Friday, November 8, 2019

Whitman Farms

Lucile Whitman

I met the likable Lucile Whitman about 38 years ago, just after she arrived in Oregon from Tennessee. I can't remember the reason for my initial visit to her Salem-area nursery – I suppose she had something for sale – but back then her nursery was little more than a few fruit trees and some dirt clods. Maybe my purpose was to scrounge around the bareroot nursery that was next door, but that entity was forgettable while the estimable Ms. Whitman was most memorable. I suppose what impressed me most was that Lucile was a one-woman show, which was an oddity at that time in Oregon's nursery industry. And, I admit, I fell for her southern drawl.

Before long Lucile's informal nut and fruit tree farm expanded into growing unusual ornamental trees, and she produced them in either containers or in root-control bags in the ground. I experimented with the new grow-bag technology but it didn't seem to fit into my program, but I certainly see its advantages where any unskilled laborer could pop a tree out of the ground at any time of the year.

Ginkgo biloba 'Fandancer'

Morus macroura

Lucile's business proved successful because she produced new and unusual plants, and that, along with her charming personality, insured that she would maintain a loyal customer base. In contrast – in my case – my trees have to carry the entire load. I can visit Whitman farms at any time, but I took advantage of the Maple Society's itinerary, so I sat back on the huge bus loaded with fellow plant geeks. The previous day we toured a much larger, more organized and apparently much more profitable company, but I suspect that most of the society had a better time at Lucile's, so let's see what I found:

Asimina triloba 'Sunflower'

Asimina triloba

Naturally what impressed me most was the wide-ranging display of autumn color, in particular with a specimen of Asimina triloba 'Sunflower'. I have one 15-year-old tree of the common “pawpaw,” a deciduous eastern North American shrub, but it has yet to bear fruit, probably because of a lack of cross pollination. Lucile's cultivar 'Sunflower' may have been named for the golden-yellow autumn color or perhaps for the large fruit with yellow flesh. This cultivar produces few seeds and ripens in about September; the taste is like that of bananas, but it is understandable that children and other first-time consumers are somewhat leery of its custardy taste and texture, kind of like my children's aversion to figs and papayas. Indeed, when eaten raw it can produce nausea in some people, so it is best introduced in moderate amounts in ice cream or pies. The generic name comes from colonial French asiminier, and that from Native American assimen, while the specific epithet triloba refers to the flowers' three-lobed calices. The common name of pawpaw is probably from the American tropical fruit called papaya (Carica papaya) by the Spanish. For what it's worth, pawpaw fruit was a favorite dessert of President George Washington, and even President Thomas Jefferson had it planted at Monticello in Virginia.

C'mon everybody, let's sing:
Where, oh where is dear little Nellie?
Where, oh where is dear little Nellie?
Where, oh where is dear little Nellie?
Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.

Pickin' up pawpawpaws, put 'em in your pocket
Pickin' up pawpawpaws, put 'em in your pocket
Pickin' up pawpawpaws, put 'em in your pocket
Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.

I could almost fiddle-dance to that tune with Lucile.

Acer buergerianum 'Integrifolia'

I encountered a trident maple where the label read Acer buergerianum 'Integrifolia', but the name, from Latin integer meaning “entire” (leaf margins) and folium for “leaf,” is usually used for a species or subspecies, not for a cultivar. Lucile was occupied with other customers so I couldn't ask about her source. I know that the buergerianum species is variable with a number of varieties such as var. ningpoense, var. buergerianum, var. horizontale, var. formosanum and others, and that some trees are consistently unlobed. Indeed the Japanese botanist Makino described the unlobed as A. trifidum var. integrifolium, although as you can see from the photo above her trees' leaves are definitely tri-lobed.

Acer palmatum 'Pine Bark' 

Acer palmatum 'Nishiki gawa'

Lucile had a maple in the field with red autumn foliage and a label that read Acer palmatum 'Pine Bark'. The 2” caliper trunk was reminiscent of Acer palmatum 'Nishiki gawa' which I also grow, and in the Vertrees first edition of Japanese Maples he lists the “Pine Bark Maple” as a synonym of 'Nishiki gawa', implying that the former (with double quotes) is just the common name. However, the photo in the first edition shows a very deeply furrowed trunk, more so than the 'Nishiki gawa' photo of the 4th edition. Originally I acquired 'Pine Bark' as a cultivar – I don't remember from where – but I soon tired of it because it would almost break in half just by looking at it, unlike the more sturdy 'Nishiki gawa'. I'm not talking about A.p. 'Ara kawa', the “Rough-bark maple,” which is even less convoluted than 'Nishiki gawa'. So what's my point? I don't know, except that I wonder if there was once a third cultivar in the trade that everyone has since given up on? You certainly can't succeed with a tree like my original 'Pine Bark' that is so fragile. Vertrees says (1st edition) that 'Pine Bark' usually has seven elongate-ovate lobes that “taper to a long point” – as does 'Nishiki gawa' – and that furthermore, “Mature leaves assume bright green color and turn to strong yellow in the Fall,” unlike the red of my 'Nishiki gawa'. What is bizarre is that the 'Pine-Bark' photo in the Vertrees 1st edition has a caption reading: Acer palmatum 'Pine Bark Maple” with a single quote at the beginning and a double quote at the end...probably the only occurrence in the history of published nomenclature to do so.

Lucile Whitman

The Flora Wonder Blog has been accused before of being “buried in a sprawling mess of recollection and quibbles about minutiae” to which I totally concur. In a sense, I do what botanists do – quibbling about minutiae, such as with the paragraph above – except that I also have dirt on my hands, and to survive I must manage people, worry about the market and deal with the vagaries of mother nature...not to mention my own health and vitality. When Lucile spoke to Maple Society members at the beginning of our tour she suggested that she hadn't accomplished anything beyond what any of us could have done. But – she reminded us – she was always at work; and that's obvious because I've never seen her wear anything other than work clothes, and always with her trusted Felco pruners at the quick.

Sorbus rufoferruginea 'Longwood Sunset'

Lucile's enthusiasm for plants is infectious, but one wonders where she acquires her new starts, and on every visit I discover species and cultivars that I never knew existed. One such was Sorbus rufoferruginea, and since I knew nothing about it I turned to the Hillier's Manual of Trees and Shrubs (2014) where I was advised to “See S. commixta var. rufoferruginea.” An earlier (2nd) edition of the Manual listed it as a species: “A small tree closely related to S. commixta, of which it is perhaps merely a variety. It differs in its slightly villous buds and the presence of soft brown hairs on the inflorescence and along the leaf midrib beneath. Japan. I. 1915.” In any case the (now) variety received an Award of Merit in 1958, but as S. matsumurana. I was gifted S. matsumurana by an English source two years ago, but neither the earlier nor the current Manual lists it as a species. Well, I'm hardly a Sorbus expert, but I think I should acquire a S. rufoferruginea so I can study this species or variety for myself. The specific epithet is interesting: rufo is Latin for “red” and ferruginea means “rust-coloured,” and maybe it is rare in collections because “rowan” lovers prefer a tree with more bright-red berries, as with S. commixta.

Stewartia koreana

Stewartia koreana 

Maybe I should get a Stewartia koreana from Whitman Farms as well – I have never grown it, but I saw a beautiful specimen at Gossler Farms Nursery, Oregon, a few years ago. Back to Hilliers (2nd, 1972), where S. koreana is described as “A superb, small to medium-sized tree...” It was introduced by E.H. Wilson in 1917, which is a reminder that the great plant hunter visited Korea and Formosa in 1917-1918 while collecting for the Arnold Arboretum. The 2014 Hilliers' now lists S. koreana as S. pseudocamellia Koreana Group (var. koreana Nakai ex Rehder). It's odd that the Gossler Guide to the Best Hardy Shrubs (2004), with “More than 350 Expert Choices for Your Garden,” doesn't include S. koreana when I would consider it the star plant in their famous garden.

Eucalyptus nicholii

I had never encountered a Eucalyptus nicholii before this most recent visit to Whitman Farms. I could have stared at it for hours without ever guessing that it was a Eucalyptus; in fact before I found a label I supposed that I was looking at some species of Salix (willow), and indeed it is commonly known as the “Willow Peppermint.” Further research reveals that E. nicholii was first formally described in 1929 by Joseph Maiden in his book A Critical Revision of the Genus Eucalyptus, and the specific epithet honors Maiden's private secretary and “Chief Clerk, Botanic Gardens” Richard Nichol. It is considered a “Vulnerable” species that is native to Australia's Northern Tablelands in New South Wales. I love the trunks of most Eucalyptus species, but I don't grow even one because I don't care for the foliage; however, since E. nicholii's leaves don't look like a gum I should acquire one also, especially since Hillier describes it as an “elegant tree.”

Cercidiphyllum japonicum 'Heronswood Globe'

I noticed that Lucile is growing Cercidiphyllum japonicum 'Heronswood Globe' which Hillier describes as “A slow-growing bushy dwarf selection with beautiful creamy yellow to pink autumn colour.” I grew it years ago but discontinued because sales were weak, and besides it was neither “slow-growing” nor “dwarf.” The original seedling (photo above) was far more vigorous than Hillier states, and subsequent grafts on Cercidiphyllum rootstock are even more so. For a couple of years I sold grafts back to the now defunct Heronswood Nursery, but we discontinued that propagation because I think their sales were slow too. One observation is that I suppose any propagator would look at the Cercidiphyllum genus and consider it a cinch to root, but for me I never struck even one root on any of the “Katsura” cultivars that I tried.

Cotinus obovatus

I have never seen Cotinus obovatus, the “American smoke tree,” in the wild, but then it is rare in the southeast of USA. Lucile had a group in a greenhouse that were deliciously glowing, and once again I decided that I need to get one. There are many contenders for “best” autumn-color shrub, but C. obovatus must be considered near or at the top of the list. At first it was placed in the Rhus (sumac) genus in the Anacardiaceae family by botanist Thomas Nuttall. The genus name is from Greek kotinus meaning “olive,” while the specific name refers to the egg-shaped leaf with the broadest end uppermost. I know I must site the Cotinus with plenty of sideways room, and even if it is annually coppiced the new shoots can zoom up to 12-15' tall by the end of summer.

Cornus nuttallii 'Colrigo Giant'

Cornus nuttallii 'Colrigo Giant' 

The Columbia River Gorge

Thomas Nuttall
Lucile grows many cultivars of dogwood, and I was impressed with the autumn foliage on Cornus nuttallii 'Colrigo Giant'. Speaking of the botanist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859) who described Cotinus obovatus, he was actually an Englishman, but was famous for his discoveries of North American flora and fauna. His collecting trips provided material for his principal work The Genera of North American Plants (1818), and he is commemorated for the “Pacific dogwood,” Cornus nuttallii. On one trip Nuttall travelled through the Midwest, then boated down the Snake River to the Columbia River which passes through the world-known Columbia River Gorge. How fitting, then, that a tree with the largest flower of this species was named 'Colrigo Giant' for the Columbia River Gorge. I have two specimens of the dogwood planted next to my house, and every year I marvel at the picnic-plate size of the flowers. I like the description given by Dancing Oaks Nursery of Oregon: “Amaze your gardening friends with these huge flowers that can reach up to 8” across! And also with thick, sturdy stems, I think this one has been nipping on steroids.”

Cornus kousa 'Summer Fun'

Cornus kousa 'Summer Fun' 

My Flora Wonder Blog was recently described by a grump as “self-serving” and he would be correct. Basically the theme is plants and I can promote or demote any I wish, and if you don't like it you can simply push the switch button and go back to your porn. Anyway, the final plant that I'll mention is my introduction of Cornus kousa 'Summer Fun', a discovery that Hillier calls “A spectacular small tree with grey-green and pale cream variegated leaves suffused with pink in autumn.” Ms. Whitman grows it and in Oregon alone it is produced by the thousands annually. In my opinion the best feature is that it is not patented, for which I am proud, because I strongly believe in free-market capitalism. 'Summer Fun' originated as a stem sport on a 16” green rootstock, and I deserve no special credit for its discovery because how could I miss it? I potted up the original seedling myself because I didn't trust any employee to touch it, as in “Oops, the variegated part broke off.” I kept some green on for the first four years, then I grafted a few scions from the variegated portion before I had the nerve to prune all of the green off.

Cornus kousa 'Summer Fun'

The original 'Summer Fun' can be seen from one office window, but then I also walk past it a couple of times per day, and have done so for the past twenty years. It is not for sale nor will it ever be. However, as I was writing the paragraph above I received an email from Mr. J. from New York:

Hi Talon,
Hope all is well.
For the past 15 years M. [his boss] has been the chairman of the board for xyz investments. He is retiring from the board and the company would like to buy him a gift and they are thinking about a tree. Do you have anything...a special maple or champion tree?
Thanks, J.

Wow – what a coincidence! I won't sell the original 'Summer Fun', absolutely not, but I can give it away. Yes, that will be the “special” gift.

Enough about me and back to Whitman Farms. I have a few customers who buy from me and from Lucile's nursery. If you're not familiar with her then get with it and place an order.

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