Friday, May 15, 2020

Flora's Whimsy

Last week I celebrated the virtues of the calm and lush shades of green, but today I revel in the more bombastic stimuli now occurring at the Flora Wonder Arboretum. You might speculate that the colorful extravaganza is all in the service of procreation – to lure the pollinators – but it also seems likely that Flora, or other Gods from above, also just possess a whimsical urge to entertain us.

Clematis 'Pink Fantasy'

Today's blog was inspired by a Clematis in bloom with ridiculously pink flowers. When my daughter turned 16 last year I wanted to give her something special as a gift. My wife said nothing would work, just give her some money, so I followed instruction. But Sweet 16 also asked if I would take her plant shopping because she wanted a flowering vine of some sort to train up outside her bedroom window. I readily agreed, proud as the dickens that she wanted a real plant instead of something like a tattoo or damn piercing. Well, the pink Clematis is not what I would have chosen, but she got her wish.

Rhododendron stenopetalum 'Koromo shikibu'

Rhododendron stenopetalum 'Koromo shikibu'

Murasaki Shikibu
I acquired Rhododendron 'Koromo shikibu' from the Rhododendron Species Botanic Garden in Washington state and it is showing off in our Blue Forest garden. The label said the species is stenopetalum, but that species cannot be found in the wild, so it is likely a hybrid which could have been produced by a Japanese botanist or gardener, or perhaps it occurred spontaneously. In any case it is an evergreen azalea with an unusual lavender-pink sepal color. It is also uncertain how it got its cultivar name, but it might refer to the flowing robes of Murasaki Shikibu (973-1016), author of The Tale of Genji, widely considered the world's first novel. She was a novelist, poet and lady-in-waiting at the Imperial court in the Heian Period. Murasaki Shikibu was her pen name, but no one knows her real given name. She was educated and was proficient in classical Chinese, which was unusual because women were then thought to be incapable of real intelligence. Her “intelligent” father lamented that she was a female, “Just my luck, what a pity she was not born a man!” But despite being a smarty she was known for a strong personality that seldom won her friends. I don't know but I really think that we could have hit if off.

Acer palmatum 'Murasaki shikibu'

There is another 'Murasaki shikibu', this time for a variegated Acer palmatum. It is a colorful mutant with twisted-lobed green leaves that are variegated with pink, red and white. There are a number of similar-looking selections which can look nice, but they're prone to revert. You can have three trees of the same age – as I did with Acer palmatum 'Kotobuki' – but they can vary in size: the most colorful is the smallest (with poor scion wood), the medium is pretty good for color, while the largest is mostly green, so you can't really propagate and sell from the most vigorous one; in fact you throw it out.

Bletilla striata 'Murasaki shikibu'

So, the maple should probably be discontinued, but there's yet another 'Murasaki shikibu' for a great Bletilla striata cultivar, and its color is similar to the Rhododendron 'Koromo shikibu'. I love the Bletillas which are blooming now and are plenty hardy in my area. They are easy to grow, never finicky like so many of the orchids. They say that the genus prefers the shade of a woodland garden with humusy soil, but we have a number of them in plain hard dirt in full sun, and one named 'Alba' annually produces hundreds of blossoms that rise above the lush green foliage.

Acer x 'Hot Blonde'

Acer x 'Hot Blonde'

Another fantastic plant named for a woman is Acer x 'Hot Blonde', a yellow selection that is believed to be a chance hybrid between Acer oliverianum and Acer palmatum, therefore it can be considered a “Chinese Japanese maple.” It was discovered by the Nichols brothers of MrMaple and named for Matt's wife who...really is a hot blonde. In spring 'Hot Blonde' (the maple) displays broad yellow leaves with an orange border, and then for some reason turns to a deep red from autumn to early winter. The selection is still new for me and untested outside in Oregon, but the Nichols boys attest to its vigor and that it can take full sun at their East Flat Rock, North Carolina location. The Chinese Acer oliverianum is hardy to USDA zone 7 (0 F) while Acer palmatum is usually reliable to USDA zone 5 (-20 F) so my guess is that 'Hot Blonde' would fall in the middle.

Pieris japonica 'Flaming Silver' 

Rosso, The Challenge of the Pierides
Pieris japonica 'Flaming Silver' pops with orange-red new growth at this time. By summer the foliage hardens to a green color with a silver edge, hence the name. As with most “Andromeda” cultivars, it is fairly easy to propagate from rooted cuttings under mist in summer. Easy, so we don't propagate anymore, and leave 'Flaming Silver' to the Pieris/Rhododendron growers who produce large numbers with slim profit margins. The genus name Pieris is from Greek Pierides, a name for the Muses, the deities of song, dance and memory upon which all thinkers and artists depend. Even I must consult with the muses before I begin the Flora Wonder Blog, because if I didn't I would certainly be unable to complete the first sentence.

Picea glauca 'Mac Gold'

Many of the conifers “flower” profusely in May. No, not flowers in the true botanical sense, but rather flushes of new growth that can rival any flowering reproductive structure. New growth with conifers is almost always differently colored, and of a lighter hue than the older needles. But some, like with Picea glauca 'Mac Gold' or Pinus contorta 'Taylor's Sunburst', are dramatically more vivid than usual. Picea glauca 'Mac Gold' (AKA 'McConnal's Gold') is a wonderfully formal, dense, pyramidal selection, but poorly named because the new growth is cream-white, with nary a spec of gold ever. Since the bulk of the tree is dark blue-green, it can support the spring flush without the white portions burning.

Picea pungens 'Maigold'

Picea pungens 'Gebelle's Golden Spring'

Picea pungens 'Spring Ghost'

The Picea pungens species has a number of selections with the spring “bloom.” 'Maigold' (May gold) is a pretty European form while 'Gebelle's Golden Spring' is its American counterpart. As you can see from the photos both are only slightly gold-blushed, yet both carry “gold” in their names. Picea pungens 'Spring Ghost' is even more showy than the previous two, but then it's also more susceptible to burn, and we coined the adage: “Spring Ghost, Summer Toast.” 'Spring Ghost' was discovered in Minnesota by Bailey Nurseries, and I was the first to propagate and name it. The idea was that we would then sell liners back to Bailey since they had no experience with grafting spruce. By mutual consent we eventually discontinued the relationship because graft takes were very low, and the shape of the subsequent propagules was never impressive (as in Christmas tree shape). My first tree still resides in the Display Garden, and after 36 years it is only 15' tall by 12' wide at the base, and while it still toasts, the burn is less than when it was young; still I can't consider it a commercial tree.

Picea orientalis 'Aureospicata'

Picea orientalis 'Aureospicata'

Picea orientalis 'Aureospicata' pollen in May

Picea orientalis 'Aureospicata' cone and pollen in May

Picea orientalis 'Lemon Drop'

Picea orientalis, the “Caucasian spruce,” has a number of cultivars with a golden spring flush. 'Aureospicata' (AKA 'Aurea') is as normal sized as the type and with a similar shape, but it is distinguished by its butter-yellow new growth which lasts for 5 to 6 weeks before hardening to green, dark green actually. I have two 40-year-old trees in the original Display Garden but haven't propagated it for the past 20 years; I'm no cheerleader for any cultivar, no matter my opinion about it, since the fact is that no one buys it anymore. My trees are highly sexual, with each specimen having a million or two male strobili and the crimson female cones are present as well, about an inch long now. It looks like nature's strategy is for the now-withered male pollen to peter out before the female fully ripens so as to spread the genetics, nevertheless dozens of seedlings germinate in the garden every year and a number of them feature the yellow new growth. One such we selected (named 'Lemon Drop') as it appeared more dwarf than its mother, but the jury is still out because the original 'Lemon Drop' is growing on its own roots and one should compare graft to graft.

Acer rubrum 'Vanity'

The wildly-colored Acer rubrum 'Vanity is aptly named, and since it is a large wide-spreading bush I can imagine it used as a dramatic hedge. The variegation is probably too gaudy for elite garden snobs, but plebian dirt grubbers such as myself can have fun with 'Vanity'. The foliage evolves during the season, and by summer a lot of white appears on the leaf, nevertheless it does not burn in Oregon. For us, 'Vanity' strikes roots easily from soft summer cuttings under mist.

Acer pseudoplatanus 'Eskimo Sunset'

Esk River, New Zealand

A rival to 'Vanity' for splashy foliage is the New Zealand introduction Acer pseudoplatanus 'Eskimo Sunset'. Ya, ya – I know – in the trade it should be called 'Esk Sunset', named for the Esk. River in New Zealand, which was probably named by a Scottish settler after Scotland's Esk River. According to Wikipedia, the New Zealand river-version is said to rise “in the Dampier Range near Esk Head [flowing] southwest on the western side of the Puketeraki Range to reach the upper Waimakariri [River] some 20 km (12 mi) north of Springfield.” Did you follow those directions? Geeze, I've received similar instructions from local gas station attendants who have been recently released from prison due to the Covid crisis, only to become more lost than before. So why do I stick to the 'Eskimo Sunset' moniker rather than 'Esk'? Well, I first discovered the cultivar as a small, recently acquired tree on Saint J.D.'s (Vertrees) place just a few months after he passed away, and the label said 'Eskimo Sunset'. Knowing that he was an absolute stickler for correct nomenclature, I continued with the name that I saw on his label. How ironic that his maple life's purpose was to clean up the wrong names and the synonyms of Acer cultivars, but that he could have gotten this one wrong? Did a New Zealander send him the plant, and J.D. just assumed that 'Esk' was an abbreviation of 'Eskimo'? That doesn't seem Vertrees-like at all, so for me it remains a mystery. Anyway, I'm stubborn so I keep the “wrong” name, perhaps as an unconscious desire to honor my maple mentor.

Woodwardia unigemmata

Not as wildly-variegated nor as splashily-colored as the previous two maples, I grow a fern whose new fronds actually delight me more: Woodwardia unigemmata. The older leaves and the spiraling stems are artistically brilliant when green, but the warm color of the new growth is absolutely soothing to the soul. I cannot describe the frond color in the photo above – and I've just stared at it for ten minutes now – but I can't conjure an adequate description. Is there an artist in the Flora Wonder Blog readership who could perhaps enlighten us? Actually I like it when the blog becomes a two-way street where we can share and learn from each other. I want to always be correct, of course, and also the most original and observant too, but I quickly applaud those who are more so. As I said before, I want to be the dumbest guy in the room...and fortunately I usually am. I've met quite a number of people who are very inspiring.

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