Friday, February 5, 2016

Flowering Conifers

Pinus jeffreyi and its male flowers

Conifer cones are hard scaly structures that contain seeds, and often they have a conical appearance as well. Greek konos originally meant “pine-cone,” and that evolved into Latin conus. Latin conifer literally means “cone-bearing” with the ifer part from Latin ferre, to “carry,” which is related to English bear. In German, Dutch and Danish a cone is known as kegle, in Czech it is kuzel and in Russian it is kohyc. Of course not all conifers feature cones, Taxus and Juniperus being two coniferous examples which replicate via berries.

I have read in Aljos Farjon's A Natural History of Conifers that “The 630 species of conifers cover a large proportion of the land surface of the Earth.” An accompanying map indicates that most occur in the Northern Hemisphere, but conifers can also be found in Australia, Africa and South America, and there is even an endemic to Madagascar (Podocarpus madagascariensis) which I have never seen.

Two giant redwoods at Buchholz's childhood home.

The tree is older than the house. I have been inside during a strong storm and the house literally moves.

Frequently websites for botanical gardens or commercial nurseries will provide a template for describing the features of a plant, such as size, shape, hardiness, flower etc. Often for “flower”* you will see NA or None when describing conifers, but come on – if the pollen structure and the cones are not “flowers” also, I don't know what is. I have long been fascinated with the sexual expression of conifers, and I suppose my first realization that cones existed was growing up in Forest Grove, Oregon under two massive Sequoiadendron giganteums, now almost 150 years old; they're amongst the largest in the world outside of their native range in California. I harvested the cones and my Grandmother ferried me about to florists who would purchase them for a dollar-a-dozen, I think it was. The flower shops couldn't resist my earnest efforts and I was rewarded with sales that frankly surprised me, and one time I made $8 in one day. That was my first venture into horticulture sales: by simply picking up cones and selling them to florists, and in hindsight you could say that my future nurseryman-vocation was established. Later, how fantastic it was to discover that a stuffy botanist from the University of Illinois, Professor J.D. Buchholz, was successful in the 1950's in persuading the botanical cognoscenti that Sequoiadendron giganteum and Sequoia sempervirens should be scientifically segregated, and so now all reference books describe Sequoiadendron giganteum BUCHHOLZ, and of course I'm proud of that.

Northern spotted owl
*For example, the Missouri Botanic Garden lists Sequoiadendron as “Non-flowering.” Furthermore they say that, “Giant sequoia [sic] was originally discovered in 1833 by Zenas Leonard.” That is probably correct, for he mentioned “big trees” in his expedition account, but they were never verified, and he might have been referring to huge oaks or to the monstrous “sugar pines,” Pinus lambertiana, that dominate the same area as Sequoiadendron. The first certain and widely-documented sighting of the Giant Sequoia was in 1852, as the hunter Agustus Dowd was chasing a bear in the Calaveras Grove in the western portion of the Sierra Nevada Mountains when he stumbled into the giants, and no one would believe him until they saw the monsters for themselves. Of course these redwood forests were known for centuries by the local Indian tribes, and they knew them as “Wawona,” a word that imitates the sound of the Northern Spotted Owl, which was believed by the Natives to be the “Guardian of the Forest.”

However, the damn redwood cones got me into some trouble. You see, they were perfectly-sized to fit into my hand with the forefinger loped over the base, and I could hurl the wicked projectiles into the thick and ranks of neighborhood rivals. Cone wars was on! Eventually I was called into the Principal's office where the old codger glared at me with beady lizard-eyes over his bifocals...demanding to know the cause of my aggressive anti-social behavior, and I could only mutter that I just didn't know.

Young Buchholz got into trouble.......................................................

Later, when I was eleven, Forest Grove received its greatest weather event, the 1962 Columbus Day Storm, where winds exceeded 110 miles per hour and much of the Grove's canopy lay horizontal. My family, ensconced in the basement corner, worried mostly because the family cat went berserk over the atmospheric change, and the power of nature was firmly impressed upon me. I spent the next year, then twelve, with a hand saw, cutting up and burning the fallen debris, but fortunately our two titans remained standing. To this day, I remain deeply afraid of nature, and it is bewildering that I continue to try to make a living from her. Of course I can now relate to the Ancient Greeks who felt that there were forces – Gods – much greater than us Feebles, and that they could toss and dash us in an instant.

Sequoiadendron giganteum cone (left) and Metasequoia glyptostroboides cone (right)

Metasequoia glyptostroboides

Metasequoia glyptostroboides female cones (left) and male and female cones (right)

Sequoiadendron giganteum

I love the cone of Metasequoia glyptostroboides for it is a smaller version of Sequoiadendron giganteum, and indeed the former grows to a much smaller size. Sadly, while I have visited virgin groves of Sequoiadendron giganteum and Sequoia sempervirens, I have never ventured into the Hubei province of China to witness the shortest of the redwoods – but still a large tree that can grow to over 200' in height – which is the 1946-discovered Metasequoia. No longer is the Sequoiaodeae subfamily included in the family Taxodiaceae, it is now considered to be a member of the family Cupressaceae based on DNA analysis. Pizhou, China boasts of the longest Metasequoia avenue in the world at 60 km long with over one million trees, while North Carolina offers the Crescent Ridge Dawn Redwoods Preserve where the trees have been planted in a natural state to be observed and recorded in the wild. It is possible that the most extensive collection of Sequoia, Sequoiadendron and Metasequoia cultivars in America exists at the Flora Wonder Arboretum, only short in number to the collection in Deurne, The Netherlands, on the grounds of Kools Nursery.

Abies koreana 'Gait'

Abies koreana 'Vengels'

Abies koreana

I love the perky cones of Abies koreana, though they aren't as large as with other Abies species. Look at the photo carefully as I find their spiraling pattern interesting, with some moving to the left and some to the right. The seed of Abies koreana is not difficult to germinate, and we fight with random seedlings that pop up all over the place from our mature specimens. It would be fun to dig them up to grow on, as I suspect some of them could be hybrids, but it would be an expensive and time consuming hobby. Abies koreana 'Gait' is a slow-growing – I won't say dwarf – cultivar selected because it cones so heavily, and in fact it is a burden on the overall vigor of the tree. Abies koreana 'Vengels' is a freaky selection with skinny cones that do not display the spiraling characteristic. Again, the Missouri Botanical Garden defines Bloom Description as “Non-flowering,” and again I repeat B.S. to that.

Pliny the Elder
The Abies koreana species is native to the mountains of South Korea, as you would suspect, hence koreana, while the genus name is an Ancient Latin name for a tree described by Pliny the Elder in about 77 A.D. Gaius Plinius Secundus (A.D. 23 - A.D. 79) was a Roman author, naturalist and natural philosopher who died too soon because he was afflicted by asthma and couldn't breathe when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. He was on a ship waiting to sail away but unfavorable winds would not allow, and when pumice stones began falling from the sky, Pliny and the crew – including slaves – tied pillows to their heads; his companions survived but Pliny succumbed to the toxic fumes due to his asthma.

Cathaya argyrophylla

Cathaya argyrophylla female flower (left) and male flower (right)

Last year we attempted to root Cathaya argyrophylla. The cuttings that we stuck in January looked perfect in June, and every one of them showed happy puffs of new growth. Repeatedly I would lift the flats, hoping to find roots poking through, but never did. The cuttings formed an enormous callus but never did they sprout roots. This year we doubled the hormone rate – the same as we use for Sciadopitys – and we'll see what happens. For such a beautiful genus it produces (monociously) very ugly flowers; the male catkins are worm-like and the female cones appear like ugly rodent turds. Nevertheless we sowed the seed this winter because they have germinated for us in the past. I also heard that one can graft Cathaya on Pseudotsuga menziesii, and so I grafted some two years ago. Initially the “take” looked great, but one by one they turned off-color, and now I only have three left out of the original 50 grafts. They look perfectly healthy but we'll see what happens. A month ago we grafted 50 again on Pseudotsuga because just one year's poor experience doesn't mean that I'm ready to give up. As Gary from Gee Farms in Michigan says, “I have to kill a plant three different times before I give up,” and of course our stubborn nature often comes with a cost.

Picea orientalis 'Aureospicata'

Picea orientalis 'Aureospicata'

Picea orientalis 'Aureospicata'

Picea orientalis 'Lemon Drop'

Picea orientalis produces narrow pendant cones about four-to-five inches long and near our two 44-year-old specimens of 'Aureospicata' we've had dozens of seedlings sprout. One in particular displayed the same yellow new-growth as the parent, and appeared to be more dwarf besides. We have propagated it and have coined it as 'Lemon Drop', but I haven't distributed any because I still don't know what I really have. In shade the new growth is light green and is not spectacular at all, and in full sun I don't yet know. Will it remain dwarf when grafted onto vigorous Picea abies rootstock, or will it shoot skyward like its parent? The last thing that horticulture needs is an 'Aureospicata'-look-alike, or even worse, an insipid version of the mother tree. The orientalis species features bright red pollen flowers that are ornamental as well, and they stand out nicely against the dark green, short needles.

The specific name of orientalis is due to its origin in the Caucasus and northeast Turkey, as “orient” is derived from Latin oriens meaning “east,” from orior meaning “rise,” referring to where the sun rises. “Everything is relative,” said my Uncle Einstein, as Constantinople is “east” of Rome, but then Kyoto, Japan is far more orior than Constantinople. In Japanese the word to means “east,” so, Tokyo, the eventual capital of Japan, means “east of Kyoto.” Even without its great cultivars, P. orientalis, as a species, is well-suited for medium-sized gardens.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Contorta'

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Rezek'

In a nursery setting the grower does not really want to see his conifers flower, he would rather see all of the plant's energy go to producing lush foliage. The cones on the Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Contorta' (photo above) were from a lonely straggler in the field when all of its brethren had been dug and sold. Who knows what its problem was – perhaps a gopher had tunneled under it, or some other microscopic creature had fed on its roots? Though the cones were attractive in spring – shiny and brown – by fall they had matured into ugly brown pellets and eventually the plant was tossed. The late hobbyist-plantsman Ed Rezek liked to collect seed off of Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Gracilis' because he enjoyed analyzing the offspring, and he would achieve quite a range of shapes and sizes. Since his garden had size limitations he naturally preferred the miniature, and he gave one such to me about twenty years ago. It was not named by him and I simply called it 'Rezek', even though I preach against naming plants after people. Actually I wasn't “naming” it, rather I was “calling” it, but in any case the narrow, compact dwarf was admired by garden visitors so I began to propagate it. A lot of horticulture is not evaluated and scheduled – you do not run anything through the banker or your accountant or survey your customer base – but you just do things when you feel like it, and since time flies you eventually grow old and die. Customers have requested to buy my original 'Rezek', but I value more my tree and memory of the wonderful plantsman than a couple hundred dollars, even though I suppose a future owner of my land will feel differently.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Yoshino'

Cryptomeria japonica

World War Two took a toll on Japan's Cryptomeria (sugi) and later development reduced the number of trees. The people (Nihonjin) and the Forest Agency were encouraged to plant Cryptomeria and they proudly did so. Now a sizeable portion of the population suffers from breathing disorders every spring due to the pollen, and some schedule vacations to get away from it. Known as kafunsho, or “pollen illness,” it is also caused by Chamaecyparis obtusa. Like the cherry blossom season, the pollen season moves from south to north and the Japanese media tracks and reports on it. March to April can be hell for an estimated 20% of the population. Japan's Forest Agency had plans to plant thousands of low pollen-producing Cryptomerias, but what do you do with the older, mature trees? One solution, I suppose, is to move to very southern Okinawa or to most northern Hokkaido which are low-pollen areas. As with Chamaecyparis obtusa (hinoki) the nurseryman does not want his crops “to go to seed,” although some old hags in my gardens certainly have, but at least I don't suffer from hay fever.

Wollemia nobilis female flower

Wollemia nobilis male flower

I have a sizeable Wollemia nobilis in a greenhouse and it has grown nearly to the top, and since it is probably too tender to plant outside I'll have to top it annually. People who are obsessed with plants – like me – find themselves collecting non-hardy species which require heat and space indoors, and you just want to issue an order to “stay alive but stop growing!” My tree has produced male flowers only, and the female cone (photo above) was taken at a different location. The “Wollemi pine” was recently discovered in Australia to the delight of botanists and conservationists, and especially by the people. I bought my small start from the National Geographic for $100, pretty expensive, but they promised that most of the money would go toward efforts to save the species. The location of the small grove, in a rugged canyon, is kept secret to help preserve the trees from disease or vandalism, and from thousands of foot steps tromping on the root zone. While I am happy to own one, I don't find Wollemia to be particularly attractive, as I generally don't care for Podocarpus-type trees, and I probably wouldn't grow it if not for the recent discovery. It doesn't appear that I'll make any money off of it either, as our one attempt to root cuttings resulted in 100% failure, and worst of all, when branch tips are severed they do not resprout.

Pinus torreyana

Harumi with Pinus lambertiana cone
I have seen most of the species of pines in the world, but I don't grow many due to hardiness issues or from lack of commercial appeal. All gardeners appreciate the foliage and bark of the pines, and who doesn't love a pine cone – especially children? A couple of years ago I visited the Torry State Park in southern California and I was able to photograph the trees and their cones. I lamented in a previous blog that I wished I could have a cone, and a kind reader sent me one, and the beauty resides on the fireplace mantle. I imagine to be independently wealthy, and I would spend my remaining days travelling the world collecting conifer cones and preserving them. I would house them in a museum – a conetum – and I would allow the public to visit for free. What a great idea! Who says that money doesn't buy happiness?

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