Friday, August 14, 2015

Win Some, Lose Some

I've griped a number of times in the Flora Wonder Blog about our brutally hot summer, and as of today we will set a record for the number of days in the year where temperatures soared to 90 degrees and above. I don't know if there is any connection, but a couple of old specimens in our Blue Forest were edited by the mortal fates, even though they have been through many hot summers before.

Pinus cembra 'Glauca'

The oldest tree to perish was an anchor in the scape, a 50 year old Pinus cembra 'Glauca' that had been rescued from a stock row at the Dutchman's nursery where I used to work. “Rescued” in the sense that this nurseryman let his plants grow together instead of cutting down every-other tree, or better yet, by harvesting from the row and increasing sales. I asked him about it, but his response was that “the trees have already paid for themselves many times over (for scionwood).” Maybe so, but what's wrong with them paying even more? It seemed like careless management to me, especially since he had an East-Coast market for them. In any case our Oregon Association of Nurseries enshrined him into their Hall of Fame, an honor that I'll never sniff, nor would I serve if elected. The Dutchman's son had an enormous round head with blonde hair, and he was fond of saying, “If you're not Dutch, you're not much.” I learned a lot at this nursery...about what not to do. Back to the dead pine, it began to look “off” in May, then progressively worse until my edict for removal at the end of July. So long, farewell, thanks for the memories. The good news is that I still have two more of the Dutchman's pines in another location, and they both look fine.

Abies cilicica

Even more disheartening was the loss of an Abies cilicica which was about 33 years old, and it went from fine to dead in about a week. Abies are like that – I've seen it before – and it's a reminder that the genus is not native to our Willamette Valley of western Oregon. According to Rushforth in Conifers, “Cilician fir is rare in cultivation;” so rare that it is now extinct at Buchholz Nursery. The species* is native to the Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey, and to northwest Syria and Lebanon, where there's probably an ISIS zealot behind every tree. The foliage has a “refined” look to me, with thin green needles with silvery undersides, and the cones are the longest of the genus. My start came as scionwood from the Otto Solburger conifer collection, located just ½ hour from my nursery. Mr. S. was a Christmas tree grower, but he also amassed a world-class tree collection, and corresponded with East Coast and European plantsmen. He passed away before I could meet him, but his wife was delighted that a youngster – for I was then – took so much interest in her husband's trees.

Abies nebrodensis

*At first I assumed that Abies cilicica was native to Sicily, but the only Abies species there is nebrodensis, native to the mountains in the north. There are only a scant few left due to deforestation, but a conservation effort is underway to save them and to replant new seedlings.

Abies religiosa

Abies religiosa

Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus)

Solburger's son was a logger, an authentic redneck with foot-wide suspenders and dirty pants that didn't go completely to his boots. He didn't know much about his father's trees, and probably would have preferred them sawed and loaded onto the back of his log truck. One day his parked truck was filled with Douglas fir logs, and while he was eating lunch the brakes failed and the back of the truck smashed into an Abies religiosa, sending it to fir-heaven. Fortunately its progeny lives on, for I harvested scionwood the same day as with Abies cilicica, and a specimen resides along the main road into our nursery. It is known as the “Sacred fir” as its branches are used in religious festivals and it is native to the mountains of central Mexico at an elevation between 6,900-13,500'. Abies religiosa is also the preferred species for the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) to reside, but unfortunately the forests are being thinned for capitalistic gain at the risk to the butterfly habitat. I was in Mexico in 2000 with my “Grandfather,” and we set off early for the largest congregation of monarchs. The higher one gets, the colder is the morning air, and the ground was covered with frost. We walked the path to ground zero, but the creatures were huddled in globs, thousands and thousands of them, but they were too cold to fly. Too bad for us early birds, but by the time we were ready to leave they were beginning to flit through the firs.

Abies pindrow

Abies pindrow

Solburger's son was at it again when he saw fit to thin out some trees in father's conifer patch. A Picea abies (Norway spruce) was vying for room with an Abies pindrow (West Himalayan fir), and the latter was removed because the son deemed the spruce as the more beautiful of the two. Ouch!, because A. pindrow is rare in collection, and the felled tree was probably the largest of its kind in Oregon, if not in the United States. Once again Buchholz to the rescue, and my first graft was planted in the Conifer Field at the east end of my property. It perished about 15 years ago when we had constant rain one winter and spring, and to this day I describe it as having drowned. Abies pindrow was in production at Buchholz Nursery at the time, so the grandchildren of Solburger's tree – five of them – grace the Flora Wonder Arboretum, planted on a hillside with sharp drainage, and this year they are set heavily with cones. Rushforth again, claims that A. pindrow “is found in the western Himalayas from west Nepal through to Afghanistan and forms forests at between 2,000-3,000 m.” And later that “The best specimens tend to be in the cooler and wetter parts of Britain, and it is unsatisfactory in the south-east.” I'm not qualified to comment on the British range of A. pindrow, but I find it odd that my first tree drowned, if indeed they prefer “wetter” conditions.

Pinus roxburghii

Pinus roxburghii

In Rushforth's Conifers he claims that Pinus roxburghii, a Himalayan tree native from northwest Pakistan to Bhutan is hardy to only Zone 9. I took him to task for that comment in a previous Flora Wonder Blog, for my specimen had withstood temperatures to near zero degrees F, albeit grafted onto a more hardy Pinus sylvestris rootstock, and should perhaps be “re-zoned” to a zone 7 or 8. Well, had withstood ended last winter when the temperature delved to only 12 degrees, but it arrived in early November. Plants suffered and some died, and my rox also bit the dust. This experience prompts the old Buchholz adage that, “It's not how cold you get, but rather how you get cold.” The species name honors William Roxburgh (1751-1815), a Scottish surgeon and botanist who was based in Calcutta, and who worked for the East India Company. I became enamored with Roxburgh's pine while on a trek in northern India where I could see it in the wild, and I was most impressed with its plated bark which resembled our West Coast Pinus ponderosa.

Picea abies 'Little Gem' BA (Before Accident)

Picea abies 'Little Gem' AA (After Accident)

A pair of miniature spruces also faced the axe of death this month. A pair of Picea abies 'Little Gem' were slightly over 40 years old, and they had grown into each other and resembled a pair of green breasts. Sadly a delivery man tried to turn his vehicle around in a tight area and backed into one, another reason my daughters will never be allowed to marry truck drivers. I've walked past the damaged tree hundreds of times, and finally grew sick enough to issue orders for its removal. So that will leave me with just one 'Little Gem', right? Well no, because where the other plant grows into the smashed tree there would be a large dead area, so out with them both. And whom do I bill for damages since I never witnessed the incident? What are two 40-year-old spruce trees worth, a hundred dollars, a thousand dollars or more? They are irreplaceable, especially since I don't have 40 more years for new ones to grow.

Picea abies 'Little Gem'

'Little Gem' is an example of a conifer cultivar that "increases" in size after 40 years. Well of course it increases because it grows. But I'm not talking about that; I mean that when you propagate you seek out the largest shoots, which are still only a half inch long. Then when you eventually propagate from the new plant, you seek out its best cuttings...over and over until 'Little Gem' becomes a larger cultivar than the original. Also, if you propagate by grafting, new shoots might grow two inches long, and the rooting process is made much easier. I once sold a 'Little Gem' that was grafted onto Picea abies at 2 feet high, and it had grown 5' tall by 5' wide in 20 years. At some point you have to ask, "is this forced 'Little Gem' really a little gem?"

Sciadopitys verticillata 'Winter Green'

Sciadopitys verticillata 'Winter Green'

I had four Sciadopitys verticillata 'Winter Green' that were harvested from the Blue Forest and put into large cedar boxes. These specimens were about 18' tall, and since one doesn't hardly ever come across a 'Winter Green' so large I put a relatively high price on them -- $2,000 each. One customer dared to negotiate with me, that he would take all four for $2,000, to which I responded that they are priced at $2,000 each, and tomorrow they would increase to $2,500 each. So he walked away from the table. Last year I sold one, then this year I had customers for the remaining three. But not so fast my friend, because last month a sizeable portion on one revealed that it was dead, and to cut that out would leave me with just half a 'Winter Green', and a scrappy half at that. We dumped it entirely, but at least we were able to salvage the box. This was the first time in my career that I lost a Sciadopitys, or at least ones that were more than a couple of years old. I know some nurserymen who would spend time and energy trying to figure out the cause of death, an autopsy so to speak, but not me. Just quickly get it out of my sight.

Oxalis corniculata

Oxalis stricta

Sometimes I'll haul a plant out of the greenhouse for the dump because it is infested with Oxalis. Frequently someone will carry it back in because they don't understand why I would throw away a good tree. True, the tree is ok, but I certainly can't sell it when the pot is full of a weed that you cannot simply pull out. I've been battling Oxalis corniculata for years, and more recently Oxalis stricta as well. Both thrive in the nursery environment, and these perennials can spread by seed, rhizomes or stolons. If the weed has gotten into a plant of great value, we try to find time to bareroot it in the winter; however you don't always get all of the weed roots out, and they will thrive until you try again the following winter. In all I don't have to throw too many plants away, but we spend a lot of effort to catch the problem when it is small. Oxalis is derived from oxus, Greek for "sour" because of the sour taste of the leaves.

Cornus alternifolia 'Moonlight'

Rubus armeniacus

Hate it when that happens

Another casualty at the nursery is caused by birds eating blackberries, sitting atop my specimens and then shitting the seeds close to the trunk. The first year the blackberry shoot might go undetected, but by the second year it can grow up to eight feet tall, and spraying with a strong herbicide would damage the tree. Once again I cannot scalp off the blackberry and sell the tree, for that would result in all of my customers leaving me. My original plant of Cornus alternifolia 'Moonlight' – discovered at Buchholz Nursery – met the chainsaw on account of a blackberry moving in. The mooch is botanically known as Rubus armeniacus, which was intentionally introduced to America as a food crop in the 1800's. It escaped cultivation obviously, and I have it in my woods above the nursery and also at Flora Farm. There is some redeeming value to the noxious weed, however, and that comes in the form of my wife's blackberry cobbler.

I'm pleased and honored that Flora has blessed me abundantly, although we don't have a perfect relationship. I think she bedevils me at times as a strategy to keep me humble, so that I won't be telling her what to do. Goodbye to all of my lost plants, for I must swallow my medicine.


  1. For Blackberries, 4% Roundup applied with a small paint brush in October. Usually works and doesn't damage anything else.

  2. here's the story of the finding and saving of Pinus torreyana in an article I wrote in Fremontia