Friday, January 10, 2020

Haruko's Trees

From time to time my wife Haruko pulls a rabbit out of the hat and amazes her friends, her children and/or me. Me, definitely the other day when she furtively handed over a plastic art-tube with who-knows-what inside. Haru then shied away in the Reverse-Oriental-Back-Step as if the content was of no certain value, where I could decide whether to keep or throw away.

What happened is that we were eliminating nearly 50% of our household stuff – kid's books, old clothes, furniture etc. since we had to empty out our three upstairs bedrooms because we wanted to dump the old carpets and replace them with wood floors. Once the old was gone and we were woodenized we were all filled with satisfaction and Haruko and I declared that even if we lived here only a few months further, the expense was worth it. So: out went this to the dumpster, out went that to Goodwill, and some of the other went to my older children. We are now much more happy, or maybe more accurately: relieved.

Ok, so what's about the mysterious old art-tube, one of the few things that she brought from Japan when we married? I unrolled the paper scrolls from inside and was overwhelmed to discover her landscape-architecture project from the Tokyo University of Agriculture where the students were charged with the task to find and to photograph a number of trees – all from the same distance away – so that they could compare and choose the best tree for each situation. Haruko dilligently presented photos of all of the trees in question – for the professors only accepted certain species as valid – but she went much further by also sketching each one in ink next to her photograph. Needless to say, the creepy, tired old professors were stunned by her accomplishment, energized by a student so committed to doing her best, so that they eventually elevated her to more complicated projects...such as documenting the weeds of Chiba Prefecture – which I tease her about to this day.

Anyway, there were a couple dozen trees that she drew which – to me anyway – reveal her special delightful perspective. Let's take a look at some of them, some of those species that are officially accepted for public use in Japanese landscapes.

First, to my surprise (and to some derision) was Cedrus deodara which I have seen aplenty in Tokyo. Haruko actually assumed that it was a Japanese native since it is so-often used. I said no! – the species is native to the Himalaya, not Japan. How interesting that with the large number of conifers native to Japan that deodara is what the establishment prefers. It grows well, at least in Tokyo and for me in Oregon, though both are far different environments from the drier western Himalaya where I have seen it in the wild.

Another surprise was the preference of the eastern USA species Cornus florida over the Japanese/Chinese native Cornus kousa. I saw a number of C. florida in Tokyo in late Novemeber used as street trees, and they were in their autumn glory and looked completely healthy. Just because Haruko attended the Tokyo University, I presume the school's other graduates practice their landscape trade in all parts of Japan, from northern Hokkaido all the way south to Kyushu. I have no clue, Haruko neither, if C. florida does well in the very northern or the southernmost extremes (3008 km, 1869 miles apart). Actually I know very little about the flora of Japan – in Japan – but I could prattle forever about how the flora fares in western Oregon, or at least at Buchholz Nursery.

Pinus thunbergii
Of course Pinus thunbergii was a required species, the Japanese native “black pine.” It is totally unremarkable if you look at the canopy only, but for me the tree's torso – the trunk – is what I admire the most. It plates fantastically whether you are encountering a 30-year-old tree or some of the hundreds' year old specimens. I'll say that in Japan the trunk is more dark – hence: “black pine” – than the trees you see in America, but I would advise you to not completely trust my observation. Somewhere in Japan is the oldest P. thunbergii but unfortunately I don't know of it; but I would board the next airplane if somebody promised to take me to it. The species is named for Karl Peter Thunberg, a Swedish botanist/physician and is native to coastal areas of Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu, Japan and also South Korea. It is called gomsol in Korean, heisong in Chinese, and Kuro (dark) matsu (pine) in Japanese. P. thunbergii var. corticata is popular with bonsai aficionados, with corticata (from Latin corticatus) meaning “having a cortex” or “covered with bark or a barklike substance.” Ok – let me retract what I wrote earlier about the unremarkable canopy – it is actually fantastic in many natural or garden settings for its raw, wild form, and is especially provocative for white, newly-emerging candles in spring.

Cinnamomum camphora

Hmm...let's see, what about Haruko's Cinnamomum camphora, a tree I've never grown? It is native to “Tropical Asia and Malay peninsula to China and Japan,” according to The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs (2014), but if from Japan one suspects that would be Kyushu. A mystery to me is what is the specific identity of the Cinnamomum in the watercolor and sketch above. These are the work of Yusuke Nagamine, my wife's father from Miyazaki Prefecture, Kyushu. He was a powerful Tokyo banker, and when he retired he took up painting – joining a club, going to museums etc., so it shows the family's talent from top to bottom. If not C. camphora, the tree would be C. japonicum Siebold ex Nees, but other than admiring the genus, I know little else about it. I presented the question to Haruko and she said C. camphora, definitely. It was her father's favorite tree in his city and I think it was growing next to a bus stop where the riders could wait in the shade. In Kyushu the evergreen is called kusunoki.

I've never seen nor heard of Quercus phillyreoides, but according to Wikipedia “It is evergreen, withstands frost and can be grown in hardiness zone 7.” Furthermore: “The Japanese use the Q.p. or “ubame oak” to produce binchotan, a variety of vegetal activated carbon.” The value of binchotan is that it is a white charcoal (bincho zumi) that's traditionally used in Japanese cooking, and dates back to the Edo period. I don't know – I don't see any ornamental merit to the species, and I rather suspect that perhaps Japanese botany professors develop certain biases concerning natives as if the species needs a championist, and that is why Haruko was required to portray it.

Haruko did a good job in her sketch rendering of Dendropanax trifidus, a species little used in the West and probably a plant you do not know, but that shouldn't be because of a hardiness issue. Dendro is from Greek for “tree” and panax, from Greek panakeia means “all healing” (hence panacea). It was named by Linnaeus because he was apparently aware of its use in Oriental medicine, and the ginseng relative is in the Araliaceae family. My interest in it is because we have the related Oplopanax horridus in the Pacific Northwest, a spiny beast known as the “Devil's club” or “Devil's walking stick, “ a shrub that you definitely don't want to scramble through. The Dendropanax is known as kakuremino in Japanese and is traditionally used in moss gardens (roji) which lead to a tea house (chasshitsu), because of its simple, unassuming nature. I guess that's why we don't see it much in America – our people want a more colorful bang for the buck, but the Dendropanax leaves are glossy and the green flowers are followed by black berries.

I don't know what to make of Haruko's Osmanthus asiaticus Nakai, what species that could be. You will find it listed on the internet, as when some Japanese scientists were scrutinizing chemicals in the bark, and you can even find photos of it with its dainty white flowers, but neither Hillier, Krussmann or Bean list it, so it must be an outdated name for one of the other Asian species, some of which I grow. Haruko got out her Japanese field guide which was her authoritative text in college which includes O. asiaticus, so she was totally playing by the rules when she drew her trees. The Japanese common name for Osmanthus with white or pale white flowers is gin mokusei, as gin means “silver;” kin mokusei would be the name for the species with yellow-orange flowers such as O. fragrans f. aurantiacus, and a large plant of the latter could be smelled all across her university campus. After all, the genus name Osmanthus is from Greek osme meaning “fragrant” and anthos meaning “flower.”

Haruko's landscape architecture department encouraged the use of Laurus nobilis, the “Bay laurel” from the Mediterranean region which The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs (2014) describes, delightfully, as “the laurel of the ancients,* now grown for its aromatic foliage and for its usefulness as a dense, pyramidal, evergreen shrub or tree.” Wow! – “the ancients,” how exciting is that? The genus contains only two species – the one from mid-earth, nobilis – and the other, azorica, more tender, from the Canary Islands and Azores (Hillier, 2014). Supposedly, its best use is for, as Hillier says: “good hedges;” as it “stands clipping well.” The plant is commonly used in Mediterranean cuisines, both from the berries and from pressed leaf oil, and the wood gives off a nice smoke flavoring, but – you might want to know – it is a common addition to the Bloody Mary, one of the best all-time-drinks.

*Basically, Apollo had the hots for the river nymph Daphne. She begged Eros (Cupid) to be free of him so he changed her into a laurel tree. Apollo didn't completely give up for he was found resting on his laurels.

We grow Styphnolobium japonicum 'Pendula', but back in Haru's college days it was known as Sophora japonica. In fact early editions of Hillier list Sophora japonica and there was no mention of Styphnolobium at all. The weeping form 'Pendula' can be found in a number of European arboreta, and when I first encountered it at Wespelaar in Belgium labeled Styphnolobium I had an urge to race into their office and announce they had a label mistake. I buy, sell and collect plants as much as anyone, but I always seem to be absent when it comes to nomenclatural changes. Funny that they stuck with (almost) the same specific epithet when the “Chinese scholar tree,” or “Pagoda tree” is native to China, not Japan, and indeed it was once scientifically known as Sophora sinensis Forrest. Sophora is a more attractive name than Styphnolobium and comes from the Arabic sufayra, a tree in the Sophora genus. Styphnolobium was kicked out of the Sophora group because it doesn't produce nitrogen fixing bacteria.

Two plants I can't stand, Aucuba japonica and Fatsia japonica, are nevertheless popular in Japanese landscapes. For both genera there's an endless amount of variegated cultivars. I remember from 16 years ago in Japan visiting a plant collection of about an acre where everything – every damn plant – was variegated. That was the collector's thing I guess, and he even had a peony with variegated leaves. Eventually he sobered up because Haruko reported that he grew tired of it and sold off all the plants. The botanic name aucuba is a corruption of the Japanese word aokiba which means “blue tree”* while Fatsi it is yatsude, meaning “eight fingers” due to the eight leaf lobes.

*“Ao” means green today but in old times it was used for both blue and green. Ki means “tree” and ba means “leaf.”

I wished that I would have had a crystal ball to know that Haruko would eventually come into my life, probably I would have been more patient and less intense. We really have fun together, and she is famous in the community for her humor, besides being sweet and kind and helpful to all. She is a wonderful mother to our two children, plus a positive link to my older three children, and maybe most impressively, a cherished “second mother” to many of Forest Grove's young kids and teenagers. She is well-known and loved. When she announced to her Tokyo professor that she wanted to do a year's internship in America, he was uncertain and asked “why?” She answered, “to learn more about plants.” Again, he wondered why? – in other words: we have our landscapes, both potential and those already existing, and we have our prescribed list of why do you need to investigate further? Thankfully she came to America anyway.

So, why did a Tokyo banker's daughter develop such an interest in trees and landscapes? The answer is that she and her sister were sometimes caretakers for two young children who had down syndrome. Haruko observed that they were gleefully happy in a park setting running among the trees, and she could see that parks were no accident, that someone decided what to plant and where to plant them. Haruko's parents were supportive of her America aspirations but her father admonished her to not “go there and get married.” She insisted that it was the last thing she would ever do. Well, we're twenty years later...

Anyway, I'll definitely keep her sketches; in fact hopefully I can be buried with them.


  1. Perhaps your best post of all.

  2. Love this!!!! Thank you for sharing her talent and story. <3

  3. What a lovely discovery after 20 years.

  4. How sweet - tell your wife thank you for sharing her work!