Friday, January 27, 2012

Abies Species in the Flora Wonder™ Arboretum Part 2

Abies procera 'Glauca'

I look out the office window and see an Abies procera, a large stately tree with blue foliage. I have, but probably shouldn't have, used the cultivar designation 'Glauca' for this wonderful tree, because many in the wild are blue or blueish, and who knows if there was ever one prototype 'Glauca'. In fact, the origin of my specimen was from a Dutch nurseryman's garden, from a twenty-year-old tree he labeled Abies procera 'Glauca Prostrata'. The source of my original scion was a tree no more than one foot tall, but at least ten feet in width, a dense blue groundcover. For me, it promptly grew skyward, and now, thirty years later, it would make a splendid choice for the nation's Christmas tree.

Abies magnifica

Abies magnifica

There are many wonderful cultivars of Abies procera, some with golden foliage, or weeping, or dwarfs originating from witch's brooms etc.--but now we only cover Abies species, as I have originally promised. While Abies procera, the "Noble Fir," comes from my backyard--Oregon and Washington--let's consider a close relative, Abies magnifica. This is the "California Red Fir," in many respects just the southern version of Abies procera. Abies magnifica will grow more short of the two species, and its cones will be slightly smaller as well. The foliage of Abies magnifica is often more green than procera, for reasons I do not know, although some in the wild can be quite blue. According to Krussmann's Manual of Cultivated Conifers, Abies procera differs from magnifica due to "the distinctly furrowed apex of the needles and in not having a rectangular cross section of the needle." Oh, I hadn't noticed. While California is justly famous for wonderful tree species, I'm anxious to conclude that Oregon's Abies procera is more "magnificent" than California's Abies magnifica.

Saya Buchholz in a "Noble Fir" field

One further note about Abies procera is that it has been my only choice for a Christmas tree for over twenty years. Yes, annually my family goes to a Christmas tree farm and we cut a Noble Fir--for there is no species more beautiful. "My God," friends exclaim, "why do you have a cut tree, why not dig a living tree from your nursery?" The answer is simply that a Christmas tree farm produces a crop, trees that feed a family. For a mere $35 I can buy a ten-year-old tree that has grown at least seven feet tall, and then after three weeks of stress in my house, toss it into the bushes. I don't have any ten-year-old trees that are worth $35 or less, and again, I'm pleased to support another family's livelihood. Also, I'd rather do without Christmas than to have a fake Christmas tree. Who's the knucklehead that would give his dear wife fake flowers for her birthday? Or propose to her with a fake diamond ring? Well, a loser, you know.


Abies delavayi var. delavayi


Picea likiangensis var. forrestii

From Oregon, dig a hole deep enough and you'll come out the other side in China, and there grows Abies delavayi. Twenty five years ago I flew to China, and hiked into the mountains of Yunnan province. China, the "mother of gardens," still has a few trees left. At lower elevations was the fabulous Picea likiangensis, the George Forrest species from the Likiang region. Its cones are perhaps the most spectacular of any conifer species. But Abies delavayi is incredible too, with rich dark-blue cones arising above fresh green leaves. It was wonderful to witness this species in the alpine zone of the Jade Dragon Mountains.

I won't go into the lumper-splitter world of botanical nomenclature. I sat under an Abies, that's all I know, while I ate tasteless Chinese crackers and an old chicken egg. So I don't really know the difference between Abies delavayi and the similar Abies forrestii, let alone var. smithii, or georgei. I could smell the true firs, 12,000 feet in the mountains, and that was all the reality I needed. I collected no seed, as these Abies species or varieties have already been introduced into western arboreta a hundred years ago, and the world's botanists can duel over nomenclature indefinitely, for all I care.

Abies delavayi var. nukiangensis

I will, however, make the reader aware of another form of Abies delavayi, the variety (or separate species?) Abies delavayi var. nukiangensis. This comes from the upper Nukiang or Salween River valley in northwest Yunnan…so, a more northern version of Abies delavayi var. delavayi. It is, in my opinion, the most ornamental form of delavayi. The deep-green needles display vivid silver stomata bands beneath. And again, the fresh scent of this fir is reason enough to grow it; but you must be in a USDA zone 7 area to pull it off. My oldest specimen resides in the Conifer Field at the nursery, a wonderful twenty five-year-old tree with a pyramidal shape, and I'll proudly show it to anyone who cares.

Abies holophylla

Further north, in China, one finds Abies holophylla, a species native to northeast China and Korea, known as the "Manchurian Fir." This species is hardy to USDA zone 5 and forms a columnar crown at maturity. Needles are prickly, colored light green with pale stomata bands beneath. Really, there's nothing so great about Abies holophylla until you witness its trunk. As loyal readers know, I'm a "trunk" man, a bark aficionado, for an attractive trunk helps all plantsmen through the long winter. Maybe Abies squamata, the "Flaky Bark Fir," featured in last week's blog, is the most ornamental of all fir trunks, but Abies holophylla is not shabby at all. To me, its exfoliating bark is similar to the spruces, in particular Picea breweriana.

Abies koreana

We'll consider one final species, Abies koreana. This is perhaps the most popular (worldwide) of all, and there exists over one hundred cultivars of it I'm sure. But Abies koreana itself is a fantastic garden conifer. It is slow-growing--I have thirty five-year-old specimens that are only fifteen fee tall--and tends to produce ornamental cones, even at a young age. Notice the purplish cones and see the spiral pattern of the bracts. Some consider Abies koreana as hardy to only USDA zone 6, but growers in USDA zone 4 (-30 degrees F) are repeat customers for my Korean Fir. In any case, sharp drainage is a requirement for most true firs, while Abies koreana is generally considered one of the most successful to grow of all.

Abies koreana

I'm tempted to go on, as I have at least a dozen more species I could mention, but I'll leave it well enough fir now. Abies, I guess, is my favorite genus of all conifers, and no serious plant collection in the northern hemisphere could be without some.

Abies species in the Flora Wonder™ Arboretum

Friday, January 20, 2012

Abies Species in the Flora Wonder™ Arboretum

Abies in the Flora Wonder™ Arboretum

This week we'll explore some of the Abies species which I currently grow, or have grown in the past. I will not include every species, and certainly will not include the hundreds of cultivars that are in the collection. I have personal experience with this select group: they stand proudly alone, without the adornments of unusual color, form or other attributes that lead to cultivarhood. They come from around the world in the northern hemisphere, and many I have seen in the wild, but most I have not.

To be sure, most Abies species have little to offer for general horticulture; even though well-grown specimens are undeniably beautiful, they are considered too slow and far too finicky for the average gardener. Also, most retail plant outlets are not in favor of stocking obscure species, sticking to more reliable or familiar cultivars. In part, my success in horticulture has been to bridge this gap, although sales of various Abies species has never been great.

Abies squamata

In the 1980's I acquired A Monograph of the Species Abies by the Chinese botanist, Tang-shui Liu. I was intrigued by the Chinese species Abies squamata, known as the "Flaky Fir." It was virtually unknown in American collections…except the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University supposedly had one. It was not easy to persuade the lofty plantsmen of Harvard to send a couple of scions to a little start-up collection in Oregon, but they did. Unfortunately, they sent Abies chensiensis or something else, but not the true squamata, which I realized a few years later.


Abies squamata 'Flaky'

In the meantime, I had acquired Abies squamata elsewhere, which proved to be correct. To keep the true squamata separate from the false, I assigned the name 'Flaky' to the correct source. This is a measure one must take in a commercial nursery setting with employees offering varying degrees of attention and commitment. Eventually I sent back to the Arnold a start of the correct Abies squamata, for which I received no thanks, and today don't know what became of that tree. Certainly squamata is cold-hardy for Boston (USDA zone 5).

Abies squamata 'Flaky'

Abies squamata is attractive enough, with short deep-green needles and white round buds. Erect cones in spring are deep blue, resembling Abies koreana in size and color. The primary attraction, however, is the reddish-brown exfoliating bark. It looks for all the world like the "Paperbark Maple," Acer griseum. Abies squamata comes from northern China, on the border with Tibet, a dry high-altitude environment. I have never grown one from seed, but rather graft it onto Abies balsamea var. phanerolepis, the "Canaan Fir," a rootstock that is adaptable to many American regions. The borrowing of another species as rootstock is common in horticulture (even though many arboreta frown upon such a concept), because the "improved" rootstock can lead to more vigorous growth and the tolerance of many more climates and soil types. A perfect example of this is the use of "Norway Spruce," Picea abies, to propagate "Brewer's Weeping Spruce," Picea breweriana.

Abies bracteata at the Hoyt Arboretum in Portland, Oregon

A beautiful, but ultimately large species, Abies bracteata, comes from a very restricted range in the Santa Lucia mountains of coastal California. This USDA zone 7 fir is known as the "Bristlecone Fir" due to the whispy bottle brush-like cone bracts. The green foliage is prickly like a Cunninghamia, or "China Fir," while the orange-brown buds are most ornamentally large and spindle-shaped in later winter. I grew Abies bracteata beginning in the early 1980's, my start coming from plantsman Dr. Corbin of Portland, Oregon, and from then on I referred to it as Abies bracteata 'Corbin'. Propagating from an attractive tree in someone's garden doesn't really qualify for cultivar status; but again, I was just trying to keep my sources distinct.

Abies bracteata 'Corbin'

Five or more years ago a friend and I ventured from Highway 1 on the southern California coast, up a steep little road which became progressively worse…into the perpendicular canyons of the Bristlecones. We could look back and see the Pacific, for we had gained close to 3000' in altitude, while only a short distance inland. Clouds swirled by and I must admit that I got the shakes on the narrow gravel road. Fortunately the road ended and we parked at the base of a narrow-spired Abies bracteata specimen. The cones had already disintegrated, so I could do no more than gather a handful of seed. Retreating down the mountain was far more nerve-wracking than the ascent.

Abies bracteata in the Santa Lucia Mountains

One wonders how or why anyone, without the benefit of a road, would climb into these rugged mountains; then furthermore to have the botanical training to recognize a new species. In fact, the original discovery of Abies bracteata is just as cloudy as its mountainous habitat. In George Gordon's "synopsis of all the coniferous plants at present known…," called The Pinetum, published in London in 1858, he claims that it was first discovered by David Douglas on the "mountains along the Columbia River." Of course, it was not. Afterwards, Gordon claims, it was seen by Dr. Coulter and Hartweg in the Santa Lucia Mountains--it was.

Imagine my surprise when the spring 2006 publication of American Forests, in an issue describing "champion trees"--and promoting the discovery of new champions--claimed that the Bristlecone Fir could be found in Oregon, as well as Colorado and Idaho! If I thought I could see Abies bracteata in Oregon or anywhere else, I would instantly drop everything and make the pilgrimage. I wrote to American Forests for an explanation of the goof, then again without response. Disgusted, I never renewed my subscription.

The truth of the matter, according to Veitch's Manual of the Coniferae, published in 1900, is that the original discoverer was David Douglas in the Santa Lucia range in 1830, then seen by Coulter shortly thereafter. While Douglas, Coulter and also Hartweg all saw the bristlecones, it was William Lobb, then working for the Veitch firm, who first collected viable seed in 1853, from which "originated the oldest trees…now growing in Europe." I was delighted to see a preserved cone at Bedgebury, the national conifer collection in England, home to the largest conifer collection in the world.

In Charles Saunders' With the Flowers and Trees in California, published in 1923, Abies bracteata (or venusta) "exudes an aromatic gum" which was used by Franciscan missionaries as "fuel for their censers." Possibly this "arbol de incienso," or incense tree, led to its secondary discovery by Dr. Coulter, who spent time at the nearby mission in 1831. I love my old tree and botanical-exploration books: they are so full of information. But, just like today's world of internet, they are occasionally wrong. Even so with my blogs, as a few of you have suggested instances where I've been wrong. That's good, and thank you.

Abies pindrow

Continuing, Abies pindrow, the "West Himalayan Fir," forms an impressive large pillar at maturity. In the garden setting it is slow-growing, but it displays the most luxuriant foliage of any Abies species, as its needles are very long, soft and lush in color. Imagine a pillow of pindrow, the most friendly of any conifer, except perhaps Pseudolarix amabilis. But careful there, as E.H. Wilson claims the species name is derived from the Sanskrit words "Pind," or incense, and "Roo," or "Row," to weep, "from the numerous resinous tears found on the cones and other parts of the tree." So careful not to awaken with gooey hair.

Abies pindrow

Abies pindrow in spring

The only problem with Abies pindrow is its lack of hardiness (USDA zone 7) for most of the United states, and also its susceptibility to late spring frosts. But I have a number of thirty-year-old specimens in my collection, and once established, they easily recover from spring frosts. Particularly beautiful is the chartreuse-colored new growth, which contrasts with the older dark-green foliage.

 Abies cilicica

I indulge the reader to consider one more species of "true fir," Abies cilicica, the "Cilician Fir." One might assume that it is native to Sicily, but not so (Abies nebrodensis is, however). In my collection, Abies cilicica--three c's, three i's, or you've got it wrong--is a handsome pyramidal tree, somewhat resembling the "Caucasian Fir," Abies nordmanniana. Abies cilicica needles are more light green than nordmanniana, and more thin, with gray-silver undersides. The species features the longest cones in the genus. If space allows, it displays a very Christmas tree-like shape, at least in Oregon. This species is rare in cultivation, but I find it easy to grow, with few if any diseases. That's odd, for rainy Oregon is far different than cilicica's native habitat in the mountains of Turkey, Syria and Lebanon.

By chance, I live close to the old farm of the late Otto Solburger, a Christmas tree grower who collected an outstanding group of conifers, maybe to try as Christmas trees, but more likely just for the heck of it. I never met the man, but his widow kindly allowed me to harvest scions. His world-class collection included Abies pindrow, Abies cilicica, Abies numidica, Pinus gerardiana, Cupressus bakeri and many more. He also had a wonderful cultivar of "Douglas Fir," Pseudotsuga menziesii 'Skyline', a snake-branch form found nearby. This treasure trove of conifers was revealed to me by Dr. Forest Bump of Forest Grove, Oregon. Dr. Bump generously shared plants and information with me at the critical beginning of my career. Without his help I may have failed in horticulture, living instead a shallow life of delivering newspapers, or perhaps selling insurance.

An Abies forest in Bhutan

Finally, while I should acknowledge that much of my Abies species information comes from my old books, there are also three more recent sources. The most comprehensive is the fascinating A Monograph of the Genus Abies by Tang-shui Liu (1971). Secondly, Conifers by Keith Rushforth (1987). Thirdly, Krussmann's Manual of Cultivated Conifers (1985), a Timber Press publication full of scientific facts and interesting information, but so poorly arranged that I have never resourced it without swearing in frustration.

A continued elaboration on the species of Abies will follow in next week's blog.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Spectacular Golden Conifers Part 2

Pinus sylvestris 'Aurea'
Last week I discussed how golden conifers can brighten the winter landscape, but in my opinion they should be used sparingly. It is also important to consider what they are planted next to, what the color is of their neighbors. Dark foliage as a backdrop will improve the drama of a golden conifer. Red and gold combine well, and so does blue and gold. The Pinus sylvestris 'Aureas' at the beginning of this blog were on a slope in our Blue Forest, and beneath them I planted a mass of Picea pungens 'Procumbens'. On a clear winter day, with the sun at the viewer's back, you could see a patch of bright blue on the ground, then the golden pines in the middle, then the blue sky above. It made for a wonderful vista; but I use the past tense because, sadly, the old pines became infested with scale, and they were edited from the scene with a chainsaw.

Pinus sylvestris 'Gold Medal'

Pinus sylvestris 'Gold Coin'

Pinus contorta 'Chief Joseph'

The loss of the 'Aurea's wasn't so great, as there are much better cultivars available today. Pinus sylvestris 'Gold Coin' is more dwarf than 'Aurea' and a much brighter gold…so much so, that it rivals the famous Pinus contorta 'Chief Joseph'. Pinus sylvestris 'Gold Medal' is also very good, and grows at twice the rate of 'Gold Coin'.

Pinus strobus 'Louie'
Pinus mugo 'Carsten's Wintergold'


Pinus mugo 'Ophir'

Other species of pines have show-offs as well. Pinus strobus 'Louie' is a soft gold in color, and soft to the touch. Two mugo pine, 'Ophir' and 'Carsten's Wintergold', are fairly new in the trade. Both require full sun for best color. 'Ophir' is greenish until the arrival of winter, while 'Carsten's Wintergold' is more completely golden throughout the year. By the way, it absolutely irks me that we have to include the "Carsten's" part of the name. Who cares about Carsten? It is such poor form to have your name included in a plant name. Thankfully K.J. Kraan of Holland left 'Ophir' alone.

Pinus parviflora 'Ogon'
Pinus thunbergii 'Ogon'

Pinus parviflora 'Ogon'

Two Japanese species of pine have an "Ogon" cultivar, Pinus thunbergii and Pinus parviflora. Ogon is Japanese for "yellow." Pinus parviflora 'Ogon' has a light straw-yellow color. A young tree can look rather sickly, and is slow-growing, often with a poor shape. But don't give up: as it grows it fills in, and this winter my oldest tree displays a very attractive shine. The Pinus thunbergii 'Ogon' features more deep gold coloration, and in various amounts. Sometimes the needle tips are flecked in gold, other times there are patches of gold at the needles' base. Hard to describe actually, but a mature specimen is worth the wait.

Thuja orientalis 'Van Hoey Smith' in summer
Thuja orientalis 'Van Hoey Smith' in winter

There are scads of golden arborvitae. Thuja occidentalis and plicata have many selections, but I tend not to like any of them. The Thuja orientalis species has some winners however. Very colorful is 'Van Hoey Smith', with enough green in the foliage to make the gold all the more bright. Perhaps I am cheating to include it into today's blog, maybe it should be in a "variegation" blog. Anyway, the foliage is dazzling.

Of course, the name honors the late Dick Van Hoey Smith from Trompenburg. The story of the cultivar name is interesting, as it came from me. And didn't I just rail against the use of personal names for a plant? But, I didn't mean to name it. I got a start when it was first new in America, but apparently without a name, or one that Van Hoey Smith could remember. I didn't officially name it, but I had to call it something. So this temporary name stuck when I first sold or gave away some. Van Hoey Smith himself was amused about the name, proof to him that Americans had their own foolish rules (or none) about nomenclature. So probably the exact same clone exists in Europe under a different name. And I'm kind of embarrassed about my role in the affair.

Thuja orientalis 'Franky Boy' in summer
Thuja orientalis 'Franky Boy' in winter

 Thuja orientalis 'Weedom'

Picea pungens 'Lucretia'

Thuja orientalis 'Franky Boy', also from Europe, has been discussed by me before. It has very curious thread-like branchlets and a very winning appearance. The pretty light-gold of summer is now a deep copper color, and is as handsome in winter as in any season. Thuja orientalis 'Weedom' grows into a formal dense pyramid, and could be interesting if combined with a dwarf blue spruce, such as Picea pungens 'Lucretia'.

Sciadopitys verticillata 'Goldammer'

 Sciadopitys verticillata 'Gold Rush'

 Sciadopitys verticillata 'Gold Rush'

These days there are some lovely cultivars of "umbrella pine," Sciadopitys verticillata. When I began my career in the 1970's, the only cultivar available was the horrible 'Ossorio's Gold', horrible because it just wasn't gold enough. When a green Sciadopitys isn't happy, it can look yellowish…like 'Ossorio's Gold'. Many of the new and better cultivars come from Germany; Wittboldt-Müller Nursery has been the source of many. 'Gold Rush' and 'Goldammer' are excellent selections, but there are many more.

 Tsuga canadensis 'Livingston'

Juniperus chinensis 'Daub's Frosted'

Such as with Sciadopitys, hemlocks must also be gold enough so as not to look sick. I like Tsuga canadensis 'Livingston', a slow-growing upright pyramidal tree. For junipers, nothing is better than Juniperus chinensis 'Daub's Frosted'. Junipers are difficult for plant snobs to like, for whatever reason, but 'Daub's Frosted' is very colorful and so very useful. A mature specimen will grow only a foot or less tall, but spread into a dense mat up to 10 feet in width. The base of the twigs is light green, while the tips are pure gold. Nothing boring about it.

Picea omorika 'Golden Midget'

Finally the spruces. I suspect every species has its golden form, but I'll just mention two. Picea omorika 'Golden Midget' is a Buchholz Nursery introduction. It grows into a dense pyramid, and appears more colorful than 'Peve Tijn' from Vergeldt in Holland.

Picea abies 'Vermont Gold'

 Picea abies 'Acro-yellow'

Picea abies 'Acro-yellow'

The "Norway spruces" have dozens of golden selections. I like Picea abies 'Vermont Gold', from Greg Williams of Kate Brook Nursery in Vermont. It requires sun for best color, and will be almost pure green if planted in deep shade. 'Vermont Gold' is a compact dwarf, growing naturally into a low, spreading shape. Or, it can be staked into a dense pyramidal tree. Another interesting selection from Greg is Picea abies 'Acro-yellow'. This is the golden form of the old cultivar, 'Acrocona'. Reddish spring cones look nice against the golden foliage of 'Acro-yellow'.

Picea abies 'Aurea Magnifica'

Picea abies 'Gold Dust'

A more robust "Norway spruce" is Picea abies 'Aurea Magnifica'. It has a columnar shape, growing to 6' tall in 10 years, but ultimately can exceed 30'. Lastly, my introduction from 30 years ago, Picea abies 'Gold Dust'. This little dwarf has tiny thin needles, which I won't describe as you can see for yourself. This imp was found in an understock batch, and was thrown in the trash late one night when I was grafting. Obviously it wasn't going to make a good rootstock. The next morning I had a more benevolent view of the seedling and rescued it. 'Gold Dust' even earned some mild praise from Don Howse of Porterhowse Farms, a conifer geek who has "seen them all."

Golden conifers in winter

You're probably overloaded with golden conifers by now, assuming that you've made it this far. I selected these plants after a quick walk through the gardens. Perhaps I overlooked the best golden conifer of all, and I'll feel like an idiot for missing it. But, too late.