December can be challenging in the garden. Very few plants are in bloom, the weather can be chilly, wet, and sometimes icy, and our focus moves from the garden to the holiday season and its numerous social commitments. I still try to walk my garden once a week just to check in and see how everything is doing in the wetter, cooler weather. It gives me a chance to identify any water drainage issues as well as areas in the garden where I want to add some additional winter interest in the coming year.
On my last walk around the garden I noticed one plant in particular, my 'Chief Joseph' Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia ‘Chief Joseph’) tree. Earlier in the year it was much more of a background plant. Although its foliage contrasts nicely with the surrounding plants, its green color for most of the year makes it blend in more than stand out. Not so in winter.
This small tree begins a transition in early fall from dark green needles to a mix of yellow and light green, and finally arrives in winter at a rich, golden yellow. Because its needles are evergreen it makes a huge statement when few other plants are in bloom.
The tree in my yard is, I believe, somewhat unique in habit. Most of these trees are vertical in habit, with a slow growth rate of about 3-6” a year. My tree is more of a squat, meandering specimen. It has no single leader growing up, but several branches growing sideways with a hint of upward movement. It actually blends in better with my perennials, which are all less than three feet tall.
The Chief Joseph Pine is somewhat rare , being difficult to propagate, although I did see some for sale at a local nursery earlier this year. The tree was discovered by Doug Will in the Wallowa Mountains while on a hunting trip.
Maintenance is practically non-existent with this tree. It sheds some needles seasonally but other than that requires very little care unless pruning for shape, which I will probably need to do with this variety given its meandering habit, but most specimens are quite vertical and require no pruning.
Although my tree is about two feet tall now, the ultimate size of this tree is expected to be about four feet tall and two feet wide in ten years. It is a perfect size for urban landscapes. If you are looking for a small, evergreen accent tree with fabulous winter interest, I hope you’ll consider this month’s Plant of the Month, the ‘Chief Joseph’ Lodgepole Pine tree. Happy Gardening!