Thursday, June 11, 2015

An Old Englishman's Dwarf Conifers

I pulled Humphrey Welch's Manual of Dwarf Conifers from the bottom shelf and blew the dust off; it had been languishing for quite a few years, stuck between Swartley's The Cultivated Hemlocks and Perry's The Pines of Mexico and Central America, both of which I consult on a more regular basis. The Welch book of 1979 is a follow-up to his 1966 publication, “now that even more information is available and so many new forms have become known...” The dust jacket promises that “It is an authoritative and definitive work.”

There are numerous photographs, but they are of mediocre quality in black-and-white. If there is any value in the book – for me – it's a history of the cultivars therein. Most of the conifers are old-fashioned European selections that are no longer in the trade, no longer because there is insufficient interest in them among modern gardeners, in both America and Europe.

Pinus leucodermis 'Schmidtii'

Pinus leucodermis 'Schmidtii'

Pinus leucodermis 'Schmidtii' is an exception to the statement above, for we continue to grow the dwarf green ball and we sell a modest amount each year. Sadly it wasn't given a more imaginative name, say “Emerald Pearl' or 'Green Gem', or something like that. Besides, the cultivar name is spelled in a variety of ways, like 'Smidtii' without the “c,” or 'Smidt' or 'Shittii', but Welch settles on 'Schmidtii, and after all, his is a definitive work. It was discovered in 1926 by Eugen Schmidt, then Secretary of the Czechoslovakian Dendrological Society. He found a three-meters-tall tree in the mountains of Bosnia, near Sarajevo which he estimated to be over 100 years old. Since the needles are more light-green compared with the typical leucodermis species, and since it was growing near many Pinus mugo, Schmidt always maintained that what he found was a hybrid, which you would then call x schmidtii. I am too uninspired to change all of my labels, so I'll leave them as is, as Pinus leucodermis 'Schmidtii'. Welch was apparently enamoured with Herr Schmidt, for he writes, “However the battle for establishing the correct name may go, I shall always prefer the name that honours the finder, a great dendrologist and a very gallant gentleman.” Welch sums up that neither the original tree nor propagations from it have ever set cones, and that being so slow-growing it will always remain a rarity. I have never seen cones either, but it is not at all “rare” any more. And, I regret to say: no one has ever considered me – like Herr Schmidt – a "gallant gentleman."

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Lemon Twist'

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Fasciated Fred'

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Torulosa' is a cultivar I fiddled with at the beginning of my career, but I later switched to 'Torulosa Dwarf', and I propagated and sold a few thousand of them. But I haven't even grown the “dwarf” version for the past twenty years due to lack of sales. I introduced 'Lemon Twist' about fifteen years ago, a roundish golden form with fasciations at branch tips, and it originated as a mutation on 'Torulosa Dwarf'. To date the 'Lemon Twist' has never reverted back to green. According to Welch, the 'Torulosa' name was used by Mrs. Bergman of the USA, although her husband Fred was the more noted plantsman. Welch speculates that “doubtless Mrs. Bergman accepted a name already in general use, but since the word torulosa has quite a different meaning I rather fancy the original coiner of the name meant to choose 'Tortuosa'.” I don't know, but torulosa is from Latin torose which refers to “surfaces covered with rounded prominences.” However, another meaning of torose is “a plant member with alternate swellings and contractions.” (Merriam -Webster). Could the “swellings and contractions” refer to the fasciations, and perhaps Mrs. Bergman knew exactly what she was saying? According to the American Conifer Society's website, “The first mention of this plant was in the Gotelli Conifer Collection of South Orange, NJ in 1962.” If that is the case, then the name is invalid since the use of Latin names for cultivars was officially terminated in the 1950's. Theoretically I could rename 'Torulosa' into anything non-Latin that I choose – like 'Twisted Ted' or 'Fasciated Fred' – and then “publish” it in a sales catalog or in a magazine article or in a blog, and that would be scientifically valid...and the horticultural world would be forced to use it until the end of time. Frankly though, I have better things to do...or do I? Ok, then: 'Fasciated Fred' is the chosen name, so everyone get on board.

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Minima Aurea'

Mr. Welch instructs us when he lists Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Minima Aurea' to “see above under 'Aurea Densa'.” He describes that 'Aurea Densa' tends to form a “blunt-topped cone with the foliage quite stiff to the touch when the bush is patted with the hand.” On the other...hand...'Minima Aurea' forms a more ovoid (some-times conical) bush with the foliage softer to the touch. Welch then kicks in with an almost ad infinitum opinion, that “These two varieties are, however, so similar that I am sorry for any poor nurseryman who gets his stock of young cuttings muddled, but if perchance later you receive from him the wrong variety there is no need to be worried. For the first five years you will discern no difference: for the next five years visiting experts will argue with great enthusiasm as to which variety it is you have; for the next five years the consensus of opinion will slowly verge in one direction or the other." But, take care that you do not muddle your cutting stock.”

Phyllocladus glauca

Humphrey Welch gives brief mention to the genus Phyllocladus, and opines that only one out of four of its species “is of interest to us here.” Why, he doesn't explain. Because it is the most winter hardy? Or the most common? Anyway Welch champions P. alpinus – from New Zealand – which is remarkable mainly for its curious, thick phylloclads*; these are leaf-like branches which look and act like leaves but carry the female flowers on their margins. Though very different, those of us who look at Ginkgo biloba, then at the genus Phyllocladus, wonder how in the world either genus is classified as a conifer. But of course, the common denominator, baby. The genus was first described by Hooker in 1853, but it is commonly known as “Mountain Toatoa,” or Phyllocladus alpinus. Toatoa is the Maori name of Phyllocladus glauca, which is known primarily for its bark of bright red color, and it is favored mostly by natives for use as walking sticks.

*From New Latin phyllocladium, which originated from Greek phyllo for "leaf" and klados for “branch.”

Thuja occidentalis 'Smaragd'

The lates Humphrey Welch and Sir Harold Hillier shared exasperation with the mix-up of Thuja occidentalis cultivars. To sort it out, Welch gives “full description of all the clones I have in the Pygmy Pinetum or know personally.” He comes close to saying that any other “cultivar” should probably be thrown out, but of course nurserymen and gardeners would never do that. Surprisingly 'Smaragd' is not on his list, but an Oregon nursery I used to work for had acquired it in the 1970's. 'Smaragd' is commonly called “Emerald Green,” for the name is from Greek smaragdos meaning “green gem.” Curiously, smaragd is “emerald” in Danish as well. Back to Welch's list, most of his entries I have never seen, nor do I grow any of them.

Tsuga heterophylla 'Iron Springs'

Welch gives short shrift to the Tsuga heterophylla species, with only 'Iron Springs' garnering a mention. His research on this cultivar consisted of a letter from Joseph Witt, Acting Director of the University of Washington Arboretum, who indicated that the mother tree was “about 50cm in height and breadth in 1972.” Either Welch or Witt or both forgot that it grew to 50cm, but in how many years? I know of a couple notable plantsmen who allege in their catalogs that 'Iron Springs' is a “dwarf,” but ha! – my oldest specimen is over 30' tall at 30 years of age. My tree is correctly identified by the way, but it is another example of a plant that can get too big for its britches. The plant was discovered by Mrs. Ainsworth Blogg near Iron Springs, a resort on the Pacific Coast of Washington state, and she gave the original to the University of Washington Arboretum in Seattle.

Tsuga mertensiana 'Witch's Broom'

Tsuga mertensiana 'Bump's Blue'

Tsuga mertensiana, the “Mountain hemlock,” is beloved by those able to grow it. Welch mentions the cultivar 'Sherwood Compact', and I laughed when I read that the information was supplied by one of the most notorious crooks – fortunately now late – in the history of Oregon's nursery industry. The nefarious nurseryman, however, was correct when he described it as slow-growing, dense and irregular; and Welch is correct in speculating, “It is presumably the same clone that Andrew W. Sherwood reported finding in 1943 at timber line on Mt. Hood.” Another surprise for me was Tsuga mertensiana 'Cascade', a “very compact plant which resembles a dwarf Alberta Spruce, for it was discovered and named by J.D. Vertrees, our Japanese Maple hero. He found it at about 4,000 feet in the Cascade Mountains, the range which also contains Mt. Hood. For the record. our preferred cultivar – 'Bump's Blue' – was found by the late Dr. Forrest Bump of Forest Grove, Oregon at timber line on Mt. Hood.”

Tsuga canadensis 'Cole's Prostrate'

Tsuga canadensis 'Cole's Prostrate'

Tsuga canadensis 'Cole's Prostrate' is a choice dwarf cultivar, and the original plant was collected by H.R. Cole near the bottom of Mt. Madison, New Hampshire in 1929. It is choice, for sure, but unfortunately not very profitable. The best display I have seen is at the University of British Columbia Botanic Garden where a group of plants flowed down a hillside. The largest individual specimen I have seen is growing at Arboretum Trompenburg in Rotterdam, and the photo above was taken 12½ years ago when Haruko was pregnant with our first child, but we didn't know it at the time. 'Cole's Prostrate' must be carefully sited in Oregon, preferably with afternoon shade, as our 100 degree F days will burn it due to a lack of humidity. We haven't propagated it in the past ten years, and we eventually sold out of our remaining stock. I used to employ a woman in our office who flustered easily – and over too many things. On the phone she would stutter some, and call the hemlock “Cole's Prostate.”

Welch lists scads of Juniperus cultivars, and while you might see some in old landscapes, hardly any in his book can be found in modern garden centers. Some of the has-beens in the communis species include 'Depressa Aurea' and 'Depressed Star', not exactly happy names. Others are saddled with awkward names, such as 'Hornibrookii', 'Bakony', 'Gew Graze' and 'Zeal', the latter with no indication who found and named it.

Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star'

I have seen Juniperus squamata in the wild and I found it to be a horrible-looking large shrub which retains much of its dead foliage. 'Meyeri' is deemed “deservedly popular” by Welch, but he relays that the plant was not found in the wild, but rather in a Chinese flower pot. The 'Meyeri' name honors Frank Meyer (1875-1918) who collected plants in Asia for the United States Department of Agriculture. The dwarf 'Blue Star' originated in the Hoogeveen Nursery in Holland in about 1950. According to Welch, out of a block of 'Meyeri' stock plants “one plant began to grow more compactly and later produced two very compact shoots,” hence 'Blue Star'. I used to sell cuttings by the thousands back when it was new in America, but now no one asks for it. It looks great as a small plant – with a great name – but as an older specimen it flops open, at least in Oregon, and the revealed dead portions are most unattractive.

Abies nordmanniana 'Golden Spreader'

Abies nordmanniana 'Golden Spreader'

Concerning Abies nordmanniana 'Golden Spreader', Welch predicts that “when it becomes readily available this cultivar will certainly become popular in gardens because of its wonderful colour.” He mentions that “it forms a flat-topped spreading plant,” and predicts that since it reputedly arose as a seedling “it is presumably a true prostrate form.” Well, no, for all of the older plants that I have seen eventually – after 10 to 15 years – assume leaders.* I don't assert that it was poorly named, but rather that it was too hastily named, and I have been guilty of that myself. Eventually it forms a broad rich-yellow pyramid, and it can actually tolerate a good deal of sun. The best feature is that, if grown in shade, the vibrant golden-yellow needles are still quite yellow...unlike many other golden conifers which if grown in shade turn green. This cultivar originated about 1961 in the nursery of S.N. Shoots in the Netherlands near Boskoop, and I wonder what the “original” looks like now.

*Wake up at the Royal Horticultural Society! On their website is the description, “'Golden Spreader' is a slow-growing evergreen conifer making a small shrub of spreading, bushy growth, wider than tall.” The photograph next to this description shows a tree taller than wide.

It's tough to slog through all of the cultivars of Picea abies in Welch's book, but I learned that 'Clanbrassiliana' was the earliest dwarf form of the “Norway spruce” to be discovered, and that it was first described in 1836. The original tree is still alive in Tollymore Park in North Ireland, “in a spot open to the public for all to see...”

Picea abies 'Nidiformis'

I used to grow Picea abies 'Nidiformis' when I worked for another nursery, but I had no idea what these cute one-gallon pots would grow into. The photo above was taken in a Washington state garden a few years ago, and I guess it to now be 10 feet tall by over 30 feet wide. So now I know what they grow into. Welch (in 1979) describes it as “a variety originating in Germany which is one of the commonest and most reliable dwarf forms of the Norway spruce.” I don't know if the tree in Washington state is the largest in the USA, but I also wonder how large is the European champion. The cultivar name is derived from Latin nidus for “nest,” and indeed the common name is “Nest spruce” or “Bird's Nest spruce.” Another meaning for nidus (plural nidi ) is a place where something originates, develops or is located, and in 18th century medicine it meant the “focus of infection.”

Humphrey Welch (1908-2001) visited Buchholz Nursery in the early 1990's, and while I don't know how he was considered by European plantsmen, I found him to be friendly, sharp and quite willing to learn. I regret that I didn't take a photo of Mr. Welch, but if you google Humphrey Welch ACS Biography you can see what he looks like. When he visited he was dropped off by the previous conifer collector, stay over with me, and then I was to take him  to the next. While married to my now ex-wife, we lived in a small house, and there was nowhere to put him except in our bed, uh...with us elsewhere. He was fascinated with our waterbed – my wife's idea, I hated it – and the next morning the first thing he asked me was about making love on the contraption. The second thing that he brought up was that he couldn't find his dentures. We searched and searched but to no avail; and then it was time for me to deliver him to the next conifer destination, an hour and one-half away, and he resigned himself to his lost teeth. After I returned my wife had found the dentures when she changed the bedding, so I took off again – the dentures in a baggie – for another three hour trip. But it was all worth it, for the chance to talk plants with Humphrey J. Welch.

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