Friday, June 20, 2014

Botanical Etymological Wanderings

Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Kools Gold'

Exactly forty years ago I latched onto a career in horticulture, and other than a general love of nature, I didn't know a thing about growing plants. Buchholz Nursery was begun thirty four years ago, although for the first six years I also worked full-time for others. I learned from the get-go that the better nurseries all used proper botanical names, so I had better too. There's no showing off in this, it just makes sense for everyone to use the same language. True, saying "Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Kools Gold'" is quite a mouthful, and writing it down takes some time, but you want to specify exactly one plant and nothing else. But as I looked into the names further, the mouthful of Latin often provided an excellent description.

You learned last week the story of my name, its history. But that name does nothing to describe me. Talon gives you no indication of my sturdiness of body or my magnetic personality, or even the color of my eyes and hair. From just the name, you wouldn't know if I was Caucasian or Black, gay or straight, or where I am endemic to.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Kools Gold' (original tree on left)

Glyptostrobus pensilis

Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Kools Gold' doesn't tell you everything about the plant, but it says a lot. Let's break it down. Meta is a Greek prefix that indicates "change, after, beyond, between," but the man responsible for the conifer name, Shigeru Miki of Kyoto University, coined Metasequoia because it was like, akin to Sequoia. Sequoia was named for Chief Sequoyah (1776-1843) of the Cherokee Tribe, a man who invented an alphabet for his people. The specific name glyptostroboides was given by the Chinese Professor Hu Xiansu because of Metasequoia's resemblance to the Chinese "Swamp Cypress," Glyptostrobus pencilis. Glypto is from Greek glyptos, meaning "deeply carved" due to the contorted base of the trunk. The cultivar name, 'Kools Gold' is due to the Dutchman Nelis Kools, a conifer enthusiast with Holland's national collection of Sequoia, Sequoiadendron and Metasequoia, and a grower who has introduced many cultivars. Gold is because of its obvious golden foliage, but it should never be written as Kool's Gold. The 'Kools Gold' name was a concession to me, for in Europe it is known as 'Golden Guusje' and named after his daughter. Guusje Kools is a pretty girl, worthy of honoring, but I think Americans would have trouble to pronounce her name, so I was allowed to rename the cultivar to a more memorable 'Kools Gold'. All of our labels list both names, so we leave no room for confusion.

Picea glauca 'Pendula'

Ginkgo biloba 'Tschi tschi'

Ginkgo biloba 'Tschi tschi'

Harumi Buchholz
Learning botanical plant names is not difficult, and even children – yeah, especially children! – possess sponge-brains that are ready to absorb. When my daughter Harumi was 2 ½ she regularly walked around the landscapes, and would ask her mother what the metal labels were for. Haruko would read out the botanic name and explain that Harumi was the name of herself, and Picea glauca 'Pendula' was the name of that tall, skinny weeping tree. Harumi's favorite tree was Ginkgo biloba, but it didn't matter to her the various cultivars; she simply favored the Ginkgo leaf shape, and the fact that the plant was butter-yellow every autumn. She grew to learn quite a few names, and I would point to different trees and she would provide their botanic names. I was immensely proud of her, while my older children were certain that she had been brainwashed. Now, at eleven years old, her prowess has waned, and she is far more interested in music, dance and clothes, and is entirely growing up – and out – way too fast.

Platycarya strobilacea

Platycarya strobilacea

Philipp von Siebold
Yesterday I photographed the upright male catkins of Platycarya strobilacea, and as I brushed against the tree I sent some pollen into dust-mode. I had never even heard of this Genus and species until last fall's memorable visit to Charles Keith Arboretum near Raleigh, North Carolina. A small tree commonly known as the "Broad Nut," it is in the Juglandaceae (walnut) family, and is native to eastern Asia from China to Japan. Philipp von Siebold (1796-1866), the German physician known for his study and introduction of Japanese flora and fauna, found the Platycarya tree in Japan in 1843. At the Keith Arboretum I was taken with the female fruits, the little mahogany-colored balls that resembled nothing else. Platycarya is derived from Greek platus meaning "broad" and karia, the ancient Greek name for the "walnut." Strobilacea is derived from the Greek strobilos meaning "round ball."

I know that Platycarya has been analyzed in the context of traditional Chinese medicine, but the scientific basis of that stuff is far too complicated for me to describe here. How is it possible to fathom the works of the Asians Kim, Kim, Han, Yang, Park, Jang, Choi, Lee and yet another Kim into their investigation of the anti-aging properties of Platycarya strobilacea fruit? Consider the scientists' terminology, that you first measure the "free radical scavenging activity," then the "elastase inhibitory activity," and ultimately conclude that Platycarya strobilacea fruit extract could be used as an active ingredient for anti-aging cosmetics. You already know that I am not a cerebral giant, and that my chief pursuit in life is simply to just wonder things; and I can only take you so far.

Jovibarba heuffelii 'Bronze Ingot'

Jovibarba heuffelii 'Gold Bug'

Jovibarba heuffelii 'Gold Bug'

Jovibarba heuffelii var. korstiana

Jovibarba heuffelii 'Xanthoheuff'

At Buchholz Nursery we've been growing some choice cultivars of Jovibarba, as they nicely complement our pumice gardens and troughs. I like the word Jovibarba – it's fun to say – and it is ancient Latin for "beard of Jupiter." Some consider Jovibarba to be a subspecies of Sempervivum, but there exists some boring botanical differences. Both genera are in the Crassulaceae family and come from southeastern Europe. We grow J. heuffelii for the most part, and the species was named for Johann Heuffel, a 19th century Hungarian physician and botanist, who sadly only lived to the age of 57. Some of our cultivars include 'Bronze Ingot', 'Gold Bug', 'Xanthoheuff' and var. korstiana. An ingot is usually a metal that is cast into a shape suitable for further processing. The word bronze is from Italian bronzo for "bell metal" or "brass," and ultimately the etymology is believed to come from early Persian birinj. Indeed the J. 'Bronze Ingot' has a shiny metallic appearance.

Acer palmatum

I learned a few years ago that the origin of Acer is probably from the Latin for "sharp," referring to the typically-pointed lobes of some species...and that, if really from Latin, it should be pronounced as "ahker." I remember my first visit to the Vertrees collection, west of Roseburg, Oregon, back when I didn't know s_ _ _ from shinola, and I, trying to impress him, used the pronunciation "ahser," which is how it would be pronounced in Spanish, of which I spoke a little...and then by extension into Latin for "maple." Well, old J.D. endured me, and subtly led me to the typical pronunciation, although now it appears that I was probably more close.

J.D. Vertrees
Photo by Chris Photography

I'll tell the story again, for it is here apropos, that early in my career I employed a college-educated woman who desired to visit the Vertrees maple collection, and so I arranged the occasion. She was reverential, perhaps exceedingly so, and combined with her good looks I think Vertrees was equally charged. The following day I chimed, with all seriousness, that "well, now you are smarter than he is." She recoiled in horror that "of course can you say that," like I was belittling a veritable saint. I replied that I was serious, that she now knew his world about Japanese maples, plus had the perspective of a wholesale grower – not just a collector – of maples.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Miss Grace'
Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Bonsai'

Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'North Light'

Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Waasland'

Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Silhouette'

Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Jack Frost'

Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Lightning'

Ginkgo biloba 'Blue Cloud'
Really, if you are engaged in horticulture, there is nothing more interesting than how plant species became identified and named...and then to consider who went beyond that, to select 
 various cultivariants. Wouldn't Professor Hu Xiansu and old Forester Kan, the original discoverer of the live Metasequoia genus, be amazed that we now have weeping selections such as 'Miss Grace', originating as a witch's broom mutation, and 'Bonsai', nearly identical, but which originated as a seedling? Or that there would be a selected cream-white dwarf ('North Light'), a narrow form with black bark ('Waasland'), or variegated discoveries such as 'Jack Frost', 'Silhouette' or 'Lightning'? We now even have a bluish selection, 'Blue-isch', but I'm suspect that a future selection will be even more blue, one that eventually might be named something like 'Blue Cloud, just like the recent Buchholz introduction of Ginkgo biloba 'Blue Cloud'.

Sequoiadendron giganteum
Chief Sequoyah

I mentioned earlier that the Sequoia genus was named for a Cherokee chief, and at the time the "Giant Redwood," Sequoiadendron giganteum, was included in the same Sequoia genus. John Theodore Buchholz (1888-1951), an American botanist at the University of Illinois, successfully argued for its separation into a new genus, with the excellent specific name giganteum. I've tried in vain to find out more about J.T.; for example, did he ever visit the sacred forests in California? Perhaps he was merely a fussy nerd who spent the majority of his life indoors with his herbarium specimens. Buchholz was a noted botanist who specialized in gymnosperms*, and a number of species were regrouped under his name, especially southern hemisphere conifers. I don't know if I am related to him – I've been asked a few times – but I do like to see Buchholz in print in horticultural books. But please Hilliers, in your Manual of Trees and Shrubs, you need to use two h's for Buchholz.

*Gymnosperms are a group of seed-producing plants that include conifers, cycads and Ginkgo, and are characterized by the unenclosed condition of their seeds. The Greek origin of the word means "naked seeds."

Abies x boris-regis

Abies x bornmuelleriana 'Barney'

Some species in the Abies genus have interesting name stories. The "True Firs" took some time before they made it as their own separate genus, as understandable wandering took place in the pre-internet era of scientific classification. The word "fir" is from Old Norse and referred originally to pines. The species equi-trojani, from Turkey, was supposedly named because it was used as the ribs in the Trojan horse, and while that's a nice story, my sales were slow even though it is a handsome species, so we discontinued it. Abies x boris-regis was named for King Boris of Bulgaria when it was described in the 1920's, and is a hybrid of A. cephalonica and A. alba. Abies x bornmeulleriana is a hybrid between A. cephalonica and A. nordmanniana, and was named for the German plant explorer Joseph Bornm├╝ller. Note that someone (Mattfeld) spelled the tree differently than the man.

Abies concolor 'King's Gap'

Abies concolor 'King's Gap'

Abies concolor 'Sherwood Blue'

Abies firma

Abies concolor was so-named because both sides of the needles display the same color which is usually blue-gray. I've seen A. concolor in the wild and it certainly is not my favorite species, however some cultivars can be immensely blue, and I particularly like the dwarf forms. Abies firma is a beautiful species from the southern part of Japan, and it is also favored as a rootstock because cultivars of other species (grafted onto it) can better tolerate high heat and humidity. The name firma means "stout." Abies lasiocarpa's specific name means "hairy fruit," but for all the beauty of the species, I wished that (Hooker) Nuttall could have come up with a better name.

Abies lasiocarpa 'Hurricane Blue'
Abies lasiocarpa 'Glacier Blue'

Indian Heaven Wilderness

The most beautiful Abies lasiocarpa forest that I have seen is in the Indian Heaven Wilderness, located about half way between Washington state's Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams. Here they rise as slender pillars, under which seventeen different species of huckleberry grow.

Abies bracteata

Abies bracteata, the "Santa Lucia Fir," is native to said mountains along the central coast of California and nowhere else. Ten years ago I subscribed to the American Forests magazine, and in a champion-tree issue they encouraged readers to find a new champion of various species. The magazine indicated that Abies bracteata could be found along the California coast and in eastern Washington along the Columbia River. What? No it cannot! I wrote to the editor and said that if he could verify this Washington location I would stop everything to travel 300 miles to see them. No response, so I wrote a second time and chastised him for being sloppy and unprofessional. Still no response to me or a retraction in future I cancelled my subscription. Abies bracteata is the only member of the sub-genus Pseudotorreya and is not closely related to any other Abies. A. bracteata is not a particularly beautiful species, but it is absolutely worth growing for its wonderful cones, and that is how it got its name. The bracts are long and wispy, and it makes the cone look like a farcical Dr. Seuss creature. Let's go go go on an adventure...

Abies squamata

Abies squamata 'Flaky'

My favorite Abies is squamata, due to its formal Christmas-tree shape, attractive blue-green needles, and most of all for the fantastic Acer griseum-like exfoliating copper bark. The specific name is clear, and with Juniperus squamata as well, for they are derived from Latin squama for "scale." We grow the cultivar A. squamata 'Flaky' which is pretty much the same as the type...and the origin of 'Flaky' is a long tedious story. Anyway, A. squamata is the highest-altitude species of all Abies, and is native to China and Tibet where it is recorded to occur up to 15,400' in elevation. A recent visitor to Buchholz was wandering around our nursery's famous Blue Forest, looking to locate our gorgeous specimen to take a trunk photo. I sadly informed him that two-years prior the specimen had coned heavily – and it was a wonderful sight – but that the next year it had died. Geeze, I'd rather point to you and you and you to die, but not my fantastic Abies squamata 'Flaky'. At least I have another at Flora Farm.

Are you still awake? Enough about the origin of botanical names, but obviously it is my hobby, and you'll likely get another dose in the future.

"Bring it on, Buchholz."

1 comment:

  1. one of those blogs you wish would keep going: great stuff today. Been watching some Cat in the Hat with the girls maybe? :)