Friday, September 9, 2016

Maples On My Mind

I dream about maples this time of year. Maples in the morning, maples in the evening and maples in the middle of the night. We're in the thick of maple grafting, and almost three-fourths of the way done. I locate and cut every scion, sometimes at night with my daughter Saya. She is ten and full of energy, but she has learned to keep quiet when I am counting. We can talk later when we shorten the scions to the correct size and prune off the leaves...carefully so as not to damage the buds.

The challenge of the Flora Wonder Blog is to explain what I am doing, but in a way that is not over the head of the casual plant-person, but also not utterly boring for those professional propagators who are more accomplished than I.

Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood'
Acer palmatum 'Ryu sei'
A finished graft looks something like the illustration above, except that we are doing maples now, not conifers. I didn't make the drawing, but no, we do not lay the knife down on its blade edge. Hispanics refer to the “graft” as un inherto and “to graft” is inhertar, literally “to inherit.” The rootstock is usually seedling-grown, then it “inherits” a new top, usually a cultivated variant – cultivar – such as a deep-red upright like Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood' or the weeping green of Acer palmatum 'Ryu sei'. I have heard Germans refer to the process as copulation, but then they're also known for referring to the pines as peenis. The late Herr Jeddeloh, a famous German plantsman, was admiring a dwarf mugo in my garden. He caressed it and said in German what translates to “that is a beautiful little peenis.”

We employ the type of graft referred to as the “side graft.” It is fast and simple and even monkeys can be trained to do it. However, there are many different methods of grafting, and one can do no better than to consult R.J. Garner's The Grafter's Handbook, published in association with The Royal Horticultural Society. Many times new nurseries spring up when the newly-trained grafter wonders why he is working for the Man, when he could be working for himself. As one nursery sage remarked when I told him I was starting my own nursery, “Then you'll find out what death really is.” I watched a grafter – the Dutchman's son – for about ten minutes, and thence I was entirely self-taught, learning from trial and considerable error, learning what death really is.

Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca'

One of my first assignments was to custom graft 22,000* Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca' for a previous employer. Due to beginner's luck nearly every graft took. I was under the impression that the grafts needed to be constantly misted, even when the new growth appeared, and so the crop developed a case of botrytis (gray mold). I went through the entire 22,000, pruning off the infected parts, then applied a fungicide which arrested the problem and they all put out 6-12” of new growth. The rootstocks and scions both belonged to my ex-employer, and our arrangement was that I would only be paid for what lived, so after 7 months of labor I received a payday after all.

*This ex-employer easily sold 300-500 'Glauca' trees each year, with his starts coming from the East Coast. I don't think he really expected my good fortune, and no, he was not able to sell that many trees. They went from the ideal six-foot size to nine feet the next year, then twelve the following. At the end he unloaded the remainder at a slashed price and dumped a sizeable amount too.

Davidia involucrata 'Lady Sunshine'

Acer palmatum 'Fireball'

I have been at my own nursery for 36 years, and each summer and each winter we graft thousands of trees, so that is 72 crop endeavors. I must confess that at the beginning of these graft seasons I am enormously apprehensive, never certain that what we undertake will work. It's the same sick feeling I get when they forecast a foot of snow...on the weekend. Every year has a few surprises, both the good and the bad, like getting 100% on Davidia 'Lady Sunshine' last summer, but only 20% on our Acer palmatum 'Fireball'. This year our fortunes might be reversed, and that would be a shame as the Davidia rootstocks cost me $7.00 each. Sometimes I am criticized for not having a reliable specimen inventory, where I sell Acer palmatum 'Purple Ghost' in a 20” square box for four years in a row, and have enough to satisfy most everybody, then the fifth year we sell out on the first day. I don't worry about it because the customers themselves are not reliable either.

Acer palmatum 'Kuro hime'

Since we're well into the summer grafting season I feel more confident than I did at the beginning. I see new growth popping from the scions, such as the colorful red on Acer palmatum 'Kuro hime'. This Japanese cultivar emerges with pink-red on small palmate leaves, later becoming green by summer. Now, at the beginning of September, new reddish growth is appearing again. Vertrees in Japanese Maples says that 'Kuro hime' “forms a dense, compact, small shrub well suited for smaller gardens and containers.” My own website lists its size at 1 ½' tall by 2' wide in 10 years, based on early observation; but heck, my first specimen in the garden suddenly has grown to 5' tall by 6' wide and it is only 12 years old! Interestingly, I think I have harvested nearly 1,000 scions from it over the past four years, and so far graft percentages have always been very good.

Acer palmatum 'Peve Starfish'

Acer palmatum 'Peve Starfish'

Acer palmatum 'Hitode'

I think I have relayed the story of Piet Vergeldt's (of Lottum, The Netherlands) purple-red seedling with a stout constitution and delightfully curled leaves, looking like a more-extreme form of the old Acer x 'Trompenburg'. I vaguely remember seeing it years ago, then on my last visit to Vergeldt about five years ago I saw a crop of 6' trees with the name 'Starfish' – or actually 'Peve Starfish', as all Vergeldt introductions begin with “Peve.” They were not dwarf at all, not compact either, but very muscular looking. Piet reminded me – for I had forgotten – that I was the one who suggested the Starfish name. In the meantime I introduced my own seedling with recurved lobes and named it 'Hitode' which is Japanese for “starfish.” I would not have introduced my tree, let alone as 'Starfish', had I remembered the Vergeldt tree which I consider far superior. Starting with just a dozen scions of 'Peve Starfish' – not that long ago – we were able to graft 675 plants this summer. I am not able to multiply loaves and fishes, but one of my horticultural strengths is to quickly produce a cultivar. I must be careful, however, that my zeal doesn't get carried away, that I don't become like my ex-employer with way too many Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca'. I am not super conservative (cowardly) either, for 675 grafts is a sizeable number for my small company.

Acer campestre 'Carnival'

Lucille Whitman
Last summer we grafted a number of Acer campestre 'Carnival', and with the “free” heat from the sun we did quite well. In prior years I somehow concluded that they should only be propagated in the winter, but I'm glad that I made the summer experiment. One propagator of 'Carnival' uses bareroot seedlings in winter and places the grafts on a hot-callus pipe, then after three weeks takes them off to pot up. I asked Lucille of Whitman Farms how that method worked, and with her native Tennessee drawl she responded, “Why they practically jump onto each other.” I copied her with the same positive result, so I guess there are a number of ways to propagate 'Carnival'. If Lucille, myself and the monkeys can do it, I suppose so can everyone else. The common name of Acer campestre is the “Field maple,” and the species is commonly used for hedges. I advised my Grandfather, as evidenced in the photo above, to prune his specimen heavily, otherwise it would grow too large for his small garden; and besides, keeping it low and dense provides more vivid color.

Acer palmatum 'Ruby Stars'
Acer palmatum 'Beni hoshi'

Acer palmatum 'Shigitatsu sawa'

Acer palmatum 'Shigi no hoshi'

Every year we graft – I don't graft, but I do cut the scions – Acer palmatum 'Ruby Stars'. It is a likable cultivar with a catchy name discovered by the late Harry Olsen of Washington state. He bemoaned the fact that 'Ruby Stars' is virtually identical to 'Beni hoshi', the latter which translates as “red star,” a cultivar originating from Del Loukes of Oregon. Olsen needn't have worried as I too have discovered identilikes, and other plantsmen also, for the well-known Acer palmatum 'Orangeola' is nothing more than the not-so-well-known Acer palmatum 'Brocade'. Grow enough maple seedlings and you will eventually discover another 'Purple Ghost', 'Shishigashira' or 'Bloodgood' just as I have. Look in the Vertrees Japanese Maples book (4th edition) and you will see a photo on page 236 of Acer palmatum 'Shigi no hoshi' – needlessly encumbered with dashes as in 'Shigi-no-hoshi' – and then on the next page (237) is a photo and description of the identical (and older) 'Shigitatsu sawa'. Vertrees – before Gregory chimed in – called 'Shigitatsu sawa' a “magnificent plant,” and suggests that the name means “snipes, quacking, flying up from a swamp,” and that the name appears in literature since the early 1800's. It also suggests that ancient Japanese poets spoked pot when contemplating maple names. As you see I have wandered from 'Ruby Stars' to 'Orangeola' to 'Shigitatsu sawa', all in the same paragraph, and indeed we have grafted all of the above.

Acer palmatum 'Inaba shidare'

Forty years ago I worked for a large wholesale nursery – the same one who overproduced Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca' – and the owner was anxious to supply the entire world with red laceleaf maples. At the time American nurseries could not fill his demand so he connected with Holland and placed an order for thousands of red laceleafs. The Boskoop yokels were no doubt giddy with the huge order and they sent thousands of Acer palmatum 'Inaba shidare' – the best red laceleaf known at the time, before 'Tamuke yama' or 'Red Dragon' showed up. I was charged with planting acres and acres of these maples when I noticed a hand-written label in the 'Inaba shidare' group that said 'Select Red'. So, what's with that? The Boskoop broker was contacted and he “Select Red” was just an English term for 'Inaba shidare', were the same. Rong Rong Rong!, they are not the same. I planted the two side-by-side thirty years ago and the 'Select Red' fades to greenish in August more quickly than 'Inaba shidare', and also the dissectivity of the two leaves is slightly different, only apparent when they are placed next to each other. Yep, the Boskoopians cheated, supposing that the Yankees were not sufficiently sophisticated to know the difference. The amiable author of the third and fourth editions of Japanese Maples, Peter Gregory, dances around the issue, perhaps not wanting to offend the Netherlanders, and even suggests that the cultivar is also known as 'Holland Select'. Look, the Boskoop nursery grubbers are no different than us Americans: we're all just trying to make a living, so in a way I don't blame them. For the record, in my nursery in Oregon, the 'Inaba shidare' is superior to 'Select Red' and I no longer produce the latter.

Acer palmatum 'Fireglow'

Acer palmatum 'Red Flash'

We have grafted a good number of Acer palmatum 'Fireglow', a cultivar that arrived in America about 35 years ago, a selection from the Fratelli Gilardelli Nursery of Italy. When the elder Gilardelli visited me about twelve years ago, I proudly marched him over to my oldest specimen of 'Fireglow', but to my surprise he waved it off as inferior to his more recent introduction of Acer palmatum 'Red Flash'. Eventually I acquired 'Red Flash' – which I don't think is so great – and I realized then that all nurserymen, from whatever country, are full of B.S. and are just trying to make a living. Speaking of 'Fireglow', a New Zealand company that imports into America and Europe admitted that their thousands of 'Fireglow' are likely mixed up with something else. It's funny – because these scoundrels have certainly fouled up plenty of cultivars – but I think their 'Fireglows' are true and the same, at least here at my nursery. Whether right or wrong, the Zealanders are also just trying to make a living, and they'd hate to go back to raising sheep over maples. Baaa.

Acer palmatum 'Arakawa'

Acer palmatum 'Octopus'

Acer palmatum 'Okagami'

Owning a nursery and deciding what to produce is not always a scientific marketing endeavor, and the bankrupt nursery next door is an example of an owner who was more market-savvy and financially experienced than myself, yet he was forced to bare his flabby ass for all to see. Earlier today I put three blank plastic labels in my pocket, grabbed three Hefty Strong 13-Gallon-Tall Kitchen Drawstring Bags and headed to the far end of the box area. I carry a list of about 40 maples that I would like to find to propagate, and one-by-one I cross them off when found. But sometimes I stumble upon a few trees ripe with scions that I didn't anticipate, and I go ahead and cut upon them anyway. Such was the case with Acer palmatum 'Arakawa', the “rough bark maple” that develops a pine-like trunk at maturity. The scionwood was straight and strong and the cultivar grows into a salable tree quickly. If for some reason the 'Arakawa' crop doesn't sell then one can top-graft a 'Hana matoi' or another cascading form, then you can produce a tree with additional winter appeal. The two others I cut from were Acer palmatum 'Octopus', a gangly red laceleaf with long branch arms, and Acer palmatum 'Okagami', a red upright that some call the “big-leaved 'Bloodgood'.” I could just as easily have skipped these three cultivars for this season because all were grafted last year as well, but I have plenty of rootstock so what's a few more?

Acer palmatum 'Japanese Princess'

Acer palmatum 'Japanese Princess'

I would like to produce more Acer palmatum 'Japanese Princess', our new dwarf which was originally a seedling from A.p. 'Mikawa yatsubusa'. Most of my stock trees, however, are in one-to-three gallon pots which are way low to the ground. It is difficult to waddle through the pots to reach the scions; and it wouldn't be so bad if I knock a few maples over, but I'm afraid of losing my balance and tumbling over myself. I would like to find a young Swedish intern to assist – I would point at the scion with my cane and she would bend over to cut it, and thus I could grow maples indefinitely.

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