Friday, August 21, 2015

The Pinetum

I have lots of old horticultural books in my basement library, and from time to time I'll bring one up to re-read, or at least to peruse. It was at 2 o'clock in the morning when my daughter came into the bedroom, in agony due to growth pains. She whimpered as my wife massaged her legs, and I could tell that my time in bed was over, so I opened The Pinetum by George Gordon in the wee hours. The title page promised “A synopsis of all of the coniferous plants at present known.” It was published in 1858 in London, and includes “one hundred new kinds.”

Gordon dedicates his work to “The Most Noble Algernon*, Duke of Northumberland,” who perhaps financed the endeavor just to see his name in print. But I speculate. Gordon makes sure that the reader is aware that Algernon is “A great admirer of hardy trees, the cultivation of which in England has been much influenced by the many fine specimens in his Grace's park and pleasure grounds.” Gordon defines himself to the Duke as “his obedient and humble servant.” It would be vain of me to suggest that Seth and my other employees refer to me as such, as they actually consider me to be lucky that they show up at all.

*Admiral Algernon Percy (1792-1865) was the 4th Duke of Northumberland. He entered the Royal Navy at age 13 and served in the Napoleonic Wars, and in 1853 he was made a Knight of the Garter, a dynastic order with the motto of “Shame on him who thinks evil of it.” One legend has it that the Countess of Salisbury was dancing at a court ball when her garter slipped from her leg. While others laughed, the king picked it up and returned it to her – a most chivalrous act – hence the motto.

Sequoiadendron giganteum

David Douglas
In Gordon's introduction he gives credit where it is due, informing his readers that “the most gigantic specimens (of conifer) exist in California, and on the North West Coast, “where the dimensions of some appear almost fabulous.” He cites the example of the newly-discovered Wellingtonia Lindley, the “Mammoth Tree.” Synonyms of Wellingtonia include Sequoia gigantea Endlicher, Washingtonia gigantea of the Americans, Americanus giganteus, Hort Amer and Taxodii sp. Douglas. I'm glad that Americanus didn't stick, and even though I always cheer for America in the Olympics, the thought that the largest tree on earth could be named for an Italian sailor who never set foot on North America seems preposterous. But what's with Taxodii sp. Douglas? Who is this Douglas? The mind leaps to David Douglas (1799-18340, the renowned Scottish plantsman who worked in the Pacific Northwest and California. But he never saw the “Giant Sequoia,” the “Mammoth Tree,” for he died years before they were discovered.

Sequoiadendron giganteum 'Greenpeace'

In 1833 the explorer J.K. Leonard mentioned in his diary of an encounter with “big trees,” but nothing was publicized, and later in 1850 John Wooster supposedly carved his initials in the bark of a tree in the Calaveras grove, but again this received no publicity. Finally in 1853 Augustus T. Dowd, a hunter chasing a bear, stumbled upon the giant redwoods, but nobody back at camp would believe first. William Lobb, working in California for the English Veitch Nursery, heard about the new discovery and dashed immediately to collect seed, and he left for home in 1853 without notifying any American botanists. They were outraged that the world's largest tree would be named after an English war hero who had never even seen the tree, but then the Frenchman Joseph Decaisne published the name in 1854 of Sequoia gigantea – which stuck for years. Of course local Indian tribes had known of the trees for centuries, and they referred to them as Wawona, which imitates the sound of the northern spotted owl, their guardian of the forest.

Ginkgo biloba 'Autumn Gold'
Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo biloba

Previously I mentioned the Countess of Salisbury, but she had nothing to do with the English botanist James Edward Smith who referred to the Ginkgo as Salisburia adiantifolia, the “Maidenhair Tree.” Smith was honoring R.A. Salisbury, F.R.S.*, an eminent English botanist, though George Gordon acknowledges in The Pinetum that a synonym of Salisburia is Ginkgo biloba, Linnaeus. He also mentions Professor Bunge – of Pinus bungeana fame – “who accompanied the Russian Mission to Pekin [sic] and states that he saw an immense Ginkgo with a trunk nearly 40' in circumference, and of prodigious height, but still in perfect vigor.” Gordon also lists “varieties” of Ginkgo, with laciniata, Carriere, macrophylla, Reynier and variegata, Carriere. I have seen Ginkgo in the wild – dead ones – when I visited the Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park in eastern Washington along the Columbia River. Petrified Ginkgo wood was discovered in the 1930's, along with the remains of Nyssa, Sequoia, Pseudotsuga, Picea, Magnolia, Acer, Hamamelis and more.

*F.R.S. stands for “False Ring Syndrome,” as in when a person thinks his cell phone is ringing but it isn't; or more likely, in Salisbury's case, a Friend of the Royal Society.

Sciadopitys verticillata

Gordon continues with a review of Sciadopitys, the Japanese “Umbrella Pine,” which of course is not a true pine. He says that the name is derived from skidos for “shade” and pitys for “pine,” but today the Greek etymology suggests sciado for “shadow” and pitys for “pine.” He describes it as “A large shrub or small tree, found on the mountains in Japan, but even there very rare,” and later “The Chinese call it 'Kin-Sung' and the Japanese 'Koja-Maki', and plant it in their gardens and around their Sacred Temples, but it is by no means plentiful or abundant in Japan, where, according to Dr. Siebold [Phillip von Siebold, who first described it], there are several varieties.” Keep in mind that a “variety” is what we would today call a “cultivar,” or cultivated variant. There exists a large specimen at Junguji Temple in Kyoto Prefecture that measured 27 m tall (88.5') with a girth of 4.1 m (13.5') in 2000, and records show that it has been worshipped locally since 1310. The largest Umbrella pine I have ever seen is surprisingly in my home town of Forest Grove, Oregon, and it is located only three blocks from where I grew up. Of course it meant nothing to me as a youth, but later I was told about it by the late Dr. Bump who had two progeny, good-sized, in his yard.

Taxodium mucronatum

Gordon describes Taxodium distichum Mexicanum, Gordon, and this Gordon is himself. Anyway, synonyms exist as Taxodium pinnatum, Hort, virens, Knight, Montezumae, Dunal and mucronatum, Hort, with the last in acceptance today. It is commonly known as the “Montezuma cypress,” and it is native to Mexico, the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas, and even into Guatemala. Ahuehuete is the Spanish-Nahuatl word for the species, but the enormous specimen above is known as “El Arbol del Tule” in Santa Maria del Tule in Oaxaca, Mexico, with a circumference today of 137.8 feet. In Gordon's time "a mucronatum at Chapultepec measured 99 feet in circumference." Today it is only 37.7 feet. Read that again. Gordon's tree is either shrinking, or the imagination was quite expansive at the time of publication in 1858. In any case, the Tule tree is the most stout of any tree in the world, and is supposed to be at least 2,000 years old. Its existence was chronicled by the Aztecs and the Spanish that founded the city of Oaxaca, and as you would suppose, this tree was considered sacred, and according to Mixtec myth the people originated from the cypress tree. Today it is Mexico's national tree.*

*Apparently DNA tests confirm that it is indeed one tree, but it could be comprised of multiple trunks from one tree.

Pinus echinata cones

I was curious about Gordon's listing of Pinus mitis, Michaux, for I had never encountered such a species. The puzzle was solved when I considered Gordon's synonyms: Pinus variabilis, Pursh, lutea Loddiges, Roylei, Lindley, intermedia, Fischer and echinata, Miller. Ah, echinata! For some reason unknown to me, the mitis specific name was eventually changed to echinata. Mitis is a Latin word meaning mild, meek, gentle, placid or soothing, while echinata means prickly, referring to the cones. I have two P. echinata planted in our waterfall section, now about 34 years old. They were purchased as rooted cuttings (!) from the now-defunct Mitsch Nursery of Oregon, a wonderful company for me when my nursery was in its infancy. As I gaze at my trees, they don't strike me as mild, meek etc. at all, unless the rather thin green needles struck the namer (Miller) of the species as harmless. And now, at about 40 feet tall, I would describe them as scrappy, but at least the open canopy allows for perfect shade beneath. As for the cones, I wouldn't describe them as "prickly," but rather the opposite; and I don't know what the English botanist, Philip Miller (1691-1771), had in mind when he named the species. Miller was the chief gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden, and he penned The Gardener's Dictionary, and my copy (published in the 1700's) is the oldest book in my library.

Pinus sabiniana

Pinus coulteri

Pinus coulteri

Gordon's "Pinus macrocarpa, Lindley, Dr. Coulter's pine" initially puzzled me, for he lists synonyms of Pinus coulteri, Don, Pinus sabiniana macrocarpa, Hort and Pinus Sabina Coulteri, Loudon. In today's world we have Pinus sabiniana and Pinus coulteri, both with huge cones, both from California, but two very different-looking trees, so which species is Gordon describing? He reports that "Leaves, in threes, stout, and rather stiff, from ten to twelve inches long...," I was certain that the mysterious species was coulteri. But in the same sentence he calls the needles "of a glaucous grey color," which would be Pinus sabiniana, for I would describe coulteri as less glaucous. Confused? What settled the matter was the pine's native range, with Gordon's "found on the mountains of Santa Lucia...within sight of the sea, at an elevation of from 3,000 to 4,000 feet." I've been there – it is also home to the "Bristlecone fir," Abies bracteata – so now I know he was describing Pinus coulteri.

Pinus ponderosa

Hey, I hope you are having as much fun trying to decipher Gordon's trees as I am. I know that "Pinus ponderosa, Douglas, the Heavy-wooded Pine," is indeed the species that David Douglas introduced into England in 1826. I don't know if Douglas ever lifted a ponderosa log – he never worked in a sawmill – and I always assumed that he named the species for its magnificent size. Ponderosa is from Latin ponder meaning "weight," then later to "weigh" or "reflect on" and finally to Old French "to appraise" or "judge the worth of." Gordon says that ponderosa "is found abundantly on the North-west coast of America, and in California, particularly on the banks of the Flathead and Spoken [sic] Rivers, and the Kettle Falls of the Columbia..." That account is confusing for a number of reasons. First, P. ponderosa is not native to the North-west coast, but rather inland in the drier regions. Also, the Spokane River is in Idaho and Washington state, not California, and Kettle Falls is/was* in Washington state near the Canadian border. One must forgive Gordon for any errors about America's geography since he never set foot in America, and most of his information in the book was from examining his Grace's trees or the herbarium, or from second-hand reports.

Kettle Falls (from

*Alas, Kettle Falls – also sacred to the Native Americans – was drowned with the building of the Grand Coulee Dam, and now resides 90 feet underwater in the created Lake Roosevelt.

Pseudotsuga menziesii

Abies douglasii
Many conifers were once classified as Pinus, including Pseudotsuga, and I have an antique drawing of one from 1855, just after the name had been changed to Abies. In Gordon's work, he called it Abies Douglasii, Lindley, with synonyms of Abies Californica, Don, Picea Douglasii, Link, Pinus Douglasii, Sabine, Pinus taxifolia, Lambert and Tsuga Douglasi (with one i), Carriere. He refers to specimens from Mexico to be Abies Douglasii taxifolia, Loudon, and calls it a "very distinct variety with much longer leaves..." The Mexican version is now known as Pseudotsuga lindleyana and it extends as far south as Oaxaca. It receives special protection due to decline from inbreeding depression, the reduced biological fitness in a given population caused by the breeding of related individuals. The Pseudotsuga at my nursery are P. menziesii var. menziesii, and I have bragged about the two monsters at my home in previous blogs. I don't think I've mentioned a remarkable sight that occurs on frosty mornings, when two shadows from the winter sun are cast about three football fields long. The shadows don't thaw, but the rest of the field does.

Please don't think that I am being mean-spirited to pick apart The Pinetum for its errors, but I get a special kick out of his Picea bracteata, now classified as an Abies. Gordon claims that it was discovered by Douglas – rong, as Douglas never ever saw it – but also that it is native along the Columbia River as well as on "the sea range of Santa Lucia in Upper California." Actually I would call it central California, as they occur about four/seventh's of the way south of the Oregon border, but certainly never along the Columbia River.

Abies bracteata

Abies bracteata 'Corbin'

I used to subscribe to American Forests, and was intrigued in the spring 2004 issue (for $3.00) of the National Register of Big Trees. I learned facts about the "champion" trees, such as Persea americana's (Avocado tree) 185" circumference, 72' height and 59' spread. The champion Acer macrophyllum – now dead – was 419" in circumference, 101' in height and a spread of 90'. In the same issue was a story entitled Empty Thrones, where 94 species were without a champion, and we readers were encouraged to set out and find them. Surprisingly there was no champion for Abies bracteata, but absolutely bizarre was that it was listed as native to California, Idaho, Oregon and Colorado. I sent a letter to the editor about the error, but received no response, nor was there a correction in the next issue. I wrote again, and referred to my previous letter, but still no response. The error continued in the spring 2006 issue, and in disgust I dropped my subscription. The late van Hoey Smith from the Arboretum Trompenburg in Rotterdam considered any collection of trees without correct identification as "invalid." American Forests, then, was also invalid.


"Write us!," you say in American Forests forum.
Well, I did write to you about factual contents from a past issue. I was disappointed to receive no response. What's up? A copy of that letter is enclosed.


I am a wholesale nurseryman. Among the trees I grow is the "Bristlecone fir," Abies bracteata. I noticed in your spring 2004 issue (which lists the national register of big trees) that Abies bracteata is a species in search of a champion. And you list its range as being Colorado, Idaho, Oregon and California. All modern reference books list it as only coming from the Santa Lucia Mountains of California, where I have observed it in the wild.
Does it really also come from these other states, or is that a mistake? If so, where in these states?

If it is a mistake, then an interesting one. I have a copy of a conifer book by the Englishman, Gordon: The Pinetum, published in 1858. He describes Abies bracteata as "first discovered by Douglas, on the mountains of the Columbia River, and afterwards by Dr. Coulter and Hartweg, on the sea range of Santa Lucia..." I always assumed the Oregon reference was an old mistake for another species; but maybe not.

Any information would be appreciated.


Talon Buchholz

A 2nd edition to The Pinetum was published in 1875 but I have not seen it. I think it would be interesting to compare it with the original, to see if corrections were made, and if additional information was provided. By the way, some of you would find my library to be fascinating, and any valid individual is invited to visit, with priority going to attractive, witty females. But you can't borrow anything; I've learned that rule the hard way.

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