Friday, October 11, 2019


Rosa moyesii 'Regalia'
Edgeworthia papyrifera 'Red Dragon'

The color red can be dramatic in horticulture, whether it's found in the flower of a tulip in spring, or a rose in summer. The type flower for the Edgeworthia genus is yellow, so plantsmen get extra excited with the red-flowered E. papyrifera 'Red Dragon'. The blossom color of the “Giant Himalayan lily,” Cardiocrinum giganteum, is normally a cream-white, so plantsmen are aroused when a pinkish one flowers, and wouldn't it be fantastic if a blood-red blossom appeared?

Acer rufinerve 'Erythrocladum' 

Today's word red is derived from the Proto-Indo-European reudh. There was no one P.I.E. language per se, but moving backwards in time from our present (red) words, one travels back to reudh in the ancient Indian language Sanskrit, and the Germanic mother tongue, Proto-Germanic. Later, in Greek, the word became erythros, and thus we have the red-barked maple, Acer rufinerve 'Erythrocladum' and the reddish-leaved Aesculus x neglecta 'Erythroblastos'. Doctors and other biology nerds know that the term erythrocyte scientifically describes a red blood cell.

Rhododendron ochraceum

Or, we can go sideways as with sanguineum, since Ribes sanguineum comes from Latin sanguis, meaning “blood,” referring to the deep red flowers. Surprisingly, the word ochre or ocher is derived from Greek ochra, that from feminine of ochros for “yellow.” Nevertheless, the word has evolved to mean “red,” for that is the flower color of the recently discovered (Steve Hootman, Peter Cox) Chinese species, Rhododendron ochraceum. I have a small plant in my collection, but probably the largest growing in America is a splendid group at the Rhododendron Species Botanic Garden in Washington state. Director and discoverer Hootman relates: “There were only about four small plants found growing on top of a giant boulder in an untouched, deep valley [in the Jin Pin Mountains of southern Sichuan near the Yangtze River] full of exciting and new plants.”

Thuja plicata
Quercus rubra

Red is often used as a common name for plants, as with “Western Red cedar” describing Thuja plicata or “Northern Red oak” describing Quercus rubra. Sequoia sempervirens, Sequoiadendron giganteum, and I guess Metasequoia too, are commonly called “redwoods.” That can actually be a problem because it is all too easy for the novice to mix up the genera. For example, a local historian wrote an article in the local newspaper about the “redwoods” in Forest Grove, Oregon, where a 150 year old Sequoiadendron giganteum was recently cut down to save a beater – my adjective – house. The historian waxed on knowingly about how seed of the redwood was collected by an early Forest Grove nurseryman “along the coast of California.” Nope. Rather he collected the “Giant redwood” from the Sierra foothills in California. Yikes! – where was the editor on that boner?

Acer palmatum 'Red Dragon'

Acer palmatum 'Tamuke yama'

Acer palmatum 'Tamuke yama'

Horticultural writers – and I guess that I'm one – use various descriptions for the “kind” of red, such as ruby-red, burgundy red, fiery red, scarlet red etc. Acer palmatum 'Red Dragon' is obviously red in spring and summer, but in autumn it takes on a very different hue, a color even more brilliant. The same occurs on A.p. 'Tamuke yama' and all of the other red laceleafs.

Acer palmatum 'Beni shigitatsu sawa'

The Japanese have at least two words for red, aka and beni, with beni being the most commonly used for Japanese maples. Originally I collected A.p. 'Aka shigitatsu sawa', so listed in early editions of Japanese Maples by J.D. Vertrees. Apparently evidence prevailed – though no one consulted me – that the name should be changed to 'Beni shigitatsu sawa', and I suppose that's a more apt description for the type of red in the foliage. Actually, the cultivar, by whatever name, is not all that “red” anyway – it's just a cast of reddish color on an otherwise dark-green and black-veined leaf.

Acer palmatum 'Hubbs Red Willow' 

The Japanese Maples book lists eleven cultivars that begin with red: 'Red Autumn Lace', 'Red Baron', 'Red Cloud', 'Red Dragon', 'Red Elf', 'Red Filigree Lace', 'Red Flash', 'Red Pygmy', 'Red Spider', 'Red Spray' and 'Red Wood'. Furthermore, there are cultivars with “red” in the middle of the name, such as with A.p. 'Hubbs Red Willow'. Then there are “almost-red” names such as A.p 'Ruby Ridge', 'Rufescens', 'Rubrifolium' and others.

Acer palmatum 'Beni hoshi'

Acer palmatum 'Beni maiko'

There's no paucity with the name “beni” for Japanese maples. Besides the aforementioned 'Beni shigitatsu sawa', 'we have 'Beni chidori', 'Beni fushigi', 'Beni gasa', 'Beni hime', 'Beni hoshi', 'Beni kagama', 'Beni kawa', 'Beni komachi', 'Beni kumo no su', 'Beni maiko', 'Beni otake', 'Beni sazanami' and others. One of the first maples I grew in my career was 'Oshio beni', but it soon fell out of favor because the red foliage petered into bronze-green by midsummer, and so the popular, darker A.p. 'Bloodgood' overwhelmingly surpassed it in American horticulture. I regret, though, that I no longer grow even one specimen of 'Oshio beni'...goodbye brief friend.

Cannabis sativa 'Red Rocket'

Ginkgo biloba 'Blue Cloud'

The color red is something that gardeners and nurserymen can fantasize about. As a businessman, I know that I could easily sell thousands of Ginkgo biloba, at least initially, if I was able to discover one with blue or red leaves; and even more sales if the plant wasn't the normal green-leaved Cannabis sativa, but rather the imaginarily-electric C.s. 'Red Rocket'. Don't worry – I don't indulge – but realize that I regularly deal with the extremes in horticulture, so we poor nurserymen imagine a ridiculous payday if we discover the abnormal but something that resonates with the buying public.

So, let's beat around some bushes, and since we're now in the thick of autumn, let's take a visual tour of the red colours present in the Flora Wonder Arboretum and in nearby landscapes.

Acer rubrum 'V.J. Drake'

Acer rubrum spring flowers
“Red maples” abound in urban and suburban landscapes, and while the species of Acer rubrum is one that I never really notice in summer, it's one that is particularly vibrant in October. Only now do I realize that they are planted on virtually every street in my home-town of Forest Grove, Oregon. There are many cultivars and hybrids of red maple, of which I know very little, but one I encountered at the beginning of my career was A. rubrum 'V.J. Drake'. There is nothing to the boring green leaf in spring and summer to indicate the exciting yellow pattern that develops reliably every autumn. I'm not certain if Acer rubrum was coined the “red maple” due to its autumn color, or for its abundant red flowers in spring, but it is very impressive in both seasons.

Acer palmatum 'Green Tea'

I know that many wholesale nurseries, both large and small, offer only a handful of Japanese maple cultivars. Let's see: red upright – 'Bloodgood', check; red laceleaf – 'Crimson Queen', check; variegated – 'Butterfly', check; green laceleaf – 'Virides' (always mispeled) check; fall color – 'O sakazuki' check etc. As for the latter, 'O sakazuki', it was introduced in 1882 and the Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs (2014) states: “Leaves green, turning in autumn to fiery scarlet, probably the most brilliant of all Japanese maples.” That's quite a statement, but it did receive the RHS Award of Garden Merit. I like 'O sakazuki', but in my experience it is considered a non-event and customers seldom ask for it. I keep only a couple of plants on the place and we graft only 25 about every three years. A similar cultivar, but superior in my opinion, is Acer palmatum 'Green Tea'. It equals 'O sakazuki' for fall color, it's strong and well-branched, and it's more interesting in spring on account of pinkish new growth. It was selected at Buchholz Nursery a number of years ago where it boldly stood out from its seedling brethren.

Stewartia x henryae 'Skyrocket'

Stewartia x henryae

Plant snobs must have a Stewartia or two in their gardens to be considered valid, but only occasionally do you find them in plebian gardens, and I've never seen Stewartia used as a street tree. I'm partial to S. x henryae 'Skyrocket, a narrow form of the hybrid between S. pseudocamellia and S. monadelpha. Unfortunately we are not skilled enough to root Stewartia and our graft takes are dismal too. That's too bad – there are a lot of other nice cultivars – and it's surprising that this member of the Theaceae family is difficult when the related Camellia genus is very easy to propagate.

Stewartia monadelpha 'Fuji shidare'

I pay dearly for Stewartia monadelpha seedlings so I can graft the weeping cultivar 'Fuji shidare'. Since very few grafts take I grow on and sell the rootstocks at a larger size to allow time for the graft scar to heal. I wish I had more time left in my career so I could experiment, or better yet if I could copy someone who is more successful at grafting Stewartia. In any case, 'Fuji shidare' is relatively new to America and its orange-red autumn color is absolutely brilliant at this time. 'Fuji shidare' was sent to me from Japan, and I've never seen it elsewhere. My oldest stock plants are never on the sales list, but believe me, nearly every customer begs for them, like suddenly they're my best friend. Only two customers have been able to pry a couple from me – both female, both attractive...which tells you something I suppose.

Euonymus alatus 'Little Moses'

Euonymus bungeanus
Euonymus sieboldianus
Philipp von Siebold introduced Euonymus alatus from Japan in 1860. It's a species that you don't even notice in spring and summer – you can drive through town and not see any at all...until autumn when in fact they are vibrantly everywhere. I planted a few dwarf forms in my upper gardens at Flora Farm and I certainly have gotten my money's worth from them. Besides the ubiquitous 'Compactus', I have 'Chicago Fire', 'Fireball' and 'Little Moses', and the latter three have fun cultivar names, except that all three are patented. The generic name is from Greek euonumos which means “having a good name,” and it was Linnaeus who coined it. Alatus is Latin for “winged,” referring to the shape of the stem, but originally from P.I.E. al for “white” or “shiny.” I've never seen E. alatus at the bankrupt neighboring nursery, but they do grow variegated forms of Euonymus fortunei by the many thousands. They keep them (by constant pruning) for about two years past when they should have been shipped, then they eventually go onto the burn pile. I don't sell any Euonymus because my customers would totally skip that line item as if it was infectious. That's a shame because some species in my collection, like E. bungeanus, E. europaeus and E. sieboldianus are admired by all who see them, and are especially noteworthy for interesting trunks. The bottom line is that I don't have money but I do have a wonderful “good-name” tree collection.

Berberis 'Red Jewel'

The Berberis genus is another case where I indulged in plants that I also cannot sell, and one in particular – 'Red Jewel' – is a favorite that I placed near the office. It is a red jewel indeed, but a large red jewel, now about 5' tall by 5' wide (15 years). It's too late for me to do so now, but I should have planted a hedge of it somewhere. The foliage is purple-red in spring and summer, but now it's beginning to take on a scarlet hue, and the shiny red leaves will persist long into winter.

Disanthus cercidifolius

One of my favorite shrubs is Disanthus cercidifolius, and Hillier gives it a perfect description: “It is valued for its beautiful, soft crimson and claret-red autumn tints.” Soft crimson and claret-red; yes, it never colors evenly...which is part of the excitement, enough excitement that it gained the RHS Award of Garden Merit. I have grown it in full sun, but it's also one of the few plants that will turn to deep red even in shade. Disanthus is not common in landscapes, in part because its flowers are tiny, burgundy little things that are not conspicuous. Another problem is that it is prone to root rot. I had my oldest, a 20-year-old specimen that thrived at the nursery, then one year it went south – it didn't die but it wasn't right. I kept it for another three years, hoping for a miracle (because I deserve one now and then), but I finally cut it down. Maybe another problem with the Japanese/Chinese monotype is that some gardeners would confuse the Disanthus name as a misspelling of the Dianthus genus. The specific name cercidifolius refers to the leaf shape of the Cercis genus, while the generic name comes from the Greek words dis meaning “twice” and anthos meaning “flower,” because of the paired flowers.

Vitis coignetiae

I encountered the ornamental grape Vitis coignetiae one October day planted against a white wall at the RHS's Harlow Carr. The sun was out though the morning was still frosty, but I certainly warmed up to the dazzling autumnal colors of the vigorous vine's leaves. That was twenty years ago, but the result was that I returned home and found the grape offered in a specialty mail-order nursery and I planted two vines at the corners of my garage. My intention was to post them, and with strong support I would trellis them together. That construction was never accomplished, so now I just have two groping vines that I must prune three times per year to keep them from swallowing up a nearby Enkianthus and Rhododendron collection. I won't tend my garden indefinitely, and when I'm gone I fret about the new owner's commitment and ability to keep the grape monsters under control.

Fothergilla monticola
Parrotia persica

The Fothergilla genus was named in honor of the English physician and plant collector John Fothergill (1712-1780). I have them in the collection, but I admit to a mental block as to distinguish one species from another. They all look alike to me, so is the F. monticola (photo above) the same or a subspecies of F. major? My start came from plantsman Hatch's garden labeled as F. monticola, and I grafted five sticks onto a branched Parrotia persica. Four grafts took and a few years later I had a full bush on a colorful Parrotia trunk. What's interesting is that all four portions of the top change to fall color at slightly different times, but basically they transform from orange to red to deep purple, so you can almost set your calendar to the color present. Speaking of Parrotia, its leaves evolve pretty much the same way as Fothergilla, but then they are close cousins in the Hamamelidaceae family.

Liquidambar styraciflua 'Gumball'

Liquidambar styraciflua 'Gumball'

Formerly placed in the Hamamelidaceae family (now the Altingiaceae family) was Liquidambar styraciflua, a name first given by Linnaeus in 1753. Apparently L. was impressed with the tree's resin, for the genus was named from the Latin liquidus for fluid and the Arabic ambar, then he repeated it with the specific epithet styraciflua for “flowing with storax.” Prior to that, in John Ray's Historia Plantarum (1686), it was called Styrax liquida. Before the Europeans got involved the tree was called by native Americans Ocotzocuahuitl, a name which translates as a tree that gives pine resin from ocotl (pine), tzotl (resin) and cuahuitl (tree). Anyway, I have various cultivars in the Flora Wonder Arboretum that are beginning to change color. The foliage progresses pretty much the same as the Fothergilla and Parrotia genera, from orange to red to purple.

I began work today in the cold and dark – kind of depressing really – but now (9 AM) the sun has arrived and it illuminates a clear blue sky. Blue is a wonderful backdrop for the red foliage in the garden. We humans are lucky that our maker designed us with the ability to see color. The world would still be interesting if it was rendered in black and white, but what a great bonus to have reudh throbbing in our brains.


  1. Talon, speaking of red in photos - when are you going to have another photo contest?

  2. Thank you very much for your inspiring blog!!!