Tree Talk: Finding and celebrating the ancestors of your garden

This old Eastern redbud, Cercis canadensis, bursts into deep pink bloom in late April, early May. While it has spawned several offspring, the original plant has many virtues.

This old Eastern redbud, Cercis canadensis, bursts into deep pink bloom in late April, early May. While it has spawned several offspring, the original plant has many virtues.
Mary Henry

Ever watch Henry Louis Gates’ program “Finding Your Roots” on PBS? I am addicted. First the guest celebrity is introduced, multiple talents and virtues articulated. Then Gates proceeds back through the generations. You begin to see what genetic, familial and cultural components made each guest who they are. Often, as the program progresses, you are introduced to more interesting and accomplished people from the past than the person sitting across the table from Gates.

OK, the plant world is like that. Online or in catalogs, I read descriptions of plants for mail order. How they tempt! “Richly saturated color,” “Huge blossoms.” “Free flowering,” “New!” “Improved!” “Just introduced, limited supply!” Nearly all of them are cultivated varieties or hybrids.
I’m not putting these new plant introductions down. Nor am I suggesting that the enthusiasm is bogus or even hyperbolic. But I always wonder, what is the parent like? What did the plant look like when Mother Nature plopped it on the planet? Then I look up the ancestor and, sometimes, discover that the precursor is more interesting than the offspring.

Case in point is the photo you see here. This old Eastern redbud -- Cercis canadensis -- bursts into deep pink bloom in late April, early May. It has spawned several offspring: C.c “Forest Pansy” with rich purple leaves; “Alba,” which has white flowers; “Silver Cloud” flaunting leaves marbled with white. None, in my opinion, can top what you see here. None bloom more profusely. None have as statuesque a form when gingerly pruned as they mature into trees. Here, as in many cases, the blue ribbon goes to the ancestor!

Examples of what I’m talking about are many in the horticultural world. I’ll discuss three.
Fatsia japonica: The bold leaves of this Japanese and Korean native have no superior when it comes to adding a tropical look to the garden with big, deeply cut, palmate glossy green leaves. Now new introductions are taking center stage, F.j. “Spider’s Web,” F.j. “Etsy.” With their variegated leaves in white and green, they are, indeed, handsome plants, often used to anchor beds of assorted white blossoms. Fine. But as a background plant or a compelling focal point, nothing can exceed the beauty, the sculptural value and the stability of the grandparent.

My mother-in-law was so enamored of my plant that she took a cutting, hauled it back to Ohio -- where it is not hardy, rooted it and grew it in a pot, indoors. She affectionately named her plant Fatso. Fatso’s leaves were regularly polished; he was judiciously groomed and watered. On several Christmases he was bedangled with tinsel balls or festooned with strings of beads.

Peonies: I love them, their colors, their size, their variations. I’d happily include any of them in my garden. Still, I caution any gardener not to overlook the species. The species’ flowers are certainly not Las Vegas glitzy, not by a long shot, but the simplicity of flower, foliage and form is as elegant and besotting as an Emily Dickinson poem. Look for Paeonia obovate, with its saucer-like flower of cream with a grand burst of yellow stamen. Native to Siberia, China and Japan, the plant has sumi painting simplicity until its seed heads form and burst open in a spectacle of red spotted with deep purple seeds. You’ll think you are looking into the center of a pomegranate. Paenoia moklosowitzii and P. lactiflora both put on excellent displays of spring bloom, followed by summer foliage that anchors any planting bed and, following a cold snap, sport autumn color. In my youth, and I am slightly ashamed to admit this, I grew P. moklosowitzii, in part, so I could point to it when friends toured the garden and roll the name out as if it were de rigueur, making me sound like a smarter plantsman than I was. Times change. I can now say, with authority, old age whips the vanity right out of you!

Rhododendrons: When I first met the legendary Betty Miller, she was taking me through her famous gardens in the Scottish Highlands. She, I would come to learn, was a great collector of, and supporter of, plants of unaltered genus and species. Crafty lady that Betty was, she wanted to test my level of horticultural sophistication. She turned to me, and in her intimidating and raspy voice said, “Do you like hybrid rhododendrons?” I said I did. “Ha!” She shouted. “So, you like cabbages!”

That moment had three effects on me. No. 1, I was, from that moment on, very careful about how I answered Betty. No. 2, I didn’t like being embarrassed and vowed to try my best never to let it happen again, or to ever embarrass anyone else, wittingly or unwittingly. No. 3, I got interested in species rhododendrons.

The buds on my Rhododendron sinogrande will pop this month and I’ll love them. That’s not why I grow this whopper. Native to the mountains of China, it will eventually be a tree, perhaps 30 or more feet tall, with thick, leathery, elongated oval leaves that can grow 3 feet long.

If you want to get addicted to these splendid and ancient rhododendrons, visit the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden, 2525 S. 336th St., Federal Way, in Woodbridge Corporate Park. In its 22-acres, it is home to the world’s most extensive collection of species rhododendrons. Many of the plants will be in bloom this month. You’ll become a regular visitor.

So, I hope I’ve made the point. If you want to feel a sense of history, or ancestral pride, or of being connected to the earth as it evolved without the tinkering of humankind, look into the species. If nothing more, it might be like watching an episode of Henry Louis Gates. As interesting as the current headliners may be, the real story is where it all began -- with the ancestors. And maybe, just maybe, there will be an old-fashioned redbud or a Rhododendron sinogrande or a Fatso in your future.