The Call of the Chamaecyparis
I first became aware of the subtle allure of the Chamaecyparis (Hinoki False Cypress) while working on the Fuchs’ estate in Seal Harbor. I might have known by her tony address that I was about to fall for an ‘uptown girl.’ The gardener shook her head as I asked her about finding one for me,
“These plants are not for people like us,” was her reply. The plants looked like a close cousin to the Eastern Cedar, which are as common as peat moss here in Maine.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked. She looked away and said,
“They’re just…very hard to find, and pricey.” A closer inspection revealed a leaf pattern resembling tiny fans, each with a yellow to blue-green tint.
I looked again at the planters she had composed, with the taller Chamaecyparis flanked by the lighter green, low-growing miniature Japanese Juniper, and I was hooked. I had been looking for an evergreen to compliment the rhodies and azaleas in my front garden bed, but they all grow so quickly, and just did not have the right color and structure. I told myself that the slow-growing Chamaecyparis would be perfect by my front door, and rare as they might be, I was going to find one.
I called Frosty, who had ordered shrubs for me many times. She draws from over a dozen different wholesalers nationwide, and after a week, she shook her head. “No one has these in the size you’re looking for.”
“What’s so unusual about a three foot plant?”
“They’re already about twelve years old at that size.”
Hm. Okay, this is not going to be as easy as I’d hoped. Even Plants Unlimited in Rockland down the coast had no source.
Sometimes, when the search for something begins to look hopeless, we set our sights on more attainable goals, but I am a bit irrational about plants. I have been known to let my work boots fall into ruined tatters, and wear through the double canvas front of my Carhartt work pants, meanwhile dropping four bills for a split-leaf weeping Acer Japonicum, barely waist high. I knew that there was a Chamaecyparis in my future, and I was going to track it down.
The next spring, I asked Frosty to check her suppliers again, made a few more calls, all with the same result. These plants are not for people like us…On Mothers’ Day, my wife and I went up to Bangor to visit her Mom, and it rained cats and dogs. After brunch with the in-laws, we had an hour before we could pick up our dog from the groomer, and on a whim I said,
“Let’s just pop by Sprague’s (the biggest nursery in the county) and have a look around.”
“In this rain?” Asked Crissy.
“Well, yes.” Indeed, the rain had only gotten heavier, and now cool breezes blew it sideways through the slitted windows of our trusty Honda Fit. Sprague’s was all but deserted in the Mother’s Day deluge, but moved by some unknowable inspiration, we drove down the muddy track opposite the main nursery, where they kept several acres of larger stock, trees, and particularly, conifers. Usually the stockyard has some attendants helping wholesale customers load trucks, irrigating the thousands of trees, and shooing retail customers back across the street. Today, it was just us and the rain.
The Fit splashed through deeply rutted puddles between rows of towering white spruce and long hedges of burlap-baled rhododendron. Crissy waited patiently at the wheel as I leapt out and ran down soggy aisles, the wet boughs of dwarf pines soaking my jeans through and through. Finally, I found the section I was looking for, the shorter cedars and baled Fat Albert Spruce. Five minutes later, a cold trickle of water ran down my calf into my loafer. I had to admit that I was on a wild goose chase that would likely end with the flu.
I looked for the Fit, but was surrounded by dripping evergreens. The brim of my hat piddled steadily onto my shoulders. I shivered involuntarily beneath my blazer, and set off in the direction I hoped to find my very patient wife. There she was, waiting at the end of a long aisle of tall Arborvitae. I set off through the coffee-colored mud puddles, having already admitted defeat, when there, cached among the twelve-foot cedars, was a solitary dwarf evergreen with the telltale yellow-blue-green fanlike boughs. It sat in the wettest puddle of them all, nearly invisible among the cedars, in a burlap bale so badly rotted and tattered that it had obviously sat there for years.
It was an elegant, upright, four foot tall Chamaecyparis, devoid of any tag or marker, and in my pre-flu delirium, it seemed to reach its tiny boughs toward me like a lonely toddler wanting to be held. My heart leapt, the cold trickle down my leg forgotten. Here, at the center of Sprague’s Labyrinth, was the object of my quest. I waved my arms at Crissy, and she cracked the window open.
“Can you back the car down here?” I called through sheets of rain. She looked dubiously at the narrow aisle, densely populated by mud puddles of unknowable depth, and shrugged. It looked like a better job for a small boat, but she bounced and splashed backwards until the Fit was only a few feet away.
“That’s it?” Her tone of voice was half amused, half aggrieved, as she looked at the filthy, tattered burlap bale. She was thinking the same thing I was; how are we going to get this hundred pound, muddy thing home in the compact car? If I had a tarp, I could lay it out and try to roll the remains of the burlap bale onto it, then lift it into the rear seats. Alas, I was woefully unprepared for the task.
I stood on tiptoes, scanning the stockyard for help, but no one else was crazy enough to be out here. I was not yet out of the labyrinth, and having found Ariadne, I had yet to get her to safety. I sloshed over to the long, plastic-covered greenhouses, and called out; still no one. Then I noticed that one corner of the greenhouse cover ran long, and a square meter of clear plastic spread onto the ground from the frame. Looking both ways, now truly hoping we were indeed alone out here, I felt for my Victorinox in my pocket.
Again, I came up short. I was dressed for Mother’s Day brunch, not work. There was only my post office box key. Like an embattled Theseus facing the minotaur with only a butter knife, I began to hack at the heavy plastic with the key until I finally removed the overlapping corner. I could see my wide-eyed wife slowly shaking her head in the car, caught somewhere between trying not to cry, and trying not to laugh. I ran back to the gorgeous Chamaecyparis, and gingerly rolled her root ball onto the plastic. I tied it over her, as carefully as a new father might diaper his infant for the first time.
Crissy opened the rear door, and we slid Cammy into the back seat of the Fit together. The plastic kept the worst of the mud from the seat, and there was room for our horse-sized dog in the back. Feeling elated, we drove up to the shop across the street, and told the clerk at the register what we had in the car. She looked in their catalog for a couple of minutes before her eyebrows shot skyward,
“That tree is three hundred dollars.” Her tone of voice told us she was almost as shocked as we were.
My elation plummeted. “Oh. Well… I do get a professional gardeners discount.” I had bought enough plants there a few years ago to qualify for the 30% discount. That would knock almost a hundred bucks off the price.
“Great, do you have your card?”
“Well, no, I never got one. I… the gal in the office just gave me the discount.” It was true, but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember her name.
“We have a new system now, and I can give you the forms to fill out. You could have a card in a week or so.”
These plants are not for people like us…
I looked at Crissy, and she just smiled, “You only ever buy plants, Pie, and it is really cute.” Proof right there that my wife is an angel. I looked back at the gal at the register, and said,
“Right, ring it up; I’m not pulling Cammy out of the car until we’re home.”
I mean, what would you have paid for that long-sought, unattainable tree, after all the wrangling in the rain? Plus, it was a perfect specimen, far nicer than any one of the Fuchs.’ I was not only buying a tree that would probably outlive me, but also buying a symbol of an imagined class barrier shattering at my front door, where Cammy happily stands next to Rhod. Yakuma x Smirnowii. They both have Japanese heritage, and are becoming good friends.
I am not ‘people like us.’ I can have any plant I dare to love.
Bowen Swersey owns Acadia Stone and Garden in Southwest Harbor, Maine