Friday, December 15, 2017

Cryptic Conifer

Cryptomeria japonica

The Cryptomeria genus name was coined by Scottish botanist David Don (1799-1841) and it is derived from Greek krypto meaning “to hide” and meros meaning “a part” in reference to the seed hidden within the cone. It is a genus of two species, one (japonica) native to Japan and the other (fortunei) to southern China. I have a collection of about 50 cultivars, and to my knowledge they are all from the japonica species. It (sugi) is the National Tree of Japan for better or worse: for better because it is fast-growing and beautiful and because the wood is most useful; for worse because many Japanese people suffer from hay-fever from its pollen. The ailment can be so bad that many Nihonjin schedule vacations in the spring to areas with few or no sugi trees.

Tianmu Mountain in China

Cryptomeria avenue in Nikko, Japan

Some argue that the Chinese Cryptomeria do not present a separate species as they are not significantly different from the Japanese, and perhaps they were introduced anyway. A stand on Tianmu Mountain contains trees nearly 1,000 years old, and it is supposed that that population originates from an introduction. The “Heavenly Eyes Mountain” is so-named for two ponds near the top at about 4,800', and the mountain is located in Zhejiang Province in Eastern China near the sea. I've not been to this Chinese population but I have seen the “Avenue of Sugi” in Nikko, Japan, where the trees are quite old. The story goes that a feudal lord was too poor to donate a stone lantern at the funeral of the Shogun, but requested instead to be allowed to plant an avenue of sugi to protect future visitors from the heat of the sun. The offer was accepted, and though I only walked a mile on it, it is said to run over 65 km (40 miles) long.
Cryptomeria japonica

I planted a 4-year-old sapling of a Cryptomeria japonica at my parent's property in Forest Grove, Oregon, in about 1972. There it still thrives, and I suppose it to be the largest sugi in town. That's not saying much, I know, but I challenge a local to point me to one older. There exists a myriad of Cryptomeria cultivars, but come to think of it, they too are not very plentiful in American landscapes, or at least in Oregon anyway. They are hardy to USDA zone 6 at least, and some to zone 5, but their paucity is due frankly to the fact that they are not all that exciting. That's not my opinion, for I grow and sell them, but I'm forced to accept that gardeners simply do not dash to the garden centers in droves to buy Cryptomeria.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Sekkan'

Cryptomeria japonica 'Barabit's Gold'

An exception to that statement might be with the medium-size 'Sekkan',* for at a young age it is most colorful. For years it was known in the trade as 'Sekkan sugi', but the sugi suffix is redundant redundant. It basically says Cryptomeria Sekkan Cryptomeria if you see what I mean. So none of the Cryptomeria cultivars need to have sugi attached to their name, yet Hillier (for one) in Manual of Trees and Shrubs (2014) lists 'Jindai-sugi', 'Tenzan-sugi', 'Sekkan-sugi' etc. I have found Hillier to be dash-happy when it comes to Japanese names, especially with Japanese maple cultivars, and I wonder what led to that practice. In any case, note that I say 'Sekkan' is colorful at a young age, and that is most evident in spring and summer when in active growth. In winter the cultivar fades some, and with old age it fades terribly so. My first 'Sekkan' was planted in the Display Garden at five years of age. Thirty years later I cut it down because it was no longer colorful – in fact it looked sickly, like a green tree that was about to die. From Europe we acquired 'Barabit's Gold' and it was supposed to be an improvement over 'Sekkan'. Eighteen years later I conclude that it is virtually indistinguishable from 'Sekkan', and certainly no “improvement.”

*In Japanese Sekkan means “snow crown.”

Cryptomeria japonica 'Little Champion'

Cryptomeria japonica 'Little Champion'

Cryptomeria japonica 'Little Diamond'

From Holland comes 'Little Champion', a compact sphere with fresh green foliage that does not bronze very much in winter. It was discovered by Wout Huizer in Boskoop, The Netherlands, as a witch's broom on 'Gracilis' in 1985, and it was subsequently introduced in 1992 where it won the “Floriade” Gold Medal. I'm always nervous that my crew doesn't mix up 'Little Champion' with 'Little Diamond' which is quite similar. Both are “little,” and sometimes the employee brain goes no further, and if mixed up once you'll never be able to separate them out. The 'Little Diamond' is also a Dutch selection, from the Konijn Nursery, and it was also selected in the 1990's. I've even wondered if they are the same plant, with two squabbling Dutchmen vying for the marketing edge.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Caespitosa'

Cryptomeria japonica 'Globosa'
The photo above of 'Caespitosa' was taken at Hillier Nursery about 15 years ago, but strangely the cultivar is not listed in their 2014 Manual of Trees & Shrubs. As you can see it forms a compact pillar, and the Latin term caespitose refers to “growing in clusters or tufts.” I pulled some old conifer books off my shelf to see if I could find out a little more about 'Caespitosa' but came up blank. To produce a Flora Wonder Blog is often an exercise in futility, and I spend a lot of time in empty cul-de-sacs. On the other hand, I sometimes encounter a factoid of interest that I was not seeking. For example, from Krussmann in Manual of Cultivated Conifers I learn that “C. j. 'Globosa' stays lower than 'Globosa Nana'!” [Exclamation by Krussmann]. My one (old) 'Globosa' in the Long Road section is a space-hogging blob 14' tall with a 16' base, so I know I'll never want to mess with a 'Globosa Nana'.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Cristata'

Cryptomeria japonica 'Cristata'

Cryptomeria japonica 'Cristata Variegated'

I thought 'Cristata' was fascinating the first time I saw one, but at the time I didn't know much about the cristate phenomena among plants. The cockscombs are liberally produced on my large tree and one can occasionally discover one with cream-white variegation. The variegation has never proven stable with me however. I once heard that if you rooted 'Cristata's' fasciations – and indeed, pieces will root – that the offspring will produce more fasciations than if you root from normal wood. I found this to not be the case, as straight (normal) growth tends to sprout form all rooted fasciations...and then later you'll have a normal-looking 'Cristata' after all. Krussmann relates that the fasciations “become brown and die off” after a few years, implying that all do so. I know that some die off, but I haven't observed my tree close enough to say that they all do and by what age. One of my hobbies is to question and test what plant experts say, to see if I also find it true, and you should all be doing the same about me.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans Aurea Nana'

I collected the cultivar photographed above as 'Elegans Aurea Nana' about 35 years ago, but I can only find 'Elegans Aurea' in the literature, and as you can see my specimen is not so “nana” anyway. This is not to be confused with 'Elegans Viridis', which both Hillier and Krussmann list, and which I used to grow years ago until they all died in an Arctic cold snap. Supposedly my 'Elegans Aurea Nana' originated in New Zealand, but the name could only be valid if it was introduced before the 1950's in accordance with the International Code of Nomenclature. Many visitors admire my specimen, especially in winter, but it is no longer in production. A number of overturned buckets and concrete blocks lie scattered beneath it, for it is a preferred lunch spot for the male crew in summer.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Dense Jade'

I grow and sell 'Dense Jade' when I know full well that the rest of horticulture names it 'Rein's Dense Jade', after Rein Vanderwolf who used to manage Vermulen Nursery in New Jersey. I've decided that 'Dense Jade' is sufficient, and in any case it was discovered in the 1970's and propagated from a witch's broom on C. j. 'Lobii'. It is a vigorous and very useful conifer, but it grows so fast at Buchholz Nursery that sometimes it can receive damage from a wet, heavy snow. We don't have much success with rooting it, so instead we root (easily) the cultivar 'Yoshino' and then graft 'Dense Jade' onto that.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Yoshino'

Cryptomeria japonica 'Yoshino'

Yoshinoyama in Japan, Wikipedia

It is appropriate, then, to now discuss 'Yoshino', probably the most widely grown of any Cryptomeria cultivar. Surprisingly, neither Hillier nor Krussmann lists it. I got my start from Mitsch Nursery about 25 years ago but we no longer sell it as a cultivar – because too many others do – and we only use it as a rootstock, as when grafting 'Dense Jade' or some of the dwarves on a standard. 'Yoshino' is considered the most hardy, or one of the most hardy cultivars of Japanese cedar, surviving to -20 degrees, USDA zone 5. According to the Missouri Botanical Garden website, “In comparison to the species, 'Yoshino' grows faster....” That's not the case at Buchholz Nursery, nor do I believe that 'Yoshino' will grow as large as the type. Yoshino is a popular name in Japan – as in Yoshino cherry, Yoshino River, Yoshino Town and Yoshino Mountain (Yoshinoyama) – and the latter is considered the dwelling place of all powerful spirit gods. Yoshino cherries were first planted along the slopes of the mountain more than 1,300 years ago, and today it is said to contain about 30,000 trees of many different varieties. Naturally it is a tourist destination.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Golden Promise'

One cultivar that we top-graft onto a 'Yoshino' trunk is the dwarf 'Golden Promise'. It forms a slow-growing dense globe with yellow foliage that is surprisingly sun-tolerant. If grown in the shade the foliage will be greenish and the plant will not be as tight. It is a fairly new cultivar, having been introduced by the Don Hatch Nursery, United Kingdom in 1998.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Ryoku gyoku'

One of my favorite of the dwarf Cryptomerias is 'Ryoku gyoku' which means “green ball” in Japanese. At least that's the translation from the late Edsal Wood who introduced the plant, although I've read elsewhere it means “green jewel dragon.” Mr. Wood of Oregon apparently found it as a witch's broom on C. j. 'Tansu' and he gave me my first plant. He was famous for numerous seedling discoveries, particularly with hemlocks, and was even more famous for his geniality and generosity. He gave me the original seedling of what was to be later named Acer japonicum 'Ao jutan' as well as a Pinus mugo miniature that I named 'Mr. Wood'. Plants don't live forever and neither do people, but I'll remember forever the twinkle in old Edsal's eyes when he shared with me one of his plant finds.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Rasen'

Soaring above the miniature 'Ryoku gyoku' is the speedy tall-growing cultivar 'Rasen'. In the stead of the 'Sekkan' which I mentioned that I cut down for looking sickly, I planted a 'Rasen', hoping that it would always be green and look healthy. It seems like only a few years ago that I put it into the ground, but it is now nearly 30' tall! 'Rasen's' main feature is that the leaves – or needles – spiral around the stem, and indeed the Japanese name translates as “barber pole.”

Cryptomeria japonica 'Spiralis'

J.G. Veitch
'Spiralis' is another cultivar with needles spiraling around the stems, and though vigorous and not at all dwarf, it is far more restrained in growth compared to 'Rasen'. My oldest 'Spiralis' is about 30' tall at 30 years age. It is commonly known in the trade as “grannie's ringlets” due to the curved needles, and I would say that I prefer it to the more rambunctious 'Rasen'. Hillier relates that 'Spiralis' was introduced from Japan in 1860, and if so it was probably acquired by J.G. Veitch who was laboring in the country then. What I find interesting is the concept that certain selections were being grown in Japan at that time, or did Veitch or some other westerner just happen to stumble upon the one abnormal plant? Veitch was also competing with Robert Fortune, and some of their booty even arrived in England on the same ship. For example, Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Aurea' was introduced by Fortune in 1860. Philipp von Siebold was also in on the act, for he introduced Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Filicoides' around 1860. I know that certain maple cultivars were grown prior to 1860, and it appears that so were conifers. I wonder if anyone has a list of cultivars encountered?

I alluded earlier that the Cryptomeria aren't the most exciting of plants, but they do play their plebian part in the landscape and are most noticeable in winter. As an exercise for this blog I drove slowly through an average residential area of nearby Forest Grove for about 15 minutes and I didn't encounter a single Cryptomeria. I don't know – I've produced thousands of them in my career – so I wonder where they all go.

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