Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Belgic Memories

The Flora Wonder Blog started in the fall of 2011, so there has been about 200 of them. Thousands of you are at the receiving end of our blog notice, but I can't guarantee that you all click it on, and even in some cases potential readers have requested for us to take them off altogether. To that, we have joked in the office that "No, we won't take you off – it's for your own good," or that, "Sorry we don't have the technology to take you off." But ultimately we do take the ungrateful bastards off, and I torture them no further.

The weekly blog originated from a report on a fantastic trip in 2011 to Holland and Belgium where we (The Maple Society) toured arboreta and nurseries by day and drank beer at night. I cannot think of a better combination, unless you were to throw in dancing girls as well. Today I'll stick with what I saw in Belgium, for I have added some of those trees to my own Flora Wonder Arboretum.

Sorbus alnifolia at Wespelaar

Sorbus alnifolia

My first encounter with Sorbus alnifolia was at the Arboretum Wespelaar. I was so taken with the cute pink-red berries and butter yellow autumn foliage that I planted a small grove in my collection. Commonly known as the "alder-leaf rowan," the Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs states that fall color is "rich scarlet and orange." I don't remember what color my trees were last year, and they have yet to change from green at this time, but I'll be watching carefully and can report in a future blog. I don't know the origin of the Wespelaar specimen, but the alnifolia species is native to China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, and it is hardy to a shivery -30 degrees. The fruits are small, but the Wespelaar tree was seemingly crammed with thousands of berries to the delight of the Belgium birds.

Franklinia alatamaha

Neoshirakia japonica

Another small tree which I had never encountered before was Sapium japonica (or um), but I have been unable to acquire one. In any case, the genus has been renamed to Neoshirakia japonica, a monotypic genus in the Euphorbiaceae family. Its autumn color is a rich mahogany, reminding me of my specimen of Franklinia alatamaha. It was first described in 1954 with the name Shirakia but the genus was later divided into genera of Neoshirakia, Shirakiopsis and Triadica. The generic name change was due to research by Hans Joachim Esser who concluded that Siebold, Zuccarini had published the name as Shirakia before Sapium was used, and of course precedence goes to the former. Whatever, the "Japanese tallow tree" is only hardy to USDA zone 8, so if I did have one, I would have to house it in a container in my Greenhouse 20 – the hot house – where I keep multitudes of other non-hardy plants. On the other hand, I have read that the Holden Arboretum in Ohio has a tree from seed collected in Korea that has survived in its Zone 5b winters. The Morris Arboretum in Pennsylvania planned to remove their plants because they were producing lots of seed and they were worried about potential invasiveness. Personally I wouldn't worry because nothing jumps away from GH20, and I could enjoy the plant selfishly in my own solitude. The Chinese name for the species is bai mu wu jiu, and though I don't know the translation, the local name certainly has a credible mojo, so say bai mu wu jiu to yourself again. By the way, the common name of "tallow tree" is due to the popcorn-shaped seeds with a waxy coating that is used for soap, candles etc. This "oil" (stillingia) yields a drying property according to The Handbook of Soap Manufacture by H.A. Appleton and W.H. Simmons, and I thank both of them for increasing my knowledge of Neoshirakia japonica.

Carpinus betulus 'Columnaris Nana' at Wespelaar
Carpinus betulus 'Columnaris Nana' in May

The largest Carpinus betulus 'Columnaris Nana' that I have ever seen was at Arboretum Wespelaar, but from observation in my own collection I will achieve that size – about 12' tall – in another eight years. Hillier, again, lists the cultivar as simply 'Columnaris' and says that it is a "small columnar tree of dense, compact growth, conical when young," and that it was "introduced in about 1891," so there must be a specimen far more massive in Europe...and probably not the original seedling, but rather a propagule grafted onto the more vigorous Carpinus betulus seedling rootstock. You know, I sell a lot of this dwarf "common hornbeam" but I can't really claim that with pride, since the delicious fresh-spring foliage is followed by a dull-green by August, as it acquires a spent look with the onset of summer heat. Does anyone know where the largest 'Columnaris Nana' is located – in Europe I assume? – for I would probably schedule a spring trip to see it.

Quercus x hispanica 'Luscombeana'

Quercus suber

I had a devil of a time in Belgium, for my digital camera went caput when the memory card shit-jammed into its position and rendered my camera useless when on-site at the Arboretum Kalmthout. Philippe de Spoelberch came to my rescue, and the elegant beer-magnate let me borrow his mini Leica for the rest of the trip. But before my camera conked I was able to photograph the fantastic trunk of Quercus x hispanica 'Luscombeana', the hybrid which is described by Hillier as a "large, ornamental tree raised by Mr. Luscomb in his nursery Exeter about 1762." This variable hybrid – between the "Cork oak" (suber) and the "Turkish oak" (cerris) – actually exists in the wild in southern Europe. Of course the main attraction is the gray fissured bark, and even though Q. suber is listed as only hardy to USDA zone 8, fine examples exist in USDA zone 7 in Portland, Oregon; but the most impressive specimens that I have ever seen occur at the San Diego Botanic Garden in southern California. The suber species is somewhat evergreen, which might be fine for southern Europe, but "somewhat evergreen" is not always a good attribute in the Oregon climate, as you wait six months for the old tired leaves to fall off and be replaced with fresh new foliage. The bark of Q. suber remains the favorite for vinters* in Oregon, and I suppose for the rest of the world as well. The screw-off wine caps are deemed tacky and cheap – only suitable for bums and college students – even though they have no effect on the wine.

*Vinter is from Old French vinetier, and that from Medieval Latin vinetarius for a "wine dealer." A vinetum is a "vineyard," from vinum for "wine."

Hamamelis intermedia 'Diane'

Hamamelis intermedia 'Orange Peel'

Hamamelis intermedia 'Orange Peel'

Hamamelis 'Strawberries & Cream'

Possibly the most exciting place to visit in Europe in February-March is the Arboretum Kalmthout, and they even have a festival to celebrate the flowering "witch hazels." My only visit was in October and the Hamamelis all looked alike without their blooms, all sprawling horizontally with twigs festooned with lichen, but I hope to return one day in late winter to see the "Queens" of the DeBelder garden. I have grown some of their introductions, like 'Diane', 'Jelena' and 'Orange Peel', but the one I favor these days is 'Strawberries and Cream', so much that I planted one at the entrance to my long home-driveway. On sunny afternoons I pause in my car and stare at the flowers, for they are especially bejeweled with the late sun as backlight.

Abies koreana 'Silberlocke' at Kalmthout

The largest Abies koreana 'Silberlocke' that I have ever seen occupies a bed at Kalmthout, and it must be one of the earlier releases from the German plantsman, Gunther Horstmann. I have been to the Horstmann nursery twice, but I don't recall seeing a large 'Silberlocke'. The cultivar 'Ice Breaker' originated as a witch's broom mutation on 'Silberlocke', also found in Germany, and I would humbly suggest that Kalmthout procures one to plant near the 'Silberlocke', if for no other reason than to enlighten the garden's visitors, perhaps with a sign explaining the origin of the cultivars.

Betula papyrifera

Alces americanus
I stopped at Kalmthout's Betula papyrifera to absorb the beauty of its trunk. The species is not rare as it occurs in North America from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts, and it is the provincial tree of Saskatchewan and the state tree of New Hampshire. Amazingly it can be found in Greenland, for it is hardy to -40 degrees F, and I learned that the species is also native to the Appalachians during my visit a year ago. I feel remiss that I never planted one in my arboretum, for I certainly have the room, and I would naturally plant it in the Betula section of my Upper Gardens where it could mingle with the other birches. Papyrifera is commonly known as the "canoe birch," and Native Americans – the Wabanaki tribe – were known to use it to construct their canoes, while the Anishinaabe peoples made birch bark boxes called wiigwaasi-makak. Beside the human uses moose – Alces americanus – eat the birch's leaves and twigs, and in fact the word moose is an Algonquin term for "twig eater."

Glyptostrobus pensilis

A young sapling of Glyptostrobus pencilis glittered in the sunlight. According to the Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs, this monotypic genus from China is "an extremely rare, deciduous conifer, making a large bush or small tree." It may be rare in cultivation, but really not so rare in southeastern China and Vietnam, and it has been much planted along streams and rivers to stabilize the banks. Further sketchy information comes from Rushforth in Conifers who states, "To thrive it must have a very damp site..." and "dry sites will lead to almost inevitable death..." However my specimen – on its own roots – at the nursery receives normal garden watering and I suspect, like with the closely-related Taxodium genus, both conifers can withstand regular watering on dry sites as well as growing in standing water. Hillier's 8th edition says that "this remarkable species [Glyptostrobus] has grown in the Sir Harrold Hillier Garden without protection for many years but has achieved a height of only 3 meters." Maybe Hillier has a dwarf form, for my specimen has soared to 40' tall in less than 30 years. More baloney from Rushforth when he ascribes Glyptostrobus's hardiness to only zone 8, as my tree has withstood temperatures to 0 degrees F. One hint to the plantsman who wants to plant a "Chinese swamp cypress" near water is to find one propagated onto Taxodium distichum rootstock, for it will then produce "knees" or pneumatophores which are the fascinating "breathing knobs."

Taxodium distichum var. imbricatum

Bouchout Castle

Maximilian of Austria
Charlotte of Belgium
And speaking of knees, a specimen of Taxodium distichum var. imbricatum was growing near the pond at the National Botanic Garden of Belgium, located in Meise, just outside of Brussels. But then there was a castle in the water also. The Bouchout Castle was built in the 12th century and its tower was erected by Daniel van Bouchout. Originally the area was swampy, with the dry areas containing beech trees, and thus it was called Boc-holt. The Dutch word for "book" is boek or beuk, while the German name is buch, hence my name Buchholz refers to "bookwood" or "beechwood," so I feel a special affinity for this place. Much later, in 1879, the castle was bought by Charlotte of Belgium, a beauty who was nailed by Maximilian of Austria, and both of them were encouraged by Napoleon III to move to Mexico to become the Emperor and Empress of Mexico. That title lasted only a few years, with Max being executed by Mexican nationals and with Charlotte retreating back to her beloved castle. Unfortunately she developed some type of dementia and was known to laugh, weep, hold monologues and talk incoherently. I have been accused of the same, but imagine my surprise when I caught a glimpse of a slender woman passing through Bouchart's turret window...

Talon's friends

Populus wilsonii

The October sun was retreating in the National Botanic Garden of Belgium when I paused to say farewell to a few newly-acquired friends. When only a few minutes from boarding the bus back to our hotel I spotted a fantastic leaf of Populus wilsonii, a tree introduced in 1907 by E.H. Wilson from China. I have never seen this species growing elsewhere, in fact I never even knew that it existed, but sadly I have searched in vain for four years to acquire one. That is the problem with visiting botanic gardens – you come away lusting for interesting new species, but good luck trying to find them.

Cornus hongkongensis

Cornus tonkinensis

Encephalartos horridus

Crinum asiaticum

Ghent mushrooms

After the Maple Society trip officially ended, I made my way to Ghent with comrade Phil Turrell, and we spent a couple of hours at the Ghent Botanical Garden. It was relatively small, but absolutely worth the time as it was filled with species that I had never seen before. Growing outside in the mild climate was Cornus hongkongensis (from SE China) and Cornus tonkinensis (from Vietnam), both evergreens. Encephalartos horridus was armed with vicious spikes, and it is commonly known as the "Blue Cape Cycad" from South Africa. The flowers of Crinum asiaticum were fading, but I loved the structural foliage; and nearby was a group of mushrooms that I supposed would be fatal if added to a salad. Any mycologist out there who can identify the smelly purple fungi?

University of Ghent Conservatory

Peireskia aculeata

Philodendron 'Lynette'

Podocarpus macrophyllus

Theobroma cacao

Salvinia auriculata

Inside the humid University of Ghent's conservatory was a smorgasbord of foliage, such as Peireskia aculeata, Philodendron 'Lynette', Podocarpus macrophyllus, and in the conservatory's pond was a bizarre creature named Salvinia auriculata. Also fascinating were "edible" plants such as Theobroma cacao (coffee), vanilla and chocolate.

Ghent Altarpiece

The primary reason to visit Ghent had nothing to do with plants, but rather to see the Ghent Altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) which was located in the St. Bavo Cathedral. The immense triptych measures about 16 feet long and 10 feet wide, with biblical people including Adam and Eve holding their fig leaves. My eyes wandered from panel to panel, to the multitudes, to the horses, to the sacrificial lamb (Christ), and inevitably, back to Eve. Napoleon coveted the Altarpiece, while the Germans came for it in WWI and again in WWII, but fortunately Hitler failed and it was discovered hiding in a cave with other art treasures. Thank goodness.

Goodbye to Belgium*, to its beer, to the plants and to the art.

*From a land that was inhabited – before the Roman invasion in 100 BC – by the Belgae, a mix of Celtic and Germanic peoples.


  1. We have a Eucalyptus deglupta growing in our back acreage. It was a 3 gallon can about 5 feet tall in January 2013. It is now well over 40 feet and must have a 15 inch caliper. Cannot believe how fast it has grown. Our Encephalartos horridus is much much slower.

  2. I hoped you enjoyed your trip. I really enjoyed reading about it.