Rare Conifers of the West and Cox Arboretum

Each year I do a lot of travel in search of new plants and to discover new gardens. This year’s travels were in excess of 18,000 miles and encompassed 13 states. In October Evelyn and I took two trips out west.  The first was to the area around Santa Fe/Taos/Angel Fire, NM.  From a coniferous view, no rare species were observed, but rather some that I consider uncommon. One drive was of particular interest and involved finally seeing Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) in full fall splendor.  Driving from Taos to Chama it is interesting to note the drastic change in flora.  Starting out, the landscape is dotted with acres of squatty Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) and Pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) scattered along dry mesas and hillsides.  In the town of Chama, NM one can ride on America’s longest and highest narrow gauge steam driven train (www.cumbrestoltec.org). It is an opportunity to travel on a rail that was built in the late1800s that takes you along miles of unspoiled scenery.  Climbing to an elevation of 10,015 ft, the change in flora is remarkable and the higher you climb, the more that conifers dominate the landscape. Along the journey, there is a distinct transition from pinyon-juniper types to spruce-fir. At a certain elevation, Colorado spruce (Picea pungens), Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii), Cork barked fir (Abies lasiocarpa var. arizonica) and White fir (Abies concolor) make their presence.   It was interesting to observe and photograph species of conifers that most members only see through the many cultivated varieties we find in collections. While on the subject of Engelmann spruce, as a footnote, while visiting Gary and Kay Gee (Gee Farms) in Michigan, I saw what I consider the most spectacular conifer cultivar seen in 2009.  An absolutely stunning 20+ ft specimen of Picea engelmannii ‘Bush’s Lace’.

The next trip took us further west to California and Oregon. While we have visited these states on numerous occasions, heretofore our focus has been coastal conifers. On this trip we decided to move into the interior in search of some rarely seen or mentioned conifers. In Oregon, we were fortunate to be assisted by ACS members Ken and Elena Jordan who reside in Roseburg. Their home and gardens were featured in the ____ CQ issue.  It ranks as one of the best conifer gardens seen this year. More on their place, along with several other great stops will be written in a later issue.

They were kind enough to take us to Crater Lake, located in the southern Cascade Range in Oregon. At the summit (elevation 8,000 ft) we discovered several rarely seen conifers in their natural habitat. These are high mountain plants. Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is a timberline pine. While various authorities report that the species can attain heights of 60 ft, those seen were squatty with a windswept appearance.  They appeared in clumps, which is likely attributable to a bird named Clark’s nutcracker. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two as the cone never opens on its own. The bird has a specially designed beak to open the cone and is the only known source of seed dispersal.  It then caches seed and apparently forgets where all were buried and they then germinate in clumps.

The next tree was Mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana). While I have seen the species in collections at various arboreta, no where do they match the beauty observed at the crest of Crater Lake. As the picture reveals, this hemlock forms a picture-perfect narrow conical form.  The needles spread around the twigs as opposed to the typical two-ranked of T. canadensis and T. heterophylla.  When I first observed the cones, I questioned whether I was looking at a hemlock as they must be at least twice the size of any other species in the world.

As I spent time studying the area, it became obvious that this was a successional forest as we climbed to the top. At the lower elevation (around 4,000 ft), were ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) which gave way to Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta).  Next in elevation was Mountain hemlock which continued to the crest where we found Whitebark pine. Other conifers seen in the area were Shasta red fir (A. magnifica shastensis), Subalpine fir (A. lasiocarpa) and White fir (A. concolor).

Our last stop was to a completely unknown area in the mid Klamath mountain region around Yreka, CA.  This turned out to be one of the most unusual and exciting trips I have ever encountered. On the morning of October 26th we joined up with two retired U.S. Forestry agents (Jim Benson, his wife Alma and Jerry Cone) for an all day journey to study and photograph rare conifers. The first leg trip would take us to elevations over 8,000 ft to see the Foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana subsp. balfouriana).  Driving along a narrow, twisting single lane dirt forestry road, Jim skillfully steered the 4-wheel drive vehicle to the crest of a remote mountain. With the temperature hovering around the freezing mark, as we climbed it got noticeable colder and suddenly we were in snow. As we approached a clearing at the very top, through the mist we spotted a small grove of Foxtail pines. I didn’t have to ask what they were as they were so unusual.

The only conifer I had ever seen that resembled these was the Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata) that I have observed only in collections. This rare pine occurs as two subspecies, subsp. austrina in the southern portion of its range and subsp. balfouriana in the northern range.

Reluctantly, it was too soon time to move on in search of more rare conifers. The next stop involved a brisk walk up a rather steep grade to see Baker cypress (Cupressus bakeri). Years ago I planted a Baker cypress which never performed well here in the southeast and finally went on to conifer heaven.  The area we were in receives deep winter snows of over six feet. I asked myself, how could a true cypress ever survive in this harsh environment? I later learned that it is the most northern species in the world. As the picture shows, it has an irregular branch pattern and the silvery-grey foliage is finely dissected. One other conifer of note that was a first for me in the wild was Brewer spruce (Picea breweriana). When one sees a well formed specimen, it leaves an indelible impression. I’ll let the picture speak for itself. Other conifers that we documented in this area were western white pine (Pinus monticola), Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi), Sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana), Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana), Shasta red fir (Abies magnifica var. shastensis), White fir (Abies concolor) Incense-cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), coast Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii), western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) and the elusive Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia).

One of the learning points for me was various soil types that the different conifers we observed grew on. Jim and Jerry kept referring to serpentine soil which I had never taken the time to study. They informed me that there were at least four distinct soil types in the region. On the flight home I began to think about soli types and the factor they play in the success of conifers growing at our arboretum.

The Klamath Ranges support some of the most diverse plant communities in North America and there is likely no place on earth with more conifer diversity. We shall ever be grateful to Jim, Alma and Jerry for their gracious hospitality.

On a closing note, here at our arboretum we have been fortunate to obtain a number of rare conifers. The current living collection contains 44 genera and 156 distinct species. We recently received a newly discovered species of Incense cedar from northern Viet Nam (Calocedrus rupestris) which was only discovered in 2004. It will undergo hardiness evaluation this winter. The last conifer I will mention is also seldom seen. Fokiena hodginsii is what is referred to as a “relict” conifer, meaning something left unchanged. It is easy to look at this unusual tree and envision a time when dinosaurs munched on its foliage.