Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Allure of Lore

Komo rebi


I read recently that an English author/poet – I can't remember who just now – wrote about a plant that if he was forced to know its botanical name that would ruin its magic. I should have written down the quote and by whom, but I didn't because I thought I would remember it forever, and now two weeks later it's gone. Anyway I completely disagree with the sentiment, and for me the “magic” comes from knowing everything about the plant, its story in old times as well as in recent days. My wife would probably agree with the poet, for she introduced me to the wonderful concept of komo rebi – that the light that comes through a tree's leaves, rather than the leaves themselves, is what interests her, and the scientific name further encumbers her pleasure. She is the person who named an Acer shirasawanum seedling as 'Sensu' because she was delighted with its fan-like fluttering leaves one summer evening, and sensu means “fan” in Japanese.

Acer shirasawanum 'Sensu'


Jim Baggett
Yes, 'Sensu' is a beautiful maple whether its leaves flutter or not, and it can be especially brilliant with orange-to-red autumn color. But let's examine its “story.” It was one of many hundreds of Japanese maple seedlings grown by the late Jim Baggett of Corvallis, Oregon, a former food-crop breeder at Oregon State University. The mother tree of 'Sensu' was Acer shirasawanum 'Palmatifolium' which is possibly a hybrid between shirasawanum and palmatum, and indeed 'Sensu' looks intermediate between the two species. The seed was harvested in an open garden setting that was chock-a-block with maple seedlings and cultivars, so we don't really know who was cavorting with who. Baggett was a keen maple hobbyist, but prior to that he was into bamboo. One winter his maple collection – largely in small pots – perished in the freeze, and he was actually relieved because he tired of watering them all by hand. Next he grew enamoured with ferns, or perhaps that was before the maples. Later it was Hostas, but I could never understand how Hostas could satisfy your plant lust after maples. So Baggett raised 'Sensu' even though I named and introduced it. The same is true for A. shirasawanum 'Kawaii', 'Shira Red', 'Green Snowflake' and others: he grew, then I named and introduced.

Acer palmatum


There is more to the 'Sensu' story...which I find of great interest. The maple belongs in the Sapindaceae family* with a lot of other trees that appear very different. Its generic name is Acer, a word that comes from Latin for “sharp,” probably due to many species having sharply pointed leaves. If Latin is the origin of Acer, it shouldn't be pronounced the way it is (“Ā ser”), but rather “Ah ker.” Too late for that now, though.

Aesculus hippocastanum
Koelreuteria paniculata



























*The “soapberry” family contains 138 genera and 18,58 accepted species which includes the golden raintree (Koelreuteria), horse chestnuts and lychee. Many members contain latex, a milky sap, and others “saponins” which is mildly toxic with soap-like qualities in the foliage, seeds or roots.

Acer shirasawanum


Yasuyoshi Shirasawa
Tomitaro Makino
The specific category of 'Sensu' is shirasawanum, although I have admitted that there could be palmatum blood in it also. In any case the seed rises above the leaves per shirasawanum. The species is the “Full moon maple” from Japan's Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu Islands, and the chicken-scratch Japanese characters translate to ooitayameigetsu. “Shirasawa's maple” honors Yasuyoshi Shirasawa (1868-1947), a Japanese botanist who worked with Tomitaro Makino, the “Father of Japanese botany” at the University of Tokyo. Shirasawa named many native plants such as Picea koyamae and Tilia kiusiana.* Shirasawa is also a village located in Adachi District of Fukushima Prefecture, the area devastated by the horrific tsunami a few years ago.

She got married anyway...
*My wife Haruko grew up in Tokyo where she recognized a preponderance of old Ginkgo, Platanus and Liriodendron tulipifera, the latter an American species. These were growing in parks and as heavily-pruned street trees, and it was Shirasawa who promoted their use. It was Haruko's love of his trees that led her to the study of landscape architecture and her University degree, and ultimately to a year of internship in America to learn more about plants. She promised her father that she would not get married while in America.

Rhododendron makinoi


I believe that nothing mentioned above takes any of the “magic” out of 'Sensu', but rather adds to it. You could call it the “Allure of Lore,” with lore meaning a “particular body of knowledge or tradition,” from Old High German lera for “doctrine” and Old English leornian “to learn.” It's too late, but I would have loved to have spent a day with old Shirasawa and Makinoi, but at least I have their plants, with many cultivars of Acer shirasawanum and with Rhododendron makinoi. True, these botanists wore their brains gazing through their microscopes at what exists/existed, while my wife revels at the light spaces between the leaves and branches. They were empirically-oriented scientists studying and classifying plants while Haruko occupies a more ethereal or dreamy realm.

A falling leaf
Flew back to its perch.
A butterfly.

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