Friday, July 18, 2014

Growing Plants for the Heck of It

One of the best perks of a horticultural operation such as mine is that I can collect plants on a whim and write them off as a business expense. I grow hundreds of bushes just for the heck of it, when I know full well that I'll never propagate or sell any of them. In fact, that is the whole point of Buchholz Nursery: to grow and sell some plants as an excuse to be around others. Buchholz Nursery and the Flora Wonder Arboretum is an incredible place – and I say so without boasting – because while I am not so great, the plants certainly are.

I hate walnut trees. I detest the acrid fruits, and the sloppy smelly trees are a big mistake planted next to a house. I know from experience, and the five or six trees on the Buchholz Nursery property were quickly dispatched. You see, I grew up with walnuts as a youth in Forest Grove, and my mother was always crabby when we tracked the slimy leaves and rotten nut hulls into the house. And what teenager needs another payless job raking walnut leaves? I considered it a blessing when they all blew over in our famous Columbus Day Storm of 1962, when winds exceeded 100 miles per hour.

Platycarya strobilacea catkins in May

Platycarya strobilacea nuts in July

Platycarya strobilacea nut in October

In spite of these harsh walnut ruminations, I have absolutely fallen in love with a member of the Juglandaceae family, Platycarya strobilacea, a tree native to eastern Asian in China, Korea and Japan. It is a medium-sized deciduous tree with green pinnate leaves which turn to yellow in autumn. I first encountered it last fall in North Carolina at the Charles Keith Arboretum, and I was particularly attracted to the fruits which resembled conifer-like cones. I went online and found a company that was selling them, and bought three trees for a reasonable price. This spring erect male catkins developed, and they were curious little guys. Now light green nuts are appearing which I know will turn to a mahogany color by autumn. I don't understand a thing about walnut sex, but the fruits exist at the same location as the pollen flowers, and in one case a female cone has enveloped itself around the male flower. One wonders what goes on at night when I'm not there to watch. I've always stayed away from drugs to help manage mountain sickness when I have been in the Himalaya, but one doctor and another trek member used carbonic anhydrase inhibitors, and the diuretic properties can be found in Platycarya. Commonly called the "Broad Nut," an extract of the flower can be used as an active ingredient in anti-aging cosmetics as well. More about Platycarya can be found on the Flora Wonder Blog, A Carolina Wrap-up from November 22, 2013, but finish this blog first.

Ensete ventricosum 'Maurelii'

Ensete ventricosum 'Maurelii'

Ensete is the "Abyssinian Banana" and is so-called because it is native to Abyssinia, or what we refer to today as Ethiopia. I have seen it listed as Ensete ventricosum and as Ensete maurelii and as Ensete ventricosum 'Maurelii'.* It really doesn't matter to me – and one of the very few times for that – because it is just a fun red banana that I'll never grow to sell. Ensete is only hardy to 20 degrees F and so it is hauled into our no-profit house, GH20 for the winter. Last winter we had a heater malfunction and both of my Ensete specimens died, so I replaced them with two new ones this spring. I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that I bought them for cheap at the local box store, where a 3-4 foot plant had a Wow! $17.99 sticker on the pot. I replanted them immediately into a larger pot and grow them in full sun; and stand back for you can almost watch the movement of growth. Ensete can be grown from seed but they usually only flower in hot tropical regions. Mine were propagated via tissue culture and originated from a large bankrupt wholesale nursery with locations in Oregon and California, a company that doesn't seem to be bothered by failure. Bankruptcy as a business strategy absolutely irks me, because in the case of H. Nursery they never go away; they screw their suppliers and keep on going. Maybe my heater in GH20 failed last winter because I was cursed for buying from a box store supplier.

*The maurelii name honors J. Maurel who drew the attention of French authorities in Ethiopia to the red bananas. In 1853 the British Consul in Ethiopia sent seed to Kew Gardens, and mentioned the local name "ansette," but before, in 1769 the Scottish traveler James Bruce wrote that its local name was "ensete." The English so love Ensete that it gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.

Sarracenia wrigleyana 'Scarlet Belle'

Sarracenia wrigleyana 'Scarlet Belle'

I have also squandered company resources on carnivorous plants. Maybe someday I will propagate and sell, but that was never my intention when I acquired them. I originally bought a few for my daughter's birthday, as I imagined she would be intrigued by them. A few years ago she is on record as saying "I hate boys. They're like bugs: you just can't get rid of them." I thought Harumi would enjoy watching plants that devoured bugs, and I was right. Occasionally a yellow-jacket will be lured into her pitcher plant, a Sarracenia wrigleyana cultivar named 'Scarlet Belle'. He doesn't perish without a struggle though, however futile, as part of his head poked through the side in an attempt to eat his way out. As you look at the pitcher traps sideways with the sun as back-light, you can see a black mess of dead critters, with a few buzzing bugs that have yet to die.

Sarracenia flava

Our Sarracenia hobby has even extended to the nursery, where we keep a few bog tubs by the office. The myth that they are difficult to grow and require a terrarium is nonsense. They thrive in full sun and you only need to keep them wet. They will not be happy, however, unless your water source is free of excessive minerals. They catch insects by producing nectar along their pitcher rims. The bugs try to get more by going further into the pitcher, and oops! they lose their footing and fall in. Insects cannot climb out because the inside walls are too smooth, and they cannot fly out because there is no airlift. They are trapped! and die from heat or dehydration while the evil carnivore absorbs nutrients from the bug-mush.

Sarracenias are easy to acquire, for we have Sarracenia Northwest in Oregon, a company that Harumi thoroughly enjoys to visit. At age eleven now, she has softened somewhat, and allows that some boys are ok...just not the annoying ones, and she is known to spend an hour in front of the mirror to make sure her clothes and hair are proper before heading to school. Some mornings are quite tense when things don't work right, but I escape to the nursery in that event.

Rhododendron keiskei 'Yaku Fairy'

Rhododendron keiskei 'Yaku Fairy'

I have acquired a classy – I won't say world-class – Rhododendron collection, partly through my Rhododendron Species Garden membership, and largely through friend and plantsman Reuben Hatch who used to grow them for a living. His nursery property in Vancouver, Washington was undergoing development and I rescued many of his prized specimens. For example I have a large R. keiskei 'Yaku Fairy' from his garden, and Rhododendron aficionados would be hard-pressed to find one larger. I do propagate from that plant and sell liners, but most of Hatch's Rhododendrons are simply here to look pretty. It's nice to have plants this way: they exist for my pleasure only and do not become crops to worry about. Many times I wish that my plant involvement was not commercial, that my living was not based upon crop outcome. In fact, I sometimes dream of going cold-turkey and cultivate nothing. I would live in a condominium in the city and dotter daily to the nearest park and swat the dandelions with my cane. Or I would live in a mountain shack, surrounded by native flora only, and I wouldn't care if ice storms, record heat or cold came my way. However, I'm not there yet. I came to work early this hot Sunday to make sure my plants are all right, that the watering crew actually showed up...which they did. I guess I am not really ready for retirement just yet, but I am tired.

Rhododendron campanulatum ssp. aeruginosum

Rhododendron campanulatum ssp. aeruginosum

The Rhododendrons I like the best are usually straight species, not the hybrids that are bred to impress with large gaudy flowers. My preference is for plants that intrigue me regardless of their flowers, in fact sometimes the blossoms are a distraction from the plant's beauty. One of my favorites is R. campanulatum ssp. aeruginosum. It is a species occurring in the Himalayan alpine regions of northern India, Bhutan and Nepal, and is recorded at 12,000 to 14,500 feet. No photograph can adequately capture the beauty of this species. On a spring day you gasp when you encounter the blue foliage, as it has something to do with the light on that particular day. The flowers are bell-shaped, hence the specific name campanulatum, while the subspecies aeruginosum refers to the Latin word for "rusty," the color of the leaf's underside. This species is practically perfect in the garden. It is slow-growing and compact and truly unique for the blue mouse-ear type leaves.

Rhododendron daphnoides

Rhododendron daphnoides

Rhododendron daphnoides is another slow-growing plant with small glossy-green leaves. I actually do like its blossoms, whatever that color would be, and the swallow-tails love them too. I have an old 10' tall by 10' wide specimen that I can see out the office window. Something bothered me about it though, it was a big green blob that stood in the way. One winter we "treed it up," which means to make more tree-like by pruning out much of the lower portions and exposing the trunk. That did the trick, and I am much happier with it now. Apparently there is still no consensus among Rhododendron experts whether daphnoides is a species or a hybrid. It was "developed" by T. Methven and Sons in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1868.

Chinese market products

Other "useless" plants, from an economic point of view, is my collection of Pleione species and hybrids. I have never sold one in twenty years, but at least I have had the pleasure to give a few away. My favorite species is probably P. forrestii, a gorgeous yellow orchid from Yunnan, China, which is not so easy to cultivate. I have twice had it for a year or two but couldn't keep it alive. The species is on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and I know why. I was plant hunting in Yunnan in the 1980's, and our group was resting on a grassy hillside at 8,000-10,000 feet elevation. Over the hill came a loud group of Hans with their sacks full of Pleione bulbs. I don't know for sure if they were grubbing the forrestii species, or if they were gathering another, but the Chinese can be quite ruthless with their native flora. As you would guess, Scottish plant explorer George Forrest was in our exact area about one hundred years prior, so it was probably P. forrestii that they were gathering. The bulbs are harvested in summer and autumn and they are boiled until they are cooked to the core, then are dried for future use. They are not used for food, even though sweet and slightly pungent in flavor, but rather medicinally to clear away heat to expel toxic substances and to relieve inflammation. Pleione is used for treating carbuncles and cellulitis, malignant tumors, scrofula and subcutaneous nodules, and poor Biblical Job could have used it to treat his sores and boils. And, if you combine Pleione with ground beetle, pangolin scale and mole cricket, the compound softens the liver and spleen and aids in the recovery of the hepatic functions. One of the most fascinating experiences about rural China – at least it was in the 1980's – was visiting the markets, where a whole lot of medicine was going on. I have a beautiful photograph of some P. forrestii blooms in a hanging basket, but unfortunately they are still in slide form and I haven't been energetic enough to convert it to digital. Finish this blog first, then go online to see the rich beauty of P. forrestii.

Pleione 'Alishan'
Pleione 'Ridgeway'

Pleione 'Versailles'

Pleione hybrids are generally more easy to cultivate, and in England they are known as "windowsill orchids." Bring a pot into the house in February, and by March you will be delighted with the pretty flowers. I particularly like the cultivars 'Alishan', 'Versailles' and 'Ridgeway', but a photo of the sweet white purity of 'Claire' is also stuck in a shoebox of slides like P. forrestii.

Wollemia nobilis

Wollemia nobilis trunk (left), "polar cap" (right)

Wollemia nobilis male flower (left), female flower (right)

Seven or eight years ago I acquired a Wollemia nobilis* and I keep it in GH20 because I doubt that it would survive a harsh Oregon winter. Wollemia was recently discovered (in 1994) in the Wollemi National Park in a steep canyon just 100 miles northwest of Sydney, Australia. Previously it was only known through the fossil record. This evergreen conifer is not a true pine, but rather a member of the Araucariaceae family. A small population exists in a secret location as it would probably be fatal if the public knew where it was. It is an odd tree with black bubbly bark and a "polar cap" (white sap) on the terminal bud. Wollemi will root, but not to great success, and just as well as it is only hardy to about 20 degrees F. My tree survived in GH20 even when the heater failed and temperatures dipped to about 10 degrees F for a short period. Ultimately it will hit the greenhouse roof and I will look to sell it, and maybe start again with a little tree...or maybe not.

*The species name nobilis honors David Noble who discovered the grove. Wollemi is an Aboriginal word that means "look around you, keep your eyes open and watch out."

With my no-profit tree collection I behave like a wealthy aristocrat. Thanks to Buchholz Nursery and its customers for funding my folly.

"Oh Talon, I love what you're doing."


  1. Mr Keith is a very nice guy: got a private tour by myself, awesome place not far from where I live

  2. great tips . that gonna help me for my garden .. thank you