Road Trip

Road-Trip-Article-257x227Back in late July of this year my friend John Stella, plantsman extraordinaire,
enticed me to take a ride with him to Fairfield, Connecticut. There he promised I
would see one of my favorite trees in its mature state. Our destination was Oliver
Nurseries, a nursery/garden center that is steeped with specimen plant material.

Established in the early 1960’s by John Oliver Sr., an azalea fanatic, today’s owner,
Scott Jamison, worked his way to the top starting in his high school days. As a
garden center owner, I am envious of the amount of acreage this garden center
owns. That coupled with their foresight to develop world-class gardens in and
around their salable plant material, decades in the making mind you, and you can
begin to understand why this is a destination for plant enthusiasts. Aside from the
rare and the mature (for sale), Oliver’s offers one of the most comprehensive
collections of Alpine plants you will ever see. Their gardens will astound even the
most seasoned plants person.

A variegated Zelkova, Zelkova serrata ‘Variegata’, was the tree John spoke of to
entice me to take a ride. The leaves of this tree are smaller than many Zelkova types
and each leaf is banded with a narrow white edge that almost bleeds towards the
center. Touted as being good for a smaller garden, this mature specimen was clearly
a good-sized shade tree. To date, the most impressive specimen I have seen.

A tree that is perfect for containers around your pool or by your front door is a
dwarf Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus ‘Monumentalis’ (aka ‘Columnaris Nana’) You would think ‘Monumentalis’ would imply being “great
in size”, however in this case “great in importance” is more apropos. Hornbeams,
native to the natural woodlands of Europe, have many cultivars and lately seem to
be gaining in popularity. ‘Monumentalis’ is “an excellent ‘shaped tree’ for use as a
geometric feature which does not require clipping. Well suited for historic and
formal architectural garden layouts, narrow screen planting, urban squares and
narrow streets” ( This cultivar is distinctively compact, dense and
narrow. Those for sale, on our day out, would fit neatly in any small car, complete
with potting soil and pots to fit.

Speaking to the rarity of things, Japanese clethra, Clethra barbinervis, is a plant
seldom seen in garden centers for sale. Why, I don’t know? A beautiful large, upright
deciduous shrub or small tree, Japanese Clethra has fragrant white flowers in the
summer. Glossy green leaves that turn bright yellow (sometimes red) in the fall are
only outdone, in my opinion, by its polished, exfoliating grayish-brown bark. Oliver’s
specimen was $3,500.00 and worth every penny!

New Jersey private gardens seem to be overrun by Leyland cypress and Green
Giant arborvitae. Immense green monsters, used to screen out neighbors, tend to
swallow up backyards quickly. Oliver Nurseries uses, in part in its residential design,
Incense cedar, Calocedrus decurrens. Often confused with arborvitae, Incense cedar
has aromatic evergreen foliage that is narrowly columnar in its youth. Native to the
Cascades and Sierras, it too could become a monster. In cultivation, however,
Incense cedar typically tops out around 40-50 feet tall. Similar to Leyland’s, Incense
cedar also appreciates protection from desiccating winds in the winter months.

Tucked into one of their many shade gardens was a hosta called ‘Praying Hands’.
Truly like no other hosta, this is a collector’s item. Upright, narrow, tightly folded
leaved resemble that of hands folded in prayer. ‘Praying Hands’ has dark green
leaves that have a matte finish and shiny undersides. Lavender flowers are
abundant in the late summer too.

Finally, the rarest of rare, and there are many at Oliver’s that could be said about,
a curiosity of sorts Acer platanoides ‘Curly Lamppost’. A severely thin, tall columnar
Norway maple with crinkled foliage clothing it; theirs was over 10 feet tall. Believed
to be a mutant hybrid of a Norway maple and a columnar Sugar maple, Acer
saccharum ‘Monumentalis’, I was an instant fan. But hey, I’m a Plant Geek!

I had a chance to speak with a few department heads during our visit to Oliver
Nurseries. Scott Jamison has done an outstanding job of surrounding himself with
highly motivated, educated and enthusiastic plants people. All were too happy to
give their time and speak about their respective fields of expertise. I always enjoy
getting away from my office to see what others are doing well in our industry. If you
have the time, enjoy beautiful gardens, and appreciate quality plant material, take a
short ride north to Oliver’s you will not be disappointed.