…And houseless there the snow-bird flits
Beneath the fir-trees’ crape…
Beginning in December and throughout our winter we may take notice, often heretofore overlooked, of remarkable conifers throughout our landscape. Herein we grow many specimens of eastern white pine, Douglas fir, Norway spruce, Alaska yellow-cedar, Cedar of Lebanon, Japanese cryptomeria, along with a few young, diminutive giant sequoias. Remembering that not all conifers are evergreen, we even appreciate the framework bare branches of the deciduous bald cypress, larch, golden larch and dawn redwood.
Another choice conifer is the Nikko Fir, Abies homolepis, native to the mountains of central and southern Honshu and Shikoku, Japan. In native-forest maturity this may reach 80 to 100-feet, but in landscape use often will achieve heights less than that. As with all the four-dozen species of Abies, the leaves are born singly and persist for five or more years. Its needles are 1 ¼-inch-long, dark green above, with two white stomatal bands on their undersides.
…Within a sparkling, emerald mountain chain
Where day and night fir-needles sift like rain…
As with most conifers there are separate male and female flowers oneach Nikko Fir tree. The ½-inch, yellowish-green, male pollen producing flowers (strobili) are easier to see than the even smaller female flowers. But it is the fertilized female flowers which will produce the fir cones, containing seeds for the succeeding generation. Initially a purple-blue color, these in maturity become brown, 4-inch-long, and sit distinctly upright on the branches. Eventually all these fir cones disintegrate, releasing their seeds to the wind while still attached to the tree. It is rare to find an intact fir cone on the ground beneath these trees.
…And fir cone standing stiff up in the heat…
People have been entwined with plants for millennia, compiling untold numbers of compatible stories. Accordingly, our Nikko Fir, Abies homolepis may be woven as a distant tangent to our newly created Asa Gray Garden. Allowing for a bit of literary license, an initial connection is through Phillip von Siebold (1796-1866), German-born, physician-botanist. This surgeon with the Dutch East Indies Army was credited with performing the first cataract operation in Japan, while stationed there from 1823-1830. He additionally introduced Nikko Fir along with many other at the time unknown plants to Europe. In collaboration with Joseph Gerhard Zuccarini (1787-1848), a German professor of botany, they published a large format, illustrated Flora Japonica, first appearing in 1835.
Asa Gray (1810-1888), preeminent nineteenth-century botanist, wrote a review in 1840 of this two-volume flora that included hand colored illustrations of Japanese plants. Gray’s review of this Flora Japonica began his astute botanical observations of the striking morphological similarities between several Asian and Eastern North American genera. Building on this early biogeography with later obtained Japanese herbarium specimens helped Gray research/present a theory of disjunct temperate species having evolved from a common ancestor. This helped advance botany as a scholarly scientific discipline in the United States. This was as well a key tenant in Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) 1859 theory of evolution through natural selection. Our expanded, replanted Asa Gray Garden includes numerous pairs of Eastern Asia-Eastern North America plant pairings to help honor Gray’s legacy.
Now however circling back to Nikko Fir, Abies homolepis, our best specimens are found on Pilgrim Path, at Spruce Avenue and on Sycamore Avenue at Gerardia Path, two of our extensive winter arboreal nobility.
…And thou, with all thy instruments in tune,
Of heaving fields and heavy swinging fir,
Strikest a lay
That doth rehearse
Her ancient freedom to the universe…
…How interesting will our times become? How much more interesting can they become?
A retired medical school dean would appropriately interject into conversations that hearing any one’s doctor mention, “isn’t that interesting,” should not always be the preface of what one wanted to hear next. “Isn’t that interesting,” is also heard from visitors walking our landscape, during this time of year, when coming upon any of our Symphoricarpos, Snowberry or Coralberry.
It is completely unimportant. That is why it is so interesting.
These modest-sized, twiggy, deciduous shrubs within the CAPRIFOLIACEAE, the honeysuckle family, are innocuous most of the year. Inconspicuous small opposite leaves, lacking any fall color and easy to miss small clusters of pinkish, 1/8-to-1/4-inch, bell-shaped flowers do not cause these to capture much attention. However, as we come into November, it is the distinctive and persisting, white and magenta fleshy fruits that serve as the most conspicuous ornamental features of these primarily native shrubs.
Of the 15 Symphoricarpos species, only one is indigenous to Asia, the rest are native to North and/or Central America. The etymology of the genus alludes to ancient Greek for fruit (karpos) bearing together (sumphorein). These ½-inch diameter, fleshy, berry-like drupes containing two seeds matured back in September. While offering food for various birds and small animals, the lengthy time these fruits ornamentally persist, for our enjoyment, suggest many birds do not have them on their top ten, or perhaps even top-twenty, bulking-up-list pre-migration.
someone remarks between bites.
“to be right here in the moment
yet also out there watching
some once-in-a-lifetime sublimity
unfold, as if living as if already
Nonetheless we can mention appropriate, bi-centennial historical notoriety. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) in presidential retirement was adding these plants at Monticello. This enthusiastic botanist often shared his new plant finds with many others and we know he sent cuttings of snowberry to Madame de Tesse (1741-1814), in France, his friend and correspondent of three decades.
There is not a sprig of grass
that shoots uninteresting to me.
-T. Jefferson, Dec. 1790
The greatest service which can be
rendered any country is to add
an useful plant to its culture…
T. Jefferson, In Memoir
At Mount Auburn we recently added more cultivars of coral berry, some tried (‘Candy Sensation’) and some new for us (‘Proudberry’) which may be found on Spruce Avenue, along with snowberry found elsewhere.
What really dissatisfies in American civilization is the want of the interesting, …
…November sun that latens with our age,
Filching the zest from our young pilgrimage,
Writing old wisdom on our virgin page.
Not the hot ardour of the Summer’s height,
Not the sharp-minted coinage of the Spring
When all was but a delicate delight
And all took wing and all the bells did ring;
Not the spare Winter, clothed in black and white,
Forcing us into fancy’s eremite,
But gliding Time that slid us into gold
Richer and deeper as we grew more old
And saw some meaning in this dying day;
Travelers of the year, who faintly say
How could such beauty walk the common way?
What’s in Bloom: Week of November 4, 2019
Japanese anemone, Anemone hupehensis, several locations
Aster, Aster tartaricus, Asa Gray garden
Aster, Symphyotrichum ‘Raydon’s Favorite’, Asa Gray garden
Mountain fleece, Persicaria amplexicaulis, Asa Gray garden
Leopard plant, Ligularia sp., Asa Gray garden
Panicle hydrangea, Hydrangea paniculata, several locations
Rose, Rosa sp., several locations
‘The Fairy’ rose, Rosa ‘The Fairy’, @ Sphinx
Witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, Oak Ave., Hazel Path
Chrysanthemum, Chrysanthemum sp., many locations
Ladies tresses, Spiranthes sp., Beech Ave.
‘Endless Summer’ Hydrangea, Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Bailmer’, Spelman Rd.
‘Knockout’ rose, Rosa ’Radrazz’, Spelman Rd.
‘Rose Creek’ Abelia, Abelia xgrandiflora ‘Rose Creek’, Field Rd.
Geranium, Geranium ‘Rozanne’, Admin. Bldg.
Catmint, Nepetaa ‘Blue Wonder’, Azalea Path
Cosmos, Cosmos bipinnatus, Greenhouse garden
Zinnia, Zinnia sp., Greenhouse garden
Cock’s comb, Celosia sp., Greenhouse garden
Globe amaranth, Gomphrena sp., Greenhouse garden
German statice, Limonium sp., Greenhouse garden
…Yellow, yellow, yellow
it eats into the leaves,
smears with saffron…
-William Carlos Williams
Autumn at Mount Auburn is full with an impressionistic cornucopia of changing landscape colors. During this weeks-long period, different plants pass the mantle of being the “plant of the day.” One plant providing outstanding yellow is Amsonia hubrichtii, thread-leaf blue star.
The genus Amsonia includes about 20 species of clump-forming, herbaceous perennials, primarily native to North America, with one species each also native to eastern Asia and Europe. The name commemorates John Amson (1698-1765), English physician and botanist, who was the one-time mayor (ca.1750) of Williamsburg in Colonial Virginia.
Amsonia hubrichtii, thread-leaf blue star in May displays pale blue flowers atop of three-foot-high stems. Its leaves are uniquely narrow, finely textured, adding contrast next to any companion plants. In breezes, there are kinetic, delightful sways of this billowy foliage. October provides further grandeur as these leaves slowly morph into a butter-yellow or vibrant gold color that will persist for 2-3 weeks. This was the Perennial Plant Association’s “Plant of the Year” in 2011.
We also grow Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia, blue star that likewise produces blue springtime flowers and outstanding yellow fall foliage. The lanceolate, willow-like leaves are wider than thread-leaf. These two stars are problem free, three-season, reliable perennials. On your next visit to Mount Auburn look for these on Central Avenue, Narcissus Path, at the flagpole and in Asa Gray garden among other locations.
…Yellow as a goat’s wise and wicked eyes,
yellow as a hill of daffodils,
yellow as dandelions by the highway,
yellow as butter and egg yolks,
yellow as a school bus stopping you,
yellow as a slicker in a downpour…