Category: Winter Horticulture Highlight

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

‘Jelena’ Witch Hazel, Hamamelis xintermedia ‘Jelena’

March 4, 2019

My garden will never make me famous

I’m a horticultural ignoramus

I can’t tell a string bean from a soybean

Or even a girl bean from a boy bean

            -Ogden Nash

Questions of bean gender aside, there are occasional, horticultural, true-love stories within our ongoing pastime of “who does your garden grow?” Prime example this time is our late-winter, blooming beauty, ‘Jelena’ Witch Hazel, Hamamelis xintermedia ‘Jelena’ (pronounced Ya-lay-na). This love story commenced in what is today the Kalmthout Arboretum, outside of Antwerp, Belgium, in the mid-1950’s. A century earlier the site began as a plant nursery, passing through two different lengthy ownerships before World War I and the ensuing economic collapse finally closed the business. In 1952 Robert de Belder (1921-1995) and his brother Georges bought the then overgrown, weed covered land/estate. In a raison d’etre echo to Mount Auburn’s and Longwood Gardens’ beginnings, the de Belders, local diamond traders, bought the site to preserve the mature and even rare trees from a proposed housing development.

On a separate life path, heading towards convergence, we introduce Jelena Kovacic (1925-2003), born in what is now Croatia, with a 1951 agronomy degree from the University of Zagreb. With a rare travel permit abroad, this botanist/horticulturist was in 1953/54 studying nurseries and horticultural sites in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and ultimately Belgium. Hearing about mature, rare Stewartias along with other ancient trees brought her to the de Belder’s new work-in-progress. A romance quickly developed with Robert, and these plant aficionados were married within three months.

Jelena joined the de Belder brothers, working to restore, replant, re-design and enlarge the long fallow property using a naturalistic style. The extensive plant diversity on the property included thickets with hybrids of witch hazels from the earlier nurseries. One attractive unnamed selection, shown at the Royal Horticultural Society in London, in 1954, was very popular. Robert named this Hamamelis xintermedia ‘Jelena’ in honor of his new wife.

Hamamelis, a small genus with but four (five) species worldwide, produce spider-shaped yellow or orange flowers, each with four, one-half-inch-long, narrow, strap-shaped petals. The two Asian species and their hybrids (crosses of Chinese and Japanese witch hazel) curiously produce their flowers during February and March. ‘Jelena’ in bloom, at first glance has a warm coppery-orange color. Look closer at the flowers to often see petals with reddish bases, orange centers and yellow tips.

Our ‘Jelena’ Witch Hazels on Snowdrop Path, Buckthorn Path and Sparrow Path have shimmered in the otherwise sparse winter landscape after each of the modest February snowfalls we have had so far. The tiny petals protectively curl up during extreme cold and more serious snowstorms, which allows the flowers to last four to seven weeks. ‘Jelena’ additionally will provide attractive red-orange autumn colored leaves.

The de Belders achieved notoriety for breeding Hamamelis cultivars and another winning selection was ‘Diane’, a striking red-flowered cultivar. Hamamelis xintermedia ‘Diane’ was named to honor Jelena and Robert’s daughter. A fine specimen of ‘Diane’ may be found on the southern end of Indian Ridge Path. Both Hamamelis xintermedia ‘Jelena’ and Hamamelis xintermedia ‘Diane’ have received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

Look for these winter beauties along with other witch hazels as the calendar turns to March.

Let us whir with the golden spoke-wheels

Of the sun.

For tomorrow Winter drops into the waste-basket,

And the calendar calls it March.

                                Amy Lowell

Siebold Hemlock, Tsuga sieboldii

January 29, 2019

No white nor red was ever seen

So am’rous as this lovely green

-Andrew Morrell

As leitmotif to last time’s “who does your garden grow,” we turn next to Siebold Hemlock, Tsuga sieboldii. The genus Tsuga is small with just nine to eleven species, depending on taxonomic analysis, compared with the much larger genus Pinus, or pines. All hemlocks are medium-sized to large, evergreen trees, native to North America and Asia. Previously we have reviewed Canadian hemlock, by far the most prevalent species growing at Mount Auburn.

Siebold Hemlock, Tsuga sieboldii, also referred to as Southern Japanese hemlock may reach heights of 100-feet in the wild, but more often half that tall in landscape use. They have single, flattened, needle-like leaves, each about ½-inch-long, with smooth edges and a tiny notch on the tip. The undersides have two white stomatal bands. The seed cones when ripe are pale brown, one-inch-long.


Engelmann Spruce, Picea engelmannii  

December 31, 2018

A wall of forest looms above

And sweetly the blackbird sings

All the birds make melody

Over me and my books and things…


In the past we have discussed plants which commemorate Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Cherokee Chief Sequoia (c.1770-1844), Pierre Magnol (1638-1715), Peter Kalm (1715-1779), Dr. Joseph Fothergill (1712-1780), and Father Armand David (1826-1900) to mention but a few “mysteries of the gardens.” Each of these and many others have had their names immortalized, in Latinized form, allowing us and garden aficionados to pursue the playful activity of “who does your garden grow.” (more…)