Thursday, January 14, 2016

Treemendous Torsos

A Bacchant holding a thyrsus

I confess to being an aficionado of the torso – I don't mean of women, though that can be nice too, but of a tree: its trunk. The word torso is derived from Greek thursor for a “plant stalk,” and in particular a Bacchic staff which was a wand of giant fennel (Ferula* communis) covered with ivy vines and always topped with a pine cone. This thursor was a fertility phallus and the pine cone represented the “seed” issuing forth. Euripides wrote, “There's a brute wildness in the fennel-wand – Reverence it well.”

*Ferula is Latin for “rod.”



Pinus bungeana

Pinus bungeana 'Temple Gem'

Pinus bungeana 'Silver Ghost'

I am above resorting to bacchanalia-like revelry, and instead I will discuss tree torsos, in particular those of the pines...and oops – the genus Pinus is pronounced “penis” to the Europeans. I suppose most plantsmen, if asked to name their favorite species for an ornamental pine trunk, would respond with Pinus bungeana, the “Chinese lacebark pine.” It was rare in the trade when I began my career, and I got my start from the Hoyt Arboretum in Portland, Oregon when no one was looking. Now we only propagate cultivars such as 'Diamant', 'REL-WB', 'Temple Gem' and 'Silver Ghost'. To my knowledge there is no perfect rootstock for bungeana – some take off and grow well while others can linger and become off-color. The bad ones are eventually dumped, and at Buchholz Nursery that would be about 20%. We have used Pinus strobus and Pinus strobiformis with about the same result, but let me know if you experience a better graft with another species. Bungeana is native to northern China and I have seen venerable old specimens in Beijing. Oddly, Keith Rushforth in Conifers says, “The bark of old trees in China becomes a very striking white colour; in cultivation, so far it has only achieved the cream and green flaking, like that of a plane tree (Platanus).” Rushforth should get out more – I have seen all kinds of colors.

Pinus gerardiana

All reference books mention that P. bungeana is closely related to the “Chilgoza pine,” P. gerardiana, and the latter is native to the northwest Himalayas in Afghanistan, northwest India and southwest Tibet. I thought that those areas got as brutally cold as northern China, but P. gerardiana is only hardy to USDA zone 7, while P. bungeana can tolerate temperatures to USDA zone 4, or -30 degrees. Thankfully P. bungeana is the more colorful of the two, so you seldom see P. gerardiana in cultivation. I grant space to one in my Conifer Field and it is now about 35' tall, but sadly the trunk is riddled with sap-sucker holes. We don't propagate P. gerardiana anymore as sales were weak due to the hardiness issue. A third “lacebark” species exists – P. squamata – and it is native to northern Yunnan, China in a “floristically rich area” according to Debreczy and Racz in Conifers Around the World. The species was discovered in the 1970's by a village teacher, and was described scientifically in 1992. With only 36 existing trees (in 2000) it is the world's most rare pine. I have never seen it, but would be most indebted if someone were to send me one. P. squamata displays needles in fascicles of five, while P. bungeana and P. gerardiana are in fascicles of three, making the new discovery an important botanical link between Pinus species.

Pinus ponderosa (eastern form)

Pinus ponderosa at Catherine Creek (eastern form)

Pinus ponderosa (western form)

Daily I pass a large Pinus ponderosa on my way to work, and it is of the subspecies that thrives in the soggy western portion of Oregon, Washington and California versus the east-of-the-Cascades version that will not. Generally speaking, I find the eastern form to be more colorful, with its mid-section cracked into plates of orange and black. My favorite P. ponderosa tree is found in the eastern portion of the Columbia River Gorge at Catherine Creek Nature Preserve, where a leaning specimen defies gravity – more-so than the Tower of Pisa – and in spite of winter's snow and ice accumulation it continues to thrive, and dutifully every year I pay homage to it. Certainly at some point it must topple, but I pray that I'll lay horizontal before I find that it does.

Pinus jeffreyi 'Gold'

Pinus jeffreyi 'Joppi'

Pinus jeffreyi is considered by some to be merely a variety of P. ponderosa, but Hillier in his Manual of Trees and Shrubs suggests that it is a true species, and must differ because of its “black or purple-grey bark, and its stouter, longer, bluish green leaves...” In a place such as Yosemite National Park in California, I honestly cannot tell where the P. ponderosa species ends and the P. jeffreyi begins, except that the latter is found at a higher elevation. Donald Culross Peattie takes it a step further in his A Natural History of Western Trees by mentioning that the P. ponderosa twigs, when broken smell like an orange rind, while broken twigs of P. jeffreyi smell like pineapple. Another difference is that when you heat the pitch of P. ponderosa – to extract turpentine – all goes well, but if you do it to P. jeffreyi it will explode...oops. I used to grow one P. jeffreyi 'Gold' but lost it when I transplanted it from the field – winter-gold pines can be touchy that way. The only other cultivar is 'Joppi', but be sure to give it lots of room as it is no dwarf. Dutch nurseryman, Piet Vergeldt – no stranger to the Flora Wonder Blog – discovered 'Joppi' in a bed of three-year-old seedlings of P. jeffreyi and named it after his eldest son. I only grow a modest number of 'Joppi' per year, but then I always sell out, and it's probably best that I don't try to fill the demand.

Pinus roxburghii in the Himalayas

Pinus roxburghii

William Roxburgh
Another P. ponderosa-like species is the “Chir pine,” P. roxburghii – or at least the trunks look alike. The photo above is from the Himalayan foothills in northern India, but I used to have one in the Flora Wonder Arboretum. Hillier calls it, “A rare species, only suitable for the milder areas of the British Isles,” and I remember in a previous blog I took him to task for that statement because we can get colder than anywhere in Britain. I will admit that my specimen was grafted onto hardy P. sylvestris and maybe that had something to do with its hardiness. In any case, the winter before this we dropped to 10-12 degrees F – not unusual in Oregon – but it happened in early November and my tree croaked. So Old Harold Highpockets was right after all. I have been to the Kolkata (Calcutta) Botanic Garden where I sweated profusely in the June steam. The garden was founded in 1787 by the East India Company, and the roxburghii species was named in honor of William Roxburgh (1751-1815) who was its superintendent in 1793.

Pinus patula

Pinus patula in Grandfather's garden

Benito Juarez
The freeze that killed my P. roxburghii didn't faze my P. patula at all. Patula is considered hardy to USDA zone 8, or 10 degrees above zero. Where hardy the “Mexican weeping pine” is an elegant tree, with long shiny green needles that softly droop. I saw it in the wild years ago in Oaxaca, unless it was a species similar, and I felt remiss that I had left my Pines of Mexico book back at home. One drives from Oaxaca City up into the mountains and you'll see P. patula just past the village where Benito Juarez was born...and if you keep driving you will wind up at Veracruz and thence to the Gulf of Mexico. When pines grow, they send up their candles in spring which develop into the new stems, and by early summer the needles are fully elongated. So one shoot of growth per year. But P. patula – in Oregon anyway – regroups itself then grows again, and even in the fall it continues to grow. Surprisingly, our early-November freeze did no damage to the very soft growth. The tree in the photo above is in my Grandfather's garden – gifted from me – and it is only about twelve years old. He marvels (and worries) about how large it will get, and the answer is way-too-large for his small garden; and besides, the specific name patula is Latin for “spreading.” Good luck Gramps.

Pinus albicaulis

The specific name for Pinus albicaulis is the Latin way of saying “White-bark pine.” It is native to the Rockies and south to the Sierras in central California, and also in the Washington and Oregon Cascades. It can be found at Timberline as the last species on Mt. Hood at about 5,500'. Keith Rushforth in Conifers says that, “Whitebark pine is amenable to cultivation but is not as attractive a tree as most pines.” I guess I would agree with that, for I have a 30-year-old in my Conifer Field, but it is most attractive as an old specimen a mile high in its native haunts. They are no doubt hundreds of years old and rise to less than fifty feet tall, and when they die the bleached-white trunk remains for another hundred years. P. albicaulis was introduced by John Jeffrey (1826-1854) in 1852, the same Jeffrey of P. jeffreyi fame. He began his career as a gardener at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, then was sent to North America to continue the efforts of David Douglas. He spent four years exploring in Oregon, Washington and California, sending his specimens back to Scotland. He disappeared in 1854 while traveling from San Diego across the Colorado Desert, never to be seen again. I fantasize about stumbling upon his remains and finding his field notes, and maybe he discovered more than he is given credit for.

Pinus longaeva

Pinus longaeva

At twice the altitude of P. albicaulis, one will encounter P. longaeva, and it is obvious what the specific name refers to. Hillier says that, “Specimens in the White Mountains of California have been proved [ sic] to be up to 5,000 years old, the oldest living plants.” But not so fast my friend, as Picea abies was the first gymnosperm to have its genome sequenced, and one clone proved to be 9,550 years old. Nevertheless the stand of P. longaeva at road's end is most impressive, and in many cases the old venerables can be 90% dead, but still “life” continues into one portion...century after century after century. The summit of White Mountain Peak is the third highest mountain peak in California at an elevation of 14,246', but it is easily accessible by car. Be careful though, because you have quickly risen thousands of feet in altitude, so don't go dashing off into the forest because your body needs time to adjust. You practically hallucinate looking at the tree torsos, at the sheen of the wood both dead and alive, and neither Stonehenge nor Machu Picchu will give you greater delight. Next to the office I grow a 35-year-old P. longaeva 'Sherwood Compact' which is about 10' tall. Andy Sherwood is long-gone, so we'll never learn the origin of his tree. It entered into horticulture as a selection of P. aristata, but since no white resin specks are evident, it was later deemed to be of the P. longaeva species. I don't know, why wouldn't it belong to P. balfouriana? These three species are closely allied and I don't know one from the others. My old 'Sherwood Compact' does produce cones, so if a certified dendrologist exists I would be happy to send samples for identification.

Pinus pinaster

Pinus pinaster is known as the “Maritime pine” which means that it is “of the sea,” or rather from the lands around the central and western Mediterranean. The specific epithet pinaster is Latin for “wild pine,” but maybe that has something to do with its prickly cones. For what it's worth, the common name of pine is derived from Latin pinus which can be traced to the Indo-European root pit, or “resin.” Before the 19th century pines were known as “firs,” which was derived from Old Norse fura, and even today pines are known as fyr in Danish, fura or furu in Swedish, vuren in Dutch and fohre in German. In any case I have never grown a P. pinaster and the torso photos above were taken in England, at either Wisley or Kew, I can't remember. But who wouldn't want a tree with such a colorful trunk, regardless of what the top looks like?

Pinus pinea

Pinus pinea

Closely related to P. pinaster is P. pinea,  the “Umbrella pine,” so-named due to its hovering crown. It is also referred to as the “stone pine” due to its edible nuts, and in fact its natural distribution is uncertain because of centuries of planting for its edible crop. One can imagine ancient Romans marching along the Appian Way with fantastic lollypop trees lining the road. I grew a P. pinea for a few years, before a 0 degree F winter took it from me. The species should perform well in the San Francisco area, but I don't recall ever seeing a mature specimen there, and the photos above were also taken in southern England. Also, I have never seen a cultivar of P. pinea – one would think that something different would have occurred over the centuries.

Pinus sylvestris

I began my horticultural career by growing a couple of cultivars of the “Scotch pine," Pinus sylvestris, which literally means “pines of the field.” Later I was soundly put in my place by a Scotsman who indicated that “Scotch” was a derogatory term, and that if knew what was best for me I should get ok, “Scot's* pine” then. In any case I have about fifty cultivars in the collection now, but I admit that P. sylvestris is not my favorite species, that I find the foliage to be rather boring. But as you can see from the photos above the trunks can be very colorful with orange, slightly exfoliating bark. The best characteristic about Pinus sylvestris is that it is hardy and easy to grow, and it proves to be a solid rootstock for cultivars of many species of two-needle pines.

Sottish mercenaries

*A Scot is a native or inhabitant of Scotland, a descendant of the ancient Gaelic tribe that migrated to the northern part of Britain from Ireland in about the sixth century AD. Today they can be characterized as a moody people with pasty-white skin and bad habits such as smoking and drinking. Well, the men anyway; but they think that all Englishmen are want-to-be Scotsmen.

Ok, I admit to being out of place and politically incorrect about many things, but frankly I prefer to spend my time in a grove of trees rather than with people, and all the better if the trees are adorned with treemendous torsos!

1 comment:

  1. Hi. I enjoy your blog posts immensely. Thank you.