Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Montezuma pine

A lady called Julia, who gardens on the Isle of Wight, asked me the other day about the tree on the left-hand side of the picture at the top of my blog. I started to reply to her, and then thought it might be better to do a post, as the reply was getting longer and longer. People often ask me about this tree, so bear with me if you've heard it all before.
It's called the Montezuma pine, or Pinus montezumae, and as you'd guess from the name, it comes from Mexico.
It's also known as the Shih Tsu tree, because the tufts of needles look like the head of a shih-tsu dog, but Julia described them as looking like cheerleaders' pompoms, which I think is a very good description.
Like many pines, it's very drought-tolerant, and likes sun. It's not commonly available in the UK - it's best to contact Architectural Plants (branches in Chichester and Horsham) if you want to buy one. It is an absolutely beautiful tree, and I love it, but there are some drawbacks.
First, it grows very fast, into a very big tree. The one in the picture was about three feet high when I moved in in 2003 - it's now at least 15ft tall. It grows at a rate of about half a yard a year. I think the ultimate height is something like 90ft. I also have one in a pot, which restricts the growth. It's doing fine (it's the very big grey pot in the picture), but don't tell Architectural Plants - they will disapprove...
I prune mine regularly (mainly taking out the leaders), but it still makes a lot of growth in a year. The new growth can be a bit lanky, too, so I don't feel too guilty about the bonsai treatment - it has made the tree bush out more.
It's not common to prune pines in the UK, so I contacted Architectural Plants and they put me in touch with Jake Hobson. Jake, who trained as a sculptor, has worked in Japan, so he came over and showed me how to cut it back. Once I'd seen him do it, I was much more confident about doing it myself.
Second, the beautiful needles, which are so distinctive and so tactile, can be a bit of a nuisance as they drop all year round. There's a point every year - in late spring, just before it starts to grow in earnest again - when the tree has a huge moult and handfuls of needles come away. If you have squirrels scampering up and down, this exacerbates the problem. I used to have a lot of mint growing underneath, which has now vanished - I think it objects to having pine needles all over it.
So what are the advantages? Well, it's a great tree to hang bird feeders on! And it's beautiful - especially in spring and summer when the needles are a bright, fresh green. Apart from the growth issue, it is trouble-free. And it's always nice to have something unusual in the garden, something that's a talking point.
Indeed, this brings me to another issue - that of inheriting plants from previous owners. I don't think I would ever have dreamed of planting this tree myself, no matter how much I admired it. I wouldn't have had the courage to put one in a pot - and I certainly wouldn't have had the courage to put one in the ground, once I had realised what the ultimate height would be. I would have gone into Sensible Gardener mode and walked on by. However, now that I have them, I couldn't imagine the garden without them.
So many times I've taken over a garden to find something in it I really didn't want. Pampas grass (aargh) in my first London garden; loads of sprawly forsythia in three former gardens (I now HATE forsythia), sycamore or ash seedlings that have been left neglected and now, at 50ft, require permission from the council to prune because they are protected.
No, I think I could have done a lot worse than two Montezumas. What have you inherited in your garden - and do you love it or hate it?