Guest Post by Bob Hill
I have never fully understood my attraction to weeping plants and I really don’t want to pay some nerdy-looking guy with a psychology degree about $250-an-hour to find out.
Truth be told, I’ve spent some time drinking beer and exchanging words like “theorization” and “anosognosia” with otherwise likeable shrinks who at some point toward midnight will confess to being every bit as off-the-edge as their patients, only more expensive.
That’s when I start dropping horticulture words like “cleistogamous” and “farinaceous” on them just to level up the conversation. With any luck the bartender will lock up and go home before we get to Rostrinucula dependens.
The best I can figure, I just like the aesthetics of weepers. Contrary to what their name might imply, I never see a hint of depression in them, or even gloom. They are simply unique, graceful, confident individuals taking off in a whole different series of directions.
With deciduous weeping trees, I also like how they look in the winter, poetic, bare-limbs in a tangle, anxiously waiting for spring and another bird’s nest.They do nicely in small spaces, can survive in containers or on a larger section of landscape. In one of the best trips of my life, I saw a weeping larch sprawling for about 30 feet along a low fence in a New Zealand nursery; 10 yards of horticultural happiness.
For some deep research on the causes of this weeping-plant phenomena I refer you to a 2012 Associated Press article written by Lee Reich, who at first opined that some trees weep “because they want to grow down.”
His analysis picked up from there. Reich suggested a weeping tree may have begun life as a random seedling whose quirky arrangement of genes directed its stems to weep, generally after a short period of more normal upright growth, which would also explain some recent political events.
“Perhaps the mutation was caused by sunlight or temperature; perhaps it was spontaneous,” he wrote. “At any rate, all new stems and branches originating from those changed cells weep.”
Weeping trees, however, are very unlikely to produce like offspring from their seeds. They have to be grafted onto similar rootstock, preferably high enough off the ground to create a nice waterfall effect. Then there is always that one branch outlier that wants to go back to growing straight up, another reason why God invented pruning shears.
It has become our wrap-around tree. Maybe 25 feet tall and wide, with drooping, enveloping limbs, we have placed a bench beneath it, a chandelier hanging overhead, a fireplace mantle off to one side. You can hide beneath its wings, read a book under there, peer out at the world instead of always having it peering in at you.There are all the usual weeping suspects; cherry trees, apple trees, birch and Japanese maples. All fine, but my absolutely favorite is the weeping katsura ‘Amazing Grace,’ your cercidiphyllum japoncium.
On a smaller scale, another favorite is our weeping redbud Cercis Canadensis ‘Ruby Falls.’ It literally hangs out along the driveway, a “Welcome Home” tree with tighter, pendulous limbs and purple-red leaves that follow the rose-red blooms. Maybe it’s just its size, but it seems a little more reclusive, as if its hiding something under there.
With weeping conifers, my experience, especially when they are small, is they are either happy in my landscape or soon dead. Best I can tell, almost no one in the Midwest grafts them for sale. Here in Indiana, I mostly have to import them from the West Coast or East Coast, which may help explain the dead part, or find a local outlier with some a knack for the art. But that also seems to be a dying breed.
For the most part, my best weepers just show up here in a big tan box dropped off from a brown UPS truck, and not especially better for the experience. Some of the box stores are beginning to stock pint-sized conifers in sets, but none of them are weepers, and too many of them are soon dead, too. It might have been helpful if some roots had been included.
The bald cypress seems to favor an upright stance, with limbs plunging down toward the earth. It always reminds me of an old man who loses his hair every fall and re-grows it in spring. We also have the “Peve Mineret,” which is a really tight cultivar that looks like a dwarf old man from the git-go.Two of our weeping conifers that have survived nicely include our weeping bald cypress Taxodium distichum, and weeping balsam fir, Abies balsamea.
Our balsam fir was maybe 18 inches tall when we got it, and we’ve raised it like it was our own child. We made the mistake of planting it too close to another tree, and now the two are fighting it out for space, but I haven’t the heart to cut one down or the time, money or equipment to transplant the fir.
An alternate name for this tree is Balm of Gilead. Reason alone to keep it around.
Weeping conifers can fill a small space nicely, or go sprawling up, out and down across the landscape. They can also buddy-up, and, in time, are often found clumped together at one end of the conifer display garden, probably making fun of bolt-upright homo sapiens.
Retired Louisville Courier-Journal columnist and author Bob Hill is owner of the eight-acre Hidden Hill Nursery & Sculpture Garden near Utica, Indiana. Hidden Hill specializes in rare and unusual plants, whimsy and unfettered moonlight. For more information see hiddenhillnursery.com.