Friday, July 11, 2014

The Knowledge in Books

Formativa trans sicere educatorum – Latin for "Enter all ye who seek knowledge."

The word knowledge is derived from Old English cnāwan, and that from a Germanic origin, and that from an Indo-European root shared by Latin (g)noscere, and Greek gignōskein.

Many thousands of you receive our weekly blog notice, but occasionally someone requests that we stop sending it. Well, I don't force anybody to read the Flora Wonder Blog, and I suppose many of you just quickly scroll through the photos and leave it at that. It's tempting (in my arrogant way) to not discontinue the notice because really, where is the harm in it? We joke in the office that the blog is even good for you, like in the long run after a painful hour in the dentist's chair.

The "knowledge" that I impart comes from personal experience and from the generous advice and wisdom of customers and numerous plant friends. And, let's not forget my employees either. Sometimes I proffer hard empirical facts, and sometimes just personal opinions...and both might appear in the same sentence or paragraph. Concerning my "judgments," one blog commenter said, "Nice photos, but you sound like a crude judgmental bitch. Have a nice day." I loved the nice day salutation, and crude and judgmental are probably occasionally true. By the way Mr. A(nonymous), perhaps I should retire and you can do the blog, because apparently you are less bitchy than I.

That aside, another source of blog information comes from my hundreds of plant books. I wouldn't be without them, and I have had times when I consult five different books and the internet over the accuracy of one little factoid. Of course the books aren't perfect and neither I am. Am I? Frequently the books are opinionated and judgmental, even when they try not to be. Consider the Vertrees/Gregory Japanese Maples, fourth edition description of Acer palmatum 'Goshiki kotohime'. It is described as "less than 1m (3 ft.) tall," yet we have grown it to 15 feet tall. It is judged to be "quite difficult to propagate," though we annually get nearly 100 percent via rooted cuttings. We have also attained a successful graft percentage when stock plants are forced in a greenhouse. Vertrees begins his description with the opinion "This beautiful little plant..." I think the judgments and opinions, and even some inaccuracies, make the scholarly work more personal and better.

For the entry of Acer circinatum 'Sunglow', Vertrees/Gregory begin by calling it "This distinctive cultivar..." and end by concluding "It is very different from any other A. circinatum cultivar..." Actually it is not, as it is similar to A. c. 'Sunny Sister'. Floyd McMullen of Portland, Oregon had selected a dozen of these unusual seedlings which he generously gave away to plant friends. I acquired one and called it 'Sunglow', and then another and called it 'Sunny Sister', but I don't know what became of the rest of them.

Our introduction of Acer palmatum 'Geisha Gone Wild' is described in Vertrees/Gregory as "This unusual variegate arose as a seedling of 'Geisha'..." No, it was a "wild" sport of 'Geisha', as was A. p. 'Shirazz' from New Zealand. And I wouldn't liken it at all to A. p. 'Tennyo-no-hoshi' as the book suggests. And what's with the dashes in 'Tennyo-no-hoshi'? A number of maple names in the book are rendered with dashes, such as 'Koto-no-ito', 'Manyo-no-sato' and others, but the Japanese (Yano) do not do dashes and neither do I. Who started that idea?

A dashless reference book is Masayoshi Yano's Book for Maples, and it is even more personal than the Vertrees/Gregory book. Published in Japan in 2003, he begins its preface with, "While I was composing this book, I found out how difficult it was to..." and "Every tree has its own peculiarities just as every one of us is different."

Yano's book is in Japanese and English with both languages side-by-side. Unfortunately he is literate in Japanese only, so the English translation was subbed out to a bilingual professor who, well, was not up to the task. The problems start with the front cover and the title Book for Maples. Nothing has ever been written for maples of course; it should have been Book of Maples. The book contains two categories: Maple cultivars and Wild Maples of Japan, the latter not meaning that the individual maples behave in a wild fashion.

Masayoshi Yano

Yano's photographs are wonderful, as he was a professional food photographer before he caught the maple fever. Descriptions are short but useful, especially since fall color is always mentioned, something that takes me years to notice with container-grown maples.* The book is arranged in alphabetical order by cultivar name, regardless of the species. I like that, because other plant books make you scramble around trying to find the circinatum section or the sieboldianum section etc. I find Yano's book more user friendly.

*Many of Yano's autumn colors were derived from his observations in his small-pot collection. I don't doubt that Acer circinatum 'Monroe' turned "deep red" in his culture, but for me the autumn color is always yellow.

I consult the Vertrees/Gregory book and the Yano book frequently – so often that you'd think I would have them memorized by now. Another excellent resource is An Illustrated Guide to Maples by Antoine Le Hardy be Beaulieu. Each species is accompanied by a number of photos detailing the trunk, new growth, fall color, seed, flowers and often a full-sized specimen. It's a wonderful reference book for when you visit a world-class maple collection, assuming your wife is willing to tag along and carry it for you. I consider it mainly a "species" book, as it doesn't delve deeply into cultivars...for if it did you would need two or three wives. I have been frustrated a few times when a maple species is not included, but it's always because his botanical classification does not warrant inclusion.

A maple book I never consult – which has sat dusty on the book shelf for the past twenty years – is Maples of the World by van Gelderen, de Jong and Osterdoom. Even though it is full of misinformation, there is still a lot of useful information if you can believe it. The main reason I don't use Maples of the World is because of its strange disorganization, and like a mixed-up cluttered garage you spend too much energy looking for what you want.

And that's also my gripe with Krussmann's Cultivated Broad-Leaved Trees and Shrubs and his Manual of Cultivated Conifers. Together they amount to four volumes which weigh more than I do. It is a scholarly work that I have learned to navigate through, but it is highly Eurocentric, especially when listing cultivars. Since it was first published in 1972 most of the cultivars are not relevant to today's gardening, but the volumes make for interesting history. For example you can read that Picea abies 'Little Gem' originated as a mutation on Picea abies 'Nidiformis' and was "Developed by F.J. Grootendorst, Boskoop, Holland before 1960. Plate 93." Good luck trying to find Plate 93, and then if you do, you'll be treated to a crummy black and white photo.

My new two-volume set of Conifers from Around the World by Debreczy and Racz is full of fascinating information. For example in previous conifer books, such as Rushforth's Conifers (published in1987), the origin of the beautiful Cupressus cashmeriana is declared unknown. The new book reveals that "cashmeriana is perhaps the most striking and impressive of all cypresses." They further report that natural stands have recently been discovered in Bhutan, and that five trees in the "Yangri Chu gorge were measured at an astounding 74-95 m. tall...making them among the tallest conifers in Asia – indeed, the world."

The photos of Conifers from Around the World show a lot of scrappy nongarden-worthy trees, but they were all taken in situ, not in a well-tended garden or arboretum. It's amazing to consider the sixteen years required and over 2,000 days in the field to find, identify and photograph on every continent except Antarctica. Once again, my only gripe is that the text is separated into sections, for example 1) Europe and Adjacent regions, 2) Continental Asia and Hainan, 3) Japan and Adjacent Island and 4) Taiwan. So finding a tree in question might lead to some wandering around unless you consult the Quick Finder Index at the end of each volume. But if you are devoted to using this work, as I am, you eventually get the hang of it.

Perhaps more fun is the new two-volume set of Encyclopedia of Conifers by Aris Auders (the photographer) and Derek Spicer, a Royal Horticultural Society publication. The volumes are loaded with sumptuous photographs and depict thousands of species and cultivars. Descriptions are concise and almost always contain the source of the cultivar. Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Miss Grace' is considered "A compact plant with gracefully weeping branches and refined grey-green foliage turning a strong orange in autumn. In ten years 2.5 x 1 m, if staked. A witch's broom, introduced by Buchholz & Buchholz Nursery, OR, USA in 1998." How did the author know it was 1998? I think I've even forgotten the year, but it sounds about right. For M. g. 'Little Giant' the description reads "Listed by Buchholz & Buchholz Nursery, OR, USA in 2009." That is correct, but I didn't find or introduce the cultivar and I don't know who did. I don't grow 'Little Giant' anymore – and what an oxymoronic name anyway – because it is pretty much like the type.

Aris Auders is an excellent photographer and his work is perfect to sit atop a plant-lover's coffee table, except that in my case it would be piled on with my wife and children's clothing, hair stuff, homework and last night's empty popcorn bowl. A minor complaint is that Mr. Auders (from Latvia) only spent a short time at Buchholz Nursery, and wasn't able to see all the trees in their best season. In other words, he should have borrowed more photographs. The photos of Picea pungens 'Gebelle's Golden Spring' do not reveal the full glory of the tree because he was a month late to capture the new growth. Other than that I'm very proud that some of my plants are in his book, and it's always interesting to see them from somebody else's perspective.

My go-to book, one which never leaves my desk, is Hillier's Manual of Trees and Shrubs. I use it as a spell check for one, even though my 5th edition still spells Picea breweriana as brewerana, but I'm told that has now been corrected. Hillier's manual provides good descriptions that often contain his personal opinion, like with Sorbus megalocarpa which is "A remarkable, small tree or large shrub of loose spreading habit." We always learn where the plant is native to, and if known, who introduced it to western cultivation. S. megalocarpa was introduced by E.H. Wilson from western China in 1903. I first saw the tree at Wisley in England in the fall and was impressed with the large brown fruits, but for some reason I didn't take a photo. I suppose I'm due for an updated Hillier's because I am occasionally surprised when a species I want to find more about is not listed, such as Sassafras tsumu. And I hope that at least a portion from my book payment would go to the Hilliers, as a way of thanking them for undertaking the endeavor.

Occasionally I will pull out another favorite book of mine, the 1950-published A Natural History of Western Trees by Donald Culross Peattie. I don't use it for research for the blog, but rather for his pleasant way with language and his exuberance for trees. Peattie begins his book with "The Sylva of western North America is the most impressive and humanly significant in the world." Wow, take that Smokey Mountains or a South American rainforest! He lavishes on with "Nor can the trees of the west be computed completely either in dollars or board feet of lumber. They are a benign presence, mighty and healing, for the many who come to them." I love those kind of sentences and I imagine that Donald Culross would make a wonderful hiking companion on the trail. I picture us up the western flank of Mt. Hood at about 5000', and just before timberline we walk through the narrow alpine-form "Mountain Hemlocks," Tsuga mertensiana. He would say something like "A young Mountain Hemlock is all feminine grace, with a long slender leader whose tip nods over...whose arms are held out like a dancer's, and the smaller branches curve gracefully out and away and down, like the fingers of a hand extended but relaxed, and all the twigs are clothed in the bluish green of the softly shining foliage." It was because of Peattie's flowery language that I named a mertensiana selection 'Blue Dancer'. The beauty lived in our Blue Forest among other Tsugas, but inexplicably died at about fifty years of age. She reminded me of a ballerina – one in particular – the recently retired Yuka Iino of Oregon Ballet Theater who had the most expressive hands in the business. Her fingers alone were worth the cost of our season tickets.

It is pretty obvious that I love my books, and I suppose that they will outlive me, or I hope so anyway. It has been a great life to grow trees and read books, even though I am heartbroken over 'Blue Dancer's demise.


  1. it's true, I never read the ramblings......and just look at the pretty, probably photoshopped, pictures LOL

  2. Talon, It is high time that you wrote a book that is as sensible in its organization as you wished all tree/plant books would be, and includes your many years of practical nurseryman expertise and your desire of accuracy. There are surely tons of others who feel as you do in their frustration of the inadequacies in the available material in this field. You would surely answer the silent desires of their plant hearts!

  3. Hi Talon,

    Where can I buy 'Book For Maples' by Yano?