China, Mother of Gardens was written by Englishman E.H. Wilson (1876-1930) in 1929. He collected quite a number of plant species between 1899 and 1910, many of which are mainstays in today's gardens and cities. A few years before the centenary of his birth, a decision was made to honor his legacy by planting a memorial garden of his introductions. One afternoon a few years ago, I was in Chipping Camden, the birthplace of Wilson, and was able to visit said garden. It was too small to adequately house all of Wilson's introductions, or at least for them to grow to maturity, but at my visit it was neat and well-tended.
Of course there have been other plantsmen in China, such as my hero, the Scotsman George Forrest, and even to this day new species and variations are being gleaned from the “Mother of Gardens.” Recent Flora Wonder blogs about Washington state's Rhododendron Species Foundation, and a visit I took in June to Far Reaches Farm, all indicate that plant exploration in China is as enthusiastic as ever. The Chinese are active too, as they would prefer to make all of the discoveries themselves. This blog will cover a few species that I find of interest, but I randomly choose from a list of those which I have had experience growing.
Since I began with E.H. Wilson, I'll now discuss Davidia involucrata, the “Dove Tree” or “Pocket Handkerchief Tree.” Davidia was discovered (by a westerner) by the Abbé Armand David (1826-1900) a Lazarist missionary in China, who proved to be an amazing naturalist. One of David's discoveries, and subsequent “introductions” was the Giant Panda, which unfortunately expired soon after being shipped to France. The Davidia tree was known to science through herbarium specimens for years, but no one in the west had ever brought back plants. The enterprising Veitch Nursery firm employed Wilson to do just that. His first encounter with a Davidia sickened him, however, when the natives led him to the location of a large “K'ung-tung” tree...“After walking about two miles we came to a house rather new in appearance. Nearby was the stump of Henry's Davidia...I did not sleep during the night of April 25, 1900.” Eventually he located more trees and returned in fall to collect seed. He loaded up scads of seed and shipped them off successfully to England. They were planted in spring of 1901, and by the spring of 1902 thousands had germinated, and the elated Wilson potted up more than 13,000 with help from one assistant. Nine years later the first flowered at the Veitch Nursery. But in those days news moved slowly, and Wilson eventually learned that Pére Farges, another French missionary stationed in China, sent seed of Davidia to Vilmorin Arboretum in France in 1897. One plant germinated in 1898, so technically it was first “introduced” by the French.
I don't know more details about how Veitch got rid of 13,000 trees; that's a heck of a lot even by today's standards. One wonders where they all could have gone. I used to sell field-grown Davidia seedlings – they were fast-growing, strong flowering trees, and I could easily turn a profit. Interest eventually waned, so I backed off on production. But just at that time a new introduction, the cultivar 'Sonoma', made the scene. It was discovered at the Sonoma Horticultural Nursery in California, and was selected primarily for the unusually large bract size. It turned out that there was an added (and important) bonus: that 'Sonoma' tended to bloom at a young age. Davidia became “hot” again, and we amped up production a little too.
Davidia involucrata 'Aya nishiki'
About ten years ago I was in Japan, and to my amazement I was introduced to various variegated cultivators of Davidia at the Shibamichi Nursery, and kind Mr. Shibamichi sent me starts the next winter. Make no mistake, my cachet with the elder Mr. S. was due to the delight he took in flirting with my young wife, as Haruko was (is) quite skilled in dealing with older men. Some cultivars impress me, and some don't, at least in my Oregon nursery. 'Aya nishiki' can be spectacular in spring, but when we hit the upper 90 degrees the fun is over, for we have very little humidity (compared to Japan) to protect the leaves from scorching.
Surprisingly, the best variegated Davidia, in my opinion, was selected in Oregon, at Crispin Silva's nursery, which he named 'Lady Sunshine'. It looks like it would be even more trouble than 'Aya nishiki', but not so. I planted one out at Flora Farm last fall and it has done quite well for its first year in the ground. Unfortunately production of this spectacular cultivar is limited by the difficulty in acquiring high-priced seedlings for understock, and our rooting of Davidia – to be used for understock – is not great either. But we limp along, wishing we could produce more, and avid gardeners are willing to toss huge amounts to acquire 'Lady Sunshine'. Wouldn't it be fantastic if E.H. Wilson could come back for a day and hang out with me at the nursery? He would be amazed by 'Lady Sunshine' of course, but also the preponderance of cultivated variants of his species introductions would no doubt stupefy him. The horticultural world owes so much to E.H. “Chinese” Wilson, and it's tragic that he and his wife were both killed in an automobile accident in 1930.
On the same expedition that yielded Davidia, Wilson made another remarkable discovery, the “Paperbark Maple,” Acer griseum. The species name, from Latin gris, refers to the silvery-gray of the leaf undersides, and was coined by Ferdinand Pax in 1902. Wilson was the intrepid collector, but the official “namers” were the European botanists of the day; but I would rather that the species epitaph refer to the handsome exfoliating bark instead. I have been to China, but never saw Acer griseum in the wild, and at this point in my life, I suppose I never will. It amuses me that as recent as 1990, Stephen Spongberg in his excellent book A Reunion of Trees writes that “Nowhere is it a common tree, and even in cultivation it has remained a sought-after rarity.” Not so today, for the seedling growers have figured it out, and nurserymen can purchase 2-3' whips for as little as $3. Buchholz Nursery solves the “griseum glut” by growing a few to larger sizes, and a group of our huge specimens is most impressive.
Another Wilson introduction, and one of my most favorite trees, is Abies squamata. This Chinese species is the elevation record holder of all true firs at over 15,000' (4,700 meters) on the border between China and eastern Tibet. The species name for the “Flaky Fir” is from Latin squamosus because the trunk and branches are formed of squamae or scales. I have admitted in the past the cultivar 'Flaky' is not really a cultivated variant, it is similar to the type. The tag arose when my first start came from the Arnold Arboretum about thirty years ago in the form of scionwood. The only problem was that it was not at all Abies squamata, which I realized about five years later. In the meantime I received scionwood from another source which proved correct. To keep in-house identification and production of the correct species in progress, I pretended it was a cultivar. Believe me, if you have ever worked here, now or in the past, you would understand the myriad of measures I must take to keep myself and the employees on the correct path. In other words, my gray hair did not result exactly from age, but rather from how I aged. Anyway, the species makes an excellent garden tree, and I've seen healthy trees (besides my own) in various European collections. Amazing that the record elevation holder for Abies also thrives in wet, soggy Holland at below sea level in Rotterdam's Arboretum Trompenburg. Furthermore I derive fun from closeup photos of the bark, and ask onlookers to guess the tree genus, “Ah...hmm...Acer griseum? No wait...er, Betula? One of those Rhododendrons?” Of course I wouldn't be able to answer either.
|Pinus bungeana at Kew Gardens|
|Pinus bungeana 'Silver Ghost'|
|Pinus bungeana at the Forbidden City in Beijing|
Pinus bungeana has always been a favorite conifer, and I've also seen it prosper in gardens around the world. I was able to see a venerable old specimen in the Forbidden City in Beijing, and while the soil was littered and compacted by foot traffic at the base, it has happily lived beyond emperors and Mao, and looks poised to outlive China's current thugs. Other memorable specimens are at RBG Edinburgh and Kew Gardens in London. The species name honors Alexander Georg von Bunge, a Baltic German botanist born in Kiev. I think I've read somewhere that there's a crater on Mars named for Bunge, and if true, that's cool. Not awesome, just cool.
Robert Frost wrote a poem which concluded, "One could do worse than be a swinger of birches." I have been long fascinated with Betula species, and conclude that one could do worse than be a seller of birches. I used to grow various Chinese species, and I think that the enthusiasm for birches shared by some doctor friends (Dr. Corbin, Dr. Bump and Dr. Mossman) triggered my interest in them. It's a good thing I propagated them at the beginning of my career, for they grew fast and helped provide shade and height in my empty gardens.
I think the first birch I collected was Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis. The varietal distinction refers to a strain (of a quite variable species) that comes from its most northern range. Septentrionalis is derived from septentriones, the seven stars of Ursa Major, or seven plowing oxen. Septem is "seven" and trio is "plow ox," or "oxen that rubbed the base of the earth." My start came from the late Dr. Corbin tree, and I think he was amused that a young nurseryman would like an old man's tree. While albosinensis is nice in a large garden or arboretum setting, it is not really suitable for the typical garden. Ultimately it grows gangly, and I sadly cut down my first specimen after a severe ice storm. But I enjoyed it while it lasted, and the pinkish-orange bark would constantly change. I tried to figure out a pattern of coloration; for example, more orange in winter and pink in spring? But I never truly understood its moods, kind of like with a woman.
|Betula utilis var. jacquemontii 'Grayswood Ghost'|
Betula utilis var. jacquemontii 'Jermyns'
|Betula pendula 'Trost's Dwarf'|
|Betula pendula 'Trost's Dwarf'|
Early on I also produced Betula jacquemontii, a species we were later told should be Betula utilis var. jacquemontii. It produces a more formal canopy with dark green leaves and a pure white trunk. Numerous selections of jacquemontii have been made in England, and we used to grow the cultivars 'Jermyns' and 'Grayswood's Ghost', but neither were as white as the clone common to the northwest USA landscape trade. Also, for a novelty we top-grafted the wispy dwarf Betula pendula 'Trost's Dwarf' atop the pure white trunk of jacquemontii.
In the 1980's I brought seed back from an attractive Betula utilis from Yunnan. It pleased me for years, but it too outgrew its garden placement, and received a ground-level prune job. I was no longer grafting birch at the time, so I had no rootstock available to keep the clone going. The reason I stopped grafting birch was because sales were a struggle, whereas other plants were selling well. I was also in battle with two opposing obsessions: one, to keep everything, the "Noah's Ark Syndrome," and the other, which was to simplify. The latter was stronger that year, and even until now, and it is called "business survival." If I were independently wealthy I would keep all of the trees, as long as they were in good health, and I would sell nothing, but rather give everything away. The world would be a better place if I were rich, so can anyone out there help me? Back to the birches, the Flora Wonder Arboretum still contains some, and they are growing nicely, but I only have about half as many as I used to.
|Magnolia denudata 'Forrest's Pink'|
|Magnolia denudata 'Forrest's Pink'|
|Magnolia denudata 'Variegated'|
|Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata 'Lanarth'|
Ditto with the Magnolias, for they too get large and outgrow their space. We still propagate a few hybrids with Chinese origins. Magnolia 'Forrest's Pink' is possibly a hybrid, I don't know for sure – but it at least has denudata in its ancestry. I saw a variegated form of denudata in Japan, but unfortunately it has never been in the goodie boxes that I occasionally receive. Magnolia sinensis and wilsonii – yep, E.H. again – are similar with beautiful nodding flowers and pure white with crimson stamens. For me they bloom in June amongst the foliage, and trees are best sited where you can eventually walk under them. Finally, Magnolia campbellii is the giant Himalayan "Pink Tulip Tree," except that its huge flowers are larger than any tulip that I have ever seen. 'Lanarth' has an unusual lavender-purple blossom, and where hardy (not very) it is a must. This beautiful form of ssp. mollicomata was raised at Lanarth from seed collected by George Forrest. Mollicomata is the subspecies that is similar to the type, but tends to be more winter hardy, coming from southeast Tibet and Yunnan. But enough about Magnolias, for I admit that I only dabble with them, in either knowledge or commerce.
I'll conclude with the genus Pleione, a group of terrestrial orchids (sometimes epiphytic), that come from China and some other Asian countries. In Greek mythology, Pleione was an Oceanid nymph who lived in southern Greece, a region known as Arcadia. She married Atlas, the giant, and gave birth to Hyades, Hyas and the Pleiades, as well as serving as the protectress of sailing. By the way, the plant Pleione does not grow in southern Greece. It comprises about twenty species, but most of the cultivars I grow are hybrids. My collection of twenty years has waxed and waned, receiving different levels of commitment, and our short-comings are due to the fact that growing Pleiones is primarily a hobby, and we always have more important work to do. I suspect, however, that in the future we will become more commercial with them, for they would be an excellent addition to our entire product line.
When I was in Yunnan in the eighties, I felt that we were spending too much time in the squalid lowlands, but finally we were able to trek up the hill where we camped for the night. Waking early with a headache after a fitful night of sleep, we continued up the mountain to approximately 10,000'. Finally, I felt we were above the activities of the unwashed masses, the Billion. The air was clear and sharp, and I sat on the grassy hill to rest and eat a hard-boiled egg (How many of those do the Chinese go through every day?). I was happy as could be, until I saw a loud group of people cresting a nearby hill. It turned out that they were collecting Pleione bulbs, which are a traditional Chinese medicine said to remove toxic substances and treat sores and boils...and they also will take care of your carbuncles. I've never been afflicted with any of the above, so I was slightly annoyed that they were denuding the hillside. Later we were able to visit a couple of rural markets where basket and bags were filled with this and that, none of which I could identify. At least in the 1980's, the country-side Chinese lived for the day and tomorrow was a concept only for the elite.I confess that I'm not a China expert and that my knowledge of the country's flora is from a particularly narrow angle at best. So thanks to plant-hunters, from the past to the present, who have enabled this Oregon country-boy to have a rewarding career.