Friday, January 8, 2016

A Cultivar Mystery

I wonder what was the first cultivar (cultivated variant) ever selected and propagated, and I suppose it probably had something to do with food since Mesopotamian art shows cultivated date palms, vines and cereals over 3,000 years before Christ, or as we now say: Before Common Era. Later, the Ancient Greeks, being a smart and curious people, didn't just hang around the Parthenon in their togas all day, but were well-attuned to the natural world and must have observed variation in trees and shrubs. I wish I could have been there to point out witch's broom mutations, weeping trees, variegated branch sports etc.

Distinguishing between wild plants and those that arose in cultivation dates back to the Greek plantsman Theophrastus (370-285 BCE), and with his Enquiry into Plants he is considered to be the “Father of Botany.”*

*For more about Theophrastus – a pupil of Aristotle – and subsequent botanical history, one can do no better than read British author Anna Pavord's The Naming of Names, the “Search for Order in the World of Plants.” She describes, for example, Theo pacing up and down in front of his audience of more than 2,000 people at the Lyceum to hear his morning lectures. The book jacket accurately describes Pavord's work as “a thrilling adventure into botanical history.”

Liberty Hyde Bailey
The word cultivar can be attributed to Liberty Hyde Bailey of Cornell University in 1923. He wrote “The cultigen is a species, or its equivalent, that has appeared under domestication – the plant is cultigenous. I now propose another name, cultivar, for a botanical variety, or for a race subordinate to species, that has originated under cultivation; it is not necessarily, however, referable to a recognized botanical species. It is essentially the equivalent of the botanical variety except in the respect to its origin.” I came across this definition years ago, and even reading it three times slowly today, I would still like to ask Professor Bailey a few questions and for him to give some examples. Good thing I didn't attend Cornell in the 1920's – the good professor might have thrown me out of the class.

Picea omorika 'Pendula Bruns'

All of the above was prompted by an email I received this past week from Rob Mills of Garden Works Nursery in British Columbia, Canada. I had written in an earlier blog concerning Picea omorika 'Pendula Bruns' that, “The original seedling was selected at the Bruns Nursery in Germany (I assume) but the current owner of the establishment knows nothing about the tree. I saw a large one later in an arboretum (was that in Hamburg?), which maybe was the original. It snaked its way upward into the sky with as much 'character' as any tree I've ever seen. How could Mr. Bruns, at my age, know nothing about his father's wonderful tree?”

Mills reveals that, “The story I have is that a [British Columbia] Canadian nurseryman [of German heritage] was visiting the [German] Bruns Nursery and expressed interest in a plant (amongst many growing in the pot, I'm not sure what attracted his eye). They allowed him to take cuttings as they had no special interest in it. He hid the cuttings in the backpack of his eight year old son...and then smuggled them into Canada.” The German-Canadian named the plant after the nursery to honor Mr. Bruns though they never did get anything out of being too early for people to be patenting and branding (ouch!) plants like they do now.”

Mills continues, “The story was told to me by the now 50ish plus 'boy' who helped smuggle them. They have a big one where the old family home is. Looked to be 40-50 feet high and 10' wide. Greenthumb Nursery [near Nanaimo on Vancouver Island] is the nursery, Gerhard is the 'boy.' ” So finally the origin of 'Pendula Bruns' might be known to me, but since the naming occurred some 40 years ago – after the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants ruled that the use of Latin names for cultivars was no longer valid – the name of 'Pendula Bruns' is illegitimate. On the other hand the Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs says it was introduced by Bruns Nursery in 1955. Krussmann in Manual of Cultivated Conifers says nothing about 'Pendula Bruns' but does mention 'Pendula', and says that forms found under this name are “best considered as a collective name.”

My start of 'Pendula Bruns' came from a German Professor Reuter about twenty years ago when he visited America. He gave me some other plants as well – all without proper documentation – and I admit that I didn't report any of it to the authorities. I don't know how Reuter had ever heard about me, but since I have a German last name, he perhaps considered the two of us to be brothers of the Fatherland. So, did the cultivar originate in Germany and then make its way to America, or from Canada to Germany and then to me in America? I suppose it is possible that there are two distinct clones, both with the same name.

I could belabor and speculate on this until all of you Flora Wonder Blog readers fall to sleep. Or maybe I'll solicit Anna Pavord to write a book – she would get to the bottom of it and make it a thrilling adventure besides.

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