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The mysteries of the Abies Koreana

Abies Koreana, May 2020
Our Abies Koreana at the end of May 2020

Around 17 years ago, on a trip to Ashwood Nurseries in the West Midlands with the in-laws, I sneaked an unauthorised plant onto the trolley, much as a child might sneak a bag of sweets into the shopping cart on a trip to the supermarket.

On my stroll around the nursery grounds, I had seen an attractive conifer that had grown to about waist height with a spread of about 2 metres. And on looking at the label I thought I should see if I could grow it in the garden at home: it was called Abies Koreana.

The only baby plant available for sale at the nursery was unpromising, but I bought it anyway. It was so unpromising that my dear mother-in-law christened it the Little Ugly Plant, a name which stuck for a while, but which in more recent years has become less appropriate.

The plant was slow to establish itself, to say the least. For five or six years it was little more than a spindly twig with some grubby-looking evergreen fronds. It needed to be tied to a garden cane to keep it from falling over. Two Christmases running, its miserable performance featured in a seasonal post (2006 | 2007).

We were beginning to lose patience with it: we don’t have room for underperforming plants in our garden, where most plants grow to heights far beyond those advertised on the label.

March 2010
March 2010

Ten years ago it was still looking sickly. But at some point since then it started to look a bit more healthy: we eventually felt able to remove the cane and, under close supervision, we let it stand on its own.

During that period, it started giving pleasure: it began to develop pretty purple-coloured pine cones in the springtime, of which you can see the first signs in the above photo from 2010. Only on one side of the tree, only on a couple of branches. But in due course they looked good, particularly in the low morning sun. One year, the cones looked so good that I took a photo and made them my Facebook header image.

Abies Korean cones
The cones in April 2018

Every year for the last six to eight years, those cones have been very special. But this year, they didn’t come.

Instead, the thing has gone batshit crazy. It has always grown a tiny bit in the spring, with three little buds at the end of each stem pushing out new tiny fingers of fronds which maybe grow an inch or two to bulk out the tree. Here’s what the tiny fingers looked like six weeks ago on 18 April.

New growth on 18 April 2020
New growth on 18 April this year

When I took this photo two weeks ago the most supercharged stem of new growth was six inches long. That is a huge amount of growth in a short period of time – for this plant at any rate.

New growth on 19 May 2020
New growth on 19 May this year

When I checked the same stem today it was nearly ten inches long. This thing has never put on such a spurt of growth. And we have no clue as to why it has chosen the months of Covid lockdown to make up for 17 years of slow growth to put on its spurt, while at the same forgetting about the springtime cones.

That’s the first mystery of our Abies Koreana. The second mystery is its target adult height and shape.

If you check Wikipedia and more authoritative online sources such as the Royal Horticultural Society website the plain Abies Koreana grows to over 30 feet and forms a traditional Christmas tree shape. But the Abies Koreana we saw at the nursery was a nice ornamental bush shape, and that’s what our version is (finally) developing into. And while the nursery website advertises many cultivars such as the Blue Eskimo and the Alpine Star, it also advertises a what it calls a plain Abies Koreana, which is what our conifer most resembles. But it is billed to reach its adult size of 1.8 metres and spread of 3 metres in 10 years. Ours has barely achieved half that bulk in twice the time.

So that’s the second mystery. What, officially, is the natural height and shape of a plain Abies Koreana, and how long does it take to get there?

We’re not complaining about our Abies Koreana. It’s looking good. And wondering what it’s going to do next is half the fun of it. But I do hope the cones come back next spring.

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