Plant stories: Prunus Taihaku

Re-reading information about the The Alnwick Garden in northern England revealed a gem I hadn’t noticed during our summer visit – the cherry orchard with 329 trees is claimed as the largest collection of Taihaku trees in the world. But how could that be? After some enjoyable time following internet rabbit holes, it turned out to be quite a story.

In her 2019 book, The Sakura Obsession, Naoko Abe says that whereas in ancient Japan cherry blooms had been seen as a metaphor for new beginnings, by the 1930s official propaganda had turned the blossoms, which had a short and beautiful life, into a militaristic symbol (click on the link to read an extract).

The trees cultivated had changed over time too, and from the late 19th century, the newly developed Somei-yoshino trees predominated, thanks to how quickly they grew (from sapling to maturity in about 5 years), ease of propagation, and their beauty with the masses of pale pink flowers appearing before the leaves. Most significantly, it was a cloned variety which meant that all the Somei-yoshino trees bloomed and lost their petals within the same eight days – a startlingly dramatic reminder that millions of citizens could at any time be called upon to sacrifice their lives for the emperor.

Both the navy and the army incorporated Somei-yoshino blossoms into their insignia and, whenever Japan had something to celebrate, this was the only variety planted.

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Above: A bird’s eye view of the Taihaku cherry orchard at The Alnwick Garden.

In 1926, English cherry blossom enthusiast Collingwood Ingram (1880-1981) was invited to Japan to give a lecture to the Cherry Blossom Society. While in Japan he met Seisaku Funatsu, an elderly man he described as ‘the fountain-head of cherry lore’, at his home outside Tokyo where he was shown a 120-year-old scroll painting of a particularly prized variety of cherry tree which had been lost to cultivation in Japan. Almost unbelievably, Ingram recognised the tree. His polite host didn’t question this assertion but his doubt was evident.

Ingram also learned that the tree he called Taihaku (big white) was known in Japan as Akatsuki (daybreak/dawn).

Ingram had acquired his tree from two cherry fanciers in Sussex who had first heard about it in 1899 from a grower in Provence, Robin Lane Fox writes. They had then ordered like-sounding trees from Japan. Their own ageing tree was in poor condition but Ingram took pieces for grafting and soon had it growing well.

Unfortunately, the first grafts he sent to Japan arrived dead – killed by heat at the Equator or rotted. Finally, in 1932, he tried pressing the bottom ends of the grafts into cut potatoes and sent them via the trans-Siberian railway, a cooler route than by sea. Success!

The Taihaku tree Ingram helped grow is still flowering in Kyoto and all of the Taihaku in cultivation around the world today are offspring of that one tree in England.

A Taihaku cherry in Kyoto, Japan. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Ms Abe describes Ingram as a cherry-tree colossus for besides saving other varieties from extinction, he also had in his garden in Kent the world’s biggest collection of cherry trees outside Japan, more than 120 varieties, many gathered during that 1926 trip.

He is said to have been the first person in the world to create new varieties by artificial hybridisation, including the Kursar tree, a fusion from northern and southern Japan; and his 1948 book Ornamental Cherries resulted in widespread plantings across Britain. Among the plants named for him is Prunus ‘Collingwood Ingram’, bred from Prunus Kursar. Ingram introduced about 54 new varieties, with 15 receiving the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society

On his death, Ingram’s collection of Japanese art was bequeathed to the British Museum. Read more here, including an ‘entertaining’ account of his driving skills.

The Taihaku cherry tree is available from several nurseries in New Zealand.

Roots in the 17th century

Two years ago I was in Europe having the most marvellous time. Which is strange to look back on now, in this year of upheaval and restriction. But I thought, for all of us who are unable or unwilling to leave our own shores for the foreseeable future, it was a good time to share some of the gardens I enjoyed back then.

The Vasa Museum in Stockholm is Scandinavia’s busiest museum – on my first visit in 1982 the warship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 was still being preserved and was behind glass with only a walkway on one side for viewing. Now, however, the ship is the centrepiece in a multi-storey gallery, allowing viewing from top to bottom on both sides.

Part of the stern of the Wasa in the multi-storey museum that’s been built around the ship. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Outside the museum is an interesting small garden, free to visit, that many visitors probably walk straight past. It is laid out as a potager with beds for those vegetables, medicinal plants and flowers grown in early 17th century Sweden by both nobility and peasants. Separate beds were dedicated to hops, linen flax (Linum usitatissimum; also used for its seeds and to make linseed oil) and Virginia tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum). No chemical pesticides are used in the garden.

English lavender was growing in the medicinal garden, as well as the flower garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Among the vegetables were broad beans, blue peas (Pisum sativum ssp arvense), onions, white and yellow carrots (Daucus carota ssp sativus; orange carrots came later), cabbages (including red and kale), turnips and Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus), or poor man’s asparagus, a vegetable not grown much these days and now more often considered a weed.

Good King Henry. The plant’s leaves are high in iron but also in oxalic acid. The flowers and young shoots can also be eaten Photo: Thomas Mathias, via Wikimedia Commons

Hops were used to flavour beer for the navy and this beer, together with bread and dried peas, were the most important provisions for ships’ crews. A sailor had a monthly pea ration of nine litres!

The barber surgeon prepared herbs to treat the dysentery and scurvy that raged on board, as well as for treating the many injuries that occurred, and the garden includes poppies, rose, lily, sage, mint and tormentil (Potentilla erecta), garlic, St John’s wort, balm and hollyhock.

The apothecary’s rose, one of the oldest roses known to the West, in the Vasa Museum garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Museum has been as authentic as possible when choosing plants for the garden, finding seeds through Swedish Seed Savers, an arm of the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, and tracking a variety of cabbage to a gene bank in St Petersburg, Russia.

Signs dotted around the small garden are full of interesting information gleaned from the period including from a 1660s Swedish housekeeping handbook: “Medicinal plants must be reaped at the proper time. In springtime, when the root is most potent, or in autumn, when everything withers, and strength returns to the root”.

Still the best advice 400 years later! Photo: Sandra Simpson

Bulb of the moment: Paramongaia weberbaueri Velarde

Came across this ‘giant Peruvian daffodil’ last weekend at the Winter Gardens in Auckland. A knowledgeable gardener I was with recognised it and Winter Gardens horticulturalist Nick Lloyd kindly gave us a bit more detail.

Paramongaia weberbaueri Velarde. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Strangely, there are two forms of this bulb – the one that flowers in summer and has a winter dormancy come from above 3000m in The Andes, while this one flowers in winter, has a summer dormancy and is found at sea level. Both are deciduous

It is scented, something like a lily, but on a cool day I detected only a light spicy fragrance, barely there. The large flowers nod on their stems, but if you look into the trumpet, the green markings at the throat can be seen quite clearly.

The stems are about 500cm long and the flower as large as an adult hand (15cm in diameter), so yes, ‘giant’.

The bulb is named for where it comes from in Peru, the coastal area of Paramonga, which has a mild year-round climate (10-26C during the winter-spring growing period). It should be planted deeply to help keep it cool in summer and when dormant is should be almost completely dry.

The next part of its name honours German botanist August Weberbauer (1871-1948) who explored Peru extensively for new plant species, first arriving in 1901.

The bulb, part of the Amaryllidaceae family, was first described for science in 1949, although had been collected in 1874 and again in 1931 (this latter collection by Weberbauer). A 1975 article in the American Horticulturalist magazine describes seeing in 1965 some 500ha of these bulbs blooming in the Peruvian Andes. However, the author had not been able to simultaneously flower large numbers of these bulbs at the same time once they were in pots in the United States. Instead, they behaved more like Hippeastrums with irregular flowering over an extended period. Read the article here.

Our ancient trees: Pouakani

Returning from a recent driving tour of the central North Island, my invaluable Mobil guidebook by Diana and Jeremy Pope (Reed, 2009) alerted me to Pouakani, the oldest known tōtara (Podocarpus totara) in the country – and so the world – and noted that it was a short walk from the main road and sited within Pureora Forest Park, between Mangakino and Barryville on SH30.

Thought to be about 1800 years old, Pouakani is about 42m tall (measured with a drop tape in 2014) and a girth of a touch over 12m (measured 2018).

The canopy of Pouakani, NZ’s oldest known totara, filled with epiphytes. Photo: Sandra Simpson

I’ll excuse my photo of Pouakani by saying that trees as big as this are always difficult to photograph to give them any meaning in their context, and that the day was very overcast so quite dark.

But there was something else going on too, the least of which was that the track through the bush to the tree was completely unmarked, odd given that the tree supposedly attracts visitors, and we had to do the best we could in figuring out which way to go next – and hoping we’d be successful on the way back too.

Call me over-sensitive, but I had the strongest feeling all the way in and out (20 minutes either way) that we weren’t welcome. Normally, entering the New Zealand bush is a pleasant experience – a feeling of calm resides there. Not this day and not in that place. Over the years I’ve come to trust instincts like this so we turned back with me, at least, sending mental apologies to Tāne Mahuta for whatever we’d infringed.

The Te Ara Encyclopedia of NZ entry for Pouakani says, “Around the base there are fissures and deep cavernous holes which suggest the original ground level is several metres below where you stand… Looking upwards, one sees what could be a bough but in reality is a series of broken-off smaller trunks surrounded with branches, many of which carry vigorous new foliage. A few of these branches have grown vertical again to surpass the broken-off tops of former upper trunks.

“The last major volcanic eruption showered the Pureora district with ash about 1800 years ago, which is the age of Pouakani itself. Various lesser showers would have occurred later, but this part of the Volcanic Plateau seems to have had a more stable recent geological history than the Central Plateau, further south.” Read the full entry, and see a full-length image of the tree.

In his 2017 book, Tōtara, A natural and cultural history Philip Simpson (no relation) called tōtara “the most important tree in Māori culture”. Read more about Philip and his love of this tree (the link includes a video).

Tōtara were harvested for the durable, easy-to-work timber by both Māori and, more devastatingly, by European settlers who preferred it for fence posts on farms. It is now grown for timber in sustainable, managed forests.

At the other end of the scale to Pouakani is its cousin the snow tōtara (Podocarpus nivalis), a plant that forms a creeping mat in the mountainous areas it inhabits.