NATURE ENCOURAGES US TO SLOW DOWN: she doesn’t reveal her secrets to the high-speed crowd. This was true even back in 1904, when two men were waiting on a train platform at Lake Laggan, in Banff, Alberta, Canada. The train was late, and with time on their hands, the pair started roaming the surrounding landscape. There is a good chance that what they found then grows in your garden today.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the gents were from the Arnold Arboretum, the branch of Harvard dedicated to the collection and study of plants. John George Jack’s career started in 1886 as the keeper of plant records, but his knowledge of both the theoretical and practical aspects of horticulture soon had him identifying specimens, caring for the live collections, and teaching students. His walks around the arboretum to examine and discuss notable trees and shrubs became popular with the public. His accomplice, Alfred Rehder, was a horticultural aristocrat, given that his father and grandfathers directed estates for European counts and princes. He started out weeding at the Arnold for a dollar a day, but quickly became a taxonomist who eventually wrote the eminently useful “Manual of Cultivated Trees and Shrubs Hardy in North America,” a book that can still be found on gardener’s bookshelves.
The plant the professors found was a conifer, but it stood only a few inches high. The light green needles, ¼ to ½ inch long, radiated around the stem, making it radically different from the white spruces (Picea glauca) which stood nearby. The specimens they brought back to Boston grew very slowly, only a couple of inches per year, and developed into extremely dense, conical shaped plants. This habit provided the plant’s scientific name, Picea glauca ‘Conica,’ better known as the Dwarf Alberta Spruce. Eighteen years later, the arboretum’s journal, the “Bulletin of Popular Information,” described the trees as almost three feet tall and “one of the most interesting and distinct of all the dwarf conifers.”
Things might have ended there, with the mini spruce living as a botanical curiosity behind the Arnold’s gates, but the “Bulletin” foretold the future when it stated that the plant was “getting attention in England” and was being grown in a few U.S. nurseries. Soon, more gardeners became interested in rock gardens, which require small plants, and the Dwarf Alberta Spruce fit the bill. In ensuing years, with the suburbanization of America, the shrinking of yards and the demand for plants with winter interest, sales of this spruce skyrocketed. Today, these little fat Alberts grow in foundation plantings, backyards, at the strip mall and even in front of the U.S. Post Office in Castleton-on-Hudson.
While requiring not much fuss, owners of Dwarf Alberta Spruces must watch for two issues. First, spider mites can cause needle death and drop, leaving the cone with an unsightly bald patch. Second, specimens sometimes start to revert to the true spruce form, sprouting larger branches up top. If not removed, the dwarf slowly becomes a strange hybrid monster, yet another natural mystery. Examine the Castleton Albert and you can see both.
To contact David Chinery, horticultural educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email