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Return to Oregon: Saddle Mountain

November 20, 2019
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I lived in Oregon for a year whilst interning at Iseli Nursery (wholesale growers of conifers and ornamental trees and shrubs). In August 2019, I was lucky enough to return to the US to give two talks: at the Far West Trade Show and the American Conifer Society.

I’ll share the story of my trip in installments. The first is my visit to Saddle Mountain (the tallest mountain in Clatsop County).

Waking at 5.30am the next day, we set off for a hike to Saddle Mountain – a botanically diverse area only a short drive: 1.5 hours (the American idea of a short drive is much different to us Brits!). The mountain is home to the beautiful compact Lewisia columbiana subsp. rupicola at its most southern distribution. It is more commonly found in British Columbia and Washington. The delicate pink-to-purple flowered Lewisia is one of my favourites of the 20 species (several stunning cultivars are worth seeing too) but sadly seldom found in Oregon. Its dense evergreen rosettes are very compact and are just as mesmeric as the environment it grows in. We struggle with rot in Scotland during our winter wet period so often grow them under cover. However, much to my surprise, they can be grown outdoors in Norway (Tromso Botanic Garden) staying dry under a blanket of snow.

Myself, Paul (propagation manager at Iseli Nursery), his wife Cathy and Homer (an old chocolate labrador) embarked on our journey to the mountain. We hiked through the lower levels of moss-covered coniferous forest, with carpeted Oxalis either side of the woodland path. The dense, spongy moss draped over the tree branches above us as we walked slowly up the first of many hills. The path was fairly quiet at the start with only a few hikers present. One of the highlights was a large 16ft boulder covered in Selaginella wallacei on the more shaded, wetter side. This pendulous club moss was flowing over the rock with Polypodium sp.

As we continued, we found Castilleja miniata and Aquilegia formosa. These iconic American plants are much loved by many gardeners. The former is classed as a rarity in California but is more commonly found in Oregon. From the Orobanchaceae family, this parasitic plant (on grasses like Bouteloua gracilis) has crimson-to-scarlet flowers with the deeper colour in sunnier situations.The latter red columbine is widely distributed on the west coast of America and an emphatic woodlander. I was on the hunt for some of the saprophytic species of Orchidaceae and Ericaceae. Sadly, there were none to be found but Piperia elegans was indeed an elegant orchid, its tight spikelet of showy white flowers made it a delight to see.

More sunny exposed areas were covered in Sedum oreganum along with Allium cernuum growing on the sandy, shallow soils underneath in full sun – on basalt fragments dating back to the ice age (Miocene period). The baking sun and steep incline provides good drainage. This is also the location for Lewisia columbiana subsp. rupicola but was seldom found. We found less than 50 rosettes and, sadly, I suspect that some may have been removed due to the attractiveness of the plant. The lillies beneath looked to be deadheaded, against the strict rules of ‘No Picking Flowers’ due to the botanical significance of the preserved area. A sister genus Monti parviflora, Saxifraga bronchialis and Campanula rotundifolia were also growing on these steep slopes in between the small rocks. Micranthes ferruginea caught my eye as the flowering stem forms little plantlets and seed. Genetic work has reclassified Micranthes from its original place as a Saxifraga, with the bulk of the diversity in North America but with some outliers in China (M.melanocentra, a stunning plant).

We saw a beautiful, small shrub en route to the summit: Cladothamnus pyroliflores (syn. Elliottia pyroliflores) has attractive flowers with upward-facing stigma like the genus Pyrola (hence the name). This genus is rarely found in commerce despite being an attractive plant with good autumn colour and a suspected hardiness of down to -15°C. It’s a plant I see potential for in the trade and hope to investigate further. The noble fir (Abies procera) was marking the final steps before the top. Sadly, it was a cloudy day and the views of the surrounding mountains and coastline were hidden. Being Scottish, I am used to clouds though and cannot complain!

Image of Connor Smith Connor Smith

Connor Smith began his horticulture career working at a garden centre which quickly rose to become one of the best in Scotland. After completing his first year of study, he was accepted to work as an intern for the world-renowned conifer and maple grower Iseli Nursery - becoming one of the first non-American interns to be extended since the inception of the programme in 1987.

Returning to Scotland, Connor received an offer to work for Zu Jeddeloh nursery in Germany where he witnessed cutting edge machinery, innovation and marketing. A short spell with Kevock Garden followed, where he participated in one of their Gold Medal-winning displays at the Chelsea Flower Show. Then, it was on to Vannucci Piante in Pistoia, Italy - the largest growing area in Europe.

Connor gained an interested in alpine plants when working under alpine expert Elspeth MacKintosh at RBGE. Elspeth’s passion and knowledge inspired Connor to further pursue a world in alpine plants. In 2019, he worked for the Schachen Alpine Garden high in the German mountains on a Merlin Trust placement.

Connor has written articles on various plant groups both national and international. He has lectured in America, Italy and Britain and is based at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.