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.
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…