Indigo Eyes

Holly, my sister-in-law, works in our family business and likes plants. Not sure she sees them or holds them in the same regard or reverence that I do, but she does appreciate their attributes and that’s enough for me. This past winter, during our busy Christmas season, Holly remarked on a certain tree type, in front of our garden center, one that had been in place for nearly a week. Passing this unique pine for six days, it was on the seventh day that she exclaimed, “hey Bob, this is beautiful!” I explained to Holly that we stock this tree in the spring and had just received a few for holiday sales. Her attraction to this gorgeous conifer, I’m sure, will be heightened this spring when she sees, first hand, their colorful cones punctuating the unique “stem structure” she was fascinated with.

Bosnian Pine, Pinus heldreichii, also goes by such common names as Munika, or Cherna mura (translates to black pine) and Heldreich’s pine. The species name honors Theodor von Heldreich (1822-1902), a German-born botanist. Spending most of his life in Greece, von Heldreich is credited for discovering hundreds of Greek species. Noteworthy, today Pinus leucodermis is synonymous with his species. Bosnian pine is a coniferous evergreen tree, native to dry limestone soils in the mountain areas of the Balkans, Greece and Italy. A tree, in its native habitat, that can grow north of 70 feet tall, Bosnian pine is touted for its glossy, dark green needles, held in pairs and thick, ash-gray, flaking bark with yellow patches and large plates. Additionally, Bosnian pine has bright yellow pollen cones that grow in dense clusters at the base of the shoot. Perhaps its greatest attribute is its seed cones, held in clusters, ripening in early fall. Preceding this, the most amazing shades of dark purple or cobalt blue cones one could hope for.

As with most plants, specific cultivars are available for today’s retail market. The most noteworthy, to this author, Bosnian pine is ‘Indigo Eyes’. Pinus heldreichii (leucodermis) ‘Indigo Eyes’ forms cones at an early age. In fact, this cultivar is literally smothered by cones, up and down most of its branches, conelets that are bright blue at first, darkening to purple-black. By the time Holly saw its distinct cones, they had already graduated in color to soft brown, prominent none the less! A healthy, easy to grow tree, ‘Indigo Eyes’ has stiff dark green needles, is deer resistant, and offers a tidy, clean appearance all year. A semi-dwarf selection, one should expect 10 feet high and 8 feet wide after a decade or so. Having a slightly asymmetrical shape, offering unique character, ‘Indigo Eyes’ has always stood out in any garden I have seen it. Particularly with its amazingly colored cones. While tolerant of a wide range of soil types, I find it best to avoid poorly drained, wet soils and extreme heat and humidity.

Extensive trials, over several decades, have brought to market unique plant selections (cultivars) with particular characteristics. Superior seedlings have been chosen and today gardeners can pick fastigiated columns, narrow spires, striking bun types, pyramidal shapes or a more traditional, “pine tree” form of Bosnian pine. Better cold hardiness and stronger health, with resistance to insect and disease, have been thoughtfully bred and the results are superior dwarf, slow growing cultivars that thrive in full sun with well-drained soil. ‘Emerald Arrow’ stays decidedly narrow as does ‘Compact Gem’. ‘Irish Bell’ has a classic bell shape and ‘Banderica’ has been described as “chubby, squat and pyramidal.” However, for me, ‘Banderica’ reminds me of a Hershey’s Kiss.
Years back I traveled to Greece with my wife and distinctly remember a large specimen Bosnian pine not too far from the Acropolis of Athens. Always a thrill to see trees, that I studied in school, in their native habitat. And even more of a thrill is to correctly identify them, almost like a Jeopardy competition or table game to me. And I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the Sacred Athena Olive Tree here, on top of the Acropolis. Standing by the west porch of the Érechthéion, historically claimed, this particular tree can be traced back to the original olive tree planted by the Goddess Athena. Regardless, every time I think of Bosnian pine, it conjures up images of the Acropolis and has my mind running with all sorts of horticultural vocabulary, which thrills me… I know, but it does! In closing, I can’t wait to see Holly’s expression when she sees ‘Indigo Eyes’ glowing cones, next spring, against the structure she admired so much.

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