollinated with a purple beech. The above information was gleaned from the Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs. My favorite of these columnar beech is 'Red Obelisk', a cultivar that Hillier doesn't list. Instead he describes 'Rohan Obelisk' which is probably the same (and correct too) as a “Narrow, upright habit with irregularly lobed red-purple leaves.” My oldest of the 'Dawyck Gold' cultivar is about 23 years and is already 40' tall with a trunk over 2' in diameter. I didn't anticipate such gusto and at some point I'll probably have to remove it, and I regret that no one warned me about its potential size when it was small.

Liquidambar styraciflua 'Slender Silhouette'

Liquidambar styraciflua 'Slender Silhouette'

Liquidambar styraciflua 'Slender Silhouette' is an amazing pole and it was discovered and introduced by plantsman Don Shadow of Tennessee. Apparently it was growing in the wild near a railroad track but then later someone had cut it down. Railroad employees? Or perhaps by someone who didn't want anyone else to propagate from it? In any case it is a fast-growing selection that can reach 15-20' tall in 10 years in my nursery – either in a container or in the ground with irrigation. I'm surprised that it was never patented – but I'm glad it was not – because it is so narrow as to be very useful in small modern landscapes. At Flora Farm I have also planted a family of seven near the public road because I like to show off with unusual trees, even if only one in a hundred motorists cares. This past fall they were very impressive with purple, orange and yellow leaves, and all three colors could be present on the same tree.

Malus 'Crimson Spire'

Twenty five years ago I received a catalog from Stark Bro's Nurseries in Missouri – or from the state of misery as the locals guffaw while slapping their knee. Anyway the company specializes in fruit, nuts and berries, all portrayed in delicious color. I think that was the first time that I saw columnar apple trees being offered. What a fantastic concept I thought, and one could grow a couple in their small back yard, or keep them in pots on the deck. It seemed like the best invention ever, and I ordered three each of 'Crimson Spire', 'Emerald Spire', 'Scarlet Spire' and 'Ultra Spire'. All thrived at the nursery, bore fruit, and never missed a beat when all were transplanted to Flora Farm. There was already a half-acre orchard there, planted by the previous owner. We eat apples from early fall to mid winter, and somewhere I've got a map telling me what the 30 or so varieties are. We can't eat everything – maybe my family gobbles one percent of them – and then I manage to give away another percent. They attract deer who take ownership of the orchard and I don't really want them around. They eat, then lay down, then eat again...then get up to poop before sauntering away. One destructive male ruined some young maples in the Upper Gardens before he retired to sleep some more. I don't know anything about apples and I don't know what rootstocks my Spires are grafted onto. My fruit often has blemishes and worms but I do nothing to prevent it. I do admire a well-tended commercial orchard, however, and I wonder why I became a maple man instead of an apple grower. Certainly growing food is more noble?

Acer palmatum 'Tsukasa Silhouette'

Acer palmatum 'Tsukasa Silhouette'

Acer palmatum 'Tsukasa Silhouette' was introduced in Kokobunji, Japan by Yutaka Tanaka, and was named by Don Shadow in 2008. “Tsukasa” is the name of Tanaka's nursery, and as you have seen previously, Shadow likes the name “Silhouette,” but of course it's improper to name a cultivar in two languages. If you do, you won't go to jail, but know that you have messed with International Code of Nomenclature. The cultivar is in the trade now and one American nursery claims that it will grow 18-20' tall by only 5' wide. Perhaps with narrowing pruners, as Tanaka himself does. In Oregon – or at least in my nursery – our trees are far more broad. I would love for an independent nursery to propagate 100 trees, and give half of them to the Midwest nursery and one half to me. Then in ten years we'll go visit each other and compare the sizes. In other words I think the narrowness is exaggerated, but heck I might be rong. In any case 'Tsukasa Silhouette' is a pretty green-leaved tree with outstanding orange-to-red autumn color.

Parrotia persica 'Select'

 Parrotia persica 'Vanessa'

Parrotia persica 'Persian Spire'

Parrotia persica, the “Persian Ironwood” tree was uncommon in the trade when I began my career. I grew some from seed and one particular tree displayed foliage a little more attractive than the others, or so I convinced myself. There seemed to be more purple to the edge of the leaf than the others, and later I would root from the one tree only and I called it 'Select'. I could sell a couple hundred liners per year, but nobody ever got too excited about it. Eventually the cultivar 'Vanessa' from The Netherlands became available. It was billed as a narrow columnar form. That's true, but 'Vanessa' is not all that skinny and my oldest tree is 30' tall by 20' wide. By the way it will be blooming crimson flowers in two weeks. Anyway we quickly sold our last 'Vanessas' with the appearance of a far more narrow cultivar, 'Persian Spire', introduced by JLPN of Oregon. We must buy liners from them as they have patented the selection. Parrotias are easy to grow with no problems for me, and one is treated to a fantastic show in autumn with yellow, orange, red and purple coloration. At maturity the trunk presents an exfoliating patchwork of color, so I appreciate my trees the most in fall and winter unlike with most deciduous species. Parrotia was named for the German Friedrich Parrot (1791-1841), a naturalist who probably repeated everything he heard.

Populus tremuloides 'Mountain Sentinel'

I bought a few Populus tremuloides 'Mountain Sentinel' but the selection is patented so I can't propagate them. My purpose was to plant seven specimens parallel to the public road that also has the 'Slender Silhouette' family. The view from the road looks down at the Upper Gardens, and I thought that these skinny aspens would color fantastically gold in fall without really blocking the view down into acreage below. Again, I planted them for myself since I like sentinels, but also for the bicyclists and motorists. The occasional joggers labor up the steep road with grueling agony on their faces, so I don't think they appreciate what I plant. After the golden fall color the silver-gray trunks gleam in winter, and the trees look just as interesting without leaves as with them. I don't know what their ultimate height will be – one seller says 35' tall by 8' wide – but I'd bet money that they can exceed 35'.

Pinus mugo 'Aurea Fastigiata'

Pinus nigra 'Arnold Sentinel
Pinus sylvestris 'Glauca Fastigiata'

Many Pinus species have cultivar selections noted for narrow forms. Pinus cembra has 'Algonquin Pillar' (not that narrow), P. contorta has 'Fastigiata' (not that narrow), P. leucodermis has 'Satellit' (not that narrow), P. mugo has 'Fastigiata' and 'Aurea Fastigiata' (not that narrow) etc. All of the above are good garden choices, but the skinny is that they're not really skinny. Pinus nigra 'Arnold Sentinel' falls apart in Oregon's winter and we discontinued it years ago, and the same is true for Pinus sylvestris 'Glauca Fastigiata'.

Pinus strobus 'Stowe Pillar'

Pinus strobus 'Bennett's Fastigiate'

Probably the best species for narrow pines is P. strobus, but forget about the old cultivar 'Fastigiata', for it can grow tall and wide, especially since its is subject to snow breakage. One East Coast nurseryman used to sell 'Fastigiata' in 5-7' sizes, but he never pointed out that the huge and ugly tree planted in the back was 'Fastigiata', because if he did no one would buy his young trees. Fortunately we now have some better choices. One would be P. s. 'Stowe Pillar' which was discovered by Greg Williams in the snow country in the Northeast. Another cultivar superior to 'Fastigiata' – much more compressed – is P.s. 'Bennett's Fastigiate'. Though a poor cultivar name, this selection was found by William Bennett who also discovered P.s. 'Bennett OD' [Oculis Draconis], 'Bennett Clump Leaf' and 'Bennett Contorted'. I don't know who is or was Mr. Bennett, but I also once grew his 'Clump Leaf', where the five needles per fascicle were fused into just one. It was a curiosity but no one bought it, and not one remains in my collection today.

An acquaintance of mine was in the military and was stationed in Okinawa. At a bus stop he noticed the locals standing in a perfectly straight line as they waited for the bus. How orderly, how impressive he thought, because in other Asian countries the commuters would be pushing and mobbing for the bus door. Then it dawned on my friend that they were all standing in the shade of a power pole as it was an extremely hot day. And that's the skinny.


  1. Anyone who looks at your photographs could tell you why you are a maple man and not an apple grower! thank you for all the information...

  2. The slender sweet gum I believe was found growing a few feet from a lake. I recall there is a photo of it. It was likely cut down by fisherman to create habitat for their fish seeing as it would fall nicely into the lake making a long, narrow fish bed. While it is a shame, it was likely not cut down by a greedy nurseryman but a greedy fisherman. -Bill W