Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Bedgebury Pinetum

This week's blog is about plants in the Bedgebury Pinetum, a collection in the Weald of Kent in southern England that is also known as the National Conifer Collection. It was formally established in 1925 and today it is recognized as the most complete collection of conifers* on one site anywhere in the world. Over twelve thousand trees grow on 320 acres, among which are rare, endangered or historically important specimens. Thank God the collection survived the ravages of WWII.

*About 61% of the conifer taxa in the world.

I received their Index Bedgeburyensis* of  1999 by the Forestry Commission upon my visit – my one and only – in the early 2000's. This compilation is something akin to what I call my Master Plant List, except that at Bedgebury every tree is considered an individual, whereas my list consists of only one entry, even though I may have a thousand of them.

*ensis is a Latin adjectival suffix meaning "pertaining to" or "originating in." Maybe I should call my tree collection Flora Wonderensis, then the American government can manage it for me with its proper botanical pedigree.

David Douglas
The site of the pinetum was chosen by the botanical powers at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew because air pollution in London impeded the health of conifers. The location, just 56 miles away was more conducive for conifer health, except that frost pockets exist on the property that can wreak havoc on tender species. Kew botanist William Dallimore was considered a world-renowned expert on conifers, and plants first raised at Kew from 1921 were transplanted to Bedgebury under his supervision. However, many trees – besides the natives – were planted by the previous estate owner, Viscount William Beresford, beginning in the 1840's. One example is an Abies grandis, known today as the "Old Man of Kent," which is the pinetum's tallest tree at over 167' (51 meters). Remember that the grandis species was discovered only a decade before by David Douglas. In America, the trees can reach 246' tall (75 meters), and they usually present a very narrow straight crown.

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Blue Surprise'

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Imbricata Pendula'

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Pygmaea Argentea'
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Wisselii'

In last week's blog I mentioned that one purpose of the Von Gimborn Arboretum in Doorn, The Netherlands, was to preserve cultivars that are no longer commercially available, like that is something historically important. Bedgebury apparently feels the same way, as there are scads of old cultivars – hogging precious room – that will never be propagated again. But at least the National Conifer Collection indulges in cultivars, whereas some arboreta consider cultivariants as a trivial folly unworthy of scientific pursuit. Thus you have acres of Chamaecyparis lawsonianas – greens, goldens, variegateds, pillars etc. Hopefully the area won't fall victim to the deadly Phytophthora latifolia which has killed many Lawsons, even in its native stand.

Taiwania cryptomerioides

Taiwania cryptomerioides

Taiwania flousiana

Full disclosure here: not all photos used in this blog were taken at Bedgebury, but with all I did see representative samples there. Particularly, an impressive grove of Taiwania cryptomerioides was perfectly sited with a little shade and with a backdrop of some trees large and green. The blue of the Taiwania was evident, and all trees had nice pyramidal shapes. I discontinued propagating the species because they looked horrible at younger sizes, like big floppy branches. I have only one specimen left at Flora Farm, and thankfully it finally looks like a real tree. Taiwania is native to the island of Taiwan, obviously, but in spite of coming from a relatively low altitude it has proven hardy to at least USDA zone 7. A larger form occurs a couple of thousand miles away in Yunnan, China-to-Burma, called T. flousiana, or the "coffin tree." Native stands of flousiana can reach 250' tall, making it the tallest tree in China.* Interestingly, it was found in the same general area as Metasequoia, where flousiana seeds were first collected at the same time as the first Metasequoia. In my opinion flousiana – only hardy to USDA zone 8 – is less attractive than cryptomerioides, as the former is clothed with boring gray-green foliage.

*According to Rushforth in Conifers, published in 1987.

Araucaria araucana

Araucaria araucana

Araucaria araucana seed

Pinus sabiniana

Another impressive grove consisted of Araucaria araucana, the "Chilean Monkey-Puzzle Tree," where it naturalized to produce young seedlings. The Bedgeburyensis did not indicate at what age they were planted, but I estimated at between twenty-to-thirty years ago, and I feel remiss that I didn't start such a grove on my property. Every tree-lover knows of individual specimens aged fifty to one hundred-or-more years old, such as in Portland, Oregon and in England, but a naturalized grove is a far greater spectacle, and I saw another at Tervuren Arboretum in Belgium in 2011. At the latter I was able to nibble on Araucaria seed-nuts, picked up from the ground, and they exuded a meaty-nutritious flavor. For the native Araucano Indians, the nutlets were not a mere curiosity but were rather an important source of food. The same is true with Pinus sabiniana, the "Digger Pine," of which Bedgebury contains at least four specimens planted between 1934 and 1990.

Cryptomeria japonica

The pinetum abounds with Cryptomeria trees and cultivars. Most of us are familiar with the japonica species, but they also grow the fortunei species from southern China. Fortunei is attractive with bright green foliage, but is hardy to only USDA zone 7, and I personally know of no cultivars. Some of the japonicas date back to 1925 and their reddish trunks are most impressive. The word cryptomeria is derived from Latin crypto, meaning "hidden," and Greek meros for "part," which refers to the seeds being concealed by scales.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans Aurea Nana' at Buchholz Nursery

I used to propagate a large number of Cryptomeria cultivars, and a few still exist in the gardens, but sales dried up for the most part. Another gripe is that many of the cultivars are prone to litter the garden with dead branches. Bedgebury contains some 'Elegans Aurea' of good size, and I also used to grow it. I was more excited, however with 'Elegans Aurea Nana', supposedly a dwarf form. But at Flora Wonder my first 35-year-old specimen is already thirty feet tall.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Sekkan sugi'

Cryptomeria japonica 'Rasen'

Bedgebury has at least one Cryptomeria japonica 'Sekkan sugi', and when young the foliage can be impressively golden. Whether in England or in my garden, as 'Sekkan'* ages the color is less obvious, and it matures to a dirty green. My original tree was cut down at thirty years of age because it was an eye-sore, and I replaced it with 'Rasen', a rich green cultivar. Bedgebury also grows 'Rasen,' planted in 1993, and it is a fast-growing upright with curled foliage. The name is Japanese and it means "barber pole."

*Bedgebury lists it as 'Sekkan-sugi' with a dash. Actually the sugi part is unnecessary as it is merely the Japanese word for Cryptomeria, which has already been noted.

Cunninghamia lanceolata

Cunninghamia lanceolata 'Glauca'

There were a number of Cunninghamia present, mostly of the lanceolata species, and one of the cultivar 'Glaucum' dates to a 1926 planting. As with the Cryptomeria genus, Cunninghamia can look ragged as it ages, but usually it grows with one straight trunk, with thick reddish bark similar to other members of the Redwood family. Cunninghamia is known as the "China Fir" even though it is a far cry from a true Abies. The genus honors the Scottish botanist and surgeon James Cunningham (1749-1791?) who labored in China for the East India Company. At one point he disappeared, never to be seen again, and there was no trace of a will or a Chinese report of his death. Before his death he was able to send over 600 botanical specimens back to England.

Abies bracteata

Abies bracteata

Abies bracteata from Dr. Corbin

The Bedgeburyensis lists five Abies bracteata trees, and two of the oldest were planted in 1932. Also known as the "Bristle Cone Fir," it is restricted to a mountainous area near the California coast. I had been growing A. bracteata since 1982, my start coming from the garden of the late Dr. Corbin in Portland, Oregon, but I had never seen the curious cones before. Fortunately Bedgebury had a preserved cone in their office, and recently a blog reader sent me a couple of cones from the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco.* My favorite time to see A. bracteata is in spring as the buds swell (Fagus like) to considerable size before opening. I discontinued propagating bracteata because the trees would take forever to form an attractive pyramidal tree, but I planted my oldest specimen at Flora Farm...and anxiously awaited its coning debut. For no apparent reason the tree died a few years ago and I felt horrible. Fortunately I told the death story to Don Howse of Porterhowse Arboretum and he provided me with a start, having bought some (of the Corbin form) years previous.

*To preserve an Abies cone is an easy process, just google preserving pine cones, for it's the same method. Be sure to not wait too long, because if the cone is already beginning to disintegrate it will continue to do so.

Abies chensiensis var. salouenensis

Bedgebury featured a couple of Abies chensiensis, with one tree of the variety salovenensis, with which I was not immediately familiar. After a pause, I realized that what was meant was var. salouenensis, a tree which I also have in my collection. Known as the "Shensi Fir," the variety (or subspecies) received a name that I can't trace. Perhaps it was for plant-hunter Soule, or because it can be found along the Salween River, or none of the above. The Salween begins in the Tibetan Plateau and ends in the Andaman Sea, off the west coast of southern Thailand. In Chinese it is known as Nu Jiang or "angry river," and it travels a considerable distance, 1491 miles, or more than twice the length of Great Britain. As with many Abies, chensiensis will hybridize with other firs, and I also have a chensiensis crossed with balsamea.

Athrotaxis cupressoides

Athrotaxis laxifolia

An old Athrotaxis cupressoides was planted in 1926, then three others in the mid 1980's. The species is known as the "Tasmanian Cedar," but in spite of its provenance it has proven hardy to 0 degrees F. in my garden. I have read (Rushforth) that it is closely related to Cryptomeria, except for a few minor botanical details. But I also read years ago that it was related to Sequoiadendron, and I experimented by grafting A. cupressoides onto Sequoiadendron, with the hopes of making it even more winter hardy. The grafts thrived for five or six years, but I eventually sold them so I don't know how they really turned out. Bedgebury also contains some old Athrotaxis laxifolia, also known as "Tasmanian Cedar." I discontinued with this species because the foliage color was an ugly yellow-green, at least at my nursery. Most visitors to my garden assume they are seeing a Cupressus when they encounter an A. cupressoides, for the latter is rare in gardens, and the visitors sigh because they don't know the genus, and there's many of these obscure conifers.

Juniperus pingii

Juniperus pingii

Lots of Juniperus species and cultivars can be found at Bedgebury, but the bulk of the old cultivars are not attractive at all, and one can see why they fell from favor decades ago. J. chinensis 'Blaauw', J. communis 'Depressa Aurea' and J. x media 'Pfitzeriana Aurea' and 'Glauca' are a few that come to mind. But one should not dismiss all Junipers, for some of the species are most ornamental. One of my favorites is Juniperus pingii, a rare Chinese species. Bedgebury doesn't list just straight pingii, but instead the cultivars 'Loderi' and 'Wilsonii'. I'm not certain exactly what I grow, and botanists, both in China and elsewhere don't always concur. I only kept one specimen of the Ping juniper, but now it is of impressive size at 25' tall by 20' wide at thirty years of age. We have limbed it up to reveal the attractive exfoliating bark, as I am certainly an aficionado of a tree's torso. One employee didn't like my pingii – or any juniper for that matter – and he lobbied numerous times to cut it down. Instead I cut him from the payroll and kept my tree.

Juniperus formosana

Juniperus recurva var. coxii

Juniperus recurva var. coxii

Reginald Farrer
A couple of Juniperus formosana were represented, both planted in the 1930's. This species is known as the "Taiwan Juniper," as Formosa was an old name for Taiwan.* J. formosana forms a small upright tree with weeping green foliage, but keep your distance as it is prickly to the touch. Another attractive species of Juniperus is recurva var. coxii, which some consider a separate species, not a variety. The oldest recurva at Bedgebury was planted in 1926, but their index also lists 'Castlewellan', 'Densa' and 'Embly Park?' cultivars from the 1980's. The labels were not always obvious so I still don't know one from the other. In any case it doesn't really matter, and I admit that my specimens at Flora Farm are not certainly known to me. On the other hand, I defy anyone to call them ugly, or to want to cut them down. The species or variety coxii honors Euan Cox of Perth, Scotland, a famous Rhododendron collector and breeder. He accompanied Reginald Farrer to upper Burma on a plant collecting expedition, where a number of new introductions were made. Farrer, the famous garden writer and plant hunter, died in Burma (Myanmar now), leaving Cox with the responsibility of sorting out and distributing the collections.

*Taiwan was historically known as Ilha formosa, or "beautiful island" to the Portuguese.

Rhododendron roxieanum var. roxieanum

Rhododendron strigillosum

Rhododendron keiskei
Rhododendron fictolacteum

Not every plant at Bedgebury is a conifer, for there are many alders, willows and oaks, each one on the accession list, and their inclusion gives the pinetum a feel of a real natural park. Rhododendrons (Greek for "Rose Tree") were plentiful, but most of the old cultivars were unknown to me. I could identify some of the species, such as strigillosum, roxieanum, keiskei, fictolacteum and others, but they too were not always labeled. I know myself that labelling is an ongoing chore, and there never seems to be enough time and money to deal with it. It is especially problematic when you allow the public into your collection.

Bedgebury was known as early as AD 841, and in Old English it was bycgan, meaning "buy," and Kentish vecge, meaning "to bend or turn," as in reference to a steam. John de Bedgebury was the earliest resident; he died in 1425, and through marriage it entered into the hands of other families. At one point it was left to a Miss Peach, and I wonder if she really was a "peach." Today Bedgebury is home to the National Collection of Taxus, Juniperus, Thuja, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana and x Cupressocyparis. Its special mission is to safeguard rare and endangered species, so the public is fortunate to even be allowed to enter. From another perspective, the public owns it anyway. I would like to return to spend more time, as my three-hour visit was not adequate to acknowledge over 12,000 plants. Naturally it will be raining, or at least foggy, but that's the best time to see the Monkey Puzzle Grove anyway.

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