Friday, June 26, 2015

Coniferous Wildflowers

At the end of last week's Flora Wonder Blog I mentioned in passing that conifers flower, but just express themselves differently than what we normally think of as a “wildflower.” However, from an accurate point of view, you can regard the tallest tree on earth, Sequoia sempervirens, the largest tree on earth, Sequoiadendron giganteum, the oldest tree on earth, Picea abies – found in Sweden at 9,500 years old – and the most rare* conifer on earth, Abies beshanzuensis (Debreczy and Racz in Conifers Around the World) as “wildflowers.” The definition of a wildflower is the flower of a plant that normally grows in fields, forests etc., without human intervention. So conifers qualify as wildflowers, and every time you climb a mountain or wander along a stream, think of the conifers – and everything else too – as wildflowers.

*The most rare plant on earth must be Pennantia baylisiana, endemic to the Three Kings Islands, New Zealand, where only one plant is known to exist. It is a female tree, and though it has been propagated by cuttings, the lonely spinster will not be able to reproduce the normal way. More used to exist, but they were eliminated by grazing. This solo female is in the taxonomic class Magnoliopsida.

Ok, back to conifers. They reproduce by the seeds or fruits from the female flower (usually cones). Most species are monoecious, with flowers of both sexes on the same tree; “while species in the yew family, and many junipers, are dioecious, that is the flowers of the two sexes are borne on separate plants.” (Rushforth in Conifers).

Rushforth again, “The pollen-producing flowers, usually called the male cones, or more correctly, the microsporangiate (i.e. small spore cones), consist in a catkin-like cluster. Often these are yellow, crimson or violet in colour.” Later, “The pollen falls onto the ovules which are open to the air on the scales of the female cones, or megasporangiate (i.e. big spore cones).”

Abies x arnoldiana 'Poulsen'

Abies, the “true firs,” assist in their pollination with female cones rising erect, and usually on the upper portions of the trees. Abies x arnoldiana was a hybrid of Abies veitchii x Abies koreana, and the offspring are intermediate between the parents. The cultivar 'Poulsen' is interesting for a prostrate form, and my 25-year-old specimen has rambled to 15' wide and is only 3' tall. By June numerous purple cones sit atop the foliage, something like candles on a birthday cake. If I wasn't so busy trying to make a living I would germinate some of the seed and see what happens, for in the Flora Wonder Arboretum one never knows who is pollinating who. In theory, every single female cone could be receiving pollen from a different male cone in the collection.

Abies bracteata

Abies bracteata

Saint Lucy
Abies bracteata is the “Bristlecone fir” or the “Santa Lucia fir,” as it is native to the Santa Lucia Mountains of coastal California. Santa Lucia*, or Saint Lucy, was a young Christian martyr, known as Lucia of Syracuse (283-304). While still a virgin she was tortured by eye-gouging, then bundles of wood were placed about her and set on fire, but they would not burn. Finally she met her death by the sword, and when her body was prepared for burial it was discovered that her eyes had been miraculously restored. Since Catholics named much of California, it is not surprising that a mountain range would bear her name. I have seen Abies bracteata in the wild, but at the time of my trip the cones had disintegrated and I could only collect seed from the ground. A year ago I obtained intact cones form the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco, and my wife kindly baked, then shellacked them for preservation. She thinks my desires are simple and cute, but she doesn't realize that I have been growing Abies bracteata, and have wanted a preserved cone for my entire career.

*Santa Lucia's name shares the root luc with the Latin word for light, lux. Therefore she was named as the patron saint of the blind and those with poor eye-sight.

Abies procera 'Glauca Nana'

Abies procera 'Glauca Nana'

I was once told by a dendrological cognoscente that Abies procera 'Glauca Nana' was invalidly named, since the International Code of Nomenclature declared that Latin names were no longer valid after the 1950's, blah blah blah. Yes, I know that, but my start came from the Otto Solburger collection, north of North Plains, Oregon, and he collected it – from where I don't know – before the damn code went into effect. Simply put, it is a more compact form of the species, but still features the delicious erect cones of Abies procera. We no longer propagate it, but I still have one specimen in the Flora Wonder Arboretum.

Abies procera 'Silver'

Abies procera 'Silver' is a selection that I raised from purchased seed, as early in my career I had no idea what I was doing and I propagated many species from seed. I was trying to find my company's definition, and from there I...stumbled into what I am now, whatever that is. Anyway, cones sit atop the astounding silver-blue foliage, and the procera species has the most impressive female cones than any other Abies I grow.

Pinus parviflora 'Cleary'

Male and female flowers of Pinus parviflora 'Kokonoye'

Pinus parviflora was named for Latin parvis for “small” and flos for “flower,” and this relative description – which seems inappropriate to me – was rendered by Philipp von Siebold in 1842 when he botanized in Japan. Parviflora is probably my favorite species of all pines, and it's sad that a more poetic name wasn't bestowed upon it. It is native from southern Hokkaido to Kyushu and occurs on higher slopes along with montane-subalpine flora. It is distinguished by curved blue-green needles and sessile* cones that remain on the tree for quite a few years. I have a huge collection of parviflora cultivars, and thank goodness for whoever invented plant labels, as I would be mixing them all up otherwise. Some, like 'Hagoromo' and 'Fukuzumi', can be touchy, meaning that they can die at any point, when a week before they looked great. The dwarf variegated cultivars, such as 'Ogon janome', 'Tanima no yuki' and 'Goldilocks', can also die if the rootstock is removed after the first year. We keep ours on for at least four years, with an annual project to keep the rootstock reduced.

*Attached directly by its base without a stock or peduncle.

Pinus kwangtungensis

I was too hasty to say that parviflora is my favorite Pinus species because I actually prefer Pinus kwangtungensis, a close relative from south-central China. One locale for the species is the province of Guangdong, which was previously named Kwangtung, hence the name. Surprisingly it was not described until 1948 (by Chun and Tsiang) and not surprising is that the contrarian botanist – John Silba from the USA – renamed it Pinus wangii var. kwangtungensis. I sought the Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs for confirmation, but it is not even listed, nor is Pinus wangii. Geometry aficionados will be pleased to learn that P. kwangtungensis's perky needles have a toblerone shape, that is three-sided, with two surfaces silvery-white and the other emerald green. Wow! So kwangtungensis is absolutely my favorite species of pine...

Pinus bungeana 'Silver Ghost'

Pinus bungeana 'Temple Gem'

Pinus bungeana 'Temple Gem'

Alexander George von Bunge
Well, except for Pinus bungeana which I like even more. It is grown primarily for its attractive exfoliating bark, without which it would be considered another boring green pine. It is not endangered, but many of the low-elevation stands have been eliminated for other uses. Large specimens are frequent around monasteries and temples, and the pine nuts are considered a delicacy. The species is named for Alexander George von Bunge (1803-1890), a Baltic German botanist who travelled in Siberia, Mongolia, China and Afghanistan. Besides the pine, many plant species were named for him: Pulsatilla bungeana, Euonymus bungeanus, Allium bungei, Fraxinus bungeana, Clerodendrum bungei, Catalpa bungei and Iris bungei. A number of cultivars of P. bungeana include 'Diamant', 'Great Wall', 'Compact Form', 'REL WB', 'Silver Ghost' and 'Temple Gem', the latter a Buchholz Nursery introduction from the 1990's.

Pseudotsuga menziesii at Flora Farm

Pseudotsuga sinensis

Pseudotsuga sinensis var. gaussenii

Pseudotsuga sinensis var. gaussenii

Pseudotsuga japonica

Pseudotsuga is an interesting genus, growing from British Columbia to Mexico and east to the Rockies, as well as in Asia. I have collected a few species which are compatible by grafting onto P. menziesii, such as P. sinensis, P. sinensis var. gaussenii, P. japonica, and cultivars of P. menziesii. The Asian species have interesting female cones, and near my two huge menziesii specimens at Flora Farm I planted a P. japonica and P. sinensis for added company. All of them are in the coning stage, and it would be fun to create hybrids, but I just don't have the time to fool around with another project. If a reputable person or institution would like some seed I would be happy to oblige.

Sciadopitys verticillata

The Pond House

Sciadopitys verticillata displays female cones that bear a close resemblance to those of Sequoiadendron giganteum, and both genera are in the Taxodiaceae family. The specific name verticillata and the common name “Umbrella pine” are due to the arrangement of the foliage which resembles the spokes of an umbrella. The Japanese name is Maki, or Koya maki, because an impressive stand exists on Koya san – Koya Mountain – in Wakayama Prefecture. Hillier chimes in that Sciadopitys was “first introduced as a single plant by Thomas Lobb in 1853, later by Robert Fortune and J.G. Veitch in 1861,” but it was Philipp von Siebold who first described it. We don't sell many of the straight species anymore, but rather use it as understock for a myriad of cultivars (which are in high demand). I have not seen this evergreen conifer in Japan, and surprisingly the tallest specimen that I am aware of resides in my home-town of Forest Grove, Oregon, just five miles from my nursery. An odd coincidence is that the carpenter of my pond house lived in the house next to the tall Sciadopitys in Forest Grove while his wife was attending Pacific University. He built it for free labor, while I provided the supplies, but the day he finished – about 30 years ago – he has never since returned.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Rasen' male flowers

Cryptomeria japonica 'Rasen' foliage (left) and female flowers (right)

Cryptomeria flowers are not much for beauty, but they get the job done in pollination. The Japanese used to be encouraged to plant their native sugi, to make up for ancient times when Cryptomeria forests covered much of Japan, but are now reduced to fragmentary stands. But the addition of new trees in recent years has caused “pollen illness” called kafunshe, as well as pollen from hinoki. This “hay fever” was relatively uncommon in Japan until the early 1960's, but now it is estimated that 20% of the population suffer. It is such a national concern that the Japanese media covers the pollen season similar to the way they track the cherry blossom season, and as with the cherry blossoms the pollen season moves from south to north. Low-pollen areas include Hokkaido and Okinawa where sufferers are encouraged to take a “hay fever relief vacation.”

Keteleeria davidiana var. davidiana

Keteleeria davidiana var. davidiana is seldom encountered in modern gardens due to a) their large proportions and b) cold-hardiness issues. Imagine my surprise when I saw a good-sized specimen crammed in the Plant Delights Nursery's display garden in Raleigh, North Carolina. They get as cold as we do in Oregon, so apparently the Chinese K. davidiana is more cold-hardy than the other species. My interest is primarily due to the large erect cones which resemble an Abies on steroids, but I have never grown any species. The genus name honors J.B. Keteleer (1813-1903), a French nurseryman.

Picea orientalis

Picea orientalis male flowers (left) and female cones (right)

Picea orientalis is a favorite spruce species, and I have a 35 year old seedling in the original Display Garden that grows at about half the rate of a nearby Picea abies seedling. The P. orientalis is much more attractive with lush green foliage and reduced rate of growth. One of the highlights of spring are the red male cones, and they are poised to release their dust whenever the wind blows, or when you brush past a tree. The female cones are narrow, tapering to a point, and they start out with a purplish color that ripens to brown. The “Oriental spruce” or “Caucasian spruce” is native to the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia and in northeastern Turkey. The specific name of orientalis is relative then – from Latin oriens for east – and was coined before the small world realized that one could go much further east...all the way to China, Korea and Japan. Buchholz Nursery shares a border with XYZ Nursery, a much larger company that has frequent burn days for the stock that won't sell. Someone asking directions to Buchholz Nursery summed up that “oh, so you are behind XYZ Nursery.” My reply was that “no, we are in front, as we are east compared to XYZ, so the sun shines on me first.”

Cathaya argyrophylla

Cathaya argyrophylla male flower (left) and female cone (right)

Cathaya argyrophylla is a monotypic genus* discovered in the mid-1950's, and is native to central and southern China. It is surprising that from its provenance it would be hardy in Oregon, but it has survived some brutal winter frosts. The female cones are unimpressive in size, shape and color, while the male flowers dangle catkin-like with no particular ornamental value. The specific name argyrophylla translates as “silvery leaves” due to the color of the leaves' undersides. In Rushforth's Conifers (copyright 1987) he reminds us that Cathaya “has yet to be introduced,” which was correct at the time because the Chinese wouldn't allow its release to western horticulture. We eventually acquired it in the early 1990's, as seed which easily germinated. Now we are harvesting viable seed from our early collections, so we don't need no stinking Chinese official to prevent us from growing and selling Cathaya. Cathay is an alternate word for “China,” and is the Anglicized version of Catai which originates from the word Khitan, the name of a nomadic people who ruled much of Northern China. I have flown on a Cathay Pacific Airliner, which is the flag carrier of Hong Kong.

*Cathaya argyrophylla was described in 1962 by Chun and Kuang, but in 1960 it was proposed by Greguss to be Pseudotsuga argyrophylla.

Pinus lambertiana

I'll conclude with my assertion that coniferous species are every-bit as much a “wildflower” as are gentians, calochortus and lilies. That old pine tree meets the criteria, and hopefully today's blog will inspire you readers to study the sexual expressions of coniferous species.

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