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.
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.
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 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.
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.