Opinions on Collection Conifers and Exotics 
by members of Conifer Obsession Groups

Jewels of the Plant Kingdom around the World

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The following opinions on collecting come from a series of on-line posts made by members of the CONIFER OBSESSION'S Conifer Hobbyist and Conifer Forum. The discussion starts with a Forum member from Sweden who says that he thinks plant collectors can be divided into two groups: those who collect only the species form of a plant and those who collect hybrids/cultivars. He speculates that the species collectors don't like hybrids because they are man-made and uninteresting. On the other hand, species are often uncommon in cultivation because they grow too large and lack interesting features such as the variegated foliage or blue forms found in hybrids/cultivars. He makes the point that cultivars are mostly pure, but extreme, forms of the species. He admits to liking plants from both groups and considers a nice hybrid/cultivar to be like a piece of art. 

Another conifer hobbyist, who collects miniature and dwarf conifer cultivars, is interested in species conifers but as a way of tracing and contrasting the parentage of his plants. He acknowledges that some cultivars have come into existence through chemical/radioactive or other artificial manipulation of the plant by nurserymen. But he still considers these to be "natural". One of the conifers in his Michigan garden is a
cultivar, Pinus heldreicheii 'Schmidtii' which is the result of cultivation of a variant found in the wild. He is grateful to the conifer nurserymen throughout the world who search out variants and propagate them for distribution. To him, having an exact genetic copy of an otherwise unobtainable cultivar by a method such as grafting is science at its best. 

Picea.abies.Acrocona.jpg (80713 bytes)
Picea abies 'Acrocona'

A Forum member from Michigan, Siegrid Stern, who is also a collector of Exotics (bromeliads, orchids and jungle cacti), says she refrains from collecting hybrids because hybrids are not of much value to collectors in the Exotic plant world. Hybrids are unusual, and an expensive, highly sought-after novelty when they are first introduced. When they become widely available, they are less desirable. Species are disappearing at an alarming rate due to the endless destruction of their habitat and can be difficult to collect because of their diminishing numbers. Exotics collectors prefer species because they are trying to preserve them for future generations. And once they have a species in their collections, most collectors and growers of Exotics do not part with it. In addition to species preservation, they keep their plants for use as hybridization stock. As an example, this collector has been on a waiting list for a particular bromeliad for 10 years.

But when it comes to conifers, her view is a bit different. Her two acres of property are planted in Picea pungens and Picea abies with deciduous trees providing a solid green belt behind the blue conifers. Several years ago, an ice storm damaged many trees and Mother Nature gave her the opportunity to have a completely new landscape. Instead of replanting completely with species, she chose to create a colorful and easy-to-maintain landscape using both species and hybrids. She will choose a species over a hybrid if one is available but she buys what fits a particular planting area, concentrating on texture, color, shape and year-round interest. She likes to "push the zone" and prove that a particular plant can be grown in Michigan, like she did with her cacti garden-the only one in Michigan with ten different Cholla and Opuntia cacti native to western states.

A professional nurseryman from Tennessee, Peach Grove Nursery, has a personal collection containing both species and hybrids/cultivars. Before he adds to his collection, he asks four questions: 1) Do I like it? 2) Do I have it? 3) Do I know what it is? 4) Can I use it as a stock plant in the future? Although some collect only species as a way of getting the widest range of diversity into a collection, he sees no reason to exclude hybrids and cultivars. Many named cultivars originated from wild-selected seed. And a lot of hybrids occur naturally or from unintentional pollination so not all are man-made. Some man-made hybrids have been crossed to extend hardiness on a species for commercial production; this allows one to have a plant that they might not be able get without hybridization. He doesn't have a problem with choosing a cultivar over a species because cloning a plant for desired characteristics does not exclude that plant from being a member of the species. In addition to hybrids and cultivars, natural variation can occur within a species. For example, Colorado spruce occurs both as a blue form (Picea pungens var. glauca) and a green form (Picea pungens) in the wild. Each form comes true from seed but there is a wide range of color in seed-grown plants. So if you decide that you want a Colorado spruce that's a particular blue color, you would want to go with a cloned cultivar. His philosophy is that one person's collection method is as valid as another's. There are unique limiting factors in building a collection which determines which style of collection is best for a person. He has seen a collection made up of several hundred cultivars within one species and a collection of several hundred species. Both styles of collecting were equally impressive. What's your style?

Written by Denny Gross; Reprinted with permission.

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