Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Quercine Reflections

Picea breweriana

Foggy gray gloom descended on Friday night and remained throughout the weekend. The Garden was a collection of brooding forms – such as the hunchback of Picea breweriana – that brought no delight to this plantsman certainly. There was no light to illuminate anything, and I stayed indoors for the majority of the weekend, feeling cold and depressed by it all. Ok: that was my problem, not the garden's, so I ventured out on Monday...determined to find something to be happy about. C'mon Buchholz – snap out of it!

Quercus garryana

Actually there's nothing wrong with the oaks in winter; with their leaves out of the way you can appreciate their stoutness. Besides, they appear more mysterious in the fog, more as formidable denizens. I had a girlfriend in my early 20's who said I reminded her of an oak tree, not just any tree, not a pine tree or a fir tree. Of course, back then I had broad muscular shoulders, not like the flabby pads I carry now, but I took her oak comparison as a wonderful compliment.

Quercus garryana

If I have a "favorite" oak it must be our native Q. garryana, and that's because a behemoth specimen grows at the edge of the lawn in front of my house. I have seen a few equally as large, but none larger, and besides – like with people – they all carry their weight differently. The national champion Q. garryana grows out in the middle of nowhere in southern Oregon, where I'm told you have to bushwhack to get to it. It is an astounding 25% larger than mine, and if nothing else I'd like to see a photo of it. I've mentioned before that I bought my property – which we call Flora Farm – primarily because of the huge oak. I guess it's ridiculous to call it "mine" since it sprouted long before me, in fact before white men came to Oregon, and hopefully it will outlast me by many years. From a valid point of view, we can never "own" a native tree, but rather we are just able to coexist for a while.

Quercus lobata

Similarly, though I've never grown or "owned" a Q. lobata – the largest American oak – I was fortunate to witness an impressive stand of the "California Valley oak" in central California about 20 years ago. The details are now vague, but I remember that I and two other plantsmen entered into a military zone where we produced identification and stated our purpose: "to see the oaks!" Apparently we weren't the first so we were granted entry. I didn't know where we were going or what we were up to...until I witnessed some gigantic oaks growing randomly. Wow – that one's big...whoa, that one is really big!...etc. My god – where was my early girlfriend now? Honey – these are some damn huge oaks!

Quercus lobata

Q. lobata is an obvious specific name when you see the dark green leaves – "Elliptic to obovate, with broad, rounded lobes" according to the Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs (2014). It is native to the hot, very hot interior valleys, but the roots require a water table to survive. Mature specimens can live up to 600 years which is probably double the age of my Q. garryana, and at maturity Q. lobata's branches assume a drooping characteristic which gives the tree a wonderful silhouette in the winter sky. The largest valley oak (153' tall) has been growing for centuries near Covelo, California on what is now the Fetzer ranch, and it is believed to be the largest oak in America. The base is so big that it would take 20 people standing shoulder to shoulder to encircle it. The current "owners" say that if the tree dies in their lifetime, "We'll give it the biggest funeral this valley has ever seen." Probably no one has consulted with the remnants of the Native Yuki tribe who were ousted from the territory as to how they'll grieve at its death.

Quercus dentata 'Carl Ferris Miller'

I have an impressive specimen of Quercus dentata 'Carl Ferris Miller' at Flora Farm which now features yellow-orange* leaves. The leaves will persist throughout winter but eventually turn to mocha brown, but then they are still attractive. Though native to Japan, Korea and China, and commonly called the "Daimyo oak," Carl Peter Thunberg gave the specific epithet dentata for the Portuguese word for "small toothed." The word can also mean a "bite, nip or snap," so beware of Japan's Ainu and Shinto legends of a vagina dentata where a sharp-toothed demon hid inside the vagina of a young woman and wreaked havoc on two young men on their wedding nights. Supposedly the woman sought help from a blacksmith who produced an iron phallus to break the demon's teeth.

Quercus dentata 'Carl Ferris Miller'

Carl Ferris Miller
*Hillier mentions the cultivar of Q. dentata 'Carl Ferris Miller', that it was "Selected from plants grown at Hemelrijk, The Netherlands,** from seed collected in South Korean in 1976 by Robert and Jelena de Belder [Arboretum Kalmthout] and Sir Harold and Lady Hillier," but then states, "No autumn color." Instead, Hillier promotes Q. dentata 'Sir Harold Hillier' as, "A tree of the same origin as 'Carl Ferris Miller' but with deep orange to pink autumn colour." You can see from my photos of 'Carl Ferris Miller' (above) that Hillier was drawing conclusions too quickly from limited observations. Remember – Ol' Hills and Ye other "experts" – that your "autumn colour" in England, or elsewhere, might never match that in Korea or in Oregon. The lesson is: Be very careful what you put into print, and that is also a constant reminder to me to not become too arrogant and "knowing."

Jelena de Belder

Arboretum Hemelrijk

**Furthermore, what is absolutely strange is for Hillier to suggest that Hemelrijk – where I have visited – is in The Netherlands, when it is positively located in Belgium. The Jelena de Belder in question was born (in 1925) to parents who were ethnically Slovene and some of the plants she raised were granted awards from England's RHS, such as Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane'. Albert II of Belgium elevated her to Baroness for her contributions to dendrology. How could Hillier travel to Korea with the De Belders and not know what country they were from? Maybe they lied to keep him off track. It continues with Quercus ellipsoidalis 'Hemelrijk', described: "Named from a small tree at Hemelrijk, the Netherlands originally supplied by Hillier Nurseries."

Quercus dentata 'Pinnatifida'

A most interesting cultivar of Q. dentata is 'Pinnatifida', and surprisingly – according to Hillier – it has been around since 1879. The deeply-cut narrow lobes make it look less like an oak than some kelp-like creature from the ocean. The fun autumn color is apparent now in the greenhouses, and the leaves seem to hang on forever. The only problem with 'Pinnatifida' is that it has a poor shape with no two looking alike; either that, or this nurseryman hasn't figured out how to best grow it.

Quercus x 'Pondaim'

I mentioned in a previous blog that Oak-man, Dick van Hoey Smith of Arboretum Trompenburg, quickly declared when asked, that his favorite tree of all was Quercus pontica. Personally I prefer Q. dentata over Q. pontica, but a wonderful hybrid of the two species is Q. x 'Pondaim', and that was first raised by v. H. Smith about 1960. It is considered a Pondaim Group since there are several forms of the cross in cultivation, and one in England is marketed as 'Pondaim Giant'. Since I don't know, I hope someone in the readership can tell me the origin of the 'Pondaim' name. Sadly the hybrid is rare in America so I don't grow it, and the photo above was taken at Arboretum Trompenburg in Rotterdam.

Quercus macrolepis 'Hemelrijk Silver'

I was given a start of Quercus macrolepis 'Hemelrijk Silver' a year ago by Roger of Gossler Farms Nursery. He is always bringing me something new and I, sadly, lag behind in reciprocation. Of course it is another De Belder plant, in this case grown from seed collected on the island of Rhodes. Thankfully, this time Hillier doesn't say in which country the De Belders have their arboretum. But news to me is a specific name change: from macrolepis to ithaburensis subsp. macrolepis. It is commonly called the "Valonia oak," with the name derived from Italian vallonea, and that from Greek balanidia, diminutive of balanos for "acorn," and the dried acorn cups were/are used in tanning or dressing leather. The species has a wide range in southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia and it is the national tree of Jordan. The oak is mentioned in the Bible (First Samuel 10) and is known as the "Tabor oak," where Saul met an Israelite who gave him two out of three loaves of bread per Samuel's prophecy. The Hebrew name for oak is derived from the word "providence."

Quercus turbinella

Quercus turbinella, commonly known as the "Sonoran scrub oak," is native to the hellishly hot and dry areas of Baja California, Sonora, Arizona etc., yet it performs admirably well in the wet climate at Flora Farm. My first specimen originated as a seedling, while subsequent propagules are rooted as summer cuttings under mist. In its native haunts it grows scrubily, but in my garden I have a neat, small upright tree. The small evergreen leaves are leathery in texture and are also spine-tipped, so it would be possible to misidentify it as a holly (Ilex). For some reason Hillier doesn't list it – perhaps he considers it a form or subspecies of a different species. It can hybridize with other oak species, and I've read – but never have seen – the cross with the huge Quercus lobata. That's hard to imagine, and it reminds me of the nursery ditty where skinny Jack Sprat could eat no fat, while his hefty wife could eat no lean...Anyway, it received its specific name due to a gray cap at the top of the acorn that resembles a turban, so originally I incorrectly concluded that the turbinella species was from Turkey.

Quercus vaccinifolia

Picea breweriana
While Quercus turbinella can resemble a holly, Quercus vaccinifolia can look like a Vaccinium, and indeed it is commonly called the "Huckleberry oak." It too comes from dry areas of California, Oregon and Nevada and grows low and shrubby on slopes and ridges and sub-alpine forests. Its acorns are said to be very bitter but I've never nibbled on one. The American black bear will eat them though, and I know that first hand when I stumbled (way too close) to a bear on a Castle Crags trail in northern California while I was photographing a Picea breweriana near Mt. Shasta. Q. vaccinifolia is said to grow to less than 5' tall, but in my lush Quercus section at Flora Farm, one quickly grew to 10' tall and 10' wide, and I finally had to remove it because it pushed into the road. I didn't particularly like the evergreen bush anyway – it was a dense blob of gray-green that looked out of place in my landscape.

Quercus suber

We'll see if my "Cork oak," Quercus suber, will survive a cold winter. The species is native to southern Europe and North Africa, and though a couple of mature specimens can be found in nearby Portland, Oregon, it is generally 5-10 degrees warmer there. It never gets as cold in England either, and Hillier states, "Though very frost-resistant, it is not satisfactory in the coldest counties." I've had my 10' sapling in the ground for 5 years now, and often if you can establish a tree of questionable hardiness for a few years it can continue to beat the odds. Besides, my tree is of seedling origin, and like with people, some are just more tough than others. Anyway, Q. suber's fame is for its thick, corky bark which continues to be used for wine stoppers. Appropriately, the largest specimen in America is probably in Napa, California – wine country – and is over 90' tall. Contenders include some (photographed above) at the San Diego Botanic Garden.

Quercus x hispanica 'Luscombeana'

More suitable for Oregon – though not quite as corky – is Quercus x hispanica which is a hybrid of the "Turkish oak" (Q. cerris) with Q. suber. I have seen an impressive specimen at Arboretum Kalmthout in Belgium of the cultivar 'Luscombeana' which was raised by Mr. Luscombe in his English nursery as far back as 1762. The evergreen tree's gray-green foliage is not particularly attractive, and the hybrid would never be grown if it were not for the fascinating bark.

Quercus cerris 'Variegata'

Quercus cerris is hardy to USDA zone 6 (-10 degrees), but I don't have any interest in the large-growing species other than the beautiful cultivar 'Variegata' ('Argenteovariegata'), which I have not been able to acquire. In fact I've never seen it in America and the photo above was taken at the Arboretum Trompenburg. Their specimen was a spreading bush that made a cheerful presence in the always-raining Rotterdam garden. The specific name cerris was coined by Linnaeus and is Latin for a "curl" or "tuft" as in a tuft of hair.

Quercus robur 'Concordia'

Quercus robur 'Butterbee'

Quercus robur ("oak" + "strength, hard timber") is the common oak, European oak or English oak,* and it is the "type" species for the genus whose name was coined by Linnaeus. In its native range it is valued – besides for timber – for its importance to insects and other wildlife; in fact Q. robur supports the highest biodiversity of insect herbivores of any British plant. I don't grow the straight species – why would I when we have so many other handsome American species? But I do appreciate some English oak cultivars such as the lovely golden form known as 'Concordia'. It can withstand full sun when established, and though not so common in horticulture, it was first raised by Van Geert's nursery in Ghent, Belgium in 1843. I don't know why it is not more popular. Also, we have an excellent golden selection – 'Butterbee' – that arose as a random seedling at Buchholz Nursery about 25 years ago. Sloppily, website lists it as Quercus robur 'Bumblebee'.

*Some modern scholars agree with Classical Greek and Roman authors that the word for Druid is that for the word "oak," and can mean "One with knowledge of the oak" or "Wise person of the oak;" in other words: a Forest Sage.

Quercus robur 'General Pulaski'

Casimir Pulaski
Another cultivar of Quercus robur that I grow is not a thing of beauty, but I guess I collected 'General Pulaski' because it's so bizarre – in fact, you're not sure that it is even an oak to begin with. It grows with a narrow upright form and is distinguished – or undistinguished – by small, puckered blue-green leaves. It is not common in the trade because 1) it is ugly and 2) at least for me, not easy to propagate for those who like ugly trees. The oak was named for General Casimir Pulaski, an American patriot of Polish origin who fought in the American Revolutionary War. He was born in 1745 in Warsaw and died in Savannah in 1779 – a mere 34 years – and was known as the "Father of the American Cavalry."* There is even a General Pulaski Memorial Day held every year on October 11, and President George W. Bush issued a presidential proclamation the day before for Americans to honor the Pole. Of course, Bush was after the Polish vote in Illinois at the time.

*Casimir wasn't so good at cavalry, however, for he died from wounds received during the Siege of Savannah which the Americans lost.

Quercus robur 'Purpurea'

I'm proud of my specimen of Quercus robur 'Purpurea' which is about 16' tall by 20' wide. Leaves emerge in spring with a rich Bloodgood-purple, but a greenish hue develops when we reach the hot summer temperatures. The RHS lists 'Purpurea' as a valid name, but awkwardly Hillier goes with 'Atropurpurea'. Another English oak is Quercus petraea, the "Sessile oak," and it has a 'Purpurea' cultivar as well. I guess the conclusion is that I don't know my oaks so well, to know if my species is robur or petraea, but I've been selling it as robur with no controversy for at least 30 years. Presumably, because of its Latin name, 'Purpurea' was selected before the 1950's.

Quercus rubra

Quercus rubra 'Greg's Variegated'
Quercus rubra 'Greg's Variegated'
Not to be confused with Quercus robur is Q. rubra, the "Red or Scarlet" oak from eastern North America. I don't grow the straight species, only the splashy Q. r. 'Greg's Variegated', but I can point to some huge specimens of Q. rubra in nearby Portland, Oregon. I can stand under the canopies or cross the street to stare at the monsters, and the neighborhood women can relax that I'm just an old harmless tree guy...and sometimes they'll even come out of their houses to chat about their tree. That's the best way to "own" a Red oak – for just 10 minutes at a time – then leave to the homeowners the gargantuan task of raking the leaves and cleaning the gutters.

The way we experience the world around us is a direct reflection of the world within us, it has been said, but my world with the oaks has been most formative.

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