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

About the Author: Jim Gorman

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