Two weeks ago I went to a wonderful lecture at the New York Botanical Garden. The speaker was Barry Yinger, a well known plantsman and author who specializes in Asian flora. The topic for the day was “New Japanese Plants for the Garden. Mr. Yinger, who also owns Asiatica, a Pennsylvania retail nursery, is one of those intrepid people who travels all over the world to find new plant species and varieties. He walks in the literal and figurative footsteps of great nineteenth and early twentieth century plant hunters such as E.H. “Chinese” Wilson and Reginald Farrar, who were responsible for introducing the Western world to many of the plants that we take for granted today.
I went to the lecture expecting to see an array of dazzling plant slides accompanied by a lot of unfamiliar genus and species names. I was only half right. The slides were absolutely inspirational, but many of the genera were very familiar. I felt as if I had gone to Japan and run across the long lost cousins of people who live in my neighborhood.
One of the first names I recognized was Hamamelis, otherwise known as witch hazel. Lots of people grow Hamamelis molis, the Chinese witch hazel, others have Hamamelis virginiana, a native North American variety. The shrubs are easy to spot in the garden because they are among the first to bloom in the spring. The spidery gold or yellow or orange blossoms are, frankly, not much to write home about. What distinguishes witch hazels in general is fragrance.
Japanese Hamamelis are not reputed to be as fragrant as the Chinese variety, but the ‘Falling Star’ cultivar described by Mr. Yinger makes up for that probably deficiency with somewhat more attractive blossoms. Early in the spring, a little color goes a long way.
Arisaema is one of the darlings of the horticultural world at the moment. This is amusing to people who have seen Arisaema triphyllum, the common Jack-in-the-pulpit, growing en masse in wooded areas. Mr. Yinger described several Asian varieties, all of which have the same hooded blossom as the common Arisaema. I am especially intrigued by Arisaema serration, which has a black-striped flower, and the beautiful Arisaema candidissimum, with its pink-striped blossom. The influx of new Arisaema species is a definite boon to those with an abundance of shade.
Shade is usually a problem for peony lovers because most varieties crave the sun. This is less true of Paeonia japonica, the Japanese peony, that thrives in light to medium shade. Mr. Yinger was especially enthusiastic about the gray-green foliage and pink single flowers of Paeonia japonica obovata. This peony also has colorful seed heads and showy fall fruits, making it perfect for gardeners in search of three-season interest.
In the spring, damp woodland areas are filled with mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum). Their large umbrella-like leaves are almost as recognizable as those of skunk cabbage, and their white blossoms are easy to spot. Barry Yinger spoke enthusiastically about two new Asian varieties, Podophyllum difforme and Podophyllum veitchii. The former with its gray-green leaves that are sometimes almost silvery, and large dark red flowers, sounds perfect for people who already like hellebores and other unusual shade plants. Podophyllum veitchii, which is sometimes known as Podophyllum delavayi, also has fabulous foliage. In his catalog, Mr. Yinger describes “Fuzzy umbrellas.with dark snakeskin markings, often on a red background, changing to patterned green.” The pink, white or red flowers add to the show.
Hydrangeas of all types are experiencing a vogue right now, and every Japanese varieties of Hydrangea macrophylla var. serrata seem to have great promise. Though the length of the long botanical name is daunting, it tells you exactly what you are getting. “Macrophylla” means, literally, “big leaves.” “Serrata” means having tooth-like edges-think of the edge of a knife with a serrated blade. Therefore hydrangeas in this group have large leaves with serrated edges. Mr. Yinger discussed a variety called ‘Kiyosumi’, that begins the growing season with burgundy-tinted new growth, then goes on to sprout dark red buds that open into pink flowers with red picotee edges. Another serrata, ‘Shichi Dan Ka’, features double lavendar florets, and toothed leaves that turn orange in the fall.
My heart sang when Mr. Yinger mentioned Camellia japonica ‘Korean Fire’, a camellia, that has wonderful single red blossoms. It is special because it is much more cold-tolerant than most other camellias. ‘Korean Fire’ will, survive in a USDA Zone 6 garden, and possibly, said Mr. Yinger, in a Zone 5 garden with protection. Since the creators of the new cold hardy camellia hybrids have yet to come up with a good red, Camellia japonica ‘Korean Fire’ may be something akin to the Holy Grail for camellia lovers living far from the sunny south.
Change is hard for most people, gardeners included. Planting the Japanese or Asian versions of old garden favorites is a way of combining the foreign with the familiar to achieve beautiful results. Most of the plants mentioned by Barry Yinger can be ordered from his Asiatica Nursery, PO Box 270, Lewisberry, PA 17339, (717) 938-8677, www.asiaticanursery.com , catalog $4.00; or from Heronswood Nursery, 7530 NE 288th Street, Kingston, WA 98346, (360) 297-4172
by E. Ginsburg