Garden writer Ciscoe Morris says Chilean fire trees can be fussy to grow but offers several tips for success.
In the Garden
Q: After hearing you rave about your Chilean fire tree in a lecture a few years ago I’ve tried growing two of them but both died. What do they require?
A: The only sight more spectacular than the profusion of brilliant, scarlet-orange tubular blooms on a Chilean fire tree (Embothrium coccineum) are the multitudes of hummingbirds that will entertain you as they do battle to claim the tree as their own.
Although they’re hardy to about 10 degrees, these amazing May bloomers often fail during the first couple of years; therefore they have gained a reputation for being difficult to grow. Considering that the Embothrium growing in my back garden is one of the oldest in Seattle, these trees can definitely thrive if you follow a few guidelines. Avoid leaving your new tree sitting in a pot. Acquire your tree in spring (available online and at plant sales) and plant it in the ground as soon as possible after you get it home.
Perennials + Great Combinations to Make Your Garden Last, at Molbak's:
10 a.m. to 11 a.m., Saturday, March 28. Learn about perennials and companion plants that can take your landscape through all seasons. Presented by Marty Wingate, author of “Perennials for the Pacific Northwest.” Free. 13625 N.E. 175th St., Woodinville.
Heronswood Plant Sale and Garden Tour:
10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, March 28. Local nurseries selling plants, lectures by Dan Hinkley and Mary Morris (all free). $10 to tour the garden. 7530 N.E. 288th St., Kingston.
Seattle Audubon Annual Spring Plant Sale:
10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, March 28. Native and nature-beneficial plants from several nurseries. Seattle Audubon Nature Shop, 8050 35th Ave N.E., Seattle.
It prefers lean, well-drained soil rather than a planting area well amended with compost. Although Embothriums love full sun, the roots prefer cool, shady conditions, so plant small shrubs, perennials and ground covers near the base of the tree to protect the roots from direct sun. Also, avoid fertilizing your Embothrium. These trees come from areas with very low levels of phosphorus and potassium; therefore adding these elements to the soil can kill the tree. Finally, try to water only during cool periods. Watering when soil temperatures exceed 60 degrees encourages fungus growth that can lead to root rot.
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Fortunately, once established, these trees are extremely drought tolerant and rarely, if ever, require summer watering. Despite their fussy nature, with a little extra care in the beginning, you’ll end up with a tree that is not only drop-dead gorgeous in flower, but will also attract so many hummingbirds you’ll have to wear a hard hat to walk in the garden.
Q: My Japanese Camellia has grown too large for the space it’s in. Can I prune this massive shrub way back, or would I be better off moving it to an area with more room?
A: You’re much better off pruning it. Camellias are one of the few shrubs I’ve come across that are basically impossible to move once they’ve become established. In past attempts, I thought I had been successful but they all ended up dying within 5 to 10 years.
Fortunately when it comes to pruning, it’s a different story. As long as the Camellia is healthy and you prune it right after the blooms fade, you can prune them as hard as you want without harming them. While directing grounds care at Seattle University, I once had to cut a 20-foot tall Camellia right to the ground to make way for nearby construction. I was sure I’d never see it again, but to my surprise, it not only grew back, but exceeded its original height within 10 years.
If you decide to prune it way back, it will look much better if you follow the advice of one of my horticulture professors who taught me to thin out the remaining foliage. According to my professor, Camellias look their best when the foliage is open enough for a bird to fly through it. By the time he finished his demonstration, however, it looked more like a 747 could fly through it, so as you can see, there is little to worry about when it comes to pruning your Camellia.