Friday, September 27, 2013

Go To Heaven

Abies densa in Bhutan

There is nothing more enjoyable than to hike (or drive) up a mountain, and notice how the flora changes. Not only do the species change, but the plants' sizes and forms change as well, with trees becoming smaller and more squat to the ground. The Abies genus, or "True Firs," are perhaps my favorite. Whether in Oregon, Asia or elsewhere in the world, the Abies eventually greet me, and I never tire of beholding them as I ascend the hill. They begin sporadically, but with elegance, and can eventually form pure stands and become cathedrals for the soul. Generally the Abies occupy the higher elevations where the air is sharp and pure, and in my experience mountain dwellers and visitors are also more sharp, pure and healthy than the billions at the bottom.

Abies spectabilis

This blog's beginning photo was taken at 12,000' in northern Bhutan in 1990, and is most likely Abies densa, an unfortunate species name for a tree from a magical land. Densa occupies the eastern realm of the Himalaya, the wetter end, versus the similar Abies spectabilis from the dryer western Himalaya. I have seen both in the wild, and really, the individual trees are not so attractive – they look rather scrappy. It's certainly the case where the trees aren't much, but the forest can be spectacular. Was Abies spectabilis named for its cones? They have been used to make a purple dye. I cannot fathom how Abies densa got its name, for the tree is of open form, not dense, and the needles don't strike me as any more dense than on other firs. William Griffith (1810-1845) first described Abies densa. He was a British doctor, naturalist and botanist who undoubtedly had a lot of fun in the mountains on collecting trips. Sadly, he was ultimately transferred to Malacca in Malaysia (say that three times fast) where he died of a parasitic liver disease at age thirty five.

Abies delavayi var. nukiangensis

Abies delavayi var. nukiangensis

Abies delavayi

Also at a high elevation, I once encountered Abies delavayi in Yunnan, China, and this species is also similar to Abies densa, and it is actually only a few hundred miles north of Bhutan (as the crow flies). I was exploring (1988) in the Jade Dragon Mountains with other plantsmen, and the delavayi were beautiful at a small size, resembling unsheared Christmas trees.

I remember the peacefulness of being in the mountains, especially in contrast to the hectic bustle of the unwashed masses below.

Tiger Leaping Gorge of the Yangtze River

Marble cutting machine

The Gravestone Man

The tallest peak in the JD mountain range is named Shanzidou, at 18,360', and at the base of its far side is the Yangtze River, rushing through the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. There was a trail above the river that went for many miles, and all of us agreed to explore individually, then to meet back at the trailhead at a certain time. I took off at a fast pace, mainly because I was growing weary of my companions. Occasionally I would pass groups of  Chinese men, and none of them had a happy face. They eyed me like I was a trespasser, and I felt relieved that I had fifty pounds on each of them. On my return our official Chinese government babysitters came running towards me, panting and insisting that I needed to hurry, even though I wasn't late. It turned out that the men I had passed were prisoners sentenced to work in the marble mines. The officers worried that I could have been robbed and thrown into the river, a set-back to their careers. Later that day I purchased a marble bowl as a souvenir, but I no longer have it, as my ex-wife didn't return it to me, and now it is probably sitting with dust on some Goodwill store shelf.

Abies firma

Abies firma 'Halgren'

An exception to the mountainous origin of many Abies species is Abies firma, native to the southern Japanese islands of Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku. As this species comes from a warm region, it performs admirably in America's hot, humid southeast. Those from that region would be well advised to purchase grafts of other species onto firma rootstock. We are making an effort to provide that rootstock, and then to keep track of those grafted trees...which might be sold as much as ten years later. It is important, so we must do it. We have an outstanding form of Abies firma which we call 'Halgren'. We received this clone from Gordy Halgren of Peacedale Nursery in Washington state. Out of a group of firma seedlings, 'Halgren' was the most vigorous with the best green color. I also have a cultivar named 'Nana Horizontalis' which does indeed spread. We take cuttings of these firmas and root them in winter; and two years later they are ready for grafting. Or they can be grown on themselves, because firma is a beautiful species.

Acer circinatum 'Burgundy Jewel'

Back to Halgren at Peacedale Nursery: he was the plantsman who introduced Acer circinatum 'Burgundy Jewel', the first purple-leaf "Vine Maple." Five or six years ago I sent scions of Burgundy Jewel to Karan Junker, to her fine specialty nursery in southern England, and I noticed that a year ago it was featured in the prominent magazine, The Garden, a distinguished publication from the Royal Horticultural Society. I'm so happy and proud to be a part of the process of the dissemination of worthy cultivars, and only wish that government bureaucrats would get out of the way so that I could do more.

Abies squamata

Abies squamata

I love all of the "True Firs," but my favorite has to be Abies squamata from Szechuan, China. It was first described by Maxwell T. Masters, whose name I would give anything to have. Masters (1833-1907) was an English botanist and taxonomist, and an authority on vegetable teratology, the study of abnormal mutations of vegetable plants. He also spent time with Chinese conifers, and described some of the new species discovered by E.H. "Chinese" Wilson which includes Abies squamata. This species has wonderful blue-green foliage and features erect blue cones. The best part is the brown exfoliating bark which resembles some Betula, Rhododendron and Acer griseum. I continue with a strong desire to revisit China so I can walk through an Abies squamata forest, but my days are numbered and it might not happen. Life is a veritable feast, but we can't consume it all. If, at the end, I could choose either a month of plant exploration in China, or just one day with my family, my wife and kids would clearly prevail. True: a wimp's response; and I'll never make history because I'm far too soft compared to the real plantsmen such as David Douglas, George Forrest, E.H. Wilson etc., those who forsook their warm bedmates in the pursuit of exotic species.

Speaking of David Douglas, the Scotsman never did have a warm bedmate at home. But when he arrived in the Pacific Northwest he was presented with the fifteen-year-old daughter of the local chief, who was trying to curry favor in the white man's world. During the  night the maiden crept into Douglas's tent, and after a short period of time the girl let out a loud scream and took off running. Fellow campers had no idea what had transpired. Besides, Douglas was afraid that any cavorting with the natives would sully his reputation with his employers back in England.

Abies amabilis 'Procumbens'

Abies amabilis 'Spreading Star'

Abies amabilis 'Indian Heaven'

Instead of finding love with a woman, Douglas fell in love with trees. He introduced Abies amabilis in 1830, and amabilis is Latin for "lovely." We grow a few amabilis cultivars, such as 'Procumbens' and 'Spreading Star', both indistinguishable from each other, and the variegated 'Indian Heaven', a tree I discovered in the Indian Heaven Wilderness near Mt. St. Helens in the 1990's. Alas, the 'Indian Heaven' is not so stable, and while one plant might look great, another can revert to totally blue-green.

Abies procera 'Glauca'

Abies procera 'Silver'

The view from Silver Star Mountain

Saya Buchholz choosing a Noble Fir Christmas tree

David Douglas introduced Abies procera, the "Noble Fir," also in 1830. The species is the tallest of all "True Firs," and the champion was 278' tall with a 9½' diameter. Even after losing 27' of its top to wind, it remains champion because of its bulk. The generic name, Abies, is derived from ancient Latin abeo, meaning tall tree or ship. Abies procera is found in forests with Abies amabilis, but the former can continue to a higher elevation. It's wonderful to climb above a stand of Nobles and look down on the blue foliage, as I have done many times on Sturgeon Peak on Silver Star Mountain in Washington state. It is also the family favorite for a Christmas tree, in fact no other tree would look right, and I love to bring the odor of a mountain forest into our home.

Abies bracteata at Hoyt Arboretum
Abies bracteata in the wild

Abies bracteata

Abies bracteata cone

Abies bracteata 'Corbin'

Abies bracteata 'Corbin'

Abies bracteata is a strange-looking fir, forming a narrow pillar in the wild. It is native to only a few locations in the Santa Lucia Mountains of coastal (central) California. I once took a steep gravel road from the ocean to a known bracteata location, a nervous one-half hour drive, and thank God the brakes performed on the way back down. If they hadn't, my friends would have said, "at least he died doing what he loved." The famous cones, with thin hairy scales, look like a Dr. Seuss creature. I've never been able to photograph one as they were too high up in the trees, but I have collected seed beneath. I have seen a cone at the Bedgebury Pinetum in southern England, for they had one pickled in a glass jar. The buds are most ornamental as well, especially when they swell up just before opening. My start of Abies bracteata came from the garden of the late Dr. Corbin of Portland, Oregon. Eventually I lost my largest specimen, which turned out to be my only tree, but thankfully Don at Porterhowse Arboretum gave me another, which was also the Corbin clone, which he had earlier gotten from me.

Abies koreana 'Blue Emperor'

Abies koreana 'Goldener Traum'
Abies koreana 'Gait'

Abies koreana 'Green Carpet'

Abies koreana 'Ice Breaker'

Abies koreana 'Nanaimo'

The most commercially important Abies species for me is Abies koreana, for its cultivars far outnumber those from other species, at least in my collection. I suspect the same would be true in Europe as well. The species itself was introduced by E.H. Wilson from the mountainous region of South Korea in 1905. It is prized for its fresh green foliage, slow rate of growth and beautiful purple (though sometimes green) cones. I have never been to Korea, either North or South, and so have never seen Abies koreana in the wild. I have introduced a number of coniferous cultivars, some fantastic and some ultimately not so, but only 'Nanaimo' from Abies koreana. Most of the introductions come from Germany, I think, and they eventually make their way to me in Oregon via circuitous routes, as it is illegal to receive the Abies genus in America from Europe.

Indian Heaven Wilderness

Indian Heaven Wilderness

Indian Heaven Wilderness

I mentioned above that I found a variegated Abies amabilis in the Indian Heaven Wilderness between Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens in Washington state. I visit this heavenly place every fall when the huckleberries ripen. There are twelve species in this 20,000 acre area, and I find that the one which is the most tasty is also the one that is lowest to the ground. And guess what? It is aptly named Vaccineum deliciosum, or "blue-leaf huckleberry."

Abies lasiocarpa in Indian Heaven

Vaccineum deliciosum in Indian Heaven

Indian Heaven Wilderness

Indian Heaven Wilderness

Conifers in Indian Heaven, besides Abies amabilis, include Pseudotsuga menziesii, Tsuga mertensiana and Abies lasiocarpa, the "Alpine Fir." Trails run through the wilderness with insufficient signage, and it's easy to get turned around. The numerous lakes can look alike and so do the alpine "parks," those treeless areas with huckleberry and heather as low groundcovers. On the park edges a single Mt. Hemlock or Alpine Fir might stand alone, or they might present themselves as a picturesque family.

On one occasion my friend and I crossed-paths with a mutual acquaintance, a girl of Tibetan origin who we hadn't seen in ten years. She had studied western medicine and also traditional Tibetan medicine, and I suppose her goal was to use the best from both. I can't remember her name now, but it was given to her by the Dalai Lama, as her mother was prominent in the Tibetan refugee relocation effort. I even employed a Tibetan refugee at one point, and his roommates said they awakened every morning with his chanting, which I'm sure beats an alarm clock. Anyway, it just seemed predestined that we would meet again in this heaven – or should I say Heaven? I've been fortunate to visit the mountainous regions from many countries, but no place on earth delights me more than the Indian Heaven Wilderness.

"Yes Talon, Indian Heaven is a special place"

Go to Heaven


  1. Thank you Talon.
    I always read and enjoy every word (and picture) of your posts. The walk through Indian Heaven was delightful.

  2. The picture real heaven,
    the post go to heaven is really heaven.
    thanks for sharing,
    It's imagine,