New plants, old plants, favorites and experiments


Posted: Wednesday, April 11, 2001

The first shipments of nursery stock are arriving this week, including new varieties, old favorites and plants that we have thirsted after for years. It is like another Christmas, with all the presents being alive. There are new colors of hardy rhododendrons from the exciting breeding program at the University of Helsinki, rosy nights and golden nights azaleas that are bud hardy to minus 50 degrees from the University of Minnesota and big red-flowered hawthorns like the ones downtown.

There is nothing like the excitement of unloading the big boxes: crews passing out plants, tractors slithering around with pallets of conifers and the continual chatter of the plant lovers. "Oh, look at this," "how lovely, just what I always wanted" and "wow, what a huge one," ring out on all sides as the trees, shrubs, bedding plants and perennials pour out of the vans.

Some of these are specimens that someone has been waiting for several years, some are for new public projects and some are trial species to see if they will be able to live here. It's not just cold hardiness that determines if they can survive here; it gets a lot colder in other areas of the country. Montana, North Dakota and Wisconsin have much lower winter temperatures, but since plants take their directions from the relative length of day and night, it is the ability to go dormant in time for winter that means success or failure. The desirable species must also be able to stay dormant during the January and February thaws.

That is the reason we are particularly excited about these rhododendrons from Finland; they were bred at high latitudes, so they should be perfect for our needs. They also have the advantage of being smaller than the older hardy varieties. Those old favorites, often referred to as the "Cast Iron Hybrids," are mostly 100- to 150-year-old plants. That means that the original crosses that gave us these plants were done about the time of the American Civil War.

The gardening style at that time was for large yards, and a flowering shrub that got 15 feet wide and 10 feet tall was perfect. Our smaller spaces today mean that these older varieties tend to get too large, so we prune them to keep them in scale. The newer hybrids are bred to fit the two- to four-foot sizes that our gardens often call for. Think of those red rhododendrons in front of Dr. Akiyama's office. They have been there 20 years, get covered with brilliant blooms for a month, but never block the sidewalk or get out of hand.

These Finnish varieties, with names like "Haaga"(a bright pink); "Hellikki" (deep red) and "Helsinki University" (clean white) might be the first wave of a whole new concept in rhododendrons for us. They will be able to fit in with the roses, potentillas and spiraeas that form the major part of our garden shrubbery.

Rhododendrons are not the only new trials this season. Two years ago I saw a white oak, (quercus alba), growing in one of my friend's yards. They bought a home in the high school neighborhood and loved the beautiful cherry trees along the street, but hadn't paid much attention to this oddity in their side yard, until it changed colors for the fall. Once it developed the stunning red autumn color, they knew that it was something unusual; we just don't have those shades in our forests.

The white or "swamp" oak is one that can tolerate acid soils with high moisture. They don't grow too fast and will stay manageable sized for decades, but will eventually become one of those venerable shade trees like we see in the eastern hardwood forests.

We're also trying another of these North American natives, American hornbeam (carpinus carolina), often called "blue beech." I think they are going to be as nice as the European beech, but even slower growing. They will stay in scale with the flowering crabapples and hawthorns for the multi-seasonal grove effect that is becoming so popular.

There are dozens of hidden treasures in Juneau's yards since people have been trying trees and shrubs from their former homes for a century. It is part of the charm of landscaping and gardening that people have these associations with their favorite plants and they want to have these living companions along with them in their new surroundings. We all gain from the efforts of these experimenters as they widen the spectrum of choices for the rest of us.

New plants, old plants, favorites and experiments, new planting styles, and the constantly developing outdoor living experience, are some of the reasons that gardening gains in popularity each season.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to

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