Sophora secundiflora is simply a really great plant for gardeners in the Pineywoods of Texas. Whether called Texas mountain laurel, mescal bean, or frijolito, it’s actually quite common in western regions of the state. It’s a staple of the hill country but rarely encountered in the Pineywoods. I’m not sure why. After all, it’s tough as nails, drought resistant, fully evergreen, breath taking in bloom and enjoys a fragrance to match. Reported to reach thirty feet in the wilds of Texas, New Mexico and northern Mexico, most landscape specimens come in at half that. If there’s a negative, it’s that the species is a bit of a slow grower. We’re a fast food – fast plants society and waiting a decade or two for a plant to obtain stature and class rarely fits the bill. There’s another minor negative characteristic I should mention. The seed are reported to be highly toxic with as few as four masticated seed enough to have you pushing up daisies. However, keep in mind if you swallow the seed they generally pass on through. Best not to chew them. Generally considered a Zone 8 to 9 plant, hardy forms are reported but remain unexploited. Plants in Dallas and parts north have rarely appeared healthy to me but there are exceptions.Texas mountain laurel is a member of the Fabaceae and most of the 50+ species enjoy showy pea-like flowers in terminal racemes or panicles. To complicate things I must admit that botanists have renamed the species Dermatophyllum secundiflorum. This rather cosmopolitan genus features both deciduous and evergreen species. While most Texas mountain laurels sport blue and lavender flowers, there are white flowering forms and I’ve heard of but not seen a genotype in Austin that features light pink blooms. There is also a rarely encountered in Mexico botanical variety, Sophora secundiflora var. pulverlenta, that has pubescent gray leaves. We have this form in the Mast Arboretum and it’s an even slower grower than the straight species. To grow Texas mountain laurel in eastern climes it’s important to provide superior drainage. Limestone additions to the soil are also recommended. A berm or raised bed is perfect. We have one white-flowered form that rests on the corner of College Avenue and Wilson Drive. It’s had a hard life but makes a dramatic show every year. So, how to multiply this? Well, grafting works but it’s not really much of an option because the plant often sends up shoots close to the base of the plant. There’s another way. We have seedlings of the white flowering form and once they bloom, are rogued to get rid of the blues, and the process repeated for five or six generations, we should be able to stabilize the white form from seed. Because we have so few Texas mountain laurels in our city, there shouldn’t be any worries about pollen pollution. I’ve put some math to this and my calculations indicate that I’ll be about 100 years old when we reach the fifth or sixth generation. For some reason, that really doesn’t appear to one of my best plans. With a name like mescal bean, you might think something is awry here. Is this a drug. The answer is yes but there’s some nomenclature issues here. Having had some experience in Mexico, a short explanation is in order. Mescal is a distilled beverage made from Maguey agave. Mescaline is a psychedelic alkaloid occurring in peyote cactus which has been enjoyed for millennia by our southern neighbors and in very tight knit clans in our own country. Mescalbean beans are different and do not have either mescal or mescaline, but they are packed with a poisonous alkaloid cytosine, which is chemically similar to nicotine. Mescalbean beans are reported to have been used by some native American tribes as a way to make a kind of hallucinogenic contact with the other worlds. I understand that there’s a really fine line between getting high and getting dead. I had a friend who told me he once enjoyed a Mexico mountain experience with villagers. I asked him how did it go? He said, “Well, personally, I found the hallucinations rather mild.” My conclusion was it might be best to stay with Miller Lite. Seed propagation is easy but involves a 45 minute to one hour soak in sulfuric acid to scarify the seed. In the deep South, it’s a great scarification lab exercise as long as the safety lesson is well explained. Spilling sulfuric acid on you or your clothes is a sad picture. To avoid all that, a hobby gardener can simply use a file to cut through the tough seed coat. We have rooted the species but it’s reported to be very difficult and percentages are low. Years ago, Nathan Unclebach, a student of mine, took on the impossible task of rooting the white form and he did get about a half dozen to root and grow. I concluded it could be done but told him it was best to hang on to his day job.
The National Champion Bald Cypress was killed January 16, 2012 in Longwood, Florida. Murder is the operative word. The “Senator” was burned to the ground by a young lady who went into Big Tree Park to smoke meth, lit a small fire and caught the 3500 year old tree on fire. As a plant person, this was very sad news. As a devotee of the big tree world, this was a catastrophe. I had been to the park three times in my life to reach across and touch the patriarch. It had been reported as the world’s fifth oldest tree. However, I’m not so sure that was true. A disaster for sure. Think of all the memories. This beacon in the forest had been used as a landmark for the Indians, the Spanish, and finally, for the rest of us. Dr. Gary Knox at the University of Florida emailed me the bad news and forwarded a link to the incident which included a short video of some very upset citizens – and the Senator saying goodbye in flames.
It wasn’t long before what happened was known and the young lady responsible for the “accident” was arrested and quickly became national news. An aspiring model, she never knew that her foray into smoking meth would lead to such fame and derision. Evidently she took pictures of the fire, downloaded the images and showed friends, saying, “I can’t believe I burned down a tree older then Jesus.” Some might conclude this not the brightest way to hide a crime. With the laws on the books as they were, she was given five years probation and allowed to walk.
Six months later she was arrested for DWI and given jail time. On a long ago webpage, I posted her picture and her name and righteously called for the death penalty. But time has passed and I’ve mellowed. I hope she’s well, I really do. I think, perhaps, she’s volunteering every now and then to plant trees in a park. You can still google “Senator burned” or anything about the Senator – and boom, there are hundreds of links that appear with her name, her image, and her sad plight in the world. Punished for life. There are a lot of ways to get fame and fortune in the world. Burning down the Senator is not one of them.
The Senator was the big guy in the Big Tree Park in Longwood – just east of Orlando, Florida. This was one amazing tree. I find this such a sad ending for a tree that’s been through 3500 years of enormous challenges – and survived. This tree has been through hell. It’s stayed alive through floods, droughts, fires, hurricanes, and the worst threat of all – in recent centuries – a forest full of loggers and dreaded land use managers.
Below is the plaque at the site that interpreted the tree. It was 165’ tall. However, the top blew out in 1925 and the tree was reduced to 118 feet tall until this fire. It was 17.5 feet in diameter. In 1929, President Coolidge dedicated the site with a plaque but the plaque and a wrought iron fence were stolen by vandals in 1945. People have been up to mischief here for a long time.
The Senator was evidently quite hollow and the trunk served as a raging chimney for the fire. I know it’s quite passé, but to me that smoke pouring from the tree is the connection from the past to the present to the future. There it is, wafting into the heavens, mixing elements, energy and enthusiasm once again with the smoke of those long ago Indian camp fires. It’s just the way things are. There’s not much we can do about it now, except, perhaps, we should just keep on planting.
There is a small silver lining to this story, however. 185 miles to the South, a nurseryman had previously snitched some cuttings and grafted trees of this old clone, which led to new trees of that very clone, which led to a celebratory planting day that is recounted here:
The end result is a new tree is in place, a clone of the original tree, carrying thirty five hundred years of history into the future. That special tree has been given the name, The Phoenix, so darn appropriate for a tree that refuses to die, determined to to rise from the ashes of destruction.
This is a modern plant. Taxodium X ‘LaNana’ has been tested far and wide in the USA under the selection number T406. It’s a good one. With genetics flowing from Taxodiums in Mexico and the USA, bred and selected in China, and now back home in the USA, there’s much to think about.
I can remember standing in the Nanjing Botanical Garden with my friend and colleague Professor Yin Yunlong in 2001 and he was providing me with my first exposure to the controlled crosses of Bald and Montezuma cypress in the Nanjing Botanical Garden. It had the name Z302 with the Z standing for Zhongshanshan, which memorializes the tree for the Father of Chin Sung Yat-Sen born in 1866. There are now many Taxodium hybrids in China and they are all the result of a Taxodium Improvement Program at Nanjing Botanical Garden, Nanjing, China. While baldcypress are North American, the Chinese have exploited this genus since the early 1900s. As part of a Taxodium improvement program, NBG scientists have produces several lines of Taxodium hybrids. The superior clones have been multiplied by cutting propagation and are planted in the millions in SE China, mostly as roadside forests, but also in wetland restoration projects, as windbreak forests along the inland side of coastal dikes, and as part of canal and river streamside management zones. The clones are primarily the result of controlled crosses of two Taxodium genotypes: Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum var. distichum) (BC) and Montezuma cypress of Mexico and the tip of Texas (Taxodium distichum var. mexicanum) (MC). Pond cypress (Taxodium distichum var. imbricarium) has been utilized in crosses but few selections made (T102 is the exception). The ranges of bald, pond and Montezuma cypress is illustrated in Figure 1.
A LITTLE HISTORY: In China in 1988, clones Z302 – (a BC X MC F1 hybrid), Z401 (PC X MC), and Z202 (PC X BC) were selected in China primarily for growth rate and tolerance to alkaline and salt-rich coastal floodplains. I came to learn that Z stands for Zhongshanshan, a name that memorializes Sun Yat-Sen, the Father of China, and the word tree. For reasons I can’t remember, I changed that to Z to a T, for the word “tree”, I guess. T302 is recommended in China for soils with pH 8.0~8.5 and salt concentrations <.2%. Other attributes of T302 included 159% faster growth than BC, good columnar form, longer foliage retention in fall and early winter, and no knees. T302 has been in the USA since January 2002 and is currently under evaluation in over 30 locations in southern USA. The clone was named ‘Nanjing Beauty’ in 2004 as a cooperative introduction of the SFA Mast Arboretum and Nanjing Botanical Garden. After many years, the clone can be found in many gardens but the authors conclusion is that this introduction carries a fatal flaw. If not pruned during its early life, the tree is multi-leader and limbs are prone to narrow crotch angles and can break out in winds. In China, trees are cut back dramatically to the leader which forces many branches and a columnar form is created. Properly pruned in its youth, it’s a fine tree. It’s taken me years to figure this out. Professor Yin has reminded me many times that parents train their children, so it is with this tree. He also said that good children come from good parents. Some might argue that.
In March 2005, the SFA Mast Arboretum received two new clones from China. T140 and T27 are considered more evergreen than T302 and both demonstrate strong salt tolerance. The clones were selected from a field population of T302 X TM – with strong TM characteristics and improvements in growth rate, salt tolerance, form and vigor. T140 grows faster than T27, which produces a wider profile. The foundation of the most recent selections comes originally from crosses made by Professor Chen and Liu in 1992 at the Nanjing Botanical Garden. Pollen from TM was applied to a female T302 and fifteen selections were made in 1995. The main characteristics for selection were 1) fast growth rate, 2) dark green color during the growing season and a red-orange leaf color in the autumn and 3) evergreen leaves. In 2006 or 2007, the results from T140 and T27 will be reported and registered with the Chinese Forestry Department. In June, 2005 there were less than 100 each of these two clones. T118, T120 and T149 have already been registered with the Chinese Forestry Department at the provincial level, while T302 has been registered at the national level.
Finally, the latest clones (T405, T406, T407, and T502) entered commerce in China with fanfare and promotion. These four clones are considered elite selections from large populations of seedlings developed from controlled crosses. The trees have been planted extensively at SFA Gardens and T406 was introduced as ‘LaNana’, named after the creek here at SFA Gardens that it calls home. It was released primarily because it has been the most foliage blight resistant. Cercosporidea is a fungal disease that can disfigure needles in early Fall and cause premature drop. T406 keeps its foliage well into winter. The malady is prone to Montezuma cypress in Eastern Texas and across the Gulf South. Further west, it’s not a problem.
There’s great diversity in form, adaptation to soils/drought/alkalinity/salt that has been exploited to produce clones targeting specifi land use needs. Both genotypes are considered Texas natives. The clones are simply improvements via hybridization of superior performing trees of both genotypes. From large numbers of seedlings, my NBG counterparts have selected and introduced over a dozen clones. They are fast growing, alkaline and drought tolerant, do not produce knees, and have good tree form.
A synopsis of this arena of study can be found here in Arnolida:
Key Attributes of the Taxodium Hybrids.
- The clones are easily rooted. We are achieving 50 -90% rooting in 10-12 weeks if stock plants are vigorous and healthy. Percent rooting in various studies has ranged from 50% to 90% depending on the clone, the health of the cutting wood, and our mist management at the SFA Gardens propagation house.
- The clones are alkaline tolerant and salt tolerant. These are the two characteristics required of sites in SE China, particularly for conditions with coastal windbreak forest – basically hundreds of miles of windbreak plantings on the inland side of concrete dikes that keep typhoons at bay fjrom the huge populations in Shanghai, Ningbo, Suzhou and along the coast in that region.
- The clones naturally have good form which can be improved with pruning in the early years.
- Fast growing – under the best Horticulture the clones can frow 4 to 6′ per year.
- Drought tolerant – 2010 and 2011 proved that
- No knees
- Longer foliage retention into the early winter when needle blight is not a problem
Pruning makes a difference. In one study at SFA, we studied three clones for three years. One group of trees was pruned all the way back to the leader every winter. Another group was pruned by heading back branches to create a columnar Christmas tree form. The last group was not pruned at all. The results indicated that modest pruning each year resulted in fine form and did not affect tree height or trunk diameter.
In scattering the clones north, east, west and south, we’ve learned a lot. T406 now ‘LaNana’ remains a favorite. While some of the clones tested get heavily impacted by Cercosporidea, ‘LaNana” is usually blessed with clean emerald green foliage and is blemish free most years in Nacogdoches
Propagation: Almost all our trees have been produced by cutting propagation. Cut back trees produce strong shoots that root easy. We’ve found that June cuttings treated with 2500 to 5000 PPM K-IBA can root at high percentages in 12 weeks. Moved from the mist and lightly fertilized, they can be potted into larger containers their first winter.
Conclusions: We have produced thousands of the clones and made distributions to botanical gardens, public gardens, interested nurseries, and bald cypress enthusiasts across the South. The general consensus is that in the right spot they are terrific trees. With strong alkalinity and salt tolerance, they have a place near the coast line or where soils are less than stellar. They are not to be planted in swamps that are inundated. They love being near water but not under it.. While bald cypress can tolerate that, Montezumas and the hybrids prefer better drained conditions. For the discriminating gardener, nurseryman, or landscaper – the China balds are a good bet. How many trees do we plant that can be here 1000 years from now? When you think of the genes of Mexico and USA being combined in China, with selections made, with the millions planted in China – and now they’re back home in the USA ready to deal with a new world. It’s all about international relations.
Arnold, M. and G. Denny. 2007. Taxonomy and Nomenclature of Baldcypress, Pondcypress, and Montezuma Cypress: One, Two, or Three Species? HortTechnology January-March 2007 vol. 17 no. 1 125-127. Which can be accessed here: http://horttech.ashspublications.org/content/17/1/125.abstract
Robert Adams, Mike Arnold, Andrew King, Geoffrey Denny, David Creech. 2012. Taxodium (Cupressaceae): One, Two or Three Species? Evidence from DNA Sequences and Terpenoids. Phytologia 94 (2): 159 – 168. Which can be accessed here . . . http://www.phytologia.org/uploads/2/3/4/2/23422706/94(2)159-168adamsetal_taxoduim_dna.pdf
Now here’s an interesting story about the one that nearly got away. Nope, it’s not a big fish. It’s a holly. Ilex X ‘Cherry Bomb’ was a long ago gift to the SFA Arboretum from JC Raulston. It arrived as part of a box of about 50 tiny plants in 1986 and had a label reading NA28255. We were a tiny new garden on the South side of the Agriculture building unencumbered by staff, budgets, or operating money. Basically, we were quickly on our way to developing a reputation as an annoying, yet attractive nuisance at this institution of higher learning. Plants were precious back then and when we received a gift box, it was an event of epic proportions. I would gather students around for the unpacking, go to repotting and labeling and it was Christmas in the garden. I called them bits of gold. We would grow them on and plant them here and there in the garden. Well, this particular Ilex was part of a collection of hollies that JC Raulston was trialing for the National Arboretum. He had propagated them, scattered them far and wide as he was prone to do – and we were one of those lucky recipients.
We had four NA numbered selections that ended up in 1987 in what we called “Holly Row” of Asian Valley (NA 28338, 28221, 28269, 28297, and 28255). Most are still there. NA 28255 was a particularly interesting clone because it was spineless and soft to the touch. Slow growing, it eventually reached four feet tall by about that much wide and became a favorite in the garden.
After graduation, Scott Reeves, former student, SFASU Horticulture, found himself at Treesearch Farms, Houston, Texas working for Heidi Sheesley and he noticed that it performed well there. It wasn’t long before numbers were built and he asked if I thought the name ‘Cherry Bomb’ was pretty good. I thought it was a great name – and the plant entered commerce. It received favorable reviews in the landscape trade and became a good holly to plant in the alkalinity challenged landscapes of the region in spots where other hollies often failed. It had a good shape, clean foliage and nice big red berries that persisted well on the plant.
Time passed (decade) and the USNA decided to check with evaluators and the decision was made that none of the Ilex NA selections distributed would be introduced and they should be destroyed. John Ruter of the University of Georgia remarked that he thought there was a “Texas garden” that had distributed the plant and he thought it was actually in commerce. John let me know the situation and I picked up the phone and called Margaret Pooler and related my history with the plant. No we weren’t part of the original distribution. It was given to us by JC Raulston. That was all the explanation she needed. Margaret knew JC. Everyone knew it was JC’s mantra to give it all away and let the world sort it out. I provided some additional information and the plant was introduced formally.
As quoted from the eventual introduction by the National Arboretum, ‘Cherry Bomb’ originated from the breeding program of William F. Kosar at the U.S. National Arboretum as open pollinated seed collected from Ilex ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ during the winter of 1959-60. The male parent is believed to be Ilex integra. The palnt was sent for evaluation to several botanical gardens was not pursued further by the National Arboretum. Several growers in the southern U.S., particularly Texas, recognized the value of this plant, and in the 1980s David Creech at the SFA Mast Arboretum began to call it Ilex X ‘Cherry Bomb’. (http://www.usna.usda.gov/Newintro/cherrybomb.pdf)
The plant is remarkably durable. I planted one in Shelby county, Texas, at a friends small restaurant business which soon failed and the place was abandoned. While the rest of the landscape went to heaven, ‘Cherry Bomb’ remained cheerful. With Adam Black, I recently spotted a ‘Cherry Bomb at Peckerwood Gardens, Hempstead, Texas and it was showing off in that tough spot in Texas. We discussed its heritage and he had recently featured it in his newsletter.
The plant continues in the trade. Scott Reeves moved on to Creekside Nursery at Hempstead, Texas, and continues to sell ‘Cherry Bomb’ to this day. Any Google search for the words Ilex Cherry Bomb will uncover a long list of nurseries growing the plant. Tony Avent of Plants Delight, NC, remarked, “Fortunately, a couple of Gene’s (Gene Eisenbeiss inherited the Kosar plants at the USNA) hollies managed to escape before the destruction, including a plant now known as Ilex ‘Cherry Bomb’, which is possibly one of the finest evergreen hollies on the market today.”
The plant made its way to gardens on the East coast. Greenleaf named it a Garden Debut plant. Other nurseries gave it a spot in their inventory. It had made its way to Virginia and Rob Woodman’s blog raves about its performance there in lofty terms, “My hat comes off to this Holly, for the reason that it has gone out of its way to not look like a Holly except for its large red berries. Even a taste test of sorts done with a colleague resulted with him mentioning how good that plant was for the following ten minutes. I’m surprised he didn’t light up a cigarette after his experience to gain his composure back. Though one would not consider it terribly sexy, ‘Cherry Bomb’ does make quiet an sensation in the garden for a Holly!” My advice is don’t eat holly berries! http://www.thebritishgardener.com/2012/05/damn-good-plants-holly-cherry-bomb.html
I was recently in Virginia and ran into what I think is the largest Cherry Bomb in the world. I was visiting with Jim Owens, Research Scientist, at the Virginia Tech Agricultural Research and Extension Center, Hampton Roads, Virginia and I saw this amazing haystack and, yes, it was a ‘Cherry Bomb’. Evidently, the station was a long ago recipient of the JCR distributed plant and ‘Cherry Bomb’ obviously found a home to its liking. So much for the idea of it ending up as 4′ X 4′ dwarf!
Can bald cypress cross with China fir? The answer is I doubt it. An interesting intergeneric hybrid, X Taxodiomeria peizhongii Z.J.Ye, J.J.Zhang et S.H. Pan was touted to have been created in Nanjing, China in 1963. It was reported as a cross between Taxodium distichum var. mexicanum (Carriere Gordon) and Cryptomeria fortunei Hooibrenk ex Otto et Dietr. I first looked at the tree up close over a decade ago in Nanjing, China. I secured the plant for the SFA Gardens in 2012 as graft wood from Yongfeng Nursery, Ninghai, China. I took images of a number of the larger grafted trees and found the tree to certainly be different in appearance than most Taxodiums, more pond cypress like and certainly devoid of what I thought was any Cryptomeria genetics. Back at SFA Gardens, the grafts stuck and nine plants have found a home here in the Pineywoods. They are prospering in several locations and growing well. I have been unable to root them.
I learned that there were less than 50 viable seed after an extensive tree pollination and bagging protocol. From what I was told, the seedlings were grown and multiplied by cutting propagation to about 2000 total plants. Those were planted, observed, and somewhat forgotten, perhaps because they did not exhibit exactly what the Chinese foresters were seeking: a fast-growing deciduous conifer for roadside, canalside, streamside, and as a specimen tree or grove in public areas. A major reason that this particular tree may not have “taken hold” in the nursery industry in that region may be that there was already plenty of excitement with other deciduous conifers. After all, the Chinese had plenty of Taxodiums, straight Cryptomerias, Metasequoia, Glyptostrobus, Deodar cedar, and all of their own juniper world to work with. Another reason for interest in the hybrid, the central government’s effort to manage coastal wetlands as an agro-forestry-industrial resource included big funding of the coastal windbreak forest project. The project includes hurricane-proof, salt-proof buffers on the inland side of massive concrete dikes. Other genotypes showed more promise for that effort. Still, the tree was rediscovered in Shanghai and then promoted heavily as the lion-tiger of the big tree world. The introduction by botanists from the Shanghai Botanical Garden was received with much excitement in the conifer world and the tree was given high billing, bands and parades.
The purported hybrid of Taxodium and Cryptomeria was awarded a patent in 2007 in the USA as follows:
×Taxodiomeria peizhongii tree named ‘Dongfangshan’ US PP17767 P3
Abstract: ×Taxodiomeria peizhongii is a distinct and new above ground nontubular propagated cultivar comprising a tall semi-deciduous arbor tree providing a high view. ×Taxodiomeria peizhongii is well suited for afforestation in the city and has many good properties such as fast growth, wide adaptability and strong stress resistance. Its main characteristics include: (1) its base of stem is round and regular without buttress roots; (2) its bark cracks into flakes; (3) there are several main crotches five to eight meters above ground, and its canopy is nearly elliptic shape; (4) there are only male conglobate flower and no female conglobate fruit on the adult tree, and it cannot reproduce with sexual propagation manner. It possesses additional good properties including enhanced saline tolerance (salt content is below about 3.9%), alkali tolerance (7≦pH≦8.9), moisture resistance and good (pleasing visual) landscape effect.
As for the history of this Taxodium X Cryptomeria cross, I was told that “in a later inventory, only 800 of the “hybrids” were found to have made it into mature trees. Evidently, over the years there has been some debate on whether all were “true hybrids”, or perhaps some were “false hybrids.” I have seen the large ‘Dongfangshan’ tree at the Nanjing Botanical Garden and it appeared more MC-like than Cryptomeria-like, but the argument has been made in Chinese research there’s more contribution from the male parent to the tree and foliage form of the seedling. At any rate, the hybrids are semi-evergreen in Nanjing, Shanghai, and other locations in that region. The trees are reported to grow fairly fast, hold up to strong winds, and have no butswells and buttresses. The trunk is usually divided at a height of 5-8 m into two or more primary branches. They thrive in wetlands and saline sea-shores with a soil pH ranging from 6.5 to 8.6. The trees can grow in saline soil with 4 ppt (68 moles×m-3) salt. They are useful for landscape planting as well as for large-scale windbreaks in reverie and coastal regions (Zhang J et al. 2003).
After languishing for roughly two decades, the Chinese have taken a new look at the cross. In one sampling, Chen Y et al. (2002) conducted RAPD analyses on genetic polymorphisms of twelve of the genotypes to identify their relationships. These genotypes included eight suspected hybrid MC forest samples, the hybrid female parent—MC, and the same class of hybrid male parent—Cryptomeria fortunei Hooibrenk and sugi C. Japonica (L.f.) D.Don. The results revealed that “the genetic relationship of sample No.11 in three Cryptomeria genotypes is the closest to the original male-parent; samples No.1, 4 and 9 are most possibly the true hybrid MC populations; sample No.5 may be the false hybrid.”
However, the authenticity of this controversial intergeneric hybrid (X Taxodiomeria peizhongii Z. J. Ye, J. J. Zhang et S. H. Pan) has been questioned by Chinese scientists at the Nanjing Botanical Garden. To confirm the authenticity of the intergeneric hybrid, scientists there analyzed the rbcL gene and the internal transcribed spacer (ITS) of 26S–18S ribosomal RNA gene of the three species using polymerase chain reaction-restriction fragment length polymorphism (PCR-RFLP) and arbitrarily primed PCR (AP-PCR), and obtained the following results: “(1) Taxodiomeria peizhongii had the same RFLP maps of the rbcL gene and the ITS as MC, but was different from C. fortunei; (2) a 311-bp PCR amplification product was obtained in C. fortunei by AP-PCR of ITS, but was not found in Taxodiomeria peizhongii. Their results have demonstrated that C. fortunei did not provide any genome for Taxodiomeria peizhongii, implying that T. peizhongii is not an intergeneric hybrid between the two species” (Ling Y et al. 2006).
In 2015, Yuhong Zheng, a visiting scientist from Nanjing studied 136 genotypes of Taxodium in a genetic analysis here at SFA Gardens. She concluded that ‘Dongfangshan’ did not have Cryptomeria genes to warrant its veracity as a hybrid. The mystery continues, but whatever the final verdict, the story proves that plants always have stories and this is just one of the more interesting mysteries, at least to the very few discriminating coniferphiles that find Taxodiums the holy grail of trees.
Ling, Y., W. Lu, F. Lu, Y. Wang, J. Chen, and W. Zhang. 2006. PCR-RFLP and AP-PCR of rbcL and ITS of rDNA show that ×Taxodiomeria peizhongii (Taxodium × Cryptomeria) is not an intergeneric hybrid. J Integrat Plant Biol 48(4), 468-472.
Yin, Y. 2005. Personal communication. Nanjing Botanical Garden, PO Box 1435, Nanjing, CN
Yuhong Zheng, Bea Clack, Yin Yunlong, David Creech. 2016. Genetic Diversity of a Range of Taxodium distichum Genotypes and Cultivars Based on ISSR Marker. Oral presentation at the annual conference of the American Society for Horticultural Science Southern Region. San Antonio, TX.
Zhang, J., S. Pan, W. Zhu, H. Niu, Z. Ye, J. Zhu, and P. Hu. 2003. Taxodiomeria (Taxodiaceae), an intergeneric hybrid between Taxodium and Cryptomeria from Shanghai
Here’s another rarely encountered member of the Theaceae we like like. We’ve enjoyed Schima here and there in the Mast Arboretum and Ruby M. Mize Azalea Garden for many years. They’re attractive and durable small evergreen trees. Schima is a relative of Camellia. It’s a monotypic genus sporting dark-green bold elliptic leaves and a show of summertime white flowers. The genus has in the past been described with twenty species but there’s some lumping going on. Native from the eastern Himalayas of Nepal and eastern India across Indochina, southern China, Taiwan and to the Ryukyu Islands. While we have accessions that include S. argentea, S. wallichi, S. superba, and S. remoto-serrata, most botanists have begun to lump them all under S. wallichi. No one denies that there’s considerable variability in leaf size, tree form, and flowering. While it’s no doubt a nomenclature challenged genus, to our discriminating eyes, S. superba appears to have the largest glossier leaves of all.
While it can reach over 100’ in its home in S and SE China and parts south, Schima in our area might reach 20 to 40’ in that many years. That’s just a guess. On a recent trip to China, I was just plain lucky to catch the species in full bloom, June 17, 2007, on a mountain road near Linghai.
Linghai is about five hours South of Shanghai. It’s south of the city of Ningbo, a port city on the southern side of the mouth of the mighty Yangtze. Ningbo is the “Little Shanghai” with a bustling economy and businesses everywhere. Ninghai is south of Ningbo and part of the mountainous subtropical lands near the coast. The region normally enjoys good summer rains, but springs can bring extended dry spells. Some spots experience freezes and some do not with microclimates dominating here and there. In the mountains, the natural forest cover of the region depends, of course, on elevation, aspect, and how much human interaction is going on. In many areas, it’s a broad swath of factories, business, apartments, road and tunnel and rail projects, all quite land changing. There are other areas – wild lands, if you will, where the native vegetation has been given a chance. The diversity really is amazing. Loropetalum and Gardenias are weeds here! Cunninghammia, China fir, dominates the mid and upper slopes. Bamboo wants to own the place. In a wide variety of habitats, Schima seems to survive quite well in forest edges, bar ditches, roadsides, and fence rows. To me it looked like a durable plant in a tough landscape. The white flowers are axillary but mostly subterminal and the blooms feature a showy center of bright yellow anthers. Mildly fragrant, the flowers were caught just coming into full bloom in mid-June in central China, and, to my surprise, the same species was in full flower June 24th in our garden – that’s about the same time. I’m not sure how significant that is, but I liked the idea. Hardiness remains a question mark simply because we’ve tested our trees only into the mid-teens. We need some single digit events to get a better feel for adaptation in southern landscapes.
Our conclusion: This an interesting plant, one rarely encountered in southern gardens. It appears to have interesting horticultural potential across a wide band of the South. Dr. Tom Ranney of North Carolina State University has crossed Franklinia (also in the Theaceae) with Schima and Gordonia and they perform well in our garden. Schimilinias and Gordilinia! Gordonia X Schimas are a possibility? The big question is has anyone ever crossed Schima with Camellia? Some might ask why? But really, I bet everyone will want a Schimamellia, don’t you think? Just that name will sell it.
Franklinia alatamaha is the sole species in this genus, a member of the Theaceae. It’s another bucket list plant to flower for the serious gardener. It enjoys a long and mysterious history and a reputation for succumbing to one malady or another. I can’t recount the number I’ve planted and the number of failures endured at SFA Gardens. Many gardeners can say the same thing. I remember the very first time I caught the tree in flower. It was at Akin’s nursery in Sibley, Louisiana. Sherwood Akin had planted the tree near his house and near a faucet. He had created a nice berm. He told me that every time he sprayed fungicides in his nursery, he would clean out the tank near the tree and make sure he soaked the area down. The tree did flower but in a few years it was dead. That’s the general story. The tree lives a few years and then commits suicide. Good drainage is always recommended. “Needs even moisture” is another commandment. Too much sun or too little is often touted as a culprit. It’s thought to prefer sandy, high-acid soil, and compacted clay soil is general avoided. While it appears resistant to insect pests, it is subject to root rot and has a reputation for dealing poorly with drought. After a dozen or so deaths, I concluded this plant must be related to sheep. It’s born looking for a place to die.
All that changed three years ago when we flowered a young tree that we had planted in the Gayla Mize Garden. In a serendipitous spot that had some shade and some sun and fairly decent soil, we were going to try again. I actually planted the tree myself and yes, I did give it a few private magic words of encouragement. For no discernible reason, this particular tree thrived. I have no idea why. I do like the soil here, a loamy sand and the drainage is reasonable. The tree enjoyed a single drip emitter for the first three years of its life, endured some tough times (it’s hot in Texas) but came through with shining colors. Even though the whole garden is really a bottom land for Burroughs creek, I’ve never seen this particular spot go under water when it floods. It was obviously a blessed spot.
The tree grew well the first few years and flowered first in 2014. It flowered in 2015 and 2016 and has grown into a healthy specimen. A key feature are the flowers which emit a pleasant fragrance, not unlike Gordonia. In fact, the tree spent a good part of its early history being described as a Gordonia.
The tree was first discovered near Fort Barrington in the British colony of Georgia in October 1765. Philadelphia botanists John and William Bartram are given credit for the discovery of “several very curious shrubs”, as he noted in his journal entry for October 1, 1765. William Bartram collected F. alatamaha seeds during a long trip to the South from 1773 through 1776. He described this in his book Bartram’s Travels published in Philadelphia in 1791. He brought seed back to Philadelphia in 1777 at which time he reported to his father that he had relocated the plan and collected seeds. William planted the seed in Philadelphia and first flowered it there in 1781. William created the new genus Franklinia in honor of his father’s friend, Benjamin Franklin. The new plant name, Franklinia alatamaha, was first published in 1785 in the catalogue of North American trees and shrubs entitled Arbustrum Americanum. Credit must be given to William for recognizing the rarity of the species in its native range and described a place of only two or three acres where the tree survived. In spite of other expeditions to the region, it was never found elsewhere and the tree was last verified in the wild in 1803.
The cause of its extinction is unclear but causes such as fire, flood, over collection by plant collectors, and the fungal disease Phytophthora introduced with the cultivation of cotton have been given some responsibility. As a result, all the Franklin trees known to exist today are descended from seed collected by William Bartram and propagated at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia.
While there are over 1000 reported gardens in the world that Franklinia can call home, we believe that this is the first reported flowering in Texas. With three years of flowering at this writing (January 1, 2017), we’re encouraged. In fact, this last year we planted another half dozen small trees. Surely a grove of Franklinia trees here might be prudent. Who knows, in a hundred years, maybe two, this rare and wonderful plant may find this a fine place to settle in for a century or two.