Gardening where the sidewalk ends

Pine Tale February 20, 2009

One of the most interesting plant stories I’ve heard in a while, and I can’t promise it’s all true, is about the ‘Chief Joseph’ pine.

Unusual-plant obsessive Megan of Nestmaker wrote a recent post about seeing an extraordinarily stunning dwarf golden conifer at a Portland botanical garden, and one of her commenters ID’ed it as ‘Chief Joseph.’ At the Garden Show earlier this week, my mom and I were making quick rounds of the sale booths when, up on the top shelf of the River Rock Nursery stand, what should I see but this very tree? The nursery owner, Bob O’Brien, was busy talking to someone else, so I slipped behind the counter and took a few quick shots, none of which came out very well. This is the best I could do.

Pinus contorta var. latifolia 'Chief Joseph'

When he saw me, Bob came over and started joking that the tree was $350 but he’d only charge me $300 to take its picture. I told him I knew of someone who was thinking about getting one and he told me its story.

Apparently, a fellow named Doug Willis was hunting elk in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon (summer home of the legendary Nez Perce chief and his people) when he stumbled upon a tree which he realized was an incredibly rare genetic mutant of the lodgepole pine (pinus contorta). He dug it up, brought it home, and asked a plant-savvy friend to propagate and sell the grafts. Its uniqueness stems not so much from its winter gold color, as there are other conifers which display this, but from the fact that the very needles that turn yellow revert to green in the spring and summer.

What weird switch got tripped in this plant, I don’t know, but it’s like some horticultural impossibility come to life. The trees are murderously difficult to propagate, super slow-growing, and the specimen he had for sale was only his after five years of his wife calling the propagator and begging for one. I wonder if anyone with a wad of cash burning a hole in their pocket came by and snapped it up?

All ‘Chief Joseph’ pines are grafts of the one original tree, although someone once told Bob that he’d seen another one growing wild on his parents’ ranch in Eastern WA. Perhaps another future “gold” mine?

Oh, by the way, Megan found her own small ‘Chief Joseph’ at the nursery down the street. And she didn’t pay anything like $350! Read all about it here.

I wonder if I’m tipping over into unhinged gardener territory, to get so much enjoyment out of a weird plant story and someone else’s garden purchase…


13 Responses to “Pine Tale”

  1. annetanne Says:

    A really nice story…
    Talking about money burning in the pocket: my 12 y.o. son is a very frugal boy… until it comes to buying plants.
    A few weeks ago he used the money he got as a birthday-present to buy a Hamamelis. There were small shrubs for only € 10, some larger ones for € 25, but he wanted the one that was € 35.
    I had some trouble to allow him to spend that much, but after all… friends of him spend € 45 on a game for their Nintendo DS… and such a game won’t last for years.

  2. Tatyana Says:

    Thanks for the story. It was a nice morning reading.

  3. Ronnie Says:

    All these first-hand insightful posts on the Garden Show…makes me feel like I was there! Thanks. Oh, and thank you for the suggestion about my comment links. I agree, they were pretty incognito. I tried to glam them up a bit today…we’ll see how that goes. THanks!

    • greenwalks Says:

      Well, I think a lot of it makes the trip down to SF in March, if you really want to see it in person… Thanks for updating the comments colors, they’re an awesome color of green and so easy to see now!

  4. Melanthia Says:

    Thanks for this post. I’m also a sucker for golden conifers (recently purchased a Deodara “Cream Puff” for that very reason). Cheers.

  5. Megan Says:

    I bet it’s mostly a true story. I heard the same thing about the elk hunter. I hope he got so excited to take that tree home that he let the elk escape unharmed that day. That’s the way I like to think of it.
    It’s funny how gardening works, the enthusiasm is contagious. I might not have jumped on it so quickly without your encouragement.
    How cute is annetanne’s son? A devoted little gardener already at age 12. I like the sound of this kid.

  6. […] at Greenwalks came across the rare Chief Joseph pine I’ve been rambling on about, and got the scoop on the discovery of the brilliant yellow pine, leaving me with mixed emotions about elk […]

  7. These conifers cought my eye too – I had seen two quite large examples of them at the Wells Medina nursery, and they sure were expensive… Backlit by the sun, they shone like gold against the other conifers; the nursery had grouped them with some yellow-berried hollies too for maximum effect. But somehow, I always feel like yellow plants are sick, maybe with magnesium-deficiency, so I am not quite sure if I really would use them in my own garden. Luckily, the price is so high that I don’t really need even to consider these!

    • greenwalks Says:

      Hi Liisa – I know what you’re saying, I have always found yellow plants to be kind of disturbing, but I am developing a new appreciation for golden conifers. It is a unique look, for sure, and you’re right, the price tags seem to reflect that!

  8. Aerie-el Says:

    I adore anything chartreuse in the garden, and this one is a beauty (to admire vicariously via your post!). Great story.

    • greenwalks Says:

      Hi Aerie-el – Well, I think my photo is to blame here – it’s actually pretty yellow at the moment, but then changes back to regular medium green pine needle color. What a crazy mutant, I wonder if anyone bought it?! What do you have in your garden that’s that hot greeny-yellow color?

  9. Jennifer Says:

    This is a true story. I used to work at a botanical garden and we had one on site, which I fell in love with. I actually bought one about 3 inches tall for $90 at a fundraising auction in 2001 and now it’s about 4 ft. tall and absolutely beautiful. The only part that wasn’t accurate is that they are not all grafts of the one original tree but all of the grafts are related to the one original tree. Mine was grafted but not from the original tree. And grafts could be taken of mine to develop more.

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