New Year’s elders

by Jonathan Damery, Associate Editor of Arnoldia
December 31, 2018

New Year’s elders

This Wilson-collected Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii, 11371*J) turns one hundred years old in 2019. Photo by Kyle Port.

After you’ve sung “Auld Lang Syne” and shot confetti scraps into the air, eaten the silvery herring or popped the twelve grapes (whatever your auspicious New Year’s traditions may be), it’s time to start humming “Pomp and Circumstance.” One hundred years ago, the Arnold Arboretum received the final seed shipments from Ernest Henry Wilson’s sixth plant collecting expedition—his final trip to eastern Asia. Living representatives of that seed shipment are now among a group of sixty-four Arboretum plants turning one hundred in 2019: an achievement that certainly warrants symphonic recognition, if not a toast of champagne. Among the most prominent members of this Wilson cohort are three Japanese black pines (Pinus thunbergii) growing along Peters Hill Road. The largest tree (accession 11371*J) greets you as you curl uphill from Peters Hill Gate. It bows softly towards the road, just before the first intersection, but then, as though thinking better of it, the trunk bends back, like a houseplant that has been turned away from the window, causing it to reach the opposite direction for sunshine. The form is lean and lanky, far from something that could accommodate a twist of tinsel and lights, and the lower branches dip downward and curl back at the tip. Despite these elegant bends, the overall effect is scarcely demure. Rather, the tree looks wizened and sculptural—like something that has earned the honor of its years.

The snaking trunk of another Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii, 11371*O). Photo by William (Ned) Friedman.

According to Wilson’s collection notebook, he obtained seeds for this accession from the Yokohama Nursery Company, outside of Tokyo. (Incidentally, in 1913, an Arboretum neighbor, Larz Anderson, purchased a collection of bonsai from this same nursery, which were later donated to the Arboretum, creating the venerable core for our Bonsai and Penjing Collection.) Wilson wrote about the Japanese black pine in his book on Japanese conifers and noted the curious allure of this species. “Black pine is a most picturesque tree with a crooked trunk, ponderous, sprawling branches … and a blackish-looking crown of no particular shape,” he wrote. “Its odd habit, umbrageous withal, is probably what has so endeared to the Japanese, by whom it has been more widely planted than any other tree except the Cryptomeria.”
On the Arboretum’s collecting trip to Japan last fall, Michael Dosmann and Steve Schneider observed Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora) growing on mountain ridges near Nikko, northwest of Tokyo, but no black pines. The understory of the forests included Japanese clethra (Clethra barbinervis)—then notable for the onset of burgundy leaves—and Wright viburnum (Viburnum wrightii), which produces clusters of vibrant fruit. In terms of conifers, however, the collections on the expedition were richest in hemlocks and firs. The team collected seed from both the southern and northern Japanese hemlocks (Tsuga sieboldii and T. diversifolia) and two species of fir, including Abies mariesii, which is rare in cultivation. Who knows what will happen in the century ahead, but one can only hope that, come 2119, these new plants—firs and clethra, viburnums and hemlocks—will stand with the black pines, among the senior class.

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