Friday, February 2, 2018

In Praise of Yellow

If you give a child a piece of paper and a box of crayons and ask the tyke to draw a happy picture that includes the sun, our star will be of course rendered in yellow. If you asked an adult person to depict an old hag suffering from jaundice, the yellow crayon would be used for that too. Yellow was used in the past to describe negroes with light skin, and before that (since 1787) for the skin-color of Asiatics. Believe me, I have scrutinized every inch of my wife's beautiful Japanese body but I discern nothing “yellow” thereon. I don't know how to describe her “color,” except that it beats the hell out of the pasty skin of most Americans and half of you Europeans too, but it is absolutely not yellow.

Ranunculus 'Brazen Hussy'

Lascaux painting
Vincent van Gogh - Lausanne Sunflowers
We know that yellow is the color between green and orange on the spectrum of visible light, and that it is considered a “primary” color – like what is used in painting. It is carotenoids that cause the color of corn, lemons, buttercups and the Ginkgo leaves in autumn. Artists love yellow, and 17,000 years ago an artist used it to paint a horse in the Lascaux cave in France. In early Christianity yellow was the pope's preferred color, and it symbolized the golden keys of the Kingdom, while in China it could only be worn by the Emperor (although special guests were welcomed on a yellow carpet). It's interesting that in both the Western world and in China the yellow color is associated with happiness, harmony, gentleness and humor, but that it is also used for cowardice. Not for the bicycle riders in the Tour de France, though – he who wears the yellow jersey is the rider with access to the most potent performance enhancing substances.

Hamamelis 'Boskoop'

The word yellow comes from Old English geolwe and that from Proto-Germanic gelwaz. The Scots say yella, the east and west Frisians jeel and giel, the Dutch geel, the Germans gelb and the Swedes gul. In any case the color is abundant in horticulture, both with plant foliage and in flower color. Today we'll examine the latter – yellow flowers – and that's prompted because at this time my Hamamelis are blooming profusely. Even the cultivar that I forgot I had, Hamamelis 'Boskoop', is showing off from across the landscape. This Dutch selection is described by Esveld Nursery of Boskoop: “De bloemkleur is geel. Deze plant is zeer winterhard. De bloeiperiode is januari-februari.” Wow! – We're all suddenly fluent in Dutch, and wasn't that easy?

Hamamelis intermedia 'Sunburst'

Hamamelis intermedia 'Angelly'

'Boskoop' is considered to be a member of the vernalis species and not in the x intermedia (H. japonica x H. mollis) tribe, like my other Hamamelis currently in flower. It is commonly known as the “Ozark witch hazel” and is native to Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. (Natives of Missouri love to tell you that they're from the state of misery, ha, ha, ha). Anyway the specific name vernalis refers to the fact that it blooms in the spring, but that was a poor name because we're still in the dead of winter. The generic name Hamamelis is from the Greek words hama meaning “at the same time” and melon meaning “apple or fruit” because the flower and the older fruits occur at the same time. I grow a few other yellow-bellied witch hazels, but I have discontinued the passé old 'Arnold Promise' in favor of the more clear and bright 'Sunburst' and 'Angelly'. Wonderfully, 'Sunburst' is early to bloom, and then when it begins to decline 'Angelly' bursts forth. Sadly these “hazels” can be bypassed in the garden center at the main buying time (April-May) because they have finished blooming, but remember that they, like all members of the Hamamelidaceae family, offer fantastic yellow, orange, red and purple fall foliage color.

Helianthus annuus

Nothing bespeaks the color yellow more than the “sunflower,” Helianthus annuus. The beautiful name is derived from the Greek Helios for “sun” and anthos for “flower,” and the genus of seventy-or-so species is placed in the Asteraceae family. These wonderful creatures produce rounded terminal capitulas (flower heads) with stunning yellow ray florets. The flowers are certainly sun-like in appearance, but the notion that they track the sun across the sky was found false by the English botanist John Gerard. He grew sunflowers in his herbal garden and wrote in 1597: “Some have reported it to turn with the Sun, the which I could never observe, although I have endeavored to find out the truth of it.” Actually the immature flower buds follow the sun, but at maturity they all face east. Me too – I don't like looking into the afternoon sun. It is believed that the first domesticated sunflower occurred in Mexico around 2600 B.C., and naturally it was a symbol of sun worship for native peoples.

Fritillaria pudica

While the sunflowers are bold and brash, the cute little Fritillaria pudica blooms with a nodding head, and indeed the specific name is Latin for “shy.”* The generic name is due to the Latin term for a “dice box” – fritillus – because of the checkered pattern of the flowers in some species. Many species are poisonous, but F. pudica is edible if prepared correctly, and it was eaten by Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. My favorite place to see it is at Catherine Creek at the dryer eastern-end of the Columbia River Gorge, and I've never tried growing it at the nursery because I don't think our conditions would be suitable.

*The flowers are hermaphrodite – they have both male and female parts.

Lindera obtusiloba

Lindera obtusiloba

Cornus mas 'Variegata'

Soon our Lindera obtusiloba and Cornus mas will both be in flower, and annually I cut a twig from each to quiz as many people as possible about their identity. Over the years I find fewer people willing to play my game. I get comments like, “Yeah, yeah – we did this last year, remember?” Both bloom precociously (before the leaves appear) but Lindera is in the Lauraceae family while Cornus mas is of course in the Cornaceae family. The dogwood produces red drupes which are edible, but you need to wait for them to fully ripen by falling from the tree, and even then they're not so great. C. mas has a heavy wood and like me it sinks in water. Since ancient times Greeks made weapons like spears and bows, and craftsmen considered it to be the best of all wood. Lindera obtusiloba is native to Japan, Korea and China and it features sassafras-like glossy aromatic leaves. I have a 35-year-old specimen in the Display Garden and its golden moment occurs in autumn without fail; the butter-yellow leaves are as dependable and brilliant as any Ginkgo. Lindera are dioecious with male and female flowers on separate trees and mine is a male. We used to root L. obtusiloba, but at no size was it very popular with our customers. I'm not on a mission to convert anyone to any plant, but if I was I might start with this wonderful spicebush.

Daphne jezoensis

Daphne jezoensis can be found in a few collectors' gardens but the Japanese species certainly is not widespread. There are a couple of reasons for that: 1) it is a very dwarf shrub and 2) it goes dormant (deciduous) in summer. When I acquired my one bush about 30 years ago I was certain that it had died. I was so busy then taking care of my living plants that I had no time to pull the Daphne out; and behold, later that year it was resurrected. Today it is blooming, but it's cold and nasty out so I'll have to wait for a sunny day for the pleasant odour. My bush was planted in the Waterfall section behind some large X. nootkatensis 'Pendula' – kind of in a hidden area – and I'm glad that it's not more visible because it has always been rather scrappy. The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs reveals that D. jezoensis was introduced in about 1960 and won an Award of Merit in 1985, so it's likely that British growers have more success with it than I do. The Daphne was first described by Carl Maximowicz a hundred years previous so I don't know why it took so long for its introduction.

Ainu people

The meaning of the word jezoensis is for that which comes from jezo (or yezo), for lands to the north of Honshu. So it included Hokkaido and other lands such as Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. Hokkaido's name was changed from Ezo in 1869, and Ezo can also refer to the people – as it means “foreigner” – which are known as the Ainu people. Ainu means “human,” but they have been given short shrift by the Japanese throughout history. It is estimated that fewer than 100 speakers of the language remain, but one of their legends tells that the Ainu lived in their place a hundred thousand years before the “Children of the Sun” came.

Edgeworthia chrysantha 'Gold Rush'

Edgeworthia chrysantha is related to Daphne in the Thymelaeaceae family. I once saw a 12' tall and wide specimen in the Himalayan foothills at about 9,000'. It was in an open pasture next to a village so apparently the goats leave it alone. It is commonly called the “Oriental paperbush” or “Mitsumata” in Japan. Mitsumata is used for banknotes because of the paper's durability among other uses. The genus name (by Lindley) honors Michael Edgeworth (1812-1881), an Irish-born amateur botanist who worked for the East India Company. There is a red-flowered form of E. chrysantha, 'Red Dragon' that I have grown for several years, but before I could acquire it I asked Kelly at Far Reaches Farms if he had the red-flower form of Edgeworthia. He strode off energetically to another greenhouse and returned and handed me a Rhododendron edgeworthia...which also flowers red. I kept my mouth shut and accepted the Rhododendron, and I was delighted for a few years with its flower color and deep fragrance, but sadly it perished in a cold winter. For a golden-flowered Edgeworthia cultivar, we produce 'Gold Rush', although it doesn't appear much different from the type. Our plants are grown in the greenhouse and they'll be blooming in a week or two, and when they are in flower on a sunny day you can smell them 100' away from the greenhouse door, in a house known as our “French” house.

Rhododendron macabeanum

Rhododendron macabeanum

There are quite a number of Rhododendron species and hybrids with yellow flowers. I like R. macabeanum, a tree-like species with large shiny leaves and a purple blotch inside the yellow blossom. It is hardy in Oregon, but barely, and I have had some damage on my old specimen after a brutal winter. It was planted in a cold pocket at the bottom of the nursery, so I dug it up a couple of years ago to recover in a greenhouse. This spring it will be shipped to Flora Farm where I can site it in the shade of some large conifers. No wonder it's not very hardy as it is native to Assam and the very northeast of India in Manipur.* Frank Kingdon-Ward introduced R. macabeanum (1928), but to get to Rhododendron country he had to slog through swamps with leeches and mosquitos, and encountered tribal people with uncertain intentions. The specific epithet honors Mr. McCabe who was Deputy Commissioner for the Naga Hills, Assam and Manipur. I don't know if McCabe was botanically inclined or if he just assisted Kingdon-Ward in his travels.

*Even though I hate horses, Manipur is credited with introducing polo to Europeans.

Corylopsis spicata 'Golden Spring'

The Corylopsis genus consists of several species and they are collectively known as “winterhazels.” The leaves are hazel-like, but the more common hazel is Corylus in the Betulaceae family while Corylopsis is in the Hamamelidaceae family. One of the common Corylopsis species found in horticulture is spicata, introduced by Robert Fortune from its native Japan in 1860, and I'm partial to the cultivar 'Golden Spring' which displays rich yellow leaves. I don't know if it has a Japanese name – it should – because it originated from the Yamaguchi Nursery in about 1990. We root 'Golden Spring' from softwood cuttings in June under mist, and within three years they become salable in 1 gallon pots. They do require PM shade in Oregon or the leaves will burn, but if grown in deep shade the leaves will be light green. All of the Corylopsis species bloom (before the leaves appear) in dangling racemes of light yellow flowers, but even if 'Golden Spring' never bloomed it would still be worth growing.

Pleione confusa 'Golden Gate'

I have had Pleione forrestii a couple of times but always lose it after two or three years. It does have a reputation to be difficult but it is one of the most beautiful of all yellow flowers. Fortunately there is a natural hybrid from northwestern Yunnan, China between forrestii and albiflora that is not so touchy, and it features light yellow blossoms with a maroon-red throat. For some reason the hybrid was named P. x confusa – perhaps the botanists weren't certain if they had a species different from forrestii or not. We grow the cultivar 'Golden Gate', but I don't see how it differs from the type. I suppose it's like with maples - everybody wants to name something, and who knows? – maybe it was bred in San Francisco. The earliest use of the name Pleione in horticulture was from John Lindley (1799-1865) who was both a botanist and a horticulturist, a rare combination. The word is ultimately Greek – perhaps meaning “to sail” – and is the name of the mother of the Pleiades.

Spartium junceum

Spartium junceum

I'll finish my praise of yellow flowers with the bombastic Spartium junceum, a sweet-smelling pea broom; and I'd like to acquire it again after losing my (supposedly) zone 7 plants a few winters ago. Only two are shown above, but three of them lined the eastern border at Flora Farm. All three turned brown when we reached 85 degrees F on an April day, so I guess they had been already dead for a few months. Spartium junceum is a monotypic genus from the Mediterranean regions and it is commonly called “Spanish broom.” I am not a fan of Cytisus at all, though I can tolerate Genista – both relatives to Spartium – but I always considered the Spanish broom to be a fun plant. The name spartium is from Greek spartos meaning “broom,” and the junceum name is due to resemblance to the Juncus genus commonly known as rushes. It was Linnaeus who bestowed the name.

This was just a broad sampling of yellow flowers that I have encountered, though I have admitted that some of the plants are no longer with me. Maybe in the future I can do blue, white, red etc., for horticulture is fecund with color.

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