Monday, December 30, 2019

Mystery Tree Identified

Mystery Tree

The last Flora Wonder Blog presented an unidentified tree photographed in Japan with butter-yellow autumn color.

A few readers suggested names, but the most likely came from BH from England.

Gamblea innovans

Good morning Talon,

Your unidentified tree is Gamblea innovans previously known as Evodiapanax innovans or Kalopanax innovans. All as you will know in Araliaceae. We have Metapanax davidii (Previously Pseudopanax) in the garden here. The botanists have gone mad with this group.

Gamblea innovans is an entirely new species for me and even the Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs (2014) doesn't list it. If you search on the internet you will find images that seem to match what the Englishman suggests. I wonder if it is hardy in Oregon?

Friday, December 20, 2019

Japanese Venerables

My wife's parents, Yusuke and Fumie Nagamine from Tokyo, knew a few months in advance that I would be visiting Japan at the end of November, 2019, and that I would be coming for “business.” I didn't buy or sell anything, so my “business” – as in a tax write-off – was to see and document the native flora, whether the plants were carefully crafted in a garden setting, or just naturally biding their time in their mountainous habitat. Both in-laws diligently researched and set up an itinerary that would satisfy my goals, and they succeeded in providing a trip of a lifetime.

Zempukuji Ginkgo

By train we went to a temple in an area of Tokyo that featured the oldest (probably) Ginkgo biloba, supposedly over 600 years old. The leaves were just beginning to turn yellow, but the area under it, a cemetery, was completely clean of leaves or fruits, so I assumed that the venerable old specimen was a male. Only 100 feet away was a much younger Ginkgo and she was showing off with butter-yellow foliage and had already lustfully dropped hundreds of seeds. The Grandfather Ginkgo had a horrible canopy and a somewhat rotten back side – caused by an incendiary bomb at the end of WWII – but the trunk was massive. I'm sure that he was happy to have the fecund, younger female nearby to help sustain him in his old age, so in that case the pair resembled old Buchholz and his younger Japanese wife, Haruko.

Female Ginkgo biloba

Townsend Harris
The female Ginkgo has a stone tablet that reads: On this spot Townsend Harris opened the first American legation in Japan. July 7, 1859. Harris (1804-1878) was a New York City merchant and minor politician who did some business previously in the Orient, and while in Japan he “negotiated” the Harris Treaty which opened Shogunate Japan to foreign trade and culture. According to persistent legend, Harris adopted a 17-year-old geisha named Kichi Saitou – who can blame him? – but she was heavily pressured into the relationship by Japanese authorities, and then was ostracized after Harris' departure. I don't know if the female Ginkgo existed at the time of the Harris affair – somehow it didn't look to be that old. “Kichi” is a provocative name if you ask me. The word ki can mean “tree” and chi chi can mean “female breast,” but Haruko insists that the geisha's name has nothing to do with “breast tree.” It would be a wonderful coincidence if it did, and that a female ginkgo was placed where old Harris did his deeds. Anyway kuchi means “lips” in Japanese, and it's fun to think about kichi's kuchi for this old pervert.

Ginkgo biloba

The male Ginkgo had a number of pendulous breasts, some of which were nearly hanging to the ground, but they're not particularly attractive appendages. It is known as the “Giant Ginkgo-Tree of Zempukuji,” the name of the accompanying temple which was founded in 824. Holy-man Shinran Shonin was teaching doctrine at the temple, and he concluded by emphatically placing his staff in the ground. Soon the staff began to put forth buds and spread branches, finally growing into the tree we see today.

Icho Namiki

We left the Ginkgo pair to themselves and boarded another train to see Ginkgo avenue in Tokyo. Ginkgo is known as “icho,” and is the official tree of Tokyo, and the icho leaf is the symbol of Tokyo where you will see it above subway stations, on manhole covers and on the sides of buildings. Icho Namiki is the 300m-long avenue lined with two rows of Ginkgo on both sides. I was surprised that they were heavily pruned into narrow pillars and they were maybe 100 feet tall. When Haruko was a child the trees were not so severely pruned, and she and her best friend Chihiro would ride their bicycles through the leaves every November. When Chihiro – now living on a distant island – saw the photo (above) she was shocked by the excessive “haircuts.” These days the avenue is open for pedestrians only in November, with nearby policemen patrolling the throng of visitors. Alas, we were a few days early for the yellow carpet, but what's amazing is that all of the trees will shed at once – “in one consent,” according to former U.S. poet-laureate Howard Nemerov. Peter Crane, author of Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot (2013, Yale University Press) says that “Ginkgo has the most synchronized leaf drop of any tree” he knows.

Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo biloba 'Blue Cloud'
According to Peter Crane, over ½ million Ginkgo are planted as street trees in Tokyo, and amazingly a very large Ginkgo can produce nearly a million leaves per year. Imagine the number of leaves produced at Icho Namiki since there's about 150 trees total. They were planted in the 1920s when they were about 20' tall, and thank God they survived WWII. I find it amazing that with Japanese maples, yellow, green or red foliage in spring and summer can turn to yellow or orange or red in autumn, but a Ginkgo only turns to yellow, and that includes our introduction of Ginkgo biloba 'Blue Cloud'.

Nishi Honganji

Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo biloba

The most impressive Ginkgo I saw in Japan was a few days later in Kyoto. I don't know if it's ever pruned or not, but it is a great spreading specimen over 400 years old, with its lateral branches supported by strong posts.* A fence protects its root zone, but other than that it is gloriously alone in the middle of a couple of acres, “alone” if you don't consider me or the other dozens of tourists who approach it. The accompanying temple is named Nishi Honganji – ji means “temple” – the origins of which go back to the 14th century, and today it is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

*Due to its flat-top shape it is affectionately referred to as the “upside-down” Ginkgo. Another common name is the “water-fountain” Ginkgo, as apparently water sprayed out of its canopy during a great Kyoto fire, and thus the tree was able to protect itself.

Ginkgo biloba

Every Ginkgo we saw in Kyoto was in sync with the old temple specimen for autumn color, and whenever the sun broke through the tourists – yes, tons of Chinese – were recording the event with their telephone cameras. One wonders how many digital clicks occur in Kyoto every day in autumn, what with the brilliance of the Japanese maples and Ginkgoes. I add my photos to the blog, but what does everybody else do with theirs? Who knows, maybe everyone else was on a “business” – tax-write-off – trip like me?

Pinus thunbergii

Pinus thunbergii

My daughters wanted to sight-see in Tokyo, in particular the Shibuya Crossing, an insane intersection (called the Scramble) rumored to be the busiest in the world where upward to 3,000 people cross at a time, coming from all directions at once. Naturally pop stars want to have a video shoot with the mass of humanity surrounding them. I elected to pass on that event and instead went with Haruko and her father to see the oldest Japanese black pine in the Tokyo area. Yusuke (father-in-law) rather enjoyed having me in town because, now retired, I'm his excuse to discover new things for himself. We deboarded the train at the Koiwa suburb and gave the taxi driver instructions to take us to the great pine. Driver nodded in affirmation and soon dropped us off at the Zenyoi temple complex where the massive Pinus thunbergii (650 years old) hogged a large portion of the courtyard. Like the old Kyoto Ginkgo, the pine was low and spreading and its branches were supported with concrete poles. The poles could have been boring to do the job, but instead they were ornamental with bark-like texture and fake cuts here and there to suggest living tree rings.

Yusuke Nagamine (left) and Temple Man (right)

Thank goodness my daughters weren't here because 5 seconds is all they would need to “see” the pine tree, then they would have sat on a bench and sulked while their father wasted the afternoon circling around the stout specimen. The fun part is that the light was constantly changing during the partially sunny afternoon, so every point of view was unique, and I've never felt a tree to be more alive with its own treeanality. I'm told that the Japanese locals believe that God lives in the tree, and I suppose they're right. At the time we were the only visitors, but we attracted the attention of the temple's maintenance man, a little guy with a happy face. He explained to Haruko's father that he was 85 years old and couldn't imagine a day apart from his beloved pine. Yusuke informed the man that I wasn't just an ordinary tourist, but that I was his daughter's husband, a “famous maple botanist from America.”

Lumber mill

White Sugi

White Sugi

The last of the venerables that I'll mention is the “white sugi” (Cryptomeria japonica) that is up in the Kitayama Mountains north of Kyoto. Hardly any tourists know or would care about it, but Haruko's mother did her research, and her father rented a van with driver, so we journeyed on a rainy morning into the mountains. The tree (600 years old, if I heard correctly) is revered by the local denizens as a power presence, and it was surrounded by a gate and a shrine or two. The trunk was light-colored, not exactly white, but not the typical reddish-brown of the species. Further unique was the abnormality that it never produced pollen. The man-planted forest in the area was offspring produced by cuttings, so the entire hillside consisted of one clone. There was a sawmill nearby and you can see from the photo that every tree looks identical and perfectly straight. For centuries the wood from the Kitayama Mountain area has been prized for tea room and tea house construction, and even today it is used for elegant interior wood work. The other plus about the pollenless forest is due to a serious hay fever (kafunsho) problem that many Japanese suffer from. Hay fever was not common until reforestation practices after the War led to mature trees with increasing amounts of pollen, and today approximately 25 million (20% of the population) suffer, and it is common for them to take hay-fever vacations to less polluted areas.

Yuki Tamori (front right)

The Japanese person in the photo above is Yuki Tamori, an intern who worked and lived with us for a year in about 2013. I could see that he was no longer a simple boy, but that he had grown into a man. At the nursery, I would greet him each morning with “Today?” “No,” he would reply. “Tomorrow?” “No, not tomorrow.” “Tamori?” “Yes, I am Tamori.” The last time that I saw Mr. Tamori before this day is when I dropped him off at the Portland airport for his return flight home. We got out of the car and unloaded his luggage. I shook his hand and thanked him for being a wonderful worker and member of our family. I glanced back as I drove off, and there was Yuki feebly waving one hand with tears streaming down both cheeks. I welled up a bit too.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

A Mount Takao Morning

Buchholz family

My wife and our two daughters go to Japan nearly every year, and while they always have some fun adventure, the main purpose is to reunite with Wife's family. Haruko and her sister Sakiko are very close, so close that I wasn't surprised when they both gave birth to their first child on the exact same day. After a 16 year absence I decided to let my business fend for itself and I invited myself to go to Japan too. Our timing was the end of November and my goal was to see wild nature, not just Japanese gardens and nurseries.

Hachiyoji City at the foot of Mt. Takao

Our hotel in Tokyo was near Shinjuku, the rail hub of the city, and we decided to take the express train to Mt. Takao which was only an hour away. Takaosan, as the Japanese refer to it, isn't much for elevation at only 1965', but it's home to a wealth of plants, in particular Japanese maples. We left early to avoid the crowds while my daughters elected to sleep in. They had access to the internet and were able to connect with their American boyfriends, so they had no real interest to get up early and climb a damn mountain.

Atsuko Gibson
I already knew a little bit about Takaosan due to a fun article written by Atsuko Gibson of the Rhododendron Species Botanic Garden in Washington state. She was there two years ago at the end of May to see the blooming of Dendrobium moniliforme (accomplished!). Atsuko explains that nearly 3 million visit Takaosan annually, and my wife supposes that every Tokyo child takes a school field trip there, which she did when she was ten. Atsuko calls Takaosan “heaven” for those who are there to observe plants. It is located on the boundary between the cool zone and the warm zone and approximately 1,300 taxa* can be found. And, if you're into bugs, 5,000 species of insects crawl around to the delight of a bird population of 150 species.

*In the whole of Great Britain 1,500-1,600 taxa are found.

Magnolia hypoleuca

Styrax japonicus

Cryptomeria japonica

Cryptomeria japonica

I was somewhat apprehensive when we deboarded the train due to cold rain and wind, plus I was suffering from a head cold and my nose dripped constantly the entire day. But the brisk mountain air energized me because to stay warm one had to walk. During Atsuko's visit in spring she saw Magnolia hypoleuca, Arisaema limbatum, Hydrangea serrata, Iris japonica and Styrax japonicus in full bloom, plus a number of ferns. The ferns were still present for me as well, but the preponderance of Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) was impressive. Often I couldn't see the tops of the sugi trees because of the foggy gloom, nevertheless their reddish-brown trunks were straight and stately. Then best of all were large specimens of Acer palmatum scattered throughout the cedar forest, and we were there at the perfect time for their red and yellow autumnal foliage.

Cryptomeria japonica Takosugi


Takosugi's eye

There are eight trails to the summit but we took the main one with the promise that we would see the 450+- year-old takosugi or “octopus tree.” The tree was protected by a few posts and next to it was a pedestal on which sat a reddish ball with an octopus carved on top. The tree is so-called because the root arms look like octopus tentacles. Legend has it that the large tree was in the way during the construction of the pathway, and when workers tried to cut the tree down...that night it bent its roots to open up a way for them instead. Now sacred rope is placed around its trunk, making it Takaosan's sacred tree, and it is considered a place of spiritual rejuvenation. It is said if you pet the head of the Hipparidako statue it will bring you good luck, so I gave him a pat and a wink.

Acer palmatum

Near the takosugi we encountered a very short old woman who greeted us with a cackle and a smile. She welcomed us as if she owned the place and she was very energetic and enthusiastic, and for all I knew she maybe climbed the mountain every day. In Japanese the spry midget told Haruko that we should take a side trail if we wanted to see the best large maples. Haruko wondered how could she possibly know that old Buchholz was "Maple Man," and indeed that's what he wanted to see? On the way down from the summit we did take her advice and the short trail ended at a church-like structure surrounded by huge Acer palmatums. The fact that they were barely visible in the fog made them all the more impressive. I thought about the old woman and wondered if she was a real person or something from the spirit world. Maybe the octopus ball brought good fortune by sending this creature to me.

Stewartia pseudocamellia

Abies firma

Unidentified tree

Unidentified tree

Further up the mountain I encountered Stewartia pseudocamellia for the first time in the wild...unless not wild if someone planted them there, and one tree was impressive for golden autumn leaves. After a few more up-steps and turns I discovered a “true fir,” Abies whatever – Abies firma according to Ms. Gibson's article. Honestly, considering the length of my career, I really should be more adept at tree identification, but I confess that I have trouble with trees from the wild or trees from someone else's garden or from a city's urban forest. To wit: a fantastic broadly-crowned tree with brilliant yellow leaves. Haruko couldn't identify it and neither could I. Help – please! – from the Flora Wonder readership.

Kusumoto Taki
Kusumoto Ine

Philipp Von Siebold
Japan abounds with buildings with architectural styles from its historic periods which I know very little about. Just as I have trouble identifying some of its native trees, I couldn't tell you if a structure is a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple. Haruko laughed and said she couldn't either, but sometimes they both occur in the same area. I don't know what any of the stone pillars signify, but just as with British gravestones it is a somewhat awesome pastime to wander amongst the old weathered markers and imagine about the people from a hundred-to-hundreds of years ago. Basically I think they were the same then as we are now. For example, the famous German/Dutch physician-botanist, Philipp von Siebold, fell in love and fathered a beautiful child (Kusumoto Ine) with the comely 16-year-old (Kusumoto Taki), whom he described as "fine as any European woman." I did the same, of course, except my wife was 23 when we married, and certainly we knew that scrutinizing tongues were wagging. But, due to my oriental attraction, I am now (19 years later) in Japan climbing up a sacred mountain and indulging in the aura of its exotic flora. What a wonderful ticket to happiness my wife has been!

Takaosan Temple

Tengu statue

Back to temples, Takaosan, being a power-place location, features Yakuoin Yukiji, a Buddhist temple where many visitors pray to the Shinto-Buddhist tengu (a kami from Japanese folklore). Kami are the spirits or holy powers that were/are venerated in the Shinto religion, and they can be elements of the landscape or forces of nature, or can be the spirits of dead persons. The Takaosan Temple (built in 744 AD) features statues of tengu – a mountain deity with the long Pinocchio-like nose, where the novice tengu has a crow-like beak, but where the more progressed tengu, who has been trained longer on the mountain, possesses the funny long-narrow nose. I know that my wife occupies a more ethereal realm than I do, and even without formal training she submits to the interconnecting energy of the universe (musubi) and is in harmony with, and conscious of, kannagara no michi, or “the way of the kami.” The literal meaning of tengu is “Heaven-Dog,” and since most things “Japanese” are derived from China, there is in Chinese mythology a creature named Tiangou which means “celestial hound.”

Umbrellas at the cable car

Our descent from the summit of Takaosan was far more hectic and problematic due to the increased hoard of visitors who were puffing their way up. Most of the climbers were now armed with the cheap, clear Japanese umbrella which serves its purpose, but nevertheless I suppose that if one was not diligently on guard, then you could easily get spoked in the eye. Per protocol we were hugging the left side of the path, just as motorists do on the roads and street commuters do on stairs and escalators in the train stations, nevertheless Haruko was knocked by a bow-legged woman who wouldn't yield to the correct side. I'll say the following carefully because I don't want to denigrate anyone for their nationality, but the charging woman was Chinese, and no matter what, they are absolutely different, or at least the tourists are very aggressive. The Japanese all realize the importance of Chinese money and the power of their economy, but the Nihonjin grumble that they are growing more and more prolific in their island nation, and that they are...well, less refined.

At the bottom of Takaosan is a tourist village with a number of shops near the cable-car station. Haruko bought me a delicious hot coffee from a vending machine. Vending machines are ubiquitous in Japan; they are well-stocked and clean, and I suppose you could still live a healthy life if you ate from them only. We were startled when a loud whoosh of steam was released from the side of a tourist stall. It was fathersan roasting chestnuts in his fancy steel machine. Inside his beautiful daughter was serving nuts to the hungry mob. I studied the sweetheart closely, impressed with her calm attentive demeanor, where she flashed a smile and gave a pleasant greeting to every customer. I wondered: is she really that nice at home? Haruko assured me that she probably is because Japanese are “good people.” Anyway the chestnuts were delicious, the squash meal was enhanced with a sticky brown sugar, and I think the species is Castanea crenata.

We returned to our hotel where our daughters were lounging on their beds which were littered with plastic wrappers of healthy snacks from the nearby convenience store (konbini), and I'm sure that they gave no thought – because they never asked – about our Takaosan adventure.