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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 29, 2010
Dr. Abbuhl builds a refuge for healthy living
By Saranac Hale Spencer
SLINGERLANDS One small tree in John Abbuhl’s stand of spruce isn’t guarded by a fence.
Its needles are evergreen pins evenly spaced along skinny arms and Abbuhl’s staid face breaks into a smile when he says that the deer won’t eat it because of its prickles.
Over the last 45 years, he’s turned 20 acres between Route 85 and Kenwood Avenue into an oasis of not obviously exotic trees organized amid a network of ponds according their geographic origin or species. Chestnut Grove is next to Japanese Hill and Western Glade follows Magnolia Field, which is aflutter with pastels in the first shy months of spring.
“Very simple,” he says of naming the ponds and pockets of trees.
A retired pediatrician, Abbuhl started digging ponds and planting around his house built in the “fall of Pearl Harbor. 1941,” he said because he was often on call and couldn’t be far from the phone. He and his wife bought the house in the spring of 1966 and now, he says, “I figure years by how long I’ve been here.” This will be the 45th spring.
Growing up in the 1930s, when reforestation projects weren’t uncommon, Abbuhl was imbued with the idea of cultivating forests. He taught himself the finer points of cultivation from books.
Expecting the unexpected
When choosing what plants he’ll order from a nursery in Williams, Ore., he said, “You use your head,” and pick things that will be able to live in this climate. But, he added, it’s good to be adventurous and try some things that aren’t listed for Zone 5, which covers this area and assumes that temperatures can get as low as 20 below.
Abbuhl has cultivated a spruce from the Himalayas and a fir from Japan, both of which were intended for Zone 7, which is expected to get no colder than zero.
“There is genetic variability in some plants,” he explained, saying that he has ordered some trees from nurseries in colder climates, like northern Minnesota, to get heartier plants.
“I probably tried every plant I thought could live in the area,” he said. Some died. Many lived.
Abbuhl is most fond of a whimsical tree with a base that is exponentially wider than the top and looks like a knot of roots pushed up from the ground.
“It was known as a fossil before they found it to be living,” he said of the Metasequoia, which was discovered in China in the 1940s. The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University sponsored a trip to get seeds for the tree, Abbuhl said, and those seeds were the source of Metasequoias until the 1980s, he said. Abbuhl got his from Jeffers Nursery in New Scotland in 1967. It now stands 67 feet tall, three feet in diameter, and six feet at the base.
“I liked the idea it was so unusual,” he said of choosing it, and people weren’t sure if it would be hearty enough to live here.
Part of what Abbuhl sees as unique in his work is the number of plants that are thriving out of their designated zones. In all, he has over 3,000 recorded plants.
Apple trees generally prefer well-drained soil and sun, he said, but he has a variety of crab-apple tree that is thriving in the opposite conditions. Apple trees originated around southern Russia, on the Northeast side of the Himalayas, he said, where there are forests of nothing but apple trees.
About 25 years ago, when he acquired the final seven acres of land, Abbuhl realized that he might be able to have an arboretum open to the public. Offering the outdoors to people who are becoming increasingly alienated from it has become a primary focus of the arboretum. The board hopes to buck the trend of the Last Child in the Forest, said Abbuhl, referencing a book that details the growing divide between children and nature, arguing that it is linked to many of the modern problems plaguing children.
People need to be exposed to nature not just for psychological development, Abbuhl said, but for immune development. Infants who grow up in an immaculate household without introduction to germs will be more susceptible to illness as adults.
“A place like this is good for society,” he concluded.
Recently, Abbuhl began the process to become a not-for-profit organization and The Pine Hollow Arboretum currently has about 50 members the cost of membership goes from $25 to $1,000.
An organization with resources to hire a horticulturalist will need to take it over one day, he said.
“It doesn’t have to look absolutely pristine to be preserved,” he said; in order to stay healthy, it should be the opposite. Of the dead trees and debris that fall on the woods’ floor, he said, “If you clean it up and remove it, you will not get proper reproduction.”
About 20 years ago, a sizable tree fell near his Greenhouse Pond and he left it as it was. “I like it. I thought it had character,” he said, as he pointed to the dozens of new trees and shrubs that had begun to grow out of the decaying trunk.
“The reproduction of a forest occurs on the death of the old forest,” he said.