Copious Nursery Notes from the PNW

The lawn and garden industry is tenacious to say the least! Over the past decade issues like Sudden Oak Death disease (SOD), Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA), Impatiens with downy mildew, Basil downy mildew, Black Knot disease on plum and cherry trees, Rose Rosette disease (RRD), Boxwood Blight, Japanese beetle, Cicadas and Spotted Lanternfly have all been thrust to the forefront. Additionally, and most recently, Covid-19 has stalled inventory arrivals, the industry has been faced with labor shortages, as most industries have, grass seed is scarce and this past winter the Pacific Northwest (PNW) faced monumental ice damage. And if this wasn’t bad enough, June saw record temperatures touch 117 degrees Fahrenheit in the PNW! The surrounding areas of Portland, Salem and Eugene, Oregon saw a 4-day heat event that had temperatures hovering between 110 and 117 degrees, the last day having 20-30 mile per hour winds. A virtual convection oven that reportedly torched living landscapes and had growers scrambling to protect their livelihoods. With all that was reported, I simply had to go see for myself as our garden center buys a fair amount from Oregon, a Mesopotamian region or fertile crescent for nursery stock. And who better to go visit with than my best friend and mentor, Tony Maiello, from the horticultural conglomerate Metropolitan Plant and Flower Exchange.

Landing at Portland Airport and traveling towards The Lodge at Government Camp, Mt. Hood, I remarked to Tony, my wingman, at the consistent burn marks on the larger, native trees, particularly on their southwest sides. Trees like Noble fir, Abies procera, Incense Cedar, Calocedrus decurrens, Port Orford cedar, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana and Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, were noticeably marked with a bright orange-brown patina. Suffice (it) to say, our ambitions of finding additional Christmas trees, roping and wreaths were quickly put to rest. Noticing the devastating damage on the “true firs”, we immediately knew that Christmas trees would be in even more of a short supply, this year, as they have been for the past several years. Incidentally, fir tree parts are used to make certain Christmas roping (garland) and wreaths, and that in itself presents another problem!
Concentrating our efforts on nursery stock suddenly became easier. Visiting 8 growers in 3 days, covering nearly 400 miles, we were encouraged by the efforts of all the nursery growers we visited. While there were consistent plant materials that simply couldn’t transpire water in the extreme heat, many plant types were able to hold on and make it through the event. “Extreme heat stress (even in the presence of adequate soil moisture) can cause a reduction in plant stomatal conductance, which reduces plant transpiration rate, causing reductions in plant productivity and yield… Under water stress, some plants develop short suberized roots, as the top soil becomes dry” ( A few plants Tony and I saw that consistently suffered, bruised or perished from the extreme heat were Arborvitae types. Specifically, American/Eastern Arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis, Oriental Arborvitae, Thuja orientalis and Giant Western Arborvitae, Thuja plicata. Cultivars that had succumb, more than others, to Mother Nature’s wrath include Thuja o. ‘Franky Boy’, Thuja p. ‘Forever Goldy’, Thuja p. ‘Daniellow’ (Golden Spire) and Thuja p. ‘Whipcord’. Traveling so many miles, we did see other plant types affected like spruce and pine. However, because of the topography and the way the winds blew, particularly the last day of this analogous convection heat transfer, the most consistently injured plants seemed to be these along with the “true fir” types previously mentioned. Additionally, plant cultivars with a yellow patina or gloss routinely showed stress as well.

Enough of the hardships, let’s move on to some excitement… specifically cool and unusual plants and technology! The first of our 8 nursery stops “had me at hello” (Jerry Maguire 1996 movie). A grower known for exquisite plant material, particularly Japanese maples and dwarf conifers, surprisingly it was two rhododendron types that caught our attention, still holding it as I write this. Rhododendron x ‘Wine and Roses’ and Rhododendron x ‘Everred’, both have gorgeous indumentums. “A protective, woolly layer that sheds water and provides leaf protection” (, the underside of rhododendron leaves is covered with a surface of trichomes. The fact that they flower red is irrelevant to this writer as my first year college professor, at Rutgers University, said it best, “why do you pay attention to the flower of an evergreen when you stare at the foliage all year?” Truer words were never spoken! From a distance, the leaves of these ericaceous plants look like they’re flowering! Ericaceous plants, belonging to the heather family, enjoy acidic soil and as such, heather, azaleas and rhododendron are not suited to calcareous soil types. Finally, the back of these rhododendron leaves literally feels like felt and their rich, dark hues are noteworthy in itself.

The next day seemed to be a lesson in horticultural vocabulary. Visiting the premier Japanese maple, dwarf conifer and deciduous tree grower in the United States, perhaps the world, our guide, dear friend and plant guru Rob pointed out some highlights. After receiving a passing grade on the translation of certain Japanese maple cultivars and their meaning; ‘Tsuma Gaki’ (red painted nails), ‘Koto-no-ito’ (harp strings) and ‘Beni Hime’ (red dwarf/frogs feet or hands) we pressed on to see some additional, eminent maple types. Siebold’s maple, Acer sieboldianum ‘Kinugasa yama’ is on my short list for next spring! Extremely cold tolerant with large, full moon like leaves, this tree doesn’t disappoint. Young leaves are pinkish-red and velvety as they emerge, while its fall color takes on bright oranges to fiery red. Acer campestre ‘Carnival’ has white and pink hues and could easily catch anyone’s attention, from any point, in your garden!

The next morning had us on an early start, moving swiftly down the mountain, past the town of Rhododendron, yes, that really is the town’s name, and into the Woodburn, Oregon area. An area known as much for its pedestrian plants as it is for its unusual ones. Traveling towards our first nursery we passed some exquisite plant material and a grower many would be intimidated by. More on this in a moment. Settling in on our first tour, we were treated to a “technological new age.” Machines that can dig spiral boxwood at a single bound, prune hornbeam trees into perfect, replicated cylinders and create some of the most exquisite topiary creations seen in this country, our tour guide was as as affable as she was brilliant. Her command of the horticultural language was inspiring and her ability to weave the academics of a textbook easily with personal observations, adding a touch of humor, made us fast friends. This particular nursery simply leads the way in innovation. Lommers Tuinbouwmachines bv, a company from Bergeijk (Netherlands), specializes in machines for the horticultural sector. Active worldwide, and a relatively new company, they design, develop, manufacture, install and maintain some of the most sophisticated horticultural machinery known to the planet. Machines that can drill a plant’s hole, prune trees and shrubs with exact precision or put a rootball on a plant, this company can and will design your most vivid thoughts. Simply put, Lommers has the ability to develop, manufacture and even write the required software that their customer wishes for and demands. In turn, all this technology, despite its cost, will eliminate a few jobs. However, in so doing, time will be saved, precision will be the new benchmark and a healthier bottom line and more cost effective product will be achieved. In awe of what this mechanized assembly line can do, I watched a small tree get dug out of the ground and present itself for shipment to the East coast in less than 60 seconds. This same company explained to me how they import plant parts from Israel, specifically Redbud trees, to ensure plant health and reliability. Unaware that Israel has a similar climate to growers in the PNW, this company’s attention to detail and slight obsessions spoke to my character. The implementation of advanced pruning techniques, speeding up production and offering a finished product, meticulous by design, was thrilling.

Following this 2-hour tour, I had to “knock on the door” of the nursery next to this one. A nursery known for cutting edge plants, apparently they don’t sell to just anyone? Japanese maples, companion deciduous trees, dwarf conifers and broadleaf evergreens were all on the menu here. After a quick “Q & A”, we both quickly realized that we not only had much in common, but knew many of the same people. However, it was a 3 tree identification test, which thankfully I passed, that proved we both had an affinity for all things plants and a thirst for knowledge. Some of the most coveted plant material will, no doubt, be delivered from here to our nursery next spring.

Finally, a small handful of eclectic plants, seldom seen in our industry, still has me captivated! A weeping tree broom, Carmichaelia stevensonii and Duckfoot Ivy Tree, Metapanax davidii were far out! Despite the fact that both are “borderline hardy”, for our temperate climate, a man can dream! One having cascading, cord-like branches, the other, a small evergreen tree reminiscent, to this author, of Wheel tree, Trochodendron aralioides; exotic textures are the common bond here! And 2 Magnolia types, Yulan Magnolia, Magnolia denudata and Magnolia ‘Black Tulip’, Magnolia x ‘Black Tulip’ had me not only admiring their structure, but the “scratchiness” of their leaves too. Wondering if they would be more deer resistant… I believe so.

The entire trip, as usual, was simply sensory overload. Spending time with friends, learning from some of the world’s best growers and procuring some of the most highly coveted plant material, along with the basics, is always a thrill. However, spending a few days with the gentleman who introduced me to my profession, a man who is so accomplished and connected in our industry and who I continue to admire on a personal and professional level, is truly a gift in itself. My wish is for everyone to love their work as much as I do and to have a friend like Tony!