Learning to love a Puget Sound winter

A sequoia Credit: Jackie Hiltz

On a November day in 1999, I left western Montana, then a drab landscape of bare trees, brown hills, and gray skies. Those dreary colors matched my mood as I drove west on I-90 up and over three passes into Seattle. Montana had been my home for many years, and I was sad to leave.

On the other side of the Cascades and into the Emerald City, my eyes revealed a simple truth: I wasn’t in Montana anymore. The gray skies had followed me, but in late November, so much green – camellias, rhododendrons, viburnums, ferns, vibrant lawns. And trees with persistent leaves, needles, and scaly foliage. Accustomed to brown and intermittent white for months on end, all that conspicuous green served as consolation for loss of home.

And indeed so did the gardening opportunities. For in the Pacific Northwest just about anything grows, I learned soon enough. But it took me some time to circle back in on what is probably self-evident to most folks here — the understated stalwarts of the Pacific Northwest landscape are the evergreen conifers. In the spring, summer, and fall they stoically serve as context for our plantings and as deep background in our forests. In the winter they shift to center stage, whether towering or diminutive, drooping, erect, or curvy, and in hues of blue, gold, and green.

Even after 13 years here, I can complain about the gray, wet skies of winter and brief warm temperatures of dry summer with the best of them, but at the same time I appreciate living in a climate that supports such an abundance of pines, spruces, firs, yews, cypresses, cedars, and junipers. During our relatively balmy, rainy winters, conifers with their slender leaves, or needles, can continue to create and store the food they need to thrive — an advantage, along with drought adaptations, they have over their deciduous counterparts.

Of course, I love the old native conifers: the Douglas-fir, known botanically as Pseudotsuga menziesii, with its funny cones of 3-pronged bracts that resemble the tail and hind legs of tiny mice, and the western redcedar, or Thuja plicata, of the reddish-brown, shaggy bark and flattened sprays of needles. But in my mind’s garden planted out in the Pacific Northwest, a place of many acres and no neighbors, there would be Japanese red pines, mountain and western hemlocks, redwoods, weeping Alaska yellow-cedars, Hinoki cypresses, and Atlas and Deodar cedars — a collection that, on second thought, would benefit from the addition of some western redcedars and Doug-firs.

I still miss Montana — those wide, open spaces, the lack of traffic, the easy access to the outdoors, my quirky friends. But I have long since adapted to the Pacific Northwest and made it my home.

As we head into the winter season, I savor the coniferous stars of this landscape as they shine during these short days of rain, mist, and frost, and, come spring, graciously recede to the background to make way for spring bulbs and frondescence, summer perennials, and flowering trees and shrubs.

A version of this story appeared previously on SouthendSeattle.com.

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