“What do you do in winter time?” This is a question I’m often asked when people find out that I’m a gardener at the Cornell Plantations. It’s an understandable question; so many people think of gardening as something you do in the three other seasons – from spring through autumn. My gardens at Plantations are a little uncommon though, in that they are of evergreen woody plants: our rhododendron and conifer collections. These are plants that are up, in full leaf, and still significant in the winter time. Especially the conifers.
None of this actually answers the question though, and one thing that any gardener could say in answer to it is “I read about my plants.” Or perhaps some variation on that. Maybe one of the best parts, in my mind, about working at a botanic garden that is part of a university, is that I’ve always been encouraged to read and study and learn about my plants; to find out who is out there doing similar work, or related work, or who works at similar organizations; to make phone calls and email and connect with peers in the field and find out what they are doing. This kind of winter homework is a big part of what I do in that fourth season, especially on those nastier winter days.
This year for example, just before Christmas, I was listening to the radio and heard an NPR story about Christmas trees. In a nutshell the story told how there are many different kinds of fir trees that are commonly grown be Christmas tree farmers in the northeast; but some of these species get a particular root disease. Research coming out of Penn State suggests that growers might want to use what they called Turkish firs (fir trees that are native to the country of Turkey) because they seem to be more resistant to this root disease. The story included someone from Cornell explaining what this disease is.
This story got my attention for a few reasons: first, I know the Cornell researcher who was in the piece, so that was cool. Second, one of the primary goals of the conifer hillside garden is to have as extensive a collection of firs as possible, because they grow well in our environment and because they have real economic impact in the northeast, primarily due to Christmas tree farming. A third thing caught my attention: the story neglected to use an actual Latin botanical name for the Turkish fir, and I know that there are at least 3 or 4 species of fir that grow there. I wanted to know exactly which one they meant, if only for my own curiosity.
So at work I started digging: looked at a few standard books at my desk, and started searching the web. I looked up NPR on-line and got the name of the Penn State researcher and contacted him, and I checked in with Plantations own plant-records person about current names. I tracked down some published research between the University of California at Davis; the Department of Biological Sciences, Middle East Technical University, in Ankara, Turkey; and the Institute of Forest Genetics, USDA Forest Service, in Placerville CA.
What I “discovered” is that there is certainly confusion about these Turkish firs and if they are named right, if they are actually sub-species of each other, which is subspecies of which, and so on. The three names that I was looking into are Abies (the genus for fir) nordmaniana, A. bornmulleriana, and A. equi-trojanii. Over in Greece, but in the same general region (if you think of this as the Balkans), there are also A. alba and A. boresii-regis, which may or may not be part of this same group of firs, and therefore may or may not be part of this same conversation. The genetic research done by UC Davis; Ankara, Turkey; and the Forest Service seems to clearly indicate that the three (A. nord, A born, and A e-t) are distinct enough to certainly be separate species. I sent an article about this research to the guy at Penn State who was part of that original radio story; he wasn’t previously familiar with that research. He emailed me back saying he agrees with this conclusion.
Why does any of this really matter, besides just being interesting to me? I think this is a fabulous example of real-world applications of science. These firs are so similar in many ways that genetic analysis really is, currently, the best way to see just how similar or different they are. And if someone is about to invest in a few thousand fir tree seedlings for their Tree Farm, they probably want to be investing in the right thing. This is real-life economic impact on a green industry that serves a significant cultural aspect of our life.
Part of the curatorial mission of the conifer garden is to have a wide selection of differing species of firs growing here at Cornell. Our hillside has all of the species named above, and I am constantly looking for more sources of seed or seedlings for them (and other species) to continue to grow in the future, and to connect with other organizations which might have similar gardens, collections, and plans.
That’s part of what I do in the winter.
—Phil Syphrit, gardener & curator of the Conifer Collection and Rhododendron and Azalea Collections at Cornell Plantations