Category: Winter Horticulture Highlight

Horticulture Highlight: Cephalotaxus harringtonia, Plum yew

March 3, 2020

…you are so little

you are more like a flower

who found you in the green forest

and were you very sorry to come away?…

            -e. e. cummings

Although small in stature Cephalotaxus harringtonia, Plum yew exceeds yew in ornamental quality. It has beautiful, glossy, dark green, evergreen needles, one-two-inches long. It is another genus that normally has male and female reproductive flowers on separate plants. The clusters of male strobili (flowers) appear on the underside of branch stems in April and are a yellowish-green color.  When successfully fertilized separate female plants will produce a fruit containing a single seed surrounded by a purplish, flesh, which leads it to resemble a primitive olive.


Hamamelis xintermedia ‘Arnold Promise’

February 4, 2020

when we plant a tree, two trees take root:

the one that lifts its leaves into the air,

and the inverted one that cleaves the soil

to find the runnel’s sweet, dull silver trace

and spreads not up but down, each drop a leaf

in the eternal blackness of that sky…

            -Roy Scheele

Reprising our “who does your garden grow” theme, we might say that Hamamelis xintermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, the ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel provides us with two-for-one flora commemoration.


Himalayan Pine, Pinus wallichiana

January 6, 2020

…She will love the smell. Pine. sage, cypress.

She will love the sound…

            -Patricia Spears Jones

We return to a familiar theme, “Who does your garden grow?” With this theme in the past we have discussed the Cherokee chief Sequoia, Benjamin Franklin and the French botanist Pierre Magnol among others. Herein we focus on Pinus wallichiana, Himalayan Pine in tribute to a commonly unsung, even forgotten, plant collector-botanist, Nathaniel Wallich (1786-1854).

Himalayan Pine is a handsome, medium-size (30-50-feet) pine tree which grows at 6,000’ – 12,500’ elevation from eastern Afghanistan across northern Pakistan and India, Nepal and into southwest China. The large genus Pinus includes at least 110 evergreen species worldwide. When identifying most plants, a closer observation helps establish key visual clues. With pine leaves (needles) the individual needles occur in clusters (fascicles) mostly of 5’s, 3’s, or 2’s. Jeffrey pine and lacebark pine have needles in 3’s and Scotch pine and Austrian pine have needles in 2’s. Eastern white pine, bristlecone pine and Korean pine along with Pinus wallichiana, Himalayan Pine have needles in fascicles of 5’s. Pinus wallichiana, Himalayan Pine needles at 5-8-inches-long are longer than the other 5-needle species mentioned. Additionally, their needles are often slightly bent near the base helping to create a pendulous habit. To the viewer this provides a subtle, yet distinct graceful drooping of its branchlets.

Pine cones do vary in size and even shape on the same tree, as well as from different trees. However, in general the cones of Himalayan Pine are longer/larger than the other 5-needle pines covered here.

Danish born Nathaniel Wallich mirrors in some aspects Mount Auburn’s visionary founder, Jacob Bigelow (1787-1879). Each were trained physicians as well as outstanding botanists in their time and place. Wallich’s place was India, (beginning at East India Company) where he spent 34 years, mainly at the Calcutta Botanic Garden, established in 1787, more recently renamed Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden.

During the same era that Jacob Bigelow was botanizing around Boston and even below the then trail-less summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, Wallich was on plant collecting expeditions to Nepal, west Hindustan, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa and Mauritius, resulting in important herbaria specimens and live plant collections. As Bigelow’s botanical publications were Florula Bostoniensis (1814, expanded 1822, greatly expanded 1848)and American Medical Botany (1817-1820), Wallich published Tentamen Florae Nepalensis Illustratae (1824-26), and Plantae Asiaticea Rariores (1830-32). Bigelow taught at Harvard Medical School, Wallich taught at Calcutta Medical College.

Wallich often sent herbarium specimens and live plants back to England’s Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. This during the later life of the great Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who believed in the internationalism of science, and successfully caused almost every ship sailing to Britain from any British colony to carry plants. Today Kew’s herbarium contains around seven million preserved plant specimens. Housed separately from the main collection is that of the East India Company, the Wallich Herbarium, Kew’s largest separate herbarium.  Another location of his important collections is the Central National Herbarium of the Botanical Survey of India in Kolkata. Besides Pinus wallichiana he was also commemorated in plant taxonomy with Taxus wallichiana, Ulmus wallichiana, Lilium wallichiana, Dryopteris wallichiana, Schefflera wallichiana, Geranium wallichianum, and Rubus wallichii, among others. Twenty different genera include species within them named honoring Nathaniel Wallich.

In 1829 at the second founding meeting of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society (MHS), to which Mount Auburn would soon owe its very existence, a committee was chosen to create a list of honorary and corresponding members. This exemplary first list included notable botanist, Augustin P. de Candolle (1778-1841), presidents of the Pennsylvania, New York, London, Paris Glasgow Horticultural Societies, as well as plant curators at Kew, Liverpool and Wallich, curator of the Botanical Garde at Calcutta, among others.

Fittingly Oakes Ames (1893-1970), Mount Auburn’s eighth president (1934-68), writing in his 1952 Mount Auburn’s Sixscore Years provides our closing citation, “…the records of the Horticultural Society are strangely silent…However…New England Farmer for 1833 and 1834…we learn that…over a hundred varieties of seeds including Himalayan Pine and Deodar Cedar, from Mr. Wallich of the Botanical Garden at Calcutta…” were delivered to MHS.

Lamentably MHS’s Mount Auburn’s plant records from 186-years ago were not to our current standards and the germination success of Wallich’s seeds are left to our imaginations.

On a future visit to Mount Auburn remember this notable plant collector as you look for fine examples of Himalayan Pine on Crystal Avenue, Alder Path, Spelman Road and Petunia Path among other location.

Horticulture Highlight: Nikko Fir, Abies homolepis

December 3, 2019

And houseless there the snow-bird flits

Beneath the fir-trees’ crape

            -Herman Melville

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

            -Ella Higginson

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

            -Edward Thomas

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,

Thine orchestra

Of heaving fields and heavy swinging fir,

Strikest a lay

That doth rehearse

Her ancient freedom to the universe

            -Michael Field