Friday, May 1, 2020

Quite White


Vita Sackville-West

I had an old girlfriend; no, she wasn't old...then (but she is now); rather she was a girlfriend from a long time ago. For her birthday I gave her a beautiful coffee-table book that featured white flowers. Yes, she was blonde, but after she dumped me I wished she would have given the book back. Of course Vita Sackville-West created a white garden at Sissinghurst which she described as a grey, green and white garden: with “grey clumps of foliage, pierced here and there with tall white flowers.” White blooms are often associated with purity, but maybe the old hag Vita was trying to make up for a character devoid of it.

Abies alba

Bletilla striata 'Alba'
Callicarpa japonica 'Leucocarpa'

Campanula 'White Wonder'

One encounters the term alba frequently in horticulture, but it first appeared in the classical texts of Ptolemy, then later as Albion in Latin documents. Ultimately it is based on the Indo-European root for “white.” In horticulture and botany alba can refer to a specific epithet, such as Abies alba, as a forma or subspecies, and also as a cultivar name such as Bletilla striata 'Alba'. Botany abounds with leuco or leuca which comes from Greek leukos meaning “clear” or “lacking color” or “white.” We grow a Callicarpa japonica 'Leucocarpa', the “Japanese white beauty berry” for example. Then, for those plants named in the modern times (post 1959, where Latin is forbidden), we have the adjective white in a cultivar name, as with Campanula 'White Wonder' and Acer palmatum 'White Butterfly'.

Phlox subulata 'Vivian's White Blanket'

Eric Lucas
An old white man discovered and named Phlox subulata 'Vivian's White Blanket'. Office manager Eric Lucas doubles as our alpine-plant supervisor, and honestly, if he wasn't here we would be forced to drop the exciting and profitable program. In a trough in front of the office one of the plants is the spreading groundcover called Phlox subulata 'Schneewittchen' (“Snow White” in German). It went to seed and next to it the 'Vivian' sprouted and differed by it's miniature bun shape. I took a pot home to plant near the front door and I can verify that the 4” diameter gem possesses 88 tiny, milk-white flowers (yes wife Haruko counted them twice). Eric named it for his mother, the 97-year-old matriarch of the Lucas clan. The bun might be the cutest plant in the Flora Wonder Arboretum, and it's fittingly named for the spry old woman. The Phlox genus name means “flame” in Greek, obviously since many varieties bloom bright red. Subulata refers to the awl-shaped leaves, and as a member of the Polemoniaceae Family it is commonly known a the “Jacob's ladder.” In the Book of Genesis the biblical Patriarch Jacob dreamed of a ladder leading to heaven, the direction that I hope to eventually go.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'White Spot' from Arboretum Trompenburg 

Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'North Light'

Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'White Spot' is a mouthful for a plant name, and not a very tasty one either. 'White Spot' – what's that? – like a seagull crapped on your car's window? Actually 'White Spots' variegation is not clean and vibrant, and there are many other variegated conifers that are far more worthy. I stopped growing the cultivar about 15 years ago because apparently everyone else felt the same way as I. Nevertheless, in about 2012 I visited the Arboretum Trompenburg in Rotterdam in The Netherlands, and I found their specimen to be highly attractive. I commented to the garden Director, Gert Fortgens, that I was impressed because their specimen was more attractive than any other I have seen. Fortgens replied that it was because they keep their plant regularly sheared; so the more dense, the more color: that is their successful philosophy. I keep one in the F.W Arboretum for old times sake, but my production focus is with a witch's broom mutation from 'White Spot' that was named 'North Light' by me, but unfortunately it is still encumbered by it's Euro name of 'Schirrmann's Nordlicht' after the German who discovered it.

Synthyris stellata 'Alba'

Synthyris stellata 'Alba'

Synthyris stellata 'Alba' is certainly no show-off, rather it is a demure garden rarity that is in full bloom at this time. I got my start about 20 years ago from the now defunct Siskiyou Rare Plant Nursery, a southern Oregon mail-order company specializing in alpines. Normally the “Columbia Kittentails,” an evergreen perennial, sends up blue flower spikes at this time, so it's a coup I guess that I have the variety with pure white flowers. The species can be found at the western portion of the Columbia River Gorge between Oregon and Washington states, and I have discovered it also on Saddle Mountain in the Oregon Coast hills. I acquired it as S. stellata, but some would have it as S. missurica subsp. stellata 'Alba'. The genus is commonly called the “Spring Queen” or the “Snow Queen” because of it's early flowering, and again, my 'Alba' plant does not demand/command much attention in the garden. I don't think, furthermore, that there's a single employee in my company – past or present – who could locate my single specimen. I acquired my solo plant for $12.95 if I remember korrectly, but I've never propagated or made a single cent from it... and such is the nature of an arboretum. My plant performs admirably in full sun in my heavy/rich soil, but the experts will tell you that is a woodlander that prefers shade in a hummus-rich soil. The genus name comes from syn for “together” and thyris for “little door” or “valve,” referring to the capsules of the plant in fruit. It was first documented by Lewis and Clark at the headwaters of Hungry Creek in Idaho in 1806.

Rhododendron dauricum 'Alba'

Rhododendron dauricum 'Alba'

Frank Kingdon-Ward
Rhododendron dauricum 'Alba' (or 'Album') is a white cotton-like bush that I have planted down by my shaded southern creek. The species is native to forests in eastern Siberia, Mongolia and Hokkaido, Japan so it is plenty hardy, especially since the specific epithet dauricum refers to Dauria, a mountainous region in Siberia. Perhaps most important horticulturally is that it is a parent of the 'PJM' hybrid along with R. carolinianum. For me it is mostly deciduous and blossoms appear on bare stems as early as March, and the species itself received the prestigious British Award of Garden Merit (for the normal purple-flowered form). Beware, however, as all parts of the plant are poisonous if ingested; and furthermore be aware that this, and some other species of Rhododendron are pollinated by bees, and the honey they produce can sicken you. Plant explorer Frank Kingdon-Ward (1885-1958) found out the hard way on his travels from northern Burma towards Tibet, where his group suffered from a feeling of drunkenness, vomiting, and madness that lasted for several days; however the local Tibetans suffered no problems while eating the honey. It is said that ancient Greeks and Romans would leave Rhododendron honey in the path of invading armies, and the intruders would vomit and grow dizzy from the poison grayanotoxin contained in the honey.

Asa Gray

The neurotoxin was named for Leucothoe grayana, a Japanese native which was named for the American botanist Asa Gray. Gray (1810-1888) explained in his Darwinia that religion and science could coexist which was a novel concept for the time. He was also known for the Asa Gray disjunction, documenting the surprising similarity between many eastern Asian and eastern North American plants. He marveled that the flora from eastern North America was more similar to the Flora of Japan than that of West Coast USA.

Carya alba

Carya ovata, the “shagbark hickory,” used to be named Carya alba Nutt (for Thomas Nuttal, the English botanist who worked in America). The photo above was taken at a Belgium arboretum that specialized in American species, and the tree in question was quite large and old, which maybe explains the old name, but I don't know why the specific epithet was changed. The genius name is from Greek karya for “walnut,” and indeed it is in the Junglandaceae family. Ovata refers to the egg-shaped leaves. The eastern USA native makes for a wonderful large shade tree, while the nuts were an important food source for Native Americans and the early white settlers. Each nut is in a husk, and in the fall it splits open into four sections. The common name hickory is borrowed from the Algonquin pokahickory, and pawcohiccora was the nutmeat or a milky drink made from it.

Cornus alba 'Siberian Pearls'

Cornus alba used to be called Swida alba L. (for Linnaeus). Well, the flowers are white but the bark is red on the northeastern Asian species. Everyone who finds an interesting form seems compelled to patent it, so while I have a few of them in the garden I don't currently propagate or sell them. I bought the attractive cultivar 'Siberian Pearls' as I was impressed with its showy white berries, and I did plant a hundred cuttings which all struck root. Then I found out it was patented, but I decided to pot them up anyway. It took forever to sell them, and I think I dumped the last 50. 'Siberian Pearls' is a “cheap” plant anyway, suitable for the patent pimps who grow them by the thousands, the types of growers who tend toward bankruptcy during the hard times.

Daphne cneorum 'Alba'

There are still a couple of Daphne cneorum 'Alba' growing in the rock garden of the FW Arboretum. It is yet another plant that I have discontinued with horticulturally, and I admit that there is far more discontinued in my career than the number of plants that I currently grow. The problem with the Daphne is that my female employees would water them constantly, not wanting to be accused of letting something dry out, and the Daphne couldn't survive the deluge. I realized that I couldn't successfully grow just a few hundred... mixed in with everything else, but that I would have to commit to thousands and devote an entire greenhouse to them and monitor the irrigation by myself. Since the crew was adept at watering maples and conifers I gave up on the Daphne, and that included all species and cultivars of them. I am proud to be considered a plantsman, but my career (and enthusiasm) has been tempered by numerous setbacks, and there are days when I question why I should ever wake up and go to work in the first place. To those who succeed with Daphne – and I know a few – my hat is off to you, and you are always able to sell your product.

Morus alba 'Chaparral'
Morus alba 'Ho-o'

Morus alba is the “white mulberry,” a small tree from Asia, the leaves of which are fed to silkworms. The fruits are sweetly edible, beginning with a whitish color, then maturing to reddish black. In Oregon the tree is deciduous, with sexual flowers usually on separate trees (but not always). They appear in the form of catkins and the Morus genus holds the record for “rapid plant movement,” a phenomena that Charles Darwin documented in 1880. Its flower movement takes 25 microseconds – one millionth of a second – as pollen is shot from the stamens at a velocity of over half the speed of sound. I used to grow M. alba 'Paper Dolls' with green/white variegated leaves, but which was too vigorous for its own good, as shoots could reach 5' long by July, so we were forever pruning it; and besides the variegated foliage also tended to revert. Another cultivar is 'Ho-o', whatever that means, and is unique for highly ridged, crinkled leaves – maybe the ugliest plant in the collection. No one can identify it unless in fruit, and I supposed other plantsmen pity me for my weird choice in trees. 'Chaparral' is far more attractive as a small weeping tree, and while I've seen them sell for cheap at box stores it is a fruitless cultivar. The word Morus was used by Linnaeus and is the Latin word for the genus in the Moraceae family. There is nothing particularly interesting about the common name “mulberry” – which comes from the Latin for “morus.”

Pulsatilla vulgaris 'Alba'

Pulsatilla vulgaris 'Alba' seed

Easter has passed and so too the blossoms of Pulsatilla vulgaris 'Alba', the “White common Pasque flower.” The Latin word pasque means “grazing,” from the Greek paskha, but ultimately from the Hebrew pesakh for Passover. The flower name was bestowed by the herbalist Gerarde in 1597, and it's native to grasslands in Europe where the flower color is normally purple. The following seed heads develop into ornamented fluffy orbs resembling clematis. The genus name Pulsatilla is from Latin pulsatus meaning “beaten about” which describes the swaying flowers in the wind. Vulgaris means “common” in Latin and a myth persists about another common name of “Dane's Blood,” where the flower springs up where a Dane or a Roman soldier has died.

Leucadendron argenteum

Leucadendron argenteum

I had seen Leucadendron argenteum in various California arboreta, and when I saw one for sale at a southern retail nursery I snapped it up. It is not at all hardy in Oregon so I kept it in my GH20 hot house where I enjoyed it for a number of years... until the heater failed on a cold winter's night. The specific epithet argenteum gives rise to the common name of “Silvertree” due to the dense, silky-silver hairs. The generic name of the South African Leucadendron literally translates as “White tree” or “Witteboom” in Africaans. I probably won't make an attempt to acquire the Leucadendron again – I had my fun for awhile. That should be all white for me.

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