Thursday, February 20, 2014

Flora Farm Mahonia



Mahonia x 'Arthur Menzies'


About twelve-to-fifteen years ago I became enamored with the Mahonia genus. I'm mostly over that now, and I look back and wonder what came over me. In part, I guess, I was enlarging the third category of our plant offerings – the other group – that was lagging behind maples and conifers. I felt that my company would be most prudent to grow 1) maples, 2) conifers and 3) everything else in equal numbers. If there was a glut or a downturn in any one sector I would still be able to sell something. So I acquired many species and cultivars of Mahonia, and many became the backbone of the Flora Farm Mahonia section. As I've stated before, my Upper Gardens, about eight of them, are identified with a genus name such as Acer, Abies, Magnolia etc. That does not mean that the plantings are exclusively of that genus, but that it contains at least one such tree.

When I say that I'm mostly "over" Mahonias now, I mean that I've come to see them for what they are; and while they can be interesting and attractive shrubs, they can also be off-color prickly beasts that have a difficult time in our 100 degree plus summers and in our coldest of winters. If a deciduous tree has a rough spell, at least it will rid itself of unpleasant foliage in the autumn...and then come out sparkling new the following spring. Leaves on the damn Mahonias persist for years, and they're often not green and lustrous. Of course the hummingbirds and I love the early blossoms, and some species will flower at Christmas. Subsequent new foliage will partially hide the old ugly leaves, but there never seems to be quite enough of it. One strategy I've employed is to cut them down to the ground so they can regenerate into a new bush, but then you lose the attractive furrowed trunk.


Mahonia x 'Arthur Menzies'


Mahonia x 'Arthur Menzies'























Mahonia bealei


But, like with people, I should stop complaining about the Mahonia's shortcomings, and accept them for their good attributes. A popular hybrid was developed at Seattle's Washington Park Arboretum years ago, Mahonia x 'Arthur Menzies', which is sometimes listed as x media 'Arthur Menzies'. Seedlings from the tender Mahonia lomariifolia, from the garden of Arthur Menzies, were sent to Seattle by the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco. After a cold winter only one seedling survived. Its hardiness suggested that it was a hybrid, with Mahonia bealei being the other parent. Person Arthur Menzies was employed as the Assistant Director at the Strybing, and was considered a walking encyclopedia of flora and fauna. He died in 1973, one year before I got into horticulture, but he was memorialized with the Mahonia name by Brian Mulligan, then Director of the Washington Park Arboretum.

Mahonia mairei


Mahonia mairei is another one of my BIO plants (botanical interest only), and was acquired from the late Heronswood Nursery, sight unseen, for again that was a time when I purchased names regardless of a plant's merits. Yellow flower spikes are lax and not very ornamental. The species is native to Yunnan, China in limestone areas, which might explain why it never seems to look very good in my Flora Farm soil. I have read (but now cannot remember where) that Mahonia mairei is synonymous with Mahonia flavida (Latin for yellow), but in any case the mairei name commemorates Edouard Marie (1848-1932), a French missionary stationed in Yunnan.



























Mahonia x media 'Lionel Fortescue'
























Mahonia x media 'Lionel Fortescue'























Mahonia x media 'Hope'




























Mahonia x media 'Charity'


























Mahonia x media 'Underway'
























Mahonia x media 'Underway'



























Mahonia x media 'Winter Sun'




























Mahonia x media 'Winter Sun'

Mahonia japonica























Mahonia japonica


We grow a few Mahonia x medias, such as 'Lionel Fortescue', 'Hope', 'Charity', 'Underway' and 'Winter Sun'. The media part of their botanical name indicates they are hybrids, by the tender M. lomariifolia from Burma and Yunnan, with the more hardy M. japonica. 'Lionel Fortescue' honors a famous English gardener who developed the Garden House garden with his wife Katharine, considered one of the finest in Britain (the garden, that is). And his Mahonia is famous for being one of the first to flower in the season. The name Mahonia honors Bernard McMahon, an Irishman who emigrated to Philadelphia in the 1700's and began a nursery.
























Mahonia napaulensis 'Maharajah'


Another Mahonia in this section is napaulensis 'Maharajah'. It prefers partial shade and presents fragrant yellow flowers in February-March. In spite of the species name, the type was first collected by George Forrest in Yunnan, China in 1904. I didn't notice it in the wild when I was plant hunting in Yunnan years ago, and all I really know about the species and the 'Maharajah' cultivar comes from observing my two plants at Flora Farm, also purchased from the now defunct Heronswood Nursery. I do know that napaulensis is in the genus Mahonia, and that is in the family Berberidaceae, and that is in the order Ranunculales, and that is in the class Magnoliopsida, and that is in the phylum Magnoliophyta...as any of you could look up for yourself. I don't know who bestowed the 'Maharajah' cultivar name, but I like the regal connotation. The name refers to a king or prince in India, as maha means "great" and raja means "king" in Sanskrit. For you etymology buffs out there, maha is related to Greek mega and Latin magnus, all of which is derived from the Indo-European meg for "great." You won't be surprised that magnanimous is from Latin magnanimus, which is magnus for "great" and animus for "soul." I won't say that my Mahonia is a great plant, but it's definitely a pretty-good one, at least here in Oregon.























Mahonia pinnata 'Ken Howard'























Mahonia pinnata ssp. insularis 'Schnilemoon'


The Mahonia pinnata species is represented by cultivars 'Ken Howard' and 'Schnilemoon', both horrible names, and I can't see any difference in them anyway. The common name for the species is "California Barberry" or "Shinyleaf Barberry," and is sometimes awkwardly referred to as the "California Oregon Grape." As with all Mahonia, I love to pop the black-blue fruits into my mouth in late summer. You don't eat the sour-tart berries – you couldn't possibly – but you gingerly nibble at them...and savor a tiny squirt of pleasure. My grandmother used to make a delicious Oregon grape jelly; and given enough sugar, even dog shit would taste good, at least to children.




























Mahonia x 'Skyland'


Mahonia x 'Skyland'


A hybrid between M. aquifolium and M. pinnata is the cultivar 'Skyland', known for its glossy deep-green foliage, and is yet another cultivar foisted on me by the Heronswood Nursery. I would like to someday hold them accountable for all that they distributed over the years. But I view Dan Hinkley et al. in high regard, and I'm sure there is a fascinating story for each and every selection.


























Abies koreana x lasiocarpa



























Picea pungens 'Thompsen'























Picea pungens 'Blue Mist'


Picea pungens 'Baby Blue Eyes'


If you don't give a hoot about Mahonias the preceding must have been a terrible bore. But the FFMahonia section contains much more, especially some wonderful conifers. Abies koreana x lasiocarpa is an attractive hybrid between the ornamental "Korean Fir" with the American "Sub-alpine Fir." This cross was developed in Germany, a country whose nursery industry seems infatuated with Abies koreana. I was given my start by a German horticulture professor who visited me twenty five years ago, back when it was legal to send Abies to America, or before I knew whether or not some exotic species were permissible to receive. In any case I have a beautiful old specimen at Flora Farm in the Mahonia section. It is surrounded by a crowd of blue spruces, Picea pungens cultivars. The spruce cultivars: 'Thompsen', 'Blue Mist', 'Baby Blue Eyes' etc. are all far more vibrant than the true fir – from a distance – but up close the softness of the koreana x lasiocarpa foliage is more overwhelming.

Juniperus deppeana 'McFetters'


Juniperus deppeana champion tree in New Mexico
Juniperus deppeana 'Ohmy Blue'




























The Mahonia section also features some outstanding upright Juniperus selections. Don't yawn or skip ahead at the mention of junipers, for they are not all boring bushes. True, there are many crappy selection available for cheap at the box stores, and I have personally slung hundreds of thousands of them when I worked at other nurseries. But Flora Farm features Juniperus deppeana 'McFetters', a poor cultivar name, but an outstanding glaucous small tree. The "Alligator Juniper" – due to the furrowed bark into checkered plates – comes from southwestern North America, and the wood is used for firewood and fence posts. Junipers are considered as conifers, even though they don't produce typical cones; instead the berries are female developments that have merged fleshy scales.

Juniperus formosana



























Juniperus formosana

Juniperus recurva var. coxii



























Juniperus recurva var. coxii


Juniperus formosana, from Taiwan and China, has proven hardy in Oregon. It is a wide species when young, but eventually forms a narrow crown at maturity. The foliage can be prickly, but from a distance the tree is a softly-weeping landscape-friendly conifer. Near to the formosana I have another drooping species, Junipers recurva var. coxii, or Juniperus coxii to some. Known as the "Himalayan Weeping Juniper," the best specimens outside of its native range (Nepal to northern Burma) are to be found in Britain – and indeed, what major plant collection does not contain at least one? The tree is hard for me to photograph because the dark gray-green foliage never seems to radiate any light. Odd that Rushforth in Conifers describes it as "bright green." Not to be missed is coxii's wonderful exfoliating trunk, and the photograph above is from my twenty-year-old specimen in the Mahonia section.



























Calocedrus decurrens 'Aureovariegata'


I also have a nice specimen of Calocedrus decurrens 'Aureovariegata', an upright green tree splashed with yellow variegation. When young or newly-planted, the yellow portions can burn, and that is the reason I have discontinued to produce this old European selection, but when established it can sustain itself and is most attractive. Calocedrus decurrens normally forms a narrow upright medium-size tree, but my specimen at twenty years of age, and the older trees I have seen in Europe can be described as broadly pyramidal. Of course Calocedrus is not a "true cedar." Its name comes from Greek callos for "nice" (whether for its fragrance or appearance, I don't know) and kedros, Latin for "cedar." The species name decurrens refers to the foliage "extending down." The common name of "Incense Cedar" is due to the highly aromatic fragrance of its wood, and I suspect that many families possess a "cedar chest" for old sweaters or baby clothes that they'll never again need, but that they just can't bear to throw out. The wood is also used for the manufacture of pencils – and go ahead and find one and smell it – because of the soft wood and straight grain that can be whittled easily. The "lead pencil" contains no lead at all, but rather graphite (from Greek "to write"). The pencil, in any case, was invented in 1564 when a graphite mine was discovered in Cumbria, England. Thin graphite rods were inserted into wooden holders...and a good thing for today's billions of school kids who must lose millions daily. The word pencil comes from Latin penicillus which means "little tail," and that is the name of the tiny brush that ancient Romans used for writing.






















Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Jack Frost'


Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Jack Frost'


The deciduous conifer Metasequoia glyptostroboides is represented by cultivars in the Mahonia section. The original, or an early propagule of 'Jack Frost' is nestled into a grove of other cultivars. I originally had high hopes for this selection, and I once supposed that I had the only variegated cultivar of 'Dawn Redwood' in the world. I wasn't aware at the time that the Europeans had their 'White Spot' or 'Spring Cream' selections, and probably others, so I was quite heady at my findling. At one point I was expecting world acclaim and adulation...until I kept receiving May-June phone calls that repeated, "Hey, my 'Jack Frost' doesn't have any variegation." I would reply to be patient, that the cream-white variegation would develop later in the season, which is true. When my original seedling grew larger, all of the foliage was up in the sky, and then no variegation was apparent. So, eventually 'Jack Frost' fell out of my favor, and obviously yours too, and my only one remaining specimen now grows in a crowded grove in anonymity. We continue to produce 'Silhouette' – introduced by conifer-giant Nelis Kools of The Netherlands – because it is much more spectacular than my old 'Jack Frost'. And, my tempered reluctance to quickly release new cultivars applies to Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Lightning', a cultivar that many are clamoring for, but that only Mr. Kools and myself currently possess. It is initially beautiful and wonderful in its coddled nursery environment, but is it really a "doer?" I'm too old to keep repeating the same mistakes, so I'll wait a bit longer for further observation.






















Metasequoia honshuenensis


Metasequoia honshuenensis


Another mistake, I suppose, was my acquisition and sales of Metasequoia honshuenensis. This alleged "new" species was promulgated* by a botanist who most avidly wished to see his name in print, for if you are the first to convincingly classify a plant – such as Buchholz did for Sequoiadendron – all botanical references for time immemorial will include your name. In fact the same botanist also threw out another Metasequoia species, neopangaea. I propagated this stuff and decided that the botany would eventually sort itself out. One comment I like claimed that honshuenensis and neopangaea "are names invented for vanity and/or fraud." One claim for honshuenensis was that its cones would be much larger than with glyptostroboides, but my sample does not attest to that. Don't hold anything against the many horticultural simpletons such as myself. We prune and stake bushes, brush snow off greenhouses and barely make ends meet, so how are we ever qualified to know if some tree is a new species or not?

*(from Latin promulgatus, to "make publically known")






Ulmus glabra 'Camperdownii' in Corvallis, Oregon





























Ulmus glabra 'Camperdownii'


I'll mention one final tree in FFMahonia – and I've discussed only ten percent of the trees therein – and one that is so unique and identifiable that it can never be mistaken: Ulmus glabra 'Camperdownii'. The glabra species is the "Wych" or the "Scot's Elm" which is native to Europe and western Asia. Wych is from Middle English wiche, and that from Old English wice, meaning "pliant" or "supple." The 'Camperdownii' cultivar is a neat and compact tree with pendulous branches, and it is equally fascinating in winter as in summer due to the tortuous branching. It can be propagated by grafting or by rooted cuttings, but it will not reproduce from seed. The original was discovered by the Earl of Camperdown's head forester in Dundee, Scotland around 1835-1840. It was transplanted into the Camperdown House garden, where it lives today; and of course all subsequent Campers descend from this original tree which is only ten feet tall. Beautiful (and large) specimens can be found in gardens and parks around the world, and the photographs above were taken on a side street in lovely Corvallis, Oregon, home of Oregon State University. I always make a point to detour when I pass through Corvallis to revisit the majestic convolution, and I would hope that the townsfolk know about and appreciate this tree. What a wonder to wander in old college towns.

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