It’s not your imagination. The Pacific Northwest really is beginning to look more like New England with each passing fall.
Tree by tree, homeowners, businesses and cities have turned the Evergreen State into Pacific New England.
“It’s the combination of the plant world opening up and the realization that there are bigger and better things out there,” said Tacoma nursery owner Travis Valbert. “(Homeowners) are clamoring for it.”
And it’s happening in other fall color-starved parts of the country.
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“Even Southern California is looking more like New England,” said Kate Karam, a spokeswoman for California nursery giant Monrovia. The company has a vast growing facility in Oregon.
In New England, the “leaf peeper” season is driven by two species native to the region’s deciduous forests — maples and sumacs.
“In general, these Northeastern native species do not do well in the Pacific Northwest,” said Oregon maple grower Norm Jacobs. “So, it’s been up to horticulturists to develop hybrids of these species which do thrive here.”
Plant breeders developed maples that could survive the Northwest’s dry summer and produce fall colors without needing the Northeast’s cold autumn nights, Jacobs said.
The coloring of the Northwest isn’t just coming from homeowner demand. Municipalities, businesses and schools are responsible as well for our New Englandization.
“(Businesses) want a tree that’s not going to buckle their parking lot and not break curbs and max out between 15 and 20 feet tall,” so as not to interfere with power lines, Valbert said. “It pigeonholes them into a specific collection of trees.”
Maple hybrids meet the criteria. In Puget Sound, the trees line everything from new 7-Eleven parking lots to industrial parks.
“There’s been a surge in the planting of maples,” said John Walkowiak, an arborist and chairman of the Washington Society of American Foresters. “Areas that are new or rehabbed are using them.”
Gone is the Taco Time juniper. In its place is a red maple.
Smaller maples also are supplanting a longtime municipal favorite — the American sweetgum or liquidambar tree. The much taller tree has colorful fall foliage and produces spiked pods that hang on the tree in winter. But its roots can break concrete like a jackhammer.
Walkowiak said maples grow quickly — 3 to 5 feet a year — and are relatively pest-free. That first attribute is a favorite for commercial clients.
“The first thing they always ask is, ‘How fast will it grow?’ ” he said.
In DuPont, the city is asking, how small will it grow?
Officials are looking at replacing about 230 trees — mostly large maples, sweetgums and oaks — planted by the city’s developer, Weyerhaeuser — that now are destroying sidewalks and curbs, interfering with utilities or are in poor health.
“It’s big guy, small suit syndrome,” said Gus Lim, the city’s public works director. “It wants to lift out and walk away.”
The city has started a 400-tree nursery to replace the problem trees.
At the guidance of horticulture-savvy residents, roughly seven varieties of replacement trees were chosen for DuPont’s streets.
Size and flowers were part of the criteria, but four types — trident maple, bigtooth maple, European mountain ash and Stewartia koreana — offer something else: orange to red fall color.
The city has 4,000 problem trees out of its 7,700 trees growing in public right of ways. Most can be kept in check with root pruning.
“People learn to live with it,” Lim said of transgressing trees. “When they can’t live with it, it’s capital punishment.”
Along with flowers, fall color is high on the list of desires when Tacomans call Mike Carey, the city’s urban forest program manager, looking for tree suggestions.
“I’ve got a list of 10 trees that would blow your mind with fall color,” he said.
The prime criterion for homeowners is small size. Carey, a native Tacoman, said it’s part of Northwest culture.
“We clear cut, we started from scratch,” he said. “If people want trees, they go out to the woods.”
When it comes to the trees he plants on city property, Carey looks for variety.
“I’m really pushing for diversity,” he said. “That’s what’s going to make us resistant to climate change, pests and diseases.”
To that end, he would like to see fewer nonnative maples in the city.
“You don’t have to go with the quickest, easiest option,” Carey said. “You don’t have to go with the red maple that we know and love.”
A recent survey showed red maples make up 5.5 percent of the trees in the city’s business districts.
IMPROVING ON NATURE
A stone’s throw from Valbert’s GardenSphere Nursery grow dozens of bigleaf maples. The Northwest’s endemic maple nearly fills the nearby Puget Gulch, which crosses under Proctor Street.
In the fall, bigleaf maples all over the Northwest provide the biggest splash of native color in the region.
“They’re big and beautiful, but they only give us yellow … and brown,” Valpert said.
Another native, the vine maple, is a close relative of Asian maples. It can blush red in the fall, but its appearance on the landscape is sporadic.
The ubiquitous alder can’t be bothered with East Coast color schemes. Its leaves go from green to gone overnight.
Portland Avenue Nursery’s Miranda Pollitz said many of her customers specifically look for plants with fall color. It’s a trend that has grown over the years.
“People are more educated these days,” Pollitz said. “People are feeling more adventurous.”
Even gardening beginners can do research on the internet before they set foot in a nursery.
Japanese maples, with their dramatic fall color, are still popular, but Pollitz said her customers are asking for lesser-seen trees with brilliant fall foliage, such as redbuds (red), Katsura (orange) and ginkgo biloba (brilliant yellow).
The horticultural industry that provides almost all of the tree stock seen at local nurseries has caught on to customer’s desires for plants that produce riots of autumn color.
“There’s a large amount of people who want fall color in their trees and shrubs,” Valbert said.
Across from his nursery on North Proctor Street is a small but brilliant red Oxydendrum, the sourwood tree. Long white summer flowers still lay across shiny red leaves in late October.
Most nurseries sell small- to medium-size trees to home gardeners. Trees for business settings typically are planted much larger.
“They’re already 10 feet tall when they go into that commercial landscape,” Jacobs said. That forest of red maples you just noticed really did appear overnight.
A group of fast-growing maples with names such as Autumn Radiance,October Glory and Red Sunset all reflect their selling point.
What do these different kinds of trees cost?
At Portland Avenue Nursery, an October Glory maple in a 15-gallon pot standing about 12 to 15 feet tall is $80. Maples range from $50 to $90 for trees in 10- or 15-gallon pots and are 8 to 15 feet tall.
But it’s not just trees that produce fall color.
Along Interstate 5 in Olympia, vast tracts of burning bush are living up to their name with brilliant red leaves.
“It’s gorgeous,” Valbert said of the deciduous shrub. “You have an exceptionally well-behaved plant that requires no maintenance, little water and has fantastic fall color.”
Another favorite of Valbert’s for fall color are blueberry bushes. They reliably turn fire engine red in fall.
Blueberries are a favorite of consumers, too, said Monrovia’s Jonathan Pedersen. He’s the nursery’s chief plant hunter, searching the world for new specimens.
“Blueberries have spring color, fall color and give you fruit,” Pedersen said. “There’s nothing better than that.”
They are the company’s No. 2 two best-seller. (No. 1 is a dwarf, thornless raspberry.)
Though based in Minnesota, Pedersen travels frequently to the Northwest and to the company’s Dayton, Oregon, nursery, where 2,500 varieties of plants are in cultivation.
The Northwest’s temperate and wet climate makes it ideal for growing many kinds of plants.
“It’s just a great area to grow stuff,” he said.
One trend he’s seeing is a move away from monoculture — that row of trees marching down a road, all the same species and size.
“Younger consumers, they don’t want their yard to look like their neighbor’s,” Pedersen said.
Homeowners also are looking for smaller trees.
“Homes have gotten bigger, lots have not,” Pedersen said.
While the numbers and varieties of maples available in the Northwest have increased, their namesake product hasn’t come with them.
“We don’t have the right climatic conditions to get the sugar to flow,” Valbert said.
Horticulturists might solve that problem one day. But, for now, maple syrup pours only from the grocery store.
Top Ten Trees for Fall Color
Mike Carey, the city of Tacoma’s urban forest program manager, says he’s “got a list of 10 trees that would blow your mind with fall color.” Here they are:
▪ Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)
▪ Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica)
▪ Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboretum)
▪ Ginkgo/maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba)
▪ Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum)
▪ Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)
▪ Red oak (Quercus rubra) and scarlett oak (Quercus coccinea)
▪ Chinese Dogwood (Cornus kousa)
▪ Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)
▪ Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamelia)