When my wife and I first bought our home in 2000, the central focus of the front yard was a Littleleaf Linden (Tilia americana) that would get decimated by Japanese beetles each summer, becoming completely defoliated by the end of July. When our son was born in 2002, we decided we would remove the Linden and replace it with an evergreen so he could have a Christmas tree outside his window each holiday season.
In April 2003, we cut down the Linden, removed the stump and went shopping at a local nursery. We settled on a five foot blue spruce (Picea pungens) with the humorous name of ‘Fat Albert’. While the price tag of $300 seemed steep at the time, the tree was extremely beautiful and healthy.
Now, nearly nine years later, ‘Al’ (our affectionate shorthand for ‘Fat Albert’) has grown into an incredible specimen of a tree that’s never needed an ounce of coddling or pruning. It’s grown so well, we often wonder if we should have given it a little more space in the garden.
This tree is very much a part of our family history, but what about its own history?
Picea pungens as a species was classified by botanist George Englemann in 1879 after the species originally was thought to be Abies menziesii. A sample of Englemann’s original identification of this tree in the Abies genus is available in the Missouri Botanic Garden herbarium collection. The species is the official tree of both Colorado and Utah, two states where my wife and I have spent wonderful vacations.
The P. pungens seedling that became know as ‘Fat Albert’ was identified in 1978 by Jean Iseli, founder of Iseli Nursery in Boring, Oregon. According to Adrian Bloom in Gardening with Conifers (2001), the name ‘Fat Albert’ was suggested to Jean Iseli by Don Howse, an friend of the the nursery. As you might expect, the name is inspired by the well-known cartoon character created by Bill Cosby.
‘Fat Albert’ is one of the Jean Iseli Signature Series of Conifers. I hadn’t heard of Iseli Nursery until last fall when I visited their display in the vendor expo at the Garden Writers of America conference in Indianapolis. Little did I know I’d been growing one of their flagship evergreens in my garden for nearly a decade.
Tree expert Michael Dirr, while questioning how Picea pungens can fit in an overall landscape and considering the species overused, notes that ‘Fat Albert’ had “outstanding” uniformity in the specimens he saw at Iseli Nursery.
Jean Iseli died unexpectedly in 1986. I hope to someday visit the memorial garden in his honor at Iseli Nursery to honor the man who saw such promise in a tiny sapling more than 30 years ago. As a result of Iseli’s keen eye, I can pull into my driveway each day, look at ‘Al’, and know that my garden’s history is intertwined with such a passionate plantsman.
(1) Bloom, Andrian. Gardening with Conifers. London: Frances Lincoln, 2001. Accessed February 22, 2012 at http://books.google.com/books?id=8iLMEzSlk9gC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false (2) 'Picea pungens 'Fat Albert'. Miller Nursery. Web. February 22, 2012. http://www.millernursery.com/helpfullInformation/spring2001PiceaPungensFatAlbert.htm (3) 'The Jean Iseli Signature Series of Conifers'. Iseli Nursery. Web. February 22, 2012. http://www.iselinursery.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=57&Itemid=64 (4) Dirr, Michael. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses. Champaign, IL: Stipes Pub., 1998. Print. (5) 'Picea pungens'. The Gymnosperm Database. Web. February 22, 2012. http://www.conifers.org/pi/Picea_pungens.php (6) 'Picea'. Southwest Colorado Wildflowers. Web. February 22, 2012. http://www.swcoloradowildflowers.com/tree%20enlarged%20photo%20pages/picea.htm (7) 'Picea pungens'. Wikipedia. Web. February 22, 2012 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picea_pungens