I used to focus solely on edible plants, wild or cultivated. The only flowers, trees and shrubs that interested me were those that could contribute to a meal. If they looked nice—bonus. When my partner, John, began introducing me to the landscaping plants he loves, I admit I was sceptical. Why not have berry bushes instead of cotoneasters? Why have flowering trees when you could have ones that bear fruit?
Perhaps it’s maturity or some riff on Maslow (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), but I have been swayed. As I take a break from potting up tomatoes and cabbages, or pause at the edge of the apple house, I find myself stopped short by the arc of an ash branch that sweeps just so, or the way light filters through the delicate new leaves of a burr oak.
One of the things that led to my conversion was the plain good sense of discovering and disseminating trees and shrubs that are suited to, and even originate in, the Yukon. It drives me bonkers to see a picturesque Yukon town planted with the same generic menu of plants found in so many cities across temperate North America. We have a lot of beautiful, unique flora in the Yukon—Why not celebrate it?
One thing that thrives up here is the humble spruce tree. Now before you shake your heads, let me clarify: I’m not talking about just any ol’ spruce tree. Those of you who have frequented garden centres and nurseries might be familiar with albertiana spruce, mugo pines or pendula firs. These varieties are clones that each originated from a genetic, often dwarf, anomaly in the wild.
The good news is, we are rich in anomalous spruce trees! Have you ever seen a witch’s broom? They show the type of tight, clustered growth we look for when hunting for wild specimens. We take cuttings from similar brooms that are healthy and green, which is similar to harvesting a few spruce tips in that it doesn’t damage the tree. Brooms can be the size and shape of basketballs, cones or muffins—some even cascade like a waterfall. The distinguishing feature they share is that their growth is slower than that of the rest of the tree; that is the “dwarf” character that makes them appropriate for yards where a full-size conifer would be too large.
You never know what the growth will be like when brought into cultivation, though, and it takes many years of watching and waiting to learn which trees will be worth propagating and introducing to others (10 years is the industry standard).
John began experimenting with dwarf spruce and pine trees in 2002, and of the roughly 120 specimens collected over the years (including an exciting new 15 this year!), a solid dozen are proving to be consistent and delightful, with many others still in trials. They vary in their degree of dwarfism; at five years old, the cluster of branches on a miniature may be the size of an orange, that of a dwarf soccer ball, and a semi-dwarf might reach to your waist.
Their needles are a myriad of greens and blues; the bark—reds, oranges and browns; the buds—golden or even burgundy. People often ask if the miniatures are bonsai, with their tight growth floating on a stalk, or if we prune our trees to shape. The answer is no. Unlike yew or boxwood, which are commonly used like a carver’s block of snow in the southlands, dwarf conifers are like crystals of frost: they evolve slowly into unique and beautiful shapes of their own accord. In fact, they require very little maintenance and can even be container-grown if the roots are protected in the winter.
Selecting landscape trees that are born of the Yukon boreal is a way to connect your personal space to the broader landscape. Of course, anyone who knows us will be quick to point out that we don’t limit ourselves or our customers to plants native to the Yukon. We’re trying out new plants, which means subjecting them to a rigorous doubleheader test of a Klondike-winter and Dawson-summer day length. Those that prove adaptable and hardy become our special friends, the ones we want to share with other plant lovers. These include varieties of mountain ash, maydays and Schubert cherries, ash and amur maples.
And I’d be caught out if I didn’t also mention our “pets” (trees that don’t really belong here but are sooo pretty that we haul them in and out of root cellars in giant pots, just to see them bud out in the spring). Who doesn’t love chestnuts, oaks and maples? Or figs and grapes, for that matter … Did I mention I’m still sometimes in it for the food?