Friday, March 27, 2015

Maple Time

Maples in the greenhouse

The maples are well into leaf in our greenhouses, and almost daily I inspect my holdings. For nearly five months previous I had nothing more than dormant sticks in pots with identifying plastic labels. That wasn't any fun, but now I am able to see their exciting differences. Once again we wake up with each other, and like a fresh spring bride, everything is full of promise.

Acer palmatum 'Katsura'

Acer palmatum 'Orange Dream'

Acer palmatum 'Akane'

Generally the Acer japonicums open first, followed by palmatums and then the shirasawanums. Since many cultivars of the alleged shirasawanum species are in fact hybrids with palmatum, some intermediacy in leafing out is apparent. Of course there are exceptions to the general rule, such as Acer palmatums 'Katsura', 'Orange Dream' and 'Akane' leafing out as quickly as any of the japonicums. These early-birds frighten me with their vulnerability, as only freaks of nature would dare to foliate so early. One of the advantages of owning or working in a nursery is that we receive two springs: one first from inside the greenhouses, then the other three weeks later from out in the garden.

Acer palmatum 'Phoenix'

Acer palmatum 'Phoenix'

Inside are a couple of impressive selections from Dick van der Maat from Boskoop, The Netherlands. Acer palmatums 'Phoenix' and 'Hino tori nishiki' both feature pinkish-red new growth. 'Phoenix' will form a compact broad shrub – in the garden – but more upright in the Buchholz container culture. Today its small leaves are brightly pink-red with yellow veins, then they evolve to a more green color by summer, while portions of red still remain at the margins. Fall color ranges from yellow to red, often on the same leaf at the same time.

I like the word phoenix, and it's a Greek mythological term that refers to a long-lived bird that is cyclically reborn. In association with the sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor, but according to some legends the old bird could live to over 1,400 years before rebirth. Descriptions vary as to the color of the phoenix, but the Greek Herodotus (the Father of History) claimed that it was red and yellow – the same color of Acer palmatum 'Phoenix'. Hmm, did van der Maat know all of this?

Acer palmatum 'Hino tori nishiki'

Firebird Ballet Dancer
Van der Maat's Acer palmatum 'Hino tori nishiki' is pretty much the same as 'Phoenix', and why not, for the Japanese name translates as “Firebird Variegated.” It is variegated in the sense that older leaves are green with a dusting of pink coloration, and also that these greenish leaves form the base of the shrub, while newer shoots above display a vibrant pink-red. The “firebird” myth is from Slavic folklore, and it is a glowing bird from a faraway land. It is magical of course, and even one feather can light a large room. The most famous use of the firebird legend was Igor Stravinsky's  ballet score, The Firebird, first produced by Sergei Diaghilev's company Ballet Russe.

Acer palmatum 'Taylor'

Taylor Lindeman
I didn't intend for this to be a Dick van der Maat blog, but let's stick with him for one more of his selections, Acer palmatum 'Taylor'. This colorful willowy bush is solidly pink today, but soon portions of lime-green will appear on the tiny leaves. One year we received a bright hot day in April and Taylor's foliage burned. Partly due to that stress, the foliage was dusted in June with powdery mildew. I thought about dumping the entire crop because I was so embarrassed, but I never got around to issuing the decree. In August they shot out two feet of vigorous branches and they looked great again. Overall the cultivar is worth growing I think, and we are licensed to propagate it in America. It was named for Taylor Lindeman, the granddaughter of van der Maat's sister.

Acer palmatum 'Green River'

Acer palmatum 'Green River' should perhaps be renamed Acer x 'Green River' for it is likely a hybrid of shirasawanum and palmatum. It has yet to leaf out, another indication that it contains some shirasawanum blood. But since its seed dangles beneath the foliage, unlike the upright samaras of the shirasawanums, I have decided to call it a palmatum. I am not a guy who likes to make up botanical rules, as I am not qualified, but I've pleaded in the past for an “expert” to weigh in, to shine some light on horticulture's gray areas. I suspect that plants are like people, where you can be one-fourth or one-sixteenth Indian or black or oriental. But with the batch of seedlings that resulted in one being selected as 'Green River', some of the others had seed rising above the foliage. A mongrel horde, as it were. In any case, 'Green River' – a compact laceleaf – was named for its “flowing” leaves. A larger specimen must be seen to understand what I mean by the tree's flow.

Acer palmatum 'Kotobuki'

Acer palmatum 'Orido no nishiki'
All winter long my two largest specimens of Acer palmatum 'Kotobuki' attracted attention for their colorful trunks. Other variegated cultivars are notable for variegated trunks as well – such as Acer palmatum 'Orido no nishiki' – but so far 'Kotobuki' is the most spectacular. Kotobuki is a Japanese term that translates as a “happy celebration,” and the cheerful foliage is apt for the name. My start came from Japan, via Europe – legally of course – but I don't know more about its origin, for it is not listed in the Vertrees/Gregory book nor the Masayoshi Yano book. What I do know is that one tree will vary to some degree compared to another, and I suppose that's a result of which particular shoot was used in propagation. Out of my original three starts, the largest and most vigorous was retired for lack of variegation. Unfortunately the best shoots for color produce the weakest trees, so the experienced propagator must carefully select his scionwood. “Unstable” trees like 'Kotobuki' eventually find their way to market, but certainly it does not always guarantee a worthy tree; but at its best, 'Kotobuki' is a marvel.

Acer palmatum 'Saiho'

Acer palmatum 'Saiho' is another new cultivar that I received via the same Japan-to-Europe route. “Cute” would be the best description for it, for the tiny yellow-green leaves are edged in red. It forms a dense round bush, but unfortunately it is difficult (for me) to propagate due to the short, very thin shoots. Often with these dwarves, we find them easier to produce from rooted cuttings rather than from grafting, although the former method will result in a weaker, more dwarf tree. I never charge enough for the few 'Saiho' that I do sell, for they grow at about one-fourth the rate as most other cultivars. On the other hand, I have many happy customers.

Acer palmatum 'Orangeola'

Acer palmatum 'Brocade'

Acer palmatum 'Brocade'

Acer palmatum 'Brocade'

Is that a group of Acer palmatum 'Orangeola' or Acer palmatum 'Brocade'? Well, you won't know until you see the label, for the two cultivars are identical. I grew 'Brocade' early in my career, but found that the sales appeal was far less than with other more-red cultivars such as 'Red Dragon', 'Tamuke yama' etc. In the mid-1980's, along came 'Orangeola'. It originated as a seedling – from what I don't know – in an Oregon maple-growing nursery, and they propagated a few for the heck of it. A plant broker that represented the grower saw them in the field, and asked what it was. The grower responded that it had no name, but invited the broker to give it one. Plant middle-men are an interesting group, but let's just say you wouldn't want your daughter to marry one. Anyway, he named it 'Orangeola' which I thought was a horrible name. For a few years I simply called it 'Orange', refusing to acknowledge 'Orangeola', but eventually I relented when it came time to sell a crop. According to the “rules” of nomenclature, a proposed cultivar must be sufficiently different from any other, and as I mentioned 'Orangeola' is not sufficiently different from 'Brocade'. But in our wild-west atmosphere no one follows “no stinking rules” anyway, and the market will always trump the stuffy world of nomenclatural propriety. And while I can barely sell 'Brocade', for years I have sold tons of 'Orangeola', so the huckster broker gets the last laugh.

If you google Acer you will get “the Taiwanese multinational hardware and electronics corporation specializing in advanced electronics technology, headquartered in New Taipei City.” In fact I have an Acer laptop, but which I barely use. Initially I wondered why the Acer name was upside-down, as when I would search for the side that opened the damn thing. But Seth pointed out, that when open, the letters were not upside-down when viewed by others who might be looking at my machine. The implication is that when I am hibernating at my local Starbucks with my laptop, I am constantly streaming the Acer brand. Never mind that my laptop has never left my home or office.

Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood'

Anyway, when you google Acer palmatum, three suggested searches are presented: Acer palmatum, Acer palmatum Bloodgood and Acer palmatum Butterfly. I can understand the Bloodgood, for there must still be thousands of them sold every year, but the name has taken on a more broad meaning than signifying just one particular clone. The true 'Bloodgood' in commerce is difficult to determine, as many 'Bloodgood'-like seedlings have been peddled as the real clone. We grow what I have sort-of-named 'Bloodgood Original', and only propagate from that source, as it indicates that the scions came from the original 'Bloodgood' tree. Remember that there are a lot of idiots (at best) and scoundrels (at worst) in horticulture – whether they come from Europe, America or New Zealand – and many other cultivars have been diluted as well. New Zealand's 'Fireglow' is a washed out version of the original which is from the Italian Gilardelli Nursery. New Zealand's 'O sakazuki' is different from the tree cultivar which received the prestigious RHS Award of Garden Merit. Even though the offending company in New Zealand acknowledges that their dubious clones might not be identical to the originals, still they export them into Europe and America by the thousands, as if gripers like me are being unnecessarily petty.

Acer palmatum 'Shojo no mai'

I find the third choice when you google Acer palmatum – 'Butterfly' – to be quite odd. I know a few companies still produce it, but I gave up on the selection twenty five years ago, and no one ever requests it from me now. You can find a couple of scrappy 'Butterfly' for sale at The Home Depot, and usually they come with undersized rootballs with the burlap wrapped a foot up the trunk, and all held together with orange plastic twine that will eventually girdle the tree. Nice. The supplier is invariably a company that will be bankrupt by the following year. When there are no longer any cheap suppliers left – because after all a seven-year-old tree retails for only $39.95 – the box store's new supplier will be...China!

Acer palmatum 'Beni schichihenge'

I discontinued 'Butterfly' because I didn't like the variegation – it always looked dirty to me. Cute name, but it is also prone to reversion. A nearby upscale restaurant has two 'Butterfly' planted near the entrance, and they both have sizable reverted portions that challenge my appetite. God, who is the landscraper responsible for the upkeep of the grounds? Anyway, I find Acer palmatums 'Shojo no mai' and 'Beni schichihenge' to be superior to 'Butterfly', and there's probably another dozen sorta-similar cultivars that are improvements as well.

Acer pictum 'Usugumo'

Acer mono is an Acer species from northeastern China, Korea and Japan according to de Beaulieu in An Illustrated Guide to Maples. He makes absolutely no mention of Acer pictum, that some authorities list the mono species as pictum. In Vertrees/Gregory Japanese Maples, the preference for the "Painted Maple" is Acer pictum, and Gregory adds that "the older name of A. pictum has now been accepted as legitimate by the International Botanical Congress, and so it takes precedence over A. mono." Yikes, confusing. The cultivar 'Usugumo' is described in both references with de B. claiming that propagation is "by grafting on A. platanoides, while Gregory doesn't mention any rootstock for propagation. However, I received a plant of 'Usugumo' 25 years ago, and I tried for years to propagate it into A. platanoides, with absolutely no success. Years ago I purchased seedlings of Acer truncatum ssp. mono from a company that no longer sells this species with the curious epithet. Actually, most of the obscure Acer species that I purchased from them turned out to be invalid. But the good news is that I saved one of the trees of the ssp. mono and I propagate it by rooted cuttings. And what do you know, it makes a very compatible rootstock for 'Usugumo'. The bottom line is that botanical maple experts can staunchly make their claims until the end of time, but all Buchholz wants is to be able to propagate, grow and sell the very desirable cultivar, 'Usugumo'.

Nothing comes easy with a career in horticulture, and my failures are numerous. But I am thankful that I am not also saddled with being a "botanical expert."

"No Talon, you are not a botanical expert. You are a simple, humble country boy – my type – which is why I have bestowed many wonderful plants for you."

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful and informative, as always. Thank you! Living vicariously through your photos here in zone 5b--