Trees and shrubs are a pleasure for many homeowners. They're asthetically pleasing in the landscape, and they offer shade, fruits, flowers, and—especially this time of year—dazzling leaves. But have you ever wondered where those trees and shrubs came from? Before they make it to the nursery? I'm curious about the actual origins of trees and shrubs. Aren't you?



Common Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens): Boxwood is believed to be a native of Britain, based on tentative pollen identification from the interglacial period and traces of boxwood that burned in the Neolithic period. Funerary relics of boxwood date to Roman Britain, and there are records of boxwood mazes that date back to 17th century Britain. Boxwood has been used for hedges, topiaries, formal herb gardens, and medicinal purposes for centuries. Hardier forms of box were collected in Romania some sixty years ago by American botanist Edgar Anderson,whose findings, sent to the Arnold Arboretum, resulted in the introduction of "Vardar Valley" boxwood. The oriental boxwood, (Buxus microphylla) is native to China, Korea, and Japan.



Corneliancherry Dogwood (Cornus mas): Native to central and southern Europe, wood from the Corneliancherry Dogwood plant is said to have been used to build the legendary Trojan Horse and other stories related to it date back to the time of Virgil. The date of its introduction to England is not known but in 1551 its presence was noted at Hampton Court Palace outside London.


In John Parkinson’s 1629 British classic Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris, the “Cornell tree” is described as: “a tree that is planted in orchards, being the male (for the female is a hedge bush) is of two sorts, the one bearing red, the other whiter berries, which is very rare yet in our country, and not differing else.” Parkinson went on to note that “by reason of the pleasantness in them when they are ripe, they are much desired. . .both for rarity and delight.” (The female plant Parkinson describes is believed to be Cornus sanguinea.)

Several other botanists of the period mention the edible fruit, but from 1783 and beyond, descriptions of the plant note that it was “formerly” grown for its edible berries. By the 19th century Cornus mas had gained its present place in the ornamental garden rather than the orchard, although even today the fruits are considered a medicinal source of vitamin C in Russia. It is probable that Colonial Americans brought Cornus mas to this continent along with the many other food-producing shrubs and trees, but this is not confirmed. Thomas Jefferson mentions a “Ciriege corniole” which he describes as “a special variety of Italian cherry.” Although Cornus mas is native to that region and “corniole” is similar to the English spelling “cornell,” this is probably not the same plant.   


Dawn Redwood: The Dawn Redwood story is a modern day adventure that began 100 million years ago. When a paleontologist discovered well-preserved fossils in central Hondo, Japan in 1940, he determined that the fossilized remains were a unique genus similar to the sequoia and named it Metasequoia, meaning “akin to sequoia." The genus was believed to have been extinct for 20 million years. In 1941 a Chinese forester traveling in the eastern Sichuan province of central China was intrigued by a group of three trees the natives called “water fir.” It was not until 1944 that the forester arranged for a colleague to collect cones and branchlets, and a further two years went by before the fossilized cones were connected with the “water fir;" the trees were originally believed to be specimens of the Chinese swamp cypress (Glyptostrobus lineatus). The genus was eventually identified as Metasequoia and the species name glyptostroboides was added to denote its resemblance to the Chinese swamp cypress. Once the confusion about the new genus was clarified, previous studies of fossil records were revised to show that Metasequoia, not Sequoia, dominated the forests of the Tertiary period.


The common name “dawn redwood” was coined by Ralph W. Chaney, a paleontologist at the University of California-Berkeley. After a seed-collecting trip to China by a team from Rutgers University, 344 dawn redwoods grown from 48 specimens producing viable seed were randomly planted at Dawes Arboretum in Ohio in 1993. The Dawes Arboretum collection also includes one of the original Metasequoia grown from seeds obtained by the Arnold Arboretum in 1948; this tree is now over 76 feet tall.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) tree: The Ginkgo Biloba tree is considered to be the only remaining survivor of a plant family that dominated this hemisphere 125 million years ago. The ginkgo is believed to be native to mountain forests of southeast China and it is still found in the Lower Yangtse Valley of China where it has flourished for millennia. The first ginkgo in Europe was planted in Utrecht, Holland in about 1730; a very old ginkgo growing at that site may actually be an identical tree. Two specimens in the U.S. vie for the title of America’s oldest ginkgo: William Hamilton introduced the ginkgo to the U.S., and one specimen was planted in the gardens of Philadelphia native, John Bartram, who established his garden in 1729. 


Japanese Flowering Crabapple: Also known as Malus floribunda, the Japanese flowering crabapple tree was discovered in an unknown location in Japan by Dr. Philipp von Siebold. It is not known if he brought seeds or a tree, but the species was introduced to Europe in the mid-1850s and named in 1856. Later plant explorers were unable to locate Dr. von Siebold’s source of Malus floribunda, noting that the species was often confused with M. halliana. This mystery has caused modern day experts to speculate that Siebold may have collected the only specimen in existence; another alternative is that M. floribunda was selected from propagated seedlings of  M. sieboldii or M. baccata. Because there is no verification that this tree ever grew in Japan, crabapple expert Dr. Thomas Green of Western Illinois University prefers the common name “floribunda crabapple,” since the tree has been described as “perhaps the most beautiful crabapple in flower.” Research seems to point to Malus floribunda being a hybrid or descendant of M. x zumi calocarpa.


Like the trees and shrubs described above, many of the plants we come across every day have a long and interesting history. Learning about the origins of these plants can help determine the type of site it's best suited for and the type of conditions it can be expected to survive.


Adapted from an article by the author, originally published in The Landscape Contractor magazine







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