Wednesday, August 22, 2018

All White with Me

In horticulture plants are grouped by family, then by various genera within a family, then various species within a genera, then cultivars or varieties or subspecies within a species. It's very simple, it all makes sense, thank you Linnaeus. In somewhat the same manner our English words descend from an ancient Proto-Indo-European tongue that died out thousands of years ago, in fact there's no written evidence of it. Etymologists (language experts) have created P-I-E words by working backwards from today's word, and step by step they travel back to time immemorial.

Venerable Bede
Consider the word white – an interesting color in horticulture. The P-I-E word for white was kwintos, then it went to the – also now dead – Proto-Germanic where it became khwitaz. Later it became hwit, an Old English word spoken by the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons migrated to Britain from Germany between about 450-1066 and combined with indigenous British groups, and the language and culture produced authors like Bede and the unknown author of Beowulf. Through these works we have the first written evidence of the word that would become “white.” Today, variations of white can be found in 20 languages around the world, all with their root in P-I-E, and that also includes Sanskrit.

Cercis canadensis 'Alba
Callicarpa japonica 'Leucocarpa'

As a common name, white is used to describe species like “white fir” (Abies concolor), “white pine” (Pinus parviflora), “white spruce” (Picea glauca), “whitebark birch” (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) etc. As a variety or cultivar name we have many 'Albas' and 'Leucos' as well, both meaning “white.” Thus we have a plant named Callicarpa japonica 'Leucocarpa' which is the “Japanese beauty berry,” and its fruits (carpa) are kwintos rather than the normal purple. Also we have the “Europen Silver fir's” specific name of Abies alba, and a cultivar name of the “white hyacinth orchid,” Bletilla striata 'Alba', and for an “Eastern redbud,” Cercis canadensis 'Alba'.

Pleione formosana 'Clare'

Ginger Rogers
My teenage daughter is an exotic beauty, with being half American and Japanese, and she arises from her bed on Sunday at about 11 AM and parades through the house in her fluffy white bathrobe. If you peek into her room it is also white, nearly all of it, and I think she got her inspiration from an old Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire movie. She even has plants in her room, all white-flowering of course, such as white orchids in white pots. Every once-in-a-while I'll place a blooming Pleione on her window sill, such as the pink-purple P. 'Irazu', to help keep her color-grounded, but she would much rather have the white P. formosana 'Clare'. I tease her about her predilection for white, but she points out that I drive a milk-white car, except that mine is not pure-white because it's always dirty Рtouch̩!


Vita Sackville and Virginia Woolf

The Sissinghurst castle and garden in the Weald of Kent was created in the 1930's by Vita Sackville-West, a poet, author and garden writer. The garden contains a series of “rooms” with different colors and themes, each enclosed with brick walls or hedges. The “white” garden has inspired many subsequent garden designers, although it was originally planted as a rose garden. Actually S-W called it her grey, green and white garden, with “grey clumps of foliage, pierced here and there with tall white flowers.” Clearly the gardening world and tourists love her creation more than I do, but maybe that's influenced by my distaste for the inbred Vita and her lover Virginia Woolf's horse-like faces.

Acer palmatum 'White Butterfly'

Let's see what is white in the Flora Wonder Arboretum. We grow a couple of Acer palmatums with white in the cultivar name – 'White Butterfly' and 'White Peaches'. My start of 'White Butterfly' came from a maple collector in Pennsylvania, and I suppose that it originated from a scion shoot on the old cultivar 'Butterfly' that was a little more white than the rest of the tree. Or perhaps it was a seedling of a 'Butterfly' mother tree. We discontinued 'Butterfly' because it was notorious for reverting, and besides the white variegation always looked dirty to me, especially after a hot summer. So far 'White Butterfly' has not reverted, but then I sell the trees when they are relatively young and I suppose that an old specimen planted out in garden would eventually revert.

Acer palmatum 'White Peaches'

Acer palmatum 'White Peaches'

'White Peaches' is a name coined by me, but as a cultivar it originated mysteriously. Acer palmatum 'Peaches and Cream' was selected by Arnold Teese of Australia in 1976 and it made its way to America in the early 1980's. The late Dr. Bump of Forest Grove, Oregon, was one of the first collectors to acquire it, while I got my start from the late J.D. Vertrees, if I remember correctly. The problem is that they don't look the same. My start from Vertrees is what you usually encounter in collections, but sometimes you see the Bump “strain,” so it appears that there's two different forms of 'Peaches and Cream'. Actually I like Bump's better – it closely resembles my 'Sister Ghost' – and to keep the two 'Peaches and Cream' versions separated I named the latter one 'White Peaches'. It's possible that Bump's tree was incorrectly labeled, but I know that it is not 'Sister Ghost' because he grew his P&C in his garden ten years before 'Sister Ghost' was ever selected. I'll remind you that Acer palmatum 'First Ghost' originated as a more light-foliaged portion on a tree of 'Beni shigitatsu sawa'. The latter was growing in a far corner of my field, and when I encountered it one evening just before dark it looked like a tree with a ghost hovering above it. Propagules were originally named 'Ghost', then changed to 'First Ghost' when I introduced other members of the “Ghost series.”

Acer tegmentosum 'Joe Witt'

Acer tegmentosum 'White Tigress'

Renowned botanist and maple authority Piet de Jong gave a talk six years ago about Acer tegmentosum. He stated that there is no variation in its seedlings, therefore no cultivars. Hands immediately shot upward and some in the crowd cried out, “What about 'Joe Witt'?” It was selected for its extra-white trunk. Acer tegmentosum 'White Tigress' is a possible hybrid and should therefore be listed as Acer x 'White Tigress'. It was named for the white striations on the trunk which remain noticeable and ornamental even as the tree matures. The seedling that became 'White Tigress' was obtained by Brotzman Nursery in 1962, and they named and introduced it in 1975, and the catchy name was meant to encourage use of the A. tegmentosum species in today's landscapes.

Acer palmatum 'Shiro'

Another maple with “white” in the cultivar name is Acer palmatum 'Shiro', which is the word for “white” in Japanese. The foliage is light green in spring and early summer but there's nothing white about it. When the weather becomes hot the whiteness appears, as if the chlorophyll is bleached out from the center of the green leaf. It is a pleasing, though subtle effect. I'm not sure whether or not 'Shiro' is the same cultivar that Yano lists as 'Shirofu nishiki' in his Book For Maples.

Campanula latiloba 'Alba'

Campanula latiloba 'Alba' is the “Great White Bellflower,” and it blooms profusely in spring on 2' stems. The first year we grew it we experienced a wind and rainstorm and all of the flower spikes lay horizontally in disarray, so the second year we learned to tie it to the wall in our former basketball court. The word campanula is Latin for “little bell,” but the flowers are actually quite large on our 'Alba'.

Daphniphyllum himalaense ssp. macropodum 'White Margin'

Daphniphyllum himalaense ssp. macropodum 'Yellow-White'

We grow a couple of Daphniphyllum cultivars with white variegated leaves, D. himalaense ssp. macropodum 'White Margin' and 'Yellow-White'. I received them from Japan but they probably have different names there, and I wished I knew them in Japanese. The genus is evergreen and the species is obviously native to the Himalaya. The genus name literally means “Daphne leaf,” but it is totally unrelated to Daphne, and the specific name macropodum means “large leaf.” I first encountered the species in Seattle at the University of Washington Botanic Garden where large green specimens were thriving as understory trees beneath the conifers. It was in winter and I first took them for Rhododendrons, but in any case I thought they looked particularly regal. The genus is dioecious and propagation is by seed, and we have had poor results trying to root them. The variegated cultivars are then grafted onto seedlings with good results, but finding the seedlings is not easy to do.

Crinum x 'White Queen'

Luther Burbank
Crinum is a genus of perennial plants with lily-like flowers on leafless stems. One of the most spectacular is 'White Queen' which originated as a cross of C. x powellii 'Alba' and C. macowanii. Crinums develop from bulbs and their foliage is unattractive frankly, but the pendant reflexed flowers of 'White Queen' are so purely white that one can tolerate the mop of foliage. The hybrid was performed by the famous plant breeder, Luther Burbank (1849-1926), an American botanist, horticulturist and pioneer in agricultural science. I highly recommend visiting Burbank's garden if you're ever near the city of Santa Rosa, California.

Pinus leucodermis 'Compact Gem'

Leucodermis would imply “white skin,” but in the case of Pinus leucodermis the name refers to the new white shoots on an otherwise neat conical tree with green foliage. It is known as “Bosnian* pine” because it is native to the Balkans in Bulgaria, Greece, Yugoslavia and Albania. We have grown a number of cultivars since the nursery began 38 years ago, such as 'Compact Gem', 'Gnome', 'Schmidtii' and 'Satellit', the former three being more dwarf and compact than the type, while the latter cultivar is more narrow. All propagate rather easily by grafting onto Pinus sylvestris rootstock, and they have been free from disease and pests. The formality of the cultivars would lead some to consider the species as boring, and I'll admit it is not my favorite either, but still they provide a dependable backbone in a landscape. The classification of P. leucodermis is debatable with Hillier in Manual of Trees and Shrubs (2014) listing it as a variety of P. heldreichii, while Rushforth in Conifers (1987) considers them two separate species.

*Bosnia is named for the Bosna River, which is possibly from an Indo-European root bhog for “current.”

Pinus albicaulis

Caulis is from Latin for the “stem or stalk of a plant,” so the name of Pinus albicaulis refers to the white-colored trunk. I've had only one cultivar in the collection – simply called 'Dwarf' – but it is no-longer being propagated. The species is of little ornamental merit, looking like a scrappy version of Pinus flexilis, but they can look magnificent in their natural mountain setting. P. albicaulis is native to the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades, and is often the last tree at timberline, therefore you often see them in the low-spreading krumholtz form due to extreme exposure. The whitebark pine is an important food source for the Clark's nutcracker* (Nucifraga columbiana). One bird can cache up to 100,000 seeds each year to be used as food during times of food scarcity, and these storage places can cover a large area. When those seeds that are not retrieved germinate, it explains why you often see the pines growing in clumps. The champion P. albicaulis tree is located in the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho and is 65' tall, with a 27' crown spread and a circumference of 22'.

Clark's Nutcracker

*The Clark's nutcracker is in the crow and jay family, but the first time Captain William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition saw one (August, 1805) he thought it was a woodpecker.

Synthyris missurica ssp. stellata 'Alba'

Synthyris missurica ssp. stellata 'Alba'

Synthyris missurica ssp. stellata 'Alba' is the white-flowered form of the “Columbia Kittentails,” a perennial in the Scrophulariaceae family. Normally the species blooms (in April) with lavender-to-purple flowers so the white form is rare. Even when not in flower the two-inch glossy leaves are evergreen, and so the plant always looks neat. The generic name Synthyris occurred in 1933 when it was separated from the Veronica genus, and is derived from syn (together) and thyris (little door or valve) in reference to the capsules of the plant in fruit. The first collection of Synthyris was made on the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806 in Idaho. I'm happy to have my one plant in the collection, but it is something that we have never decided to propagate.

Muhlenbergia capillaris 'Alba'

Muhlenbergia capillaris is the “Muhlygrass,” an ornamental grass in the Poaceae family. Normally the flowers are pink to pinkish-red, but the cultivar 'Alba' displays white autumn flowers. The grass is native to western and central USA and is considered easy to grow and is known to tolerate drought and air pollution. I love it for its airy flower-cloud which lasts for a couple of months. The generic name honors Gotthilf Muhlenberg (1753-1815) who was a Lutheran pastor and amateur botanist. How interesting that “men of the cloth” often turn to plant collecting and/or botany. Are they bored with their celestial pursuits – some missionaries never convert even one soul – or do they feel compelled to elucidate and celebrate the wondrous works of God through nature? In any case it would indicate that they have “time on their hands,” but what better way to spend that time? I don't really know what it's with me, that I find myself collecting the rare white-form of Synthyris and then also the white-flowered form of Muhlenbergia instead of the normal pink? White is pure, purity...I guess.

Pleione formosana 'Alba'

Let's continue the white fun with Pleione formosana 'Alba'; it would be completely white except for a subtle yellow in the throat, but that color element actually serves to add to the pure whiteness of the other 95% of the blossom. We should back up to discuss the Pleione genus, a terrestrial – but sometimes epiphytic – group of orchids from Asia. The naming and classification of Pleione species is always in flux because new species are being discovered and DNA studies contribute to a rearrangement. Kew Garden's website claims that there are currently 21 species and 5 natural hybrids, with P. formosana being one of the 21 natural species. P. formosana is native to southeastern China as well as in Taiwan – the country formerly known as Formosa. It should be considered as a deciduous perennial and the specific name is derived from Latin for “beautiful.”

Buchholz Nursery's reputation was built on offering Japanese maples and grafted conifers, and now, 38 years later, we find ourselves as purveyors of hardy orchids. It keeps the nursery fresh, and as I've said before, I know of no other wholesale nursery where a customer can have so much fun.


  1. Best blog yet. I really enjoyed skimming thru this one and looking for time this week to read it all. We grow unusual plants here in South Florida but completely different than what can be grown in more temperate climates. It will be a shame if the next generations loose all this "unusual horticulture" if we do not get more gardening enthusiasts.

  2. Wow - I am so glad that I found your blog!!! Fantastic to read about all these plants and trees - and I love Acer Family. Best regards Torill from Norway.