Friday, December 8, 2017

The Chamaecyparis Five

Chamaecyparis obtusa

The garden visitor appreciates the conifers especially in winter, for even in the rain and gloom they preside as cheerful denizens in the landscape. I find myself focusing on the Chamaecyparis* genus, and by coincidence we are in the middle of propagating them. They are commonly known as the "false cypresses," although the scientific name is derived from the Greek chamai for "dwarf" or "low to the ground" and kyparissos for "cypress tree."

*The name was coined by the French botanist Edouard Spach (1801-1879). He was the son of a merchant in Strasbourg, but he spent his career at the French National Museum of Natural History. Spach's name in Middle High German means "dry" or "bone dry" or "a stick," a nickname for a thin person.

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana

Chamaecyparis consists of just five species, since now we can skip nootkatensis which has been assigned to a new genus, Xanthocyparis with the recent discovery of a close relative in Vietnam (x. vietnamensis). There was nothing "low to the ground" about nootkatensis anyway, and neither is there for C. lawsoniana*, the "Lawson cypress" from western North America. C. lawsoniana was introduced into Britain in 1854 when seed was sent to P. Lawson & Son's Nursery in Edinburgh, hence the common name. The scientific epithet lawsoniana was coined by the Scottish botanist Andrew Dickson Murray, which seems rather arrogant to name an American native species after a Scot soil grubber. Murray apparently felt qualified because of the foundation of the Oregon Exploration Society when he became its first secretary.

*The champion tree rises to 239'.

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana

The Hiller Manual of Trees and Shrubs (2014) describes lawsoniana as "A most useful and ornamental tree..." It is one of my least favorite conifer species, as older specimens can look dirty when the blue-green foliage is cluttered with male and female flowers. The trunks can be impressive, though, somewhat resembling those of "Western Red Cedar," Thuja plicata. C. lawsoniana's native range is in the western portion of southern Oregon and northern California, and to me they seem to have been misplaced among the spruces and pines, like nature tried to cram one-too-many conifer into the area. I have never seen a pure stand of C. lawsoniana however, if one indeed exists, but there is nothing majestic about them in the areas I have observed. Anyway it's my blog and that's how I feel.

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Blue Surprise'

Many C. lawsoniana cultivars are worth growing, though, and we produce a few at Buchholz Nursery. In every case they are grafted onto C. lawsoniana 'D.R.' (Disease Resistant rootstock) due to the high susceptibility of plants on their own roots to the Phytophthora lateralis disease. One of my favorites is 'Blue Surprise', an upright columnar evergreen with dazzling blue foliage. It prefers full sun in well-drained soil and will grow to about 6' tall by 2' wide in 10 years. The largest specimen that I have ever seen was grown by me, and I cut it down because it began to grow too broad and it fell apart in a wet snow, so I don't consider 'Blue Surprise' to be a long-time resident in my landscape. I first saw the cultivar in England where the above photo was taken about 25 years ago. It originated as a seedling selected by Anthony de Beer of The Netherlands and was introduced to the trade about 1976.

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Pygmaea Argentea'

The photo of C.l. 'Pygmaea Argentea' was also taken in England, at the Bedgebury Pinetum about ten years ago. I was told that it was about 100 years old, but maybe that was a joke. The selection was made by the James Backhouse and Son Nursery of York before 1891 and it received an Award of Merit in 1900, so maybe the "100 years" is accurate. The blue-green foliage rises up, and as Humphrey Welch says in Manual of Dwarf Conifers, "When the plant is growing strongly the foliage is almost white in early summer and the whole bush then has the appearance of having been turned upside down when wet into a barrel of flour." In Oregon it can burn in summer if not protected from afternoon sun, but Hillier in England describes it as, "Suitable for a rock garden. Perhaps the best dwarf, white variegated conifer."

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Imbricata Pendula'

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Imbricata Pendula'

Though I grow many other worthy Lawsons, I'll just mention one other – 'Imbricata Pendula' – and despite its cumbersome name it is one of the most elegant of all conifers. It is adorned with slender green (whipcord) foliage and a softly weeping habit. It is fast-growing and my largest 18' specimen is only 12 years old; fortunately it resides in the Upper Garden at Flora Farm where it has plenty of room. According to Hillier, "Raised from seed by R.E. Harrison in New Zealand about 1930 but not introduced until much later by D. Teese, Australia, as propagation is difficult." Nonsense to that, at least if scions are grafted (again onto Disease Resistant rootstock), and no one should be rooting it anyway. We list one and two-year grafts on our Liners Ready Now availability, and you really should order some if you are a grower.

Chamaecyparis formosensis - from Wikipedia

I used to grow Chamaecyparis formosensis, the "Taiwan cypress," but my trees perished in an Arctic blast when we reached 0 degrees F, and besides it wasn't hardy for 95% of my customers. It is a beautiful species, though, with flattened green sprays and a drooping habit. It wasn't particularly fun to propagate (though easy), and Hillier nails it when he says the foliage smells of seaweed when bruised. The wood doesn't smell bad, however, and it is valued in Taiwanese buildings like in temples and shrines. I could easily acquire C. formosensis again, but I resist since I don't need another fast-growing indoor conifer on my ark.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Gitte'
Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Baldwin's Variegated'

Chamaecyparis obtusa cultivars are a staple of the nursery, and I have amassed a collection of over 100, a few of which – for better or worse – are my own introductions. The obtusa species is hardy to about -20 degrees F, or USDA zone 5, but some of the cultivars are considerably more winter-tough than others. Cultivars arise as seedling selections or as mutant branch sports, so one can garden with all sizes, shapes and colors. You could call C. obtusa cultivars the "rainbow of conifers."

Rather than rehashing descriptions of obtusa cultivars, I'll refer you back to my April 13th, 2012 Flora Wonder Blog, Heavens to Hinoki, and if nothing else you will learn the origin of the Japanese common name hinoki.

Chamaecyparis pisifera

Chamaecyparis pisifera is another non-low-growing (up to 165') species which was introduced from Japan in 1861 by Robert Fortune, the Chinese tea thief. The species name is from Latin pissum for "pea" and ferre meaning "to bear," referring to the small rounded cones. In botanical literature you will see that it was first described by Siebold & Zucc., and the latter is not short for zucchini but rather for Joseph Gerhard Zuccarini (1797-1848). He was a German botanist who worked closely with Phillip von Siebold in describing plants from Japan, and collaborated closely on Siebold's Flora Japonica published in 1835. In Japan C. pisifera is known as "Sawara cypress" and it grows on the islands of Honshu and Kyushu. It is closely related to the aforementioned C. formosensis and also to an extinct species, Chamaecyparis eureka, known from fossils found on Axel Heiberg Island in Canada's Arctic Ocean.

Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Filifera'

While the C. pisifera species can grow to a large size, many cultivars are dwarf and stay relatively low-to-the-ground. The pisifera species was introduced (1861) by Fortune, as I said before, and so was the cultivar (or form) 'Filifera'. To some degree it appears like the whipcord-looking C.l. 'Imbricata Pendula', except for being more compact and slow-growing. 'Filifera' often grows as broad as tall with a weeping form, and despite being quite attractive, one seldom encounters it in American landscapes. For some reason, far more common are the golden whipcords which are grown by the thousands.

Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Lemon Thread' 

John Mitsch
One such is C.p. 'Lemon Thread', a glowing golden conifer that originated as a branch sport on C.p. 'Lutescens' at Mitsch Nursery in Aurora, Oregon in the mid 1980's. That's where I got my start, and the photo (above) is of one of my original trees that I grew in our Short Road section of the nursery, just fifty steps from the office. It was growing in full sun and the foliage burned when we reached 106 degrees F one summer. I grew impatient and we dug the specimen the following winter; I gave it one year in a wooden box to recover and then it was sold. We went from rooting about 2,000-3,000 each year to zero because sales had begun to wane, although there was no sound reason to discontinue it altogether. The fact is that anyone can root a C. pisifera and so we found ourselves competing with large nurseries that grew them by the thousands. Now I don't even have one 'Lemon Thread' on the place, but it was a worthy cultivar and I regret not keeping it here. A nurseryman can easily harbour bittersweet memories, but, as with past girlfriends, one must release, soldier on and find pleasure with what you currently grow.

Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Harvard Gold'

Old John, from the same Mitsch Nursery as 'Lemon Thread', gave me another golden C. pisifera cultivar, one that was unnamed that came to him from someone at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts. I grew it in a dry field in full sun and it burned like hell, so I dug it back up and grew it in a shaded greenhouse. There it thrived and customers/visitors kept asking about it, and if it was for sale. We began to propagate and soon after I sold the offspring as C.p. 'Mitsch Gold' and it proved to be popular. A few years later I relayed that fact to John – that it was well-received – but I wondered if he would bestow an official name instead of me. Ever humble, he bypassed 'Mitsch Gold' and suggested 'Harvard Gold'. Ok...but crap – I had to change all of my labels. Now I apologize to anyone still growing it as 'Mitsch Gold', and sorry for the confusion. Under the new name we sell tons of them now, and though it still burns in Oregon's summer sun it does well in the more humid mid and east coast of America. I don't have an old specimen here because it is a cultivar that I merely root, prune and sell in small sizes...and I wonder how much longer the 'Harvard Gold' party will continue.

Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Baby Blue Ice'

Another pisifera of note is 'Baby Blue Ice'. It forms a squat pyramid in the garden and prefers full sun, and it is also used effectively as a container plant. It is easy to grow if given well-drained soil and is winter hardy to -40 degrees, USDA zone 3. It originated as a sport on C.p. 'Baby Blue' at Stanley and Sons Nursery in about 1998, and in fact Larry Stanley gave me my start of the plant. We propagate all of the pisiferas by rooted cuttings and it works equally well no matter if in summer (under mist) or in winter (under less mist).

I have a number of pisifera cultivars in the gardens, often old specimens that we no longer propagate. They had their day when I began the nursery 37 years ago, but I guess they just don't excite the modern gardener.

Chamaecyparis thyoides 'Variegata'
Chamaecyparis thyoides 'Quiana'

The same could be said for the fifth and final species, Chamaecyparis thyoides. It is the smallest of the Chamaecyparis, yet the nation's champion tree soars to 88' tall in New Jersey. The few cultivars we grew never sold well and frankly it is my least favorite of the Chamaecyparis species as a garden ornamental. The so-called "White Cedar" is also known as the "Swamp cypress," and I remember passing native stands as we sped along a toll road in New Jersey 20 years ago. They serviced as adequate greenery for trailer parks and I spotted a sketchy raccoon in the canopy next to a grocery-gas station enterprise. And really, how depressing to relate that it is the State Tree of New Jersey where it can grow in large pure colonies.

My last C. thyoides cultivar ('Red Star') was removed from the collection last year because I was in a cleansing period of my life where I decided to get rid of any tree if it wasn't healthy or didn't look good. I still have a ways to go because a number of so-so trees still remain. It's a subjective task, kind of like dealing with people; some days you see them for their positive traits and some days you can't stand them at all. A tour of the nursery and arboretum reveals that I'm most partial to the C. obtusa species, and like my wife it is my jewel from Japan.

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