Plants with shaggy golden mops of hair. Plants with pom-poms, ridiculous feathers, skinny stems and spiky tops. Plants that twist or sway into the sky like a drunken pencil.
There are some gardens in the South Sound with some very strange creatures in them. They’re Dr. Seuss plants – trees, shrubs or vines that look like they belong more in a children’s book than a real garden – and if you love the idea of living in a fantastical landscape, you’ll want to plant at least one.
No, we’re not talking roses or rhododendrons here. We’re talking twisted conifers, weeping cedars, contorted hazelnuts – plants that make you smile.
“Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) plays with line the way he plays with language,” says Olympia print artist Nikki McClure, well-known for her own clean line. “He uses repeating elements, mixed-up pieces in his illustrations, like the sounds of his words.”
Dr. Seuss not only wrote books every child and adult loves, but also he created a visual language that’s instantly identifiable, full of shaggy animals and fluffy trees. We all know a Seussian image when we see one, thinks McClure, because Seuss’ fantasy world has just enough elements from reality to seem like it’s breaking the rules.
Which is exactly the appeal of Seussian gardens. One particular fan is Dax Williams, owner and manager of many rental apartment buildings in Tacoma’s North Slope area. Three years ago Williams sought out weeping and twisted plants that would set his buildings apart.
“We wanted a unique, funky, Zen-garden look,” explains Williams.
The good news is that plenty of Seuss plants grow well in the Northwest. And if you’re not quite ready to transform your own garden into a Seussical fairytale, take heart: Scott Gruber of Calendula Farm and Nursery, who landscaped the Williams properties, thinks that moderation is key. “These plants shine even more when there’s just a few of them,” he says.
Ready to play? Here’s a list of Seuss trees and plants worthy of the Cat in the Hat.
(Sequoiadendron giganteum “Pendulum”)
Looks like: The granddaddy of all Seussical trees, this skinny evergreen reaches taller than a house and then starts leaning like the Cat in the Hat.
Plant it: Along a fence or at the back of the house, given the size.
Needs: Support if too tall.
Why we like it: “It naturally dips and swoops as it grows up with unpredictable branches that take on a life of their own,” says Gruber. “It can be trained bonsai-style when young to become even more outrageously shaped. You can literally tie it in knots as it grows.”
Monkey puzzle tree
Looks like: Often growing to 30 feet high and 20 feet wide, this tree with sparse, sweeping, spiky branches has a Seussian surreality.
Plant it: Somewhere with lots of room.
Needs: Be warned – nothing grows underneath this tree, and it sheds huge prickly branches.
Why we like it: It’s unusual in the South Sound – you’ll get lots of looks.
(Chamaecyparis nootkaensis “Pendula”)
Looks like: This Northwest coast native droops with branches as feathery as the fiffer-feffer-feff in Seuss’ “ABC.”
Plant it: As a parking strip tree or in a corner, or as a light screen.
Needs: Very little attention.
Why we like it: “Its attitude is almost lethargic, and somehow calming,” says Gruber.
(Juniperus chinensis “Hollywood”)
Looks like: A dark green juniper, originally from Japan, with unpredictable branching – think of those crazy creatures in “One Fish Two Fish.”
Plant it: Not too close to anything important (such as power lines, windows, etc.)
Needs: Not much attention.
Why we like it: “It’s like it has been caught in mid-dance, having the time of its life at a party,” Gruber says.
Weeping blue atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica “Glauca Pendula”)
Looks like: One of those creatures with 10 legs and a shaggy, bendy body. A gray-blue cedar that starts bending double at around 4 feet high and just keeps curving.
Plant it: Makes a strong statement near an entrance, or can be trained against a wall or fence.
Needs: Crutches to stop it prostrating on the ground.
Why we like it: Says Felicity Devlin, who grows one in her North End Tacoma home: “A tree like this gives a real fairy-tale feel to these kinds of houses.”
Weeping white pine
(Pinus strobus “Pendula”)
Looks like: Light yellow-green with tiered branches, weeping over gracefully at around 7 feet like the long-suffering hero of “Green Eggs and Ham.”
Plant it: In a dramatic spot.
Needs: Room to grow, and occasional training if you like.
Why we like it: Each is unique. Says Gruber: “Sometimes they are upright, then they might decide to grow sideways for a season, then change course again as if there is something interesting to investigate on the other side of the yard.”
(Corylus avellana “Contorta”)
Looks like: This small tree twists around itself like the crazy curly antlers in “One Fish Two Fish” and droops golden “earrings” in late winter.
Plant it: In front for drama.
Needs: Pruning, since the taller it grows the less twisty it is.
Why we like it: The prunings make excellent sculptural materials.
Contorted black locust
(Robinia pseudoacacia “Tortuosa” or “Twisty Baby”)
Looks like: A small version of the standard black locust with wobbly, knobbly branches and trunk.
Plant it: In small gardens or parking strips.
Needs: Always rip out any thorny original suckers growing out from the base.
Why we like it: The sweetly perfumed, 6-inch white flower clusters dangling in late spring.
Looks like: An evergreen that’s been blown sideways.
Plant it: By itself. En masse this plant can overgrow, but individually you can appreciate the shape.
Needs: A light trim once a year.
Why we like it: Unlike most shrubs, it gives a horizontal line.
Pinus sylvestris/Pinus nigra/Pinus contorta/Chamaecyparis
Looks like: Pruned into pom-poms, these pines can look just like the tuttle-tuttle-tree in Seuss’ “ABC.”
Plant it: Somewhere visible, such as the front entrance.
Needs: Selective pruning over a few years to achieve the pom-poms, then a trim once a year.
Why we like it: “You can make it as wacky as you want,” says Gruber, who pom-pommed a few for the Williams properties.
(Prunus subhirtella “Pendula”)
Looks like: Top-grafted and pruned regularly for an umbrella canopy, these trees look exactly like the blue, red and yellow ones in P.D. Eastman’s “Go, Dog. Go!”
Plant it: On the parking strip for maximum effect.
Needs: Constant pruning and trimming any shoots below the graft.
Why we like it: The blossom adds perfect Seussian color in spring.
Juniperus horizontalis “Procumbens”
Looks like: A tiny Seuss animal wearing an enormous hat, with a smooth flowing evergreen grafted onto an upright juniper to lift it off the ground.
Plant it: As a statement plant near an entrance or at a corner, possibly with a rock feature.
Needs: Regular pruning.
Why we like it: Gruber likens it to a barrister’s wig, and there’s something comically Dickensian about it.
Looks like: A typical Seuss illustration with straight skinny trunk and spiky, palm-tree branches, around 6 feet high.
Plant it: In front of a wall with space around for maximum effect. Also a houseplant.
Needs: This one’s pretty hardy, but a cold winter will force it to die back and regrow. For multiple heads, cut the trunk at any point and it’ll sprout new ones.
Why we like it: It’s a great way to inject some tropical drama into your garden.
Looks like: This herb’s spiky branches can twist and bend like that Seuss creature with 11 fingers.
Plant it: It’s a good parking-strip plant.
Why we like it: Can cope with hellish soil or conditions.
Gold thread cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera “Filifera Aurea”)
Looks like: The shaggy creature in “One Fish Two Fish” with way too much hair, its chartreuse needles hanging down in a waist-high mop.
Plant it: In a group of feature plants at a corner.
Needs: Nothing special.
Why we like it: Like Cousin It from “The Addams Family,” this plant has interesting color and texture year-round, says Gruber.
Creeping rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ”Prostratus”)
Looks like: The upright version, only flat, with blue flowers in spring.
Plant it: Rock gardens, parking strips.
Why we like it: Spiny tentacled fingers exploring your rockery … and it smells nice too.
Looks like: Creeping spiky leaves and chartreuse shoots, this euphorbia stays around 6 inches high.
Plant it: Wherever you need groundcover you don’t have to walk on.
Needs: Take care when you remove unwanted seedlings – the sap causes a painful rash.
Why we like it: “I always think it looks like an alien sea creature very slowly crawling about the garden,” says Gruber.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568