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A Winter’s Tale

Whenever I meet someone for the first time and we get to talking about what we do, if this person is not a gardener, when they learn that I maintain a four-acre conifer collection at Cornell University, inevitably the next question is, “What do you do in winter time?”

Maybe one of the best parts about working at a botanic garden that is part of an academic institution is that I’ve always been encouraged to read, study and learn about the plants under my care; to find out who is out there doing similar work, or related work. This kind of winter homework is a big part of what I do on the nastier winter days in upstate New York.

Abies bornmuelleriana, the Turkish Fir, located  at Cornell Plantations, Ithaca, NY. Currently it is listed as a sub
Abies bornmuelleriana, the Turkish Fir, at Cornell Plantations, Ithaca, NY. Currently it is listed as a subspecies of Nordmann Fir but there is evidence that it is a species on its own and, as a rootstock plant, might be a solution to the root rot that affects many Abies species.

Photo by Phil Syphri

For example, just before Christmas, I heard a story on NPR about Christmas tree farmers in the northeast coping with root disease in firs and that research coming out of Penn State suggested that growers might want to use Turkish firs because they seem to be more resistant to this disease. (The story included a colleague from Cornell explaining what this disease is which brightened my day!)

What really caught my attention, however, was that the story neglected to use the Latin botanical name for the Turkish fir in question when there are at least three or four endemic Abies species that grow there. I realize that NPR doesn’t program for conifer nuts like myself but, as a professional, I wanted to know exactly which one might offer a possible cure to a persistent problem that afflicts fir cultivars. It might offer a solution to the problem that broke the heart of my ACS college, Brooke Henninger, who recently wrote here so movingly about losing an Abies pinsapo ‘Aurea’ in her garden in Rochester, just a few miles north of me.

So I started digging through my reference books, searched the web and made contact with Dr. Rick Bates, the Penn State researcher interviewed in the NPR story. It seems that this topic has been given some serious study at places like the University of California at Davis, the Institute of Forest Genetics, USDA Forest Service, in Placerville, CA, and — most appropriately — the Department of Biological Sciences, Middle East Technical University, in Ankara, Turkey (download this research paper on Turkish firs).

There is certainly confusion about the Turkish firs, whether they are correctly named and, if they are actually subspecies of each other, which is a subspecies of which? Some even contend that the subspecies deserve to be moved to species status which will shake up the taxonomists — not that they ever need prodding.

The three “specimens of interest” are Abies nordmanniana, A. bornmuelleriana, and A. equi-trojani. (In nearby Greece there is A. alba and A. borisii-regis, which may or may not be part of this same group of firs, and therefore may or may not be part of this conversation.) The genetic research done by the three institutions cited seems to clearly indicate that all three (A. nord., A born., and A. e-t.) are certainly distinct enough to be separate species. Nordmann is already riding in the first class cabin; the other two, Turkish and Trojan, deserve upgrades. Rick Bates agrees with this conclusion.

RootRot_table2To get back to the issue of Abies viability, Rick also shared with me some data of his own, which I’m also including here.

I think this is a fabulous example of a real-world application of scientific research. There is a significant part of the green industry, the Christmas tree growers, who we are now able to tell that there is a type of fir from the coast of Turkey that is more resistant to root rot (download this research paper.) But we really do need to be telling them just what the best species is. Likewise, for our own small group of growers for the conifer collector market. I was pleased to read in the follow up to Brooke’s story, that Brent Markus (a Cornell grad, ‘ahem’) brought up the subject of the superiority of Turkish fir understock that he is using in his operation.

Despite the centuries of botanical research on conifers there still are a staggering number of questions that provoke our curiosity about these remarkable plants. And those questions can keep us enthused and meaningfully occupied during our gardens’ long winter nap.


3 comments to “A Winter’s Tale

  1. Phil Syphrit commented

    I am very curious to hear what others think about these issues, and where the future of Abies bornmuelleriana lies. Does it deserve species status? And what about Abies equi-trojani, the Trojan Fir, which is on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species but, nonetheless, scores high marks for resistance to Phytopthora root rot?

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  2. Ethan Johnson commented

    Phil, as you probably know, the firs are the most difficult conifers to classify. There are many closely related species and many opinions among the authorities as how to classify them into species and in many cases botanical rank below that of species (subspecies and varieties).

    Aljos Farjon and Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh Staff, reviewed the conservation status of conifers and updated the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2013. They found that 34% of them are threatened on one level or another; the classification they use, if my memory serves me correctly, does not include the Bornmueller or the Trojan fir as a species. They consider them to be a subspecies of Nordmann fir or another Turkish fir.

    While Bornmueller fir, or what ever name you wish to use for it, is indeed well above average in the category of root rot resistance, it probably is threatened by something else in its native habitat, perhaps logging and “development;” Nordmann fir is not threatened in its native habitat (eastern Turkey & the Caucasus if my memory serves me), and it too is well above average with regard to root rot resistance.

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  3. Ted Hildebrant commented

    Hi Phil, Last summer I attended a Cornell Cooperative Extension – IPM meeting for christmas tree growers in Western NY. Betsy Lamb and Brian Eshenhaurer (sp?) of the CCE IPM program showed us a test block of Abies seedlings that was examining the Phytopthora problem. The A. bornmuelleriana showed promise in the block that had a number of other species that weren’t doing so well. Since Betsy is at Cornell too I’m sure she can put you in touch with the correct person for that research.

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