Imagine you’re George Lucas or Steven Spielberg. (Stay with me now).
You’re shooting a film about 19th Century New England and your heroine has to visit an old graveyard in an effort to find the truth about a deceased ancestor. It’s night. The Moon is full. A raven squawks or an owl hoots as she pushes open a rusted and squeaking iron gate. Then she timidly starts down a gravel path to look for the stone. You, the director, want to set the perfect mood. So, in your infinite arboreal wisdom, you’ve flanked the path with… Nootka False Cypress Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula!’
Aaaaahh!!! That’s spooky enough for Edgar Allan Poe.
OK, forget the Gothic aesthetic for a moment. Perhaps you’re looking for a tree that embraces the physical comedy of Buster Keaton. You still have the right plant: flexible, humorous, touching, evocative.
Or say you’re a devotee of modern dance with a love of Martha Graham. Stand in front of this conifer on a windy day and watch it move. Mesmerizing.
Then again you might see an Alexander Calder sculpture in living green, maybe a backdrop for Kabuki or a tree in a Japanese woodcut. Whatever… you’ve never seen a tree like it and, given the right frame of mind, coupled with a love of the exotic, you’ll want one of these trees in your garden.
But put this Chamaecyparis in a choice place in your landscape and all the spookiness or humor or artiness dissipates as you watch what becomes one of your favorite plants mature into something that has everyone asking “What is that?” This offspring of Alaska Cedar is what garden designers and nurserymen call a “specimen plant,” so unusual that you likely only want one. Then again, in a large garden, a grove of three, set in a triangle and spaced 20 feet apart is a compelling trio.
Native from Alaska to California, Nootka Cypress (also commonly called Alaska Cedar) is at home in the cool damp of the coastal Northwest with its rich acid loam. Once in the ground, and watered well in the drought of the first two or three summers, you’ll have a carefree tower of living art, eventually reaching 30 feet, that requires little or no pruning and is susceptible to few, if any, pests. All the branches will stretch out and then droop down as they grow, making the tree appear draped all the way to the ground. Allow that to happen. You’ll lose the impact of this plant if you limb it up and expose the trunk. And you won’t want to put much around it. Nothing should distract from its odd (more euphemistically “unusual”) beauty.
I’ve seen this false cypress standing at the far end of a long, narrow water feature. Another sited in a corner of the garden, a sweep of interesting and drought tolerant ground cover beneath as far out as the largest branches spread. Simple, but full of impact. Once I saw the large white Clematis lanuginosa ‘Candida’ growing up and through the branches. The vine had been planted about five feet from the trunk where it was heavily mulched with compost annually and had less competition from the roots of the tree. It angled across the ground and then climbed into the branches. Each year, this clematis was cut back to a height of about six feet in early winter. The old upper vines were pulled out, leaving the tree handsomely unadorned for the dormant season. But come spring the clematis climbed up and through again, and the huge snow-white blossoms of the clematis unfurled, facing out to the Sun. The result was spectacular, albeit, my feelings were ambivalent. The flowers distracted from the trees sculptural impact. In effect, the lily had been gilded.
The right plant in the right spot can produce a subliminal response for you and anyone visiting your garden. Should you want to introduce a visual reference to E.A. Poe. Buster Keaton, Martha Graham, Alexander Calder or Kanzabuo Nakamura, one tree can do the job for any of them: Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’. And there’s an added payoff. You’ll master the name of this tree so that it rolls off your tongue. Thus, when asked “Just what is that plant?,” you’ll say its name and anyone listening will instantly assume that you are a great plantsman and a horticultural intellectual.