No one knows more about trees than Arthur Lee Jacobson. A slight man with a wild mane of hair and impressive recall of every tree he's ever met, Jacobson is the author of...
NO ONE KNOWS more about trees than Arthur Lee Jacobson. A slight man with a wild mane of hair and impressive recall of every tree he’s ever met, Jacobson is the author of “Trees of Seattle” and “North American Landscape Trees.”
Choice trees, along with edibles and fragrant plants, pack his own garden in the Montlake neighborhood. Jacobson even cultivates his favorite weeds, many of which become salad fodder for a guy who’d just as soon taste a plant as look at it.
Surprisingly, there’s only one tree on Jacobson’s list of favorite plants. This must be the most eclectic bunch of “10 best” ever compiled, which is what you’d expect from this highly original plantsman who gardens with dinner in mind. Despite chronic illness, Jacobson still lectures, consults, writes and tends his own garden. His list of indispensables for the Northwest garden:
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Black mulberry (Morus nigra). A small, crooked tree, it has dark, juicy berries that ripen from June into October. The berries are utterly scrumptious — a delicacy far superior to the white mulberries that are more common in Seattle, Jacobson says with enthusiasm.
Elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum). This big, bold plant with a purple ball of bloom is more closely related to leeks than to garlic. Jacobson not only prizes the garlic bulb, but also shreds the leaves into salads. He considers elephant garlic to be one of life’s most intense sensory experiences.
Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata). Jacobson wonders why few, if any, Puget Sound gardeners grow sagebrush. It has plumes of tiny yellow-green flowers that wave above its fragrant gray foliage in autumn. No site is too hot, dry or sterile for this Eastern Washington staple; to grow sagebrush on this side of the Cascades, provide well-drained soil and plenty of sun.
Banana shrub (Michelia Figo). The stunningly fragrant broadleaf evergreen is from China. Jacobson planted his in 1986, and it’s now 11 feet tall. Creamy yellow flowers mottled with maroon bloom spring through August. The floral fragrance is very rich, says Jacobson, described variously as spicy bananas, port wine or jasmine.
Scented geranium (Pelargonium ‘Mabel Grey’). The parade of perfume continues with a modest little geranium that Jacobson claims has the most scented leaves of all its tribe. Some 280 species of pelargonium exist, nearly all African, he says. ‘Mabel Grey’ grows stiffly upright, has pink-purple flowers and lemon-scented, maple-like leaves.
Caraway thyme (Thymus herba-barona). A sprawling groundcover herb, this thyme is carpeted with rosy pink flowers in June and July. A wonderfully perfumed plant, it has great worth and too little familiarity, Jacobson says. And, it looks good all year.
Toothache plant (Acmella oleracea). A single nibble of its tasty leaves turns your tongue and lips numb. This novelty is no doubt what endears the plant (also known as the peek-a-boo or eyeball plant) to Jacobson. But its bronze-green leaves and petal-less yellow flowers topped with red eyes are also decorative in their own weird way.
French sorrel (Rumex scutatus). Jacobson prizes this little perennial among all the sorrels. It has attractive leaves, many of which are naturally bite-sized, and it’s long-lived and easily grown, he says, before musing about how some sorrel leaves taste acidic, others lemony, some a little sour.
Hummingbird mint (Agastache spp. and hybrids). Here’s a plant for creatures as well as humans to snack on. Agastaches have lovely bee- or butterfly-attracting flowers in bright colors atop willowy foliage, and a warm fragrance ranging from root beer to licorice.
Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). Spicy scarlet berries stud this evergreen groundcover all winter long. It grows ankle-high, with whorls of glossy leaves tinted red in winter, and in summer pinkish-white flowers. The berries taste like oil of wintergreen. The active ingredient in this oil is widely synthesized and used as a flavoring in chewing gum, toothpaste, breath fresheners, candy and medicines such as Pepto Bismol, Jacobson says.
A master of horticultural detail, Jacobson is as much garden sensualist as he is walking encyclopedia of plant lore. Or perhaps master cook, as shown in his list of indispensables selected to rouse our curiosity as well as entice the nose and spark the taste buds.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Julie Notarianni is a Seattle Times news artist.