Years ago, while enrolled in a landscape design program, the first set of courses I was required to take involved learning about 300 trees and shrubs that are well-suited to planting in the mid-Atlantic area. The courses were called (innovatively enough), Fall I, Fall II, Spring I, Spring II, and Summer. They were taught primarily at the National Arboretum on weekday mornings, rain or shine. When “Spring I” rolled around, it was January. What in the world, I wondered, would we be shown that could possibly be interesting? How many hollies could the world hold? Would winter’s cold be the only thing keeping me awake for three hours each Friday morning?
Then I visited the Gotelli Collection of Dwarf and Slow-Growing Conifers at the Arboretum, and my ideas about evergreen plants changed forever. The variety of colors (greens, blue-greens, variegated-tipped species, and every shade in between the basics) and textures was overwhelming. Many trees and shrubs were unusually shaped – spreading, stubby, rounded. Planted with grasses, crape myrtles, Japanese maples, star magnolias and other deciduous plants, they created gorgeous contrasts for the eye. In snow, they were even more arresting.
Since then, I have returned many times – for design inspiration, to take photographs, and to see the collection in every season. I’ve also learned a little bit about how the Collection came into being. In 1962, a New Jersey businessman, William T. Gotelli, donated his personal collection of conifers to the Arboretum so that it would not be dispersed. It consisted of over 800 varieties of conifers, 600 varieties of rhododendrons and many Japanese maples. At the time, Mr. Gotelli estimated the collection’s worth at over half a million dollars. The USNA’s acquisition of the collection led to its staff developing a deeper interest in the area of dwarf and slow-growing conifers.
The Collection is now recognized as one of the finest of its kind in the world. According to the Arboretum’s website, the climate there allows it to grow conifers from widely varying climates, including some that are native to areas near the Arctic Circle and others that are almost subtropical. In my program, we tended to study the less exotic species, but even those can be breathtaking when grown to full size (a cautionary lesson for a garden designer).
If you visit the Gotelli Collection on your own, allow for plenty of time if you want to see it all, as it is spread out over a large area on the New York Avenue side of the Arboretum. There are grass paths between the beds that allow for easy wandering, and at the far end of the collection is a small pond with one of the highlights of the Collection – a bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) with knobby “knees” peeking out of the water’s surface. (Like the dawn redwood, or Metasequoia glyptostroboides, shown below, bald cypress is one of the very few conifers that sheds its needles during the winter.)
For additional information about the Gotelli Collection, visit the Arboretum’s website (www.usna.usda.gov) or see Dwarf & Unusual Conifers Coming of Age: A Guide to Mature Garden Conifers, by Sandra Cutler (Barton-Bradley Crossroads Publishing Co., 1997)