Lord of The Tree
Part of what makes horticulture so exciting for me is the history of a plant. Years ago I was given a book, Legends In The Garden, Who In The World Is Nellie Stevens written by Linda L. Copeland and Allan M. Armitage. A generous gift given to me by my friend Jay Jansen who works for Monrovia Growers. The book answers questions about how plants were found and for whom they were named. Among those talked about in the book are Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’, Clematis viticella ‘Betty Corning’, Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ and Hosta sieboldiana ‘Frances Williams’ to name a few. However, one historical, dwarf conifer, not found in this book, that has caught my attention for the better part of the last decade is named after a Lord.
Picea abies ‘Clanbrassiliana’ is one of the oldest and more distinctive dwarf conifer selections known. Introduced in 1836, this tree is named after Lord Clanbrassil of Ireland, whose horticultural prowess is responsible for the naming of several Norway spruce (Picea abies) cultivars during the late 18th century. Discovered as a witch’s broom on a Norway spruce in Northern Ireland, somewhere around 1780, Lord Clanbrassil was said to have planted the original tree, which is still growing, in Tollymore Park, County Down, now standing over 10 feet tall. Often I am asked in retail sales just how big a plant will grow. My first response is usually over what period of time. Plants don’t have a textbook in front of them telling them how big they are supposed to grow. Given enough time and proper attention, plants can and will exceed the suggestive wording found on most nursery tags. This tree is no exception! A handsome, dwarf conifer, ‘Clanbrassiliana’ slowly makes a broad mound of dark green, short needles with cinnamon-brown winter buds. The congested branches grow in layers creating a more globose form in its younger adolescence. A full sun plant whose ability to push new growth is usually held to only ½-1” per year. Given that Lord Clanbrassil’s tree is over ten feet tall should give us all an appreciation for the tenacity of plants. A side note about the culture of Norway spruce, there seems to be a popular misconception that Norway spruce are suitable conifers for the shade. For those who practice this or are advised to do so I respectfully offer, as a quick read, page 813 of Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Sixth Edition, whose concise wording advocates the siting of Norway spruce and its cultivars in “full sun or perhaps very light shade in South but plants become thin and ragged in heavy shade.” Somewhat confusing to some is the introduction of another, very closely related, dwarf conifer, Picea abies ‘Clanbrassiliana Stricta’. This cultivar matures slowly into a beautiful, broad, pyramidal plant. Again, dark green needles adorn this stately, conical form with ascending branching suggesting an ideal shape for a dwarf Christmas tree.
Always appreciative of customers who share their landscapes with me, I have to mention a foundation planting years in the making. Going back more years than I can remember I have had the privilege of selling ‘Clanbrassiliana’s’. Without fail, I have a customer who has purchased nearly every one of these magnificent plants for all of that time. Last summer I was invited to their home in Far Hills, New Jersey and what I saw was a patient landscape that definitely has horticultural thinking “out of the box”. While most would be happy with one ‘Clanbrassiliana’ in their landscape, here is a landscape that has 14 in total. Planted the way most would plant Green Velvet Boxwoods (Buxus x ‘Green Velvet’) in a row, here is a staggered row of Picea abies ‘Clanbrassiliana’s’ running the length of their Amdega greenhouse. Now almost 30 inches tall, these dwarf conifers flank either side of the entrance and help support large, elegant urns dripping with seasonal color. A simple, yet classical formal design that had my full appreciation and gratitude for the experience. Imagine all this and a deer resistant planting to boot.
There are so many places around the world where large plant specimens exist. I imagine myself, one day, walking through the Barbican Gate (the entrance for public visiting Tollymore Forest Park), a castle-like structure whose archways and decorative features come complete with trefoils, standing among some of Lord Clanbrassil’s treasures, appreciating his efforts and the tenaciousness of those remarkable dwarf conifers.