Friday, September 23, 2016

California Conifers

Oregonians generally don't care for Californians, but I think our southern neighbors are not even aware of it. We have an unofficial motto that says, visit, spend your money but don't stay. I first became aware of Californians when I was 17 years old and attended college at the University of Oregon (AKA University of California at Eugene). Half the school seemed to be from California and one even became a roommate. They had an arrogance about them that was unwarranted in my opinion, and my Cal roommate chastised me for the (uncool) way I buttoned my sweater. I even had to listen to the mantra that all new, progressive and wonderful ideas originate in California and I should be grateful that this student emissary was diligent to enlighten me.

I don't dislike Californians anymore, except that many have migrated to Oregon and they significantly add to our traffic woes. Actually I even love their state, and within its borders the flora and the scenery are equal to, or superior to that of Oregon, which is not easy to admit. I was about 10 years into my nursery when I took a week off to make my first plant pilgrimage into the Mecca of floral diversity.

Cupressus sempervirens

In southern Oregon I refilled my car with gas in the town of Grants Pass, a name which curiously does not possess an 's. One theory is that it was so-christened by – or because – General Ulysses S. Grant rode through the area with his soldiers, and it's fortunate that he didn't die there or the town might have been named Grants Tomb. Residents of nearby Medford, Oregon refer to the town as “Grunt 'n Piss,” but I find it attractive and it is chock-a-block with huge specimens of Cupressus sempervirens.

Picea breweriana

I stopped at the ranger station expecting little, but I hoped there might be a bureaucrat available who could point me in the direction of a place to see the “Brewer's weeping spruce,” Picea breweriana. Fortunately the receptionist called for an old coot who warmed to me and my quest with great enthusiasm. He poured us both a cup of coffee and then got out all kinds of maps, some of which I could keep. He overloaded me with information but I got the general idea of where to go...into the Siskiyou Mountains. Indeed I found many Brewer's, scrappy as they were, for the flora wasn't very lush on the serpentine soils. I'll admit to cheating because the photos above are from Portland's Hoyt Arboretum, and my original slides from the Siskiyou's have not yet been converted digitally. But I had fun on the narrow gravel roads, none of which were marked sufficiently to correspond with the maps, and eventually I wandered past the Mt. Ashland ski resort and into the town of Ashland, Oregon, happy to not be lost.

Picea breweriana lost in the Biscuit Fire

Sarcodes sanguinea

One of the most beautiful areas for Picea breweriana used to be in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, and in particular the area near Baby Foot Lake. That was also the location where one might see the “Snow plant,” a lurid red shaft that appears just after the snow has melted. I say “used to be” because the Biscuit Fire in 2002 burned a half million acres (780 sq. mi., or 2000 sq. km.). Once-proud conifers were turned into bleached poles, and I was presented with a very eerie spectacle on my re-visit in 2010. I lamented the passing of all trees, but in particular the Brewer's spruce. I tried to find the lake, for certainly it didn't burn, but the 2-mile trail was no longer in evidence. Some salvage logging had occurred while environmentalists feared for the spread of Phytophthora lateralis among the native “Port Orford cedars,” Chamaecyparis lawsoniana, spread by loggers' boots and equipment. I'm not really a fan of the lawsons, but on the other hand I don't want them to die out. Nary a Brewer's spruce could be found...until I noticed on the ground hundreds of half-inch seedlings; so they were coming back after all, and every decade or so – even though I don't have many decades left – I would like to visit and check on their progress.

Picea breweriana with Mt. Shasta

Ok, all of that was in southern Oregon, but let's continue now into northern California. My next destination was the Castle Crags State Park which features 28 miles of hiking trails, and the Pacific Crest Trail also passes through the park. The park was named for 6,000' tall glacier-polished granite slabs, preposterous gray monstrosities that hovered above the oak and conifer forest. As I ascended the steep trail I overtook an attractive female with a large dog as her companion. Later I saw why the dog was a good idea, and not just as protection from me, but because as I labored up the mountain a California black bear romped perpendicular to my path only 100' ahead of me. I have never been so close to a bear in the wild, but then he didn't want anything to do with me either. I finally reached a plateau – my sweat-drenched summit – and off in the distance was my reward of a very large Brewer's spruce with magnificent Mt. Shasta in the background, and I pondered that it would make an excellent final resting place. Except that I would be damned if my remains should ever be sent to Cal...Cal...California!

Nelis Kools
Haruko Buchholz
It was long ago so I don't remember everything, but I must have veered southwest from the Crags, from the Interstate 5 to the coastal route of Hwy 101. Ten years later I stopped to rest again in the town of Eureka – what a great name – but this subsequent trip was with the conifer expert Nelis Kools of The Netherlands and my fairly newly-wed – and then childless – wife, Haruko. On my first California trip I stayed overnight at a mediocre chain motel which I found in my fatigue to be adequate. However, on the second stay with Haruko and Nelis – he was stationed in room 208 and we were in room 206 – there was incredible commotion in room 207. An amorous couple was pounding, pounding and slamming the headboard against the wall, and at first we just chuckled at their apparent fun. The problem was that it never stopped, it went on-and-on, and finally I was pounding on our shared wall for them to stop. The next morning groggy Haruko and I met with Nelis and I complained and apologized about the disturbance...when Nelis announced that he assumed it was caused by us. Haruko remained silent, but she wanted to yell at him, that it wasn't us, that, that we were far more elegant than that!

I have been through the California redwoods a number of times, and have stopped at many forestal attractions, so I don't remember exactly what I experienced on the first visit. I think I procured a redwood-burl bowl...for a former girlfriend...I just don't remember. But I did visit a number of S. sempervirens groves and individual trees, and all visitors must be humbled and stupefied at their enormity. I can mention that the earth's tallest tree species also occurs on the very southern tip of the Oregon coastal route, but that the ultimate champions are clearly in California, and I was overjoyed to wander beneath them. The knucklehead President Ronald Reagan, when mere Governor of California, offered that if you have seen “one redwood, then you have seen them all,” which basically gave the greenlight to cutting and processing thousands more. The Gov – at the time – apparently didn't understand or appreciate the incredible biodiversity of these ancient forests and didn't take into account the thousands of native life-forms that were affected by redwood logging.

Native range of Sequoia sempervirens

Native redwoods are restricted to a narrow coastal fog belt about 450 miles long and no more than 25 miles wide, nevertheless they thrive in the Flora Wonder Arboretum with very little fog. In fact I have specimens that have received no supplemental irrigation at all, and so does the Hoyt Arboretum in Portland, so I'm not sure why they haven't “travelled” more along the Pacific coast.* Of all of the world's flora, a mature redwood forest produces the greatest biomass per unit area, even much more than in the thickest, tallest rainforests.

*A Flora Wonder Blog reader offers:

I also have your answer as to why Coast Redwoods only grow naturally to southern Oregon, yet we both planted them about 38 years ago, including here on the Olympic Peninsula WA state, and see them also in Vancouver BC.) They set their pollen in WINTER, getting rained out/too cold here to set seed, so they never will happen here. Seed in Calif. is only 15% viable tops, usually less. I plant/root suckers to grow to timber in 35+ years. They root easily with a heel.

An albino Sequoia sempervirens

I was once given scionwood of an albino Sequoia sempervirens, but the wood was very soft and neither cuttings nor grafts survived. Later I came across a publication entitled The White Redwoods – Ghosts of the Forest. If you want to search for this wonderful little book the ISBN is 0-87961-087-5. The book explains that they survive because their white tops are actually nourished by the web of their neighbor (green) trees' roots. There are a number of albino redwood sites, and one specimen mentioned in the 1980-published book already stood 80' tall. About 10 years ago I visited a site in a California state park just north of Santa Cruz. I walked a mile-long loop with interpretive signs and finally came to the albino. The tree looked like crap because a few days earlier (in late April) the area received a sharp frost and the albino was badly burnt.

Calaveras Grove

Calaveras Grove

Sequoiadendron giganteum at Calaveras Grove

Cone-seller Buchholz
My original plant trip to California included a visit to the Calaveras Grove, which was my first encounter with the “Giant redwoods,” Sequoiadendron giganteum. Often I prefer to be alone when discovering natural wonders for the first time, and the Calaveras giants did not disappoint. I have relayed before that I grew up in Forest Grove, Oregon, in a yard with two Sequoiadendron that were planted in the 1870's, making them among the largest in the world outside of their native range. I guess I was about six when I gathered up redwood cones and my Grandmother ferried me to various florist shops where I sold the cones for 50c a dozen. The florists simply couldn't turn down an enthusiastic youngster, and I think I made about five or six dollars that day. It was the first plant sale in my life, and how fitting that I would go on to become a nurseryman with one of the largest collection of Sequoiadendron cultivars in the world.

Abies magnifica

Yosemite Half Dome

John Muir
My solo journey took me to Yosemite and I spent four days at the park, and later I described it as the “Disneyland of Nature.” It was at Yosemite that I finally took my hat off to California and bowed low. I have been back about half a dozen times, but always with others, even once with my father-and-mother in law from Japan. The geology is fantastic, such as with Half Dome, where a glacier carved away the missing half. I suppose the Abies in the foreground of the photo above is magnifica or magnifica var. shastensis. I have tried to locate this Abies on subsequent trips but it has since disappeared, and if it died the dead stick should still be there. It's as if it walked away, tired of posing for the tourists. At a lower elevation I discovered a grove of large A. magnifica, and it's easy to see why it received its specific name. The similar Abies procera, or “Noble fir,” also exists in California, in the northwestern portion of the state, and the two can hybridize which makes tree identification tricky. Concerning A. magnifica, known as the “Red fir,” John Muir wrote that its “plushy branches...with ferns and flowers for a pillow” provided the best bed for a mountaineer. Later he declared, “No wonder the enthusiastic Douglas* went wild with joy when he first discovered this species.”

The “Douglas” in question was (of course) the earlier fellow-Scotsman David Douglas who introduced the species.

Pinus jeffreyi

I had already seen the Pinus jeffreyi species before on my initial California floral trip, but never did I see it so wonderfully presented as in Yosemite. Trees would gain purchase in cracks on the granite slopes, and the one in the photo above has become my all-time favorite. It seems to say, “Look at me, I took advantage of my opportunity.” There is no way to know the age of this jeffreyi, and on my first Yosemite visit I marveled that there wasn't a Brad-loves-Angelina heart carved into the bark, especially since it was just a short distance away from a large tourist parking area. Well, that was then, but now it is scarred, defaced by someone with no more brains than the rock he was standing on. It is situations like this when I fantasize about being the judge, jury and executioner, and I devise creative ways to make them pay for their malfeasance. Actually the world would be a much better place if I was Solomon to all.

Pinus longaeva 'Sherwood Compact'

Dr. Kim Tripp visited Buchholz Nursery years ago (25?), and I was impressed with her knowledge and enthusiasm. At the time she was with the JC Raulston Arboretum in North Carolina, but since has worked her way up as Director of the New York Botanical Garden. She asked if I had ever been to the White Mountains in SE California to see the “Great Basin Bristlecone pine,” Pinus longaeva, for she had recently visited. She called it a “special place, like sacred.” At the time I was growing Pinus longaeva 'Sherwood Compact' but I had never been to the White Mountains. But prompted by her story I exited Yosemite on the east side of the Sierras and drove south to the town of Lone Pine. Due to some festival in the area there was not a room to be had, and I spent the night in the car at a rest area – which was not restful at all.

White Mountains

Pinus flexilis

Juniperus osteosperma

Pinus longaeva

In the morning I drove my aching body up to the top of the White Mountains, passing Pinus flexilis and the “Utah juniper,” Juniperus osteosperma. When I finally came to the Pinus longaeva road-end I was above 11,000'. I exited the car in a light-headed state, having ascended so quickly. I promised myself to take it easy, already knowing the possible danger from previous trips to the Himalaya. At the time I was the only one there, looking at the fantastic pines, equally beautiful whether dead or alive. “Dr. Tripp,” I wanted to shout, “you are right, this is a special place!”

Horseshoe Meadows

Pinus balfouriana 'Horseshoe Pillar'

Pinus balfouriana witch's broom

Dick van hoey Smith
On the eastern side of the Sierras one can ascend to 9,000+ feet to a campground named Horseshoe Meadows. From there outdoor aficionados can back-pack or ride horses to a system of lakes and fish for the California Golden Trout. For my part I was on a mission to find a needle-narrow Pinus balfouriana made famous in a photo book by the late Dick van hoey Smith, Conifers – The Illustrated Encyclopedia. On page 442 is a photo of a tree which he named 'Horseshoe Pillar'. Mr. Smith once confided to me that it was the one tree he coveted the most, but at the time he was with a tour group, and was there at the wrong time of the year for scionwood anyway. My purpose to visit this site was to discover the tree and collect scionwood, and I now wish I would have kept his hand-drawn map. I was successful even though the harvest was illegal in a national forest. I reasoned that Smith's Arboretum Trompenburg in Rotterdam, The Netherland, was an entity above the law, and that, yet again, I was making the world a better place. I sent a graft to Trompenburg, also illegal (but see previous sentence), but it died. Then van hoey Smith died so it seem pointless to send another.

Another narrow Pinus balfouriana

The death of the 'Horseshoe Pillar' is not surprising when you consider that there is not a good rootstock for P. balfouriana, unless one was to use P. aristata or P. longaeva which I didn't have. I used P. strobiformis, and when I graft P. longaeva 'Sherwood Compact' only 10-20% actually make it to the third year, at my nursery anyway. Besides, I didn't want to ruin Mr. Smith's “Holy Grail.” I spent more time hiking in the area than he did with his tour group, and I found a number of specimens just as, or more narrow than his 'Horseshoe Pillar'. Not only that, but also a few P. balfouriana witch's brooms were harvested. The end result has been nothing of ornamental merit. I have no regrets though, for you'll find me at my happiest in high elevation forests, and I hope to again take my hat off to California.

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