Cathaya argyrophylla: An Endangered, Uncommon Conifer


     John Stella (John Stella Horticultural Sales) is a friend, colleague and plant enthusiast whose vast botanical knowledge is not only encyclopedic, but seldom rivaled. John often refers to certain plants as “BIO Plants”, an acronym for Botanical Interest Only. His usage as an adjective is often out of fascination, admiration or trivial interest for plants. Hidden from the world until 1955, the genus Cathaya was virtually unknown and today still stumps the most inquisitive horticultural minds.

Imagine a trek, totaling several days, climbing mountainous terrain, in search of a rare conifer only to be met by bureaucratic resistance. Resistance layered with local police, the local tourist bureau, the forestry department, the public secretary bureau, the Mayor’s office, and the Chinese army. Known only as a fossil record from tertiary sediments in Eurasia, Cathaya was rediscovered in 1955 by Chinese scientists in southeastern Szechwan and has been found growing in parts of Hunan, Guangxi, and Guizhou.  Jinfu Shan, the destination for our early explorers, was home for this extraordinary conifer. A member of the pine family (Pinaceae) this monotypic conifer (a sole member of its group or single species) seems to favor limestone outcrops and areas of heavy summer rain. Extremely rare in cultivation, this curious conifer has similarities to the following genus groups: Abies (fir), Picea (spruce), Tsuga (hemlock), Pseudotsuga (Douglas fir), Larix (larch), Cedrus (cedar) and Pinus (pines). An evolutionary marvel, Cathaya has its embryo and pollen resembling that of true pines (Pinus), its wood similar to Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga), and its overall habit and seed producing cones reciprocal to spruce (Picea).

After an arduous journey to the United States from the People’s Republic of China, we have Dr. James Waddick of Kansas City, Missouri to credit Cathaya’s arrival. Dr Waddick has been “Championed” for distributing Cathaya argyrophylla to the Western World. Forwarded from the offices of the Conifer Conservation Programme at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and Iseli Nursery in Oregon were among the first to be bestowed with the treasures of Cathaya. Andre Iseli, former owner of Iseli Nursery, the conifer capital of the world, was determined to be the first person to acquire the seed of Cathaya. Since 1991, Iseli has received six different seed crops from various sources and in 1995 successfully germinated four seeds. From these four seeds, two remain at Iseli Nursery, one standing over six feet tall now. One continues to grow at Andre Iseli’s garden and the forth was auctioned at the Conifer Society in 2000 after being donated by Iseli Nursery.

The cold hardiness of the plant is still under review. Iseli Nursery, after successfully germinating several seeds from a 1998 crop, selflessly gifted twenty specimens to friends throughout the country. In an effort to determine the plants hardiness, Iseli only asked for feedback as to how the plant performs from region to region. Among the few to receive such a gift, I can say that the plant performs admirably in central New Jersey and has not been browsed by deer. Time will Tell! Aesthetic similarities include that of Sciadopitys (Umbrella Pine) and Cunninghamia (China fir) as its needles are long and wide.

The word argyrophylla literally means “silvery leaves”. The lush green leaves, in fact have a silver underbelly. Growing amongst such familiar plants as rhododendrons, cotoneaster and enkianthus the initial grove of Cathaya, standing some ten meters (thirty-three feet) must have had an indelible impression for the chosen few who first meet them. Despite the initial bureaucratic red tape those early plant hunters encountered, a call to the governor and some political pull not only allowed trespassing, but permitted the touch and photography of these historical creatures. “They have hid from the modern world until only recently. Pondering the pressure of more than six billion people and the pollution from our industrialized world, I wondered whether the trees would have been better off remaining hidden” (Pacific Horticulture 2001). Despite the efforts of footholds filled with concrete, rough areas that were smoothed over that would have served as grips and installing barriers of rock and concrete, the elevation of 5600 feet was reached. Through the mist and beyond the dense thicket of bamboo stood the grove of Yinshan (the Chinese name for Cathaya argyrophylla). Thankfully there are those among us who have the forward thinking to honor the past by protecting it and ensuring its survival by careful and thoughtful toils. Thank you to the People’s Republic for understanding that preservation can endure without simply hiding the truth and to Iseli Nursery for their cutting edge science and remarkable generosity to pay it forward.