FRENCH CARS. That’s right. Peugeots and Citroens and Renaults and Simcas. Cars that Americans have occasionally purchased and then had stories to pass on to succeeding generations. Names that live in American automotive infamy, these Gallic conveyances have more tales of wheel-borne woe than any sane person could forgive. But like a parent with  “Not MY child” syndrome, I love them. The style, the oddness, the idiosyncrasies…

Driving through the American South, I will occasionally see a static example of the French automotive expression. Maybe halfway to Charleston, while taking the back way, I would see a Le Car or Peugeot. These are cars whose only current function appears to be protecting the grass under them from the lawnmower, but they still quicken my pulse. Curious, if not pitiful.

This reaction, this discovery of unexpected treasure, is not limited to oddball automobiles. It is among the things that I greatly enjoy when I find plants growing in rural homesteads, plants that really “shouldn’t” be there. It happens quite regularly. My companions have often heard my exclamation of “There’s a Cunninghamia!” when traveling from Augusta to (fill in the name of a mid-sized Southern town here). They are out there.

And just what makes the Cunninghamia an unlikely inhabitant of the coastal plain and the lower South? It is native to China. Cunninghamia lanceolata, or Chinese fir, is half a world away from its natural home. How it got here is a testament to the industriousness and inspiration of the Berckmans family, the Belgian horticulturists who founded Fruitland Nurseries. The nursery that would eventually become a famous golf course was instrumental in introducing many foreign citizens to our American landscape and this conifer is among them. The Berckmans knew that horticultural immigrants had a future in the States and we owe them a debt of gratitude. They brought this tree to the South.

This conifer is not on anyone’s top 100 list of most popular landscape plants—far from it. It is nowadays considered a collector’s plant, as I would categorize it. That is what makes its existence in unlikely places so remarkable. Here is a tree of nobility and character, as well as botanical interest, that has grown unaided by doting horticulturists, probably without any care at all, judging by the residences where I have seen it. υ

I recall a humble cottage in Dewy Rose, Ga., that was graced by a beautiful Cunninghamia. This tree was 50 or 60 feet tall and towered over the plastic children’s toys that colored the yard. Another pair of perfectly matched trees exists on a farmstead near Estill, S.C., and has an equally engaged gardener, judging by the collection of rusted hulks decorating the yard.

The China fir is amenable to being “limbed up” if you need floor space in your garden.

It is this indifference toward being nurtured that makes the China fir so remarkable. It maintains its dignity and appearance no matter its circumstances. I have known people who demonstrated this noble characteristic…and it must be one of the rarer virtues in human beings. It seems that Cunninghamia likes sun and lives on whatever moisture the Weather Channel provides. Obviously, a newly planted youngster needs some care, but it does not have the tiresome neediness of many collectible plants.

There are a couple of varieties of Cunninghamia lanceolata, apart from the straight species, that are available from specialty nurseries. Chason’s Gift is a more compact version of the species, while Glauca has bluish needles. These are both interesting and quiet additions to the landscape. You will enjoy the cones that appear at the tips of the stems, quite stylish and beautiful, if you pause to notice such things. We need plants that make us slow down and appreciate divine creativity; it is what gardening is all about.

The China fir is amenable to being “limbed up” if you need floor space in your garden. This sort of forest can
provide an elegant and stylized form
of shade in which many woodland plants will thrive. If you need screening from a neighborhood eyesore or prying eyes our Oriental friend can help. If you just need a solid and reliable presence, and we all do, he can do that as well. Many of the useful tasks performed by Leyland cypress or arborvitae or upright junipers can be handled admirably by Cunninghamia. 

If your garden or your landscape needs a taller evergreen presence
and you have seen enough of the usual suspects, you should do the research needed to find the China fir. The 14th hole at the Augusta National Golf Club has a selection, I am told, but they are probably beyond most homeowner’s budgets. I believe Nurseries Caroliniana grows some and possibly Woodlanders, as well. Embrace this reminder of Augusta’s horticultural heritage, friends. And enjoy the spring. 

This article appears in the April 2016 issue of Augusta Magazine.