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We’re Northwest gardeners who can’t help it: We plant palm trees.

By Erik Lacitis, The Seattle Times
Published: May 13, 2024, 6:00am

WE’RE A SMALL but determined group, those of us who raise tropical and subtropical plants in our gardens.

We understand some of you believe we should stick to traditional Northwest plants. What’s wrong with a nice rhododendron?

We have our reasons. For some of us, a subtropical plant reminds us of growing up in warmer climates. For others, it’s memories of that first trip to Hawaii.

For others … well, meet Paul Dutton, 37, a West Seattle techie.

He tells me, “There’s something about a fully opened palm frond waving in the breeze, crowded among shrubs, that is so pleasing to me.”

Dutton provides me with a list of the plants in his 5,100-square-foot garden. It is quite a list. It includes five kinds of palms; nine kinds of subtropical trees and shrubs, from scheffleras to eucalyptus; plus desert plants such as yuccas.

“When I really think about it, it started with childhood books I loved, like ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ which features really compelling jungle landscape illustrations. That artwork made a big impression on my taste,” he says. “When visiting places like Hawaii, Tulum [on the Caribbean coast of Mexico] and Costa Rica, I realized I felt more relaxed and at peace because I was surrounded by lush green foliage shading me from the hot sun.”

NOW MEET DANIELA CHOTO, 30, an executive assistant who lives in an apartment in Redmond.

No garden, but!

“I have slowly been turning my apartment into my own mini-greenhouse!” she says. “It definitely has been a struggle with the cold weather and lack of sun, but nothing a few grow lights and humidifiers can’t fix! My 56 plants and I are living our best lives in the PNW!”

That’s right: 56 plants crammed in there.

Choto grew up in Los Angeles, and her family had a business selling tropical plants.

“I missed our greenhouse and the luscious greenery,” she says. Now, every time she flies back for a visit, she brings back a plant or two as a carry-on.

Friends visiting her apartment inevitably say, “It’s a jungle!” It is, and proudly so. She’s gifting her friends plant cuttings. “They have a first-class ticket on the plant train. Even my boss is hopping on!”

MYSELF, I SPENT my childhood in various parts of South America. The memories stay.

I have two 25-foot windmill palms in our family garden, three banana plants and a pineapple guava. I’d plant more palms, but my spouse says no way. She’s in the native plants camp.

Still, in my home office, I have five ponytail palms in pots across the back of my desk. With their slender, arching leaves (hence the ponytail name), they produce a peaceful wall of green. Somebody I call for a quote hangs up on me for no particular reason? The ponytails send out calming vibes.

When you decide to go tropical, you inevitably get comments.

“Why don’t you stick to the natives?” And the ultimate insult, “This isn’t California.”

I got those when I asked my fellow tropical plant lovers to tell me their stories.

Dutton has gotten comments.

“I’m told I should plant rhodies, hydrangeas, lavender, Japanese maples,” he says.

He has a comeback: “None of them are natives to here.”

DUTTON HAS A POINT.

We do have rhododendrons native to Washington state, and the Pacific rhododendron is the state flower. But the reality is that most rhodies in our gardens “are hybrids from Himalayan or Asian species,” says Ray Larson, curator of living collections at the University of Washington Botanic Gardens.

Japanese maples — well, they’re what the name implies. In the Pacific Northwest, they’re grafted onto the rootstock of native vine maples because they survive dry summers better, he says.

Hydrangeas? “Mostly Japanese and Chinese species.”

Lavender? “Mediterranean.”

He has sympathy for us fans of tropicals who want something more than the usual Northwest garden plants.

Says Larson, “We have pretty limited flora, thanks to the glaciers. They scraped it all away. We had a mile-thick sheet of ice 10,000 years ago.”

IN THE NORTHWEST, palms are a symbol of the tropics. In a way, we’re just returning to our past. From 56 million to 50 million years ago, the Pacific Northwest was home to the genus Sabalites palm, which had fan-shaped leaves. Back then, our climate was subtropical, similar to southern Florida.

A 1995 paper, “Palm fossils from the Pacific Northwest,” co-authored by George Mustoe, a now-retired research associate in geology at Western Washington University, includes photos of a fossilized palm trunk and of a palm frond.

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These days, it is the windmill palm that’s most common here.

“It’s not the prettiest of palms, but it is extremely hardy,” says Ross Bayton, of Bremerton, director of the renowned Heronswood Garden in Kingston, now owned by the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. He earned his Ph.D. in plant taxonomy from the University of Reading in England.

Still, says Bayton, “Nothing looks like a palm tree except a palm tree. And nothing looks more exotic and tropical than a palm tree.”

He adds, “We live in a world of gray and brown. Our ancestors emigrated out of Africa, where they lived in a world of green. Somewhere in our psyche, we have a need for green.”

I STOPPED BY the family home of Ruoh-Shin Lumpkin, 50, of Kirkland.

“I was born in Singapore, and my parents grew up in a small town in Malaysia. They were the first from that town to go to college,” she tells me. “In Singapore, you live in high-rise buildings. I spent my summer vacations at my grandma’s.”

Lumpkin remembers fondly that Malaysian garden. “My grandma wrapped every single mango in newspapers, because in the tropics, you have to protect the fruit. The trees looked like they had lanterns.”

That was to keep out bugs, birds and “passersby known to help themselves,” she says.

In Kirkland, Lumpkin wanted to re-create some of those memories.

Her home has an 18-by-7-foot sunroom full of tropicals. They include a variegated kumquat, a hybrid so named because of its white and green variegated leaves and variegated fruit. A strawberry guava. A calamansi, also known as a calamondin, a hybrid between a lemon and a lime. Of course, a banana plant.

To further enhance those memories, some of the plants are in large, painted terra-cotta pots she brought here from Singapore.

Lumpkin tells me why the calamansi plant has a special meaning. “My grandma would send us bottles of homemade calamansi syrup, which, when added to water, makes a delicious juice. My heart aches when I think about her juicing all those little fruits,” she says.

ONE PLACE WHERE Lumpkin buys her plants is a nursery called Restoring Eden in SeaTac. If you want subtropicals, here they are — from a Flying Dragon Citrus (“reportedly hardy to at least 0 degrees”) to a Carmen-Hass avocado (hardy to 32 degrees).

The nursery was started in 2016 by Troy Picou, who then was going to a bible college and needing to earn money. He began by raising vegetables at his parents’ property and selling them on a subscription basis to people he knew.

That first year, Picou remembers, he had to sell his car to get by. He expanded to selling blueberry plants, and in 2019, on the advice of a customer, he tried subtropicals. “Seattle is kind of temperate. We don’t get that cold. We’re right on the border,” says Picou, meaning plant hardiness zones. The USDA has Seattle in Zone 9a, the same as northern Florida.

He flew to Southern California, rented a truck and went to wholesale nurseries. “I started with citrus plants — mandarins, limes, oranges. Some of them are cold hardy for this area,” says Picou. In Chinese culture, orange is associated with luck and good health. “If there’s a plant that has orange fruit, it sells,” he says.

This year, Picou expects gross sales of $1 million. He’s no longer an ordained minister.

FOR SURE I would hear from tropical plant enthusiasts if I didn’t mention Jerry Cearley’s nursery.

Those visiting the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, or coming off the nearby state ferry from Vashon, can’t help but notice the giant timber bamboo and orange sign along North Pearl Street proclaiming, “NURSERY FOR THE ADVENTUROUS GARDENER.” Then, on the gate on North 51st Street, “JUNGLE FEVER EXOTICS.”

The nursery was started in 1995 by Cearley, 64, and his partner, glass artist Darlene Allard. A trip to Hawaii was the catalyst. Sorry, no website for the nursery. Cearley is old-tech.

The nursery is crowded with painted rocks and assorted statues. A Yelp review says, “It’s not a tidy, organized type of nursery with everything lined up in rows. It’s funky and different — and for me, that adds to the appeal.”

Just recently, says Cearley, “A lady came in and said it was like being inside an LSD flashback.”

At the other end of the block is Cearley’s home. It is a continuation of the nursery’s tropical kingdom, with a bridge he constructed in the backyard to walk in between the plants. From the outside, you also can see blue beer bottles (the distinctive Bud Light Platinum, “brewed for the night” beer) hanging from a fig tree. It’s Cearley’s way of commemorating Allard, who died in 2012 of an aneurysm.

It is an unusual world that he’s constructed.

A SHORT DRIVE from Jungle Fever Exotics lives Sue Walla, whom I visited after she replied to my request for stories.

“I’m growing a Meyer lemon for my sister, Pam, who we lost July 15 last summer. This shrub is growing in her soil. HER soil. Her body went to Recompose. This soil is her,” Walla wrote me. “She was a gardener, and now she’s part of a garden. It’s somehow soothing for me.”

Recompose is the Seattle funeral home that advertises itself as “the first human composting company in the world,” turning your loved one into soil.

The Meyer lemon is named after Frank Meyer, a plant explorer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who in 1908 brought back from China what’s believed to be a hybrid between a lemon and a mandarin orange. The subtropical is considered the most winter-hardy of all lemon varietals.

Walla holds up the potted tree. In the winter, it’s sheltered in a small greenhouse. It’s thriving.

“I wanted a Meyer lemon. Their blooms smell wonderful, and if they produce fruit, that’s a bonus,” she tells me. “I like to touch the soil. I did that the other day. Sometimes that makes me cry.”

IN THE BACKSTORY that goes along with this story, you can read about another living memorial to a tropical plant lover.

This one consists of an entire block in Fremont with 27 palm trees divided between the planting strips on each side of the street, plus dozens more Alain Lucier planted on neighbors’ properties, and, at one point, 600 on his double lot.

They’re all due to Lucier, whom I think of as The Palm Tree Patron of Seattle. He died of a heart attack last Dec. 2 at age 72.

We’re a persistent bunch, those who grow tropicals. Right now, we’re hoping our banana plants survived winter’s harsh temperatures.

AT HIS HOME in Magnolia, John Spaulding has a dozen kinds of palm trees. Two of them took a hit this past winter.

“If you want to plant something and not deal with it for the next 10 years, this field is not for you,” he says. “This kind of stuff is not for the fainthearted.”

He tells me he also has been accused of trying to Californicate the neighborhood.

He shrugs it off.

Truthfully, even those sticking to growing tropical plants only indoors shouldn’t take it too personally if they don’t make it, says Shaun Murphy, owner of the Indoor Sun Shoppe in Fremont. His parents started the shop in 1970.

Most indoor plants are tropicals.

“A lot of people take it to heart. ‘Oh, man; I’ll kill the plant.” he says. “If they only knew how many plants don’t make it in the industry. These plants are grown in Florida, California, sometimes Hawaii, and shipped to the Northwest.”

The inevitable happens, says Murphy. “We don’t have Florida conditions,” he points out, even indoors.

But when your love is tropicals, you just have to believe.

BRIAN KEITH, 48, of Sumner, who works for a digital game company, has a small backyard swimming pool surrounded by banana plants, palms and bamboo.

He tells me, “I lived in Puerto Rico when I was younger and loved the tropical, Caribbean feel. I’d prefer to live in the tropics, but my wife is from the Seattle area, and all her family is around here.

“Turning our yard into the tropics was the consolation prize. The house had a palm tree in the yard already, and I started doing research on what other tropical-looking plants I could grow. I now refer to my backyard as ‘Puerto Rico, Washington.’ ‘”

Take it from us tropical plant admirers.

It might be cold, rainy and gray out there.

That palm tree in your yard is telling you: Surf’s up.

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