JARS v40n3 - Rhododendrons And Scandinavian Design

Rhododendrons And Scandinavian Design
Avis Aronovitz
Atlanta, Georgia

Use "rhododendrons" and "Scandinavian design" in the same sentence and most of us would not expect anything more to follow than an adage on apples and oranges. So it is not too surprising that like most tourists we travelled to Scandinavia to see Norway's fjords, buy Scandinavian designed treasures available at an excellent exchange rate on Copenhagen's "Stroget", and perhaps - if time permitted - satisfy our curiosity about rhododendron growing in this part of the world. It didn't take long to discover that we had set our priorities all wrong.
Soon it became apparent that there is something rather special about the Scandinavian way with rhododendrons. Dr. Ole Rolf Jacobsen, President of the 320 member Danish ARS Chapter, will tell you that he does not find his own garden north of Copenhagen very special and then he will produce two and a half handwritten pages listing just the species rhododendrons that grow comfortably on the lot surrounding his home in Horsholm.
Yet, it is much more than the enormous variety growing here that makes the Scandinavian way with rhododendrons special. There is an elusive yet unmistakable entity called "Scandinavian design" that is not confined to pottery, porcelain, glass, textiles, wood and silver, but is just as obvious in the landscaping and gardens of the four countries. Almost immediately we understand that here the use of rhododendrons in landscaping and gardens is a unique collaboration between the garden architect and the gardener. With the use of the right rhododendron in the right place and with the right companion plants, art as gardening and gardening as art has become a reality in Scandinavia. Just as is the practice in Japan, the Scandinavian gardener carefully evaluates his rhododendron plant for form. However, the Nordic secret is that the Scandinavian gardener also places as heavy an emphasis on function as he plans his garden as the Scandinavian craftsman does when he designs his chair. Since 1919, the Norse have been preaching "more beautiful things for everyday use." The Scandinavian garden designer interprets this to mean he is obliged to create a garden that will delight himself and his guests as well as conform to the restrictions of his limited yard area. Garden architects and gardeners commit themselves to the task of making art from the ordinary, the ordinary plants that are used to beautify the residential environment or soften the intrusion of commercial buildings onto the natural setting.
Fortunately, our itinerary leads us across most of Scandinavia before we reach Danish gardens and that gives us the opportunity to develop a familiarity with Scandinavian landscaping and gardening. We observe that the blending of artistic ideas between several countries results in Scandinavian landscape and garden design. A common cultural heritage and, except for Finland, shared linguistic roots smooth the way for design ideas to seemingly flow between the counties like the currents of the Baltic sea.
We encounter our first rhododendrons in commercial landscaping use at the recently completed suburban Stockholm Kungshatt Hotel. It is an evening late in June as I push ajar my ground floor window and brace myself to keep from falling out upon a contented hybrid rhododendron in full bloom luxuriating in the evening brightness of the "midnight sun." It is 9 p.m. and sunlight makes the rosy trusses on the bushes in the newly installed landscape sparkle. A few days later, we find a similar, but older, planting screening street traffic from the ground floor rooms of a resort hotel on the water in Helsinki, Finland. Although young plants are far more common, such as in the terraced gardens of the ultra modern newly built Panorama Hotel in Gothenburg on Sweden's western coast, there is enough evidence of well established rhododendrons guarding the privacy of older hotels and embellishing the charm of long existing public buildings to persuade us that this is more than a trendy break with tradition. As in Portland, Oregon, someone here has done a good job convincing landscape architects that rhododendrons are a choice plant for commercial landscape purposes for the region's climatic conditions. It also looks to the casual observer that except for ARS hobbyists and botanical garden enthusiasts, rhododendrons, like juniper in the United States, are selected for growth habit to fulfill the landscape need rather than for color, size or beauty of flower.
If this were the entire story of public use of rhododendrons in these countries, it would be awkward to explain the rhododendrons used on the granite cliffs across the water from Stockholm in the "Millesgarden." Here where sculpture, rhododendrons, and lilacs dwell together is the full realization of an artist's visionary dreams of a truly beautiful home and garden in harmony with each other. Up to his final days, the artist-sculptor Carl Milles was constantly developing plans for extending and beautifying the gardens. On this day late in June, as we study the extraordinary pieces created by Sweden's most famous sculptor, the intoxicating perfume of lilac and the view of rhododendron blooms stimulates full comprehension that Milles did, as some say, "catch from the brief brisk years of earthly life the fire of Divinity." We savor this moment in time when the purple-pink hues of lilacs and rhododendrons rule the garden, but the peonies are showing color and there is a strong inclination to remain here until the fat buds explode and add the sweetness of peonies to this paradise. Here is a powerful argument to require sculpture gardens to be built within real flower gardens.
Sculpture exhibited at Millesgarden are painstakingly catalogued and labeled; the rhododendron hybrids are not. With the exception of the original label from the German grower discovered attached to a recently placed plant at the Gothenburg Panorama Hotel giving its name as 'Catawbiense Grandiflorum' and adding cultural instructions in German, none of the hybrids used in landscaping can be safely identified due to our unfamiliarity with German and Dutch crosses. However, most botanic gardens and arboretums in the Scandinavian countries fastidiously label the rhododendrons displayed. And so it is at the botanical gardens northeast of the city of Oslo. The sightseeing bus stops at the Edvard Munch Museum for a scheduled tour of the tormented expressionist work of Norway's popular painter. We do not allow ourselves to dally over the paintings which are far more pleasant than we anticipated, but dash across the street to visit these botanical gardens. In the brief time we have before the bus pulls out it appears that growing here, outdoors and unprotected, is an extensive collection of fine perennials and alpines, many we had only seen previously in photographs. Almost lost in the display are a row of species and hybrid rhododendrons. We come upon 'Praecox' crosses, R. yakushimanum , R. campanulatum , R. hirsutum and even a deciduous azalea labeled 'Aida'. Of course R. ponticum is also included. Later we stroll through two other public gardens that are worthy of much longer visits than our schedule allows. The first, in the southwest part of Goteborg (Gothenburg) on Sweden's west coast is the city botanical garden which is divided into different sections linked by lawns with fine trees and shrubbery. There are special collections of conifers and roses, but the "Rhododendron Valley" leading up to the rock garden contains masses of rhododendrons together with corylopsis, enkianthus and halesias all planted under a shelter of natural deciduous forest. In the "Rock Garden" there is a wide selection of alpine plants, such as campanulas, gentians, saxifrages, lewisias, meconopsis, papavers, primulas and sedums, from different parts of the world, totaling 4,500 species. Maintaining our near perfect record of arriving at botanical gardens when greenhouses are closed no matter what hours are given in guide books, we can just distinguish through the glass panes the orchids, more delicate alpines and cyclamens. The garden's brochure reads that it was established to stimulate public interest in gardening and plant life -it does.
The other, the "Forest Garden", is situated next to Charlottenlund railway station north of Copenhagen and it is here Dr. Jacobsen brings us on our way to his home and private garden. At this, the oldest still working arboretum in Denmark, the Metasequoia glyptostroboides planted from seed collected in China in 1948 by the garden's own expedition are nearly as numerous as the weeds in the usual arboretum. Between 1950 and 1965, many rhododendrons were introduced into the gardens, species as well as cultivars. Down one path we see R. ponticum growing as a large hedge. Dr. Jacobsen tells us that in this garden R. catawbiense , which we come to later, can always be expected to be in full bloom on the 20th of May. We wander along another trail and discover hardy R. brachycarpum , along with R. vaseyi , growing well from seed planted by Aksel Olsen in 1959. In the distance we see the tree form of R. yunnanense and a very large specimen of R. minus . In another direction we see R. schlippenbachii and R. williamsianum . Each footpath leads to more rhododendrons, a magnificent nearly a hundred year old pendulant Chamaecyparis nootkatensis or simply a familiar gold dust aucuba. The completely natural setting of the arboretum provides the serious student with the opportunity to learn much about botany. Even the casual visitor shares with the student his excitement in the huge amount of plant material that adapts to growing in this area of Denmark. Some of the plants were damaged in Denmark's severe winter of '85 that was without the usual protective blanket of snow and some specimens are beginning to show signs of aging, but the collection remains exceptional.
All the beauty of Scandinavia is not to be found only in the botanical parks or in the landscaping of public buildings. As the "Hall of the Mountain King" from Peer Gynt Suite booms from the motor bus' sound system, we see the magnificent fjords, mountains and countryside through the window pane as Grieg saw these same scenes and interpreted them in his music. The bus travels down to the hills that ring the fjords and the guide reads legends about the trolls who share these lower elevations with the wild flowers blooming on the rocky landscape. Purple lupines are naturalized along the roadways, planted perhaps by the people living in the small cottages set back from the highway. In Voss, a Norwegian church cemetery has grave markers etched with the names of Knut Rockne's ancestors and dwarf rhododendrons growing on the raised plots. Crossing over to southern Sweden, tall white birch leaning away from the wind appear along with fields of yellow flowers. Someone tells us this is an ingredient of margarine, safflower. Rough rock walls divide patches of farm land and black and white Swedish cows heavy with milk rest on lush green grass. Amidst motorcycles, cars and campers, Scandinavian families picnic at roadside tables. We tourists lunch at excellent restaurant buffets attached to nearly every gas station. Here the baby shrimp open sandwiches are always appetizing and the cake each day is even more delicious than yesterday's choice. When the motor coach is approximately three miles north of Helsingborg in southern Sweden along the sound where our ferry waits to take us across to Denmark, I notice a high wall and over it appear vivid blooms on giant hybrid rhododendrons. The rhododendrons seem to line the inside of the barrier like soldiers standing guard. It is Sofiero, a summer palace built in the midst of landscaped cliffs and ravines by King Gustav VI Adolf. It is said that this Swedish king was "mad for rhododendron" and apparently it was so.
As is evident at Sofiero, in Scandinavia royalty and large landowners have the compulsion to follow the "English style" in designing their gardens and selecting their plant material. However, with the Danish ARS Chapter members' home gardens, a true Danish style of rhododendron garden is developing. It is distinctive and as easily recognizable for its uniqueness as the design of a piece of Bang and Olufsen electronic equipment. The south of Copenhagen garden/nursery of Jens Chr. Birck and Dr. Jacobsen's garden exemplify probably the best in Danish garden design. Hopefully, the design of the new Danish Chapter Display Garden discussed by Mr. Lehmann in the ARS Journal , (Vol. 39: 1, Winter 1985) will also illustrate good Danish characteristics and be kept free of too much English influence even if the land available will allow "larger growing specimens to reach full proportions with time, a luxury which cannot be obtained in a normal town garden with its limited area."
The delight in gardens and gardening, particularly when it comes to rhododendrons, makes friends of strangers rather quickly everywhere in the world. Therefore, as soon as we reach Copenhagen we contact Dr. Jacobsen who arranges for Mr. Birck to pick us up at our hotel at 6 p.m. and introduce us to Denmark's "Banana Coast" with its moderate climate and his own garden/nursery. Within the confinement of his 400 square meters, Mr. Birck grows, hybridizes and propagates rhododendron species such as R. campylogynum var. myrtilloides , R. racemosum var. album , a R. nakaharai form very good in Copenhagen and cold Jutland, R. bureavii , R. proteoides and an endless list of others; alpines, evergreen azaleas, conifers, lewisias, hybrid rhododendrons and a small, but fine collection of bonsai plants. All are packed tightly together, but in perfect balanced order.

Jens Birck's dog
A disciplined dog in a disciplined garden.
Note Jens Birck's labeling system.
Photo by Avis Aronovitz

Birck's great black "hybrid" dog patrols the nursery which must be described as clean, neat and disciplined, as disciplined as the dog that has been trained to go no farther than one paw on the wooden tie that separates the young plants in raised beds from the stone walkways. Planted out in straight rows, growing in a medium of half peat and half pine needles, any resident of this nursery would not dare do anything but flourish. As Birck leads us through his nursery he stops first at the species rhododendron beds and tells us they are his favorites and well they might be because he probably has no equal in growing them. As we walk along with him we begin to think that dwarf species rhododendrons were most likely invented to satisfy the restrictions of the Danish own garden and the town garden exists to exhibit these dwarf rhododendron. We continue and Birck points out noteworthy plants and tell us amusing anecdotes about the origin and uses of some. Here is a rare white R. canadense from Jutland and over there, a very good yellow R. wardii x R. yakushimanum from Germany that withstood winter damage and beyond, a horizontal cotoneaster from New Zealand. We almost step on a lewisia thriving in the ground contrary to the usual cultural instructions. Birck shows us a R. wardii from Rhododendron Species Foundation seed showing no winter damage. Pride is on his face as he stands before 'Great Dane', his cross of R. rex x R. yakushimanum , a most hardy, attractive plant with small tennis ball trusses of 26-29 pink flowers.

R. 'Great Dane'
'Great Dane'
Photo by Jens Birck
R. 'Great Dane'
Jens Birck's cross 'Great Dane'.
Photo by Ole Rolf Jacobsen

When we ask to see something native to Denmark, he has ready R. lapponicum and calls our attention to R. ferrugineum from the alps. A large hybrid rhododendron stands at the corner of the lot and he explains it is 'Gomer Waterer' who serves as his wind break against the northeast gusts that can attack his garden. Then Birck takes a leaf of R. lanatum var. luciferum and rolls it between his thumb and forefinger to show us its wooly indumentum which is used for Tibetan lamp wicks. Throughout the garden are many of Birck's own crosses - some that show great promise.

R. campylogynum 'Claret' x R. luteiflorum
Jens Birck's cross R. campylogynum 'Claret' x R. luteiflorum .
Photo by Jens Birck

The garden is thoroughly explored and there is still time to accept an invitation from Birck and his warm, friendly wife Kari to sit with them in the living room of their charming cottage that once belonged to Birck's parents and enjoy delicious Danish butter open sandwiches and coffee. Birck talks about his unique plant labels made of plastic notebook binders and surgical tape. Kari shows us her portion of the garden, a window box containing four different well grown annuals. Birck answers more of our questions. He explains that inland the climate is more severe, limiting what can be grown, but the moderate temperatures of his coast, accompanied by a protective blanket of snow, make his growing situation excellent. On our urging, he shares one important cultural tip with us saying that he keeps his plants dry in summer and only in November-December resumes watering.
On the way back to our hotel, the Bircks guide us on a walking tour of Dragor, a small, charming seaside fishing village that has recently become popular and now boasts many new residents in its restored 18th century cottages. It is now nearly 11 p.m. as we return to our Copenhagen hotel and there is light remaining to briefly visit Birck's orchid growing friend who lives in a house on the street behind our hotel. By the last rays of that day's sunlight, we see his greenhouse and the terrestrial orchids growing in his garden. Having been awakened that morning by the sun at 4 a.m., we are finding it difficult to adjust to all this time for gardening activities in the late evening hours of the "midnight sun." But as Birck says good night, he once again repeats his only request, "Please send me seed of native U.S. azaleas."
June and July this year in Scandinavia are unusually warm, 70 degrees F., and even the nights remain too hot for the down quilt on our bed. Nevertheless, after another frenetic day of shopping on the "Stroget," touring porcelain factories, and visiting Tivoli Gardens whose flower displays are as breath-taking as its amusement rides, we are ready when this time Dr. Jacobsen calls for us at 6 p.m. at our hotel and drives us by way of the Forest Garden to his home. Along the way, we ask him to describe the development of his Scandinavian garden. Dr. Jacobsen tells us:

"The construction and design of my garden has evolved slowly during the sixteen years we have lived here. A friend, a professional landscaper and garden architect, drew the original plan with me. The rough lines are still alive, but much has been changed. I have gotten ideas from other gardens, garden journals, and good friends Tue and Vag Jorgensen and Svend Hausen. In the construction of the central raised bed, the 'mountain', their ideas were important. The hill was built from sand and the biggest granite stones we could find at the 'sand-grave.' We added the final medium, 50% peat-50% fir or pine needles, to a depth of one to one and a half feet. This is superb for getting healthy plants. Water is necessary in dry periods, of course. Where I have alpines requiring another soil, I put this in locally. The raised beds give no problem with drainage, but other places I make deep holes and fill them with small stones. Sometimes I put in some heavy plastic fabric to protect from big tree roots.
In the beginning, years ago, we took away the old blue clay, barrel by barrel, and put in soil from the fir forest instead. Quite a job, but the results, as you will see, are very good. I try to place the plants, giving them what they want, much sun, little shadows, shade-it is important. Early blooming species must be protected from the winter sun."

Dr. Jacobsen's rock garden
Preparation of the "mountain".
Photo by Ole Rolf Jacobsen
Dr. Jacobsen's rock garden
Dr. Jacobsen's raised bed or "mountain" demonstrating
Danish design that combines beauty as well as the cultural
needs of each plant. R. yakushimanum , 'Kermensina'
and 'Multiflorum' in bloom.
Photo by Ole Rolf Jacobsen

All this explains why Dr. Jacobsen's plants appear so well grown and why he is able to succeed with such a variety of plant material, but it does not account for the artistic beauty of his garden.
Obviously Scandinavian designers work in many media. A ceramist at Royal Copenhagen is quoted as saying: "The materials are secondary, the design primary. They used to call us 'shape givers' for we are the molders of Scandinavian style." As we walk about the raised beds in his garden, I begin to think that perhaps Dr. Jacobsen is one of those molders of Scandinavian style. We are looking at clean, simple design that makes his garden functional and in scale with his land and coupled with his practical solutions for the drainage, light and climatic needs of his plants, he has made art out of the ordinary - a garden in the backyard. His is a difficult task because he is dealing with living plant material and must place them according to their individual cultural requirements and still finish with a design pleasing to the eye.
As we continue to stroll through the garden, Dr. Jacobsen comments on his favorite species rhododendrons and indicates where each is growing in either a raised bed in the yard or in the border along the driveway or in his "trough." Here is R. pronum and over there is R. proteoides , both from Rhododendron Species Foundation seed, R. roxieanum , taliense , traillianum , russotinctum , globigerum , balfourianum , bureavii , adenophorum , flavorufum , glaucopeplum and vellereum - just the Taliense Series, he explains. They are all here and thriving.

Dr. Jacobsen's rock garden
Rock planting in Dr. Jacobsen's garden features R. globigerum .
Photo by Ole Rolf Jacobsen

I wonder aloud about the effect on the plants of the long hours of sunlight. "The 'midnight sun' gives you more hours to work in your garden when you return home from your medical clinic, but how does it effect your plants?" Dr. Jacobsen responds, "I don't think it gives earlier blooming because the winter is long and cold weather can continue until May. We have severe frost in May and it can cause a lot of damage. The blooming time in my garden for the early blooming species is later than Cox, the Scottish grower, tells us but local conditions can change this. Our fall can cause problems... if it is long, mild and wet, the plants won't stop growing. The first frost damages the new leaves and causes bark split, the last the most serious. I have not noticed heavier flowering or earlier flowering on young plants due to longer hours of light."
Then Jacobsen stoops down to point out some cuttings and plants sent by the Tacoma Chapter last year and others from Mr. Mehlquist a year earlier. Most are doing well but he cautions, "We will see what happens this winter."

Dr. Jacobsen's stone trough garden
Dr. Jacobsen's trough garden, adapted from the English, but
containing alpines that grow well for him. Plants in trough
include Silene alpina , Sedum acre , Salix retusa , Saxifraga
, Draba aizoides and Antennaria alpina .
Lewisia cotyledon
, Phyllodoce caerulea , R. russatum ,
'Chikor', R. prostratum , R. calostrotum 'Gigha' and R.
grow near trough.
Photo by Ole Rolf Jacobsen

We follow him through the garden as he picks out more of his favorite rhododendrons. Near the rear walkway to his house is the funnel flowered R. russatum , flanked by tiny 'Chikor' and R. hypenanthum . They stand watch over a stone trough whose contents really fascinate me. Growing in the scree conditions are Silene alpestris , pink Antennaria alpina , Salix retusa and S. myrsinites , Saxifrage oppositifolia and Draba aizoides . Left of the trough, growing in a pocket between the cement squares of the sidewalk and the stone blocks edging the rhododendron bed is a vigorously growing Lewisia cotyledon . Above it is Phyllodoce caerulea , a heath-like mountain shrub. Seeing my delight in his alpines, Dr. Jacobsen shows me more of his choice plants. In the island bed with R. globigererum , he points out crimson Primula secundiflor a and another he calls a Primula japonica . Growing well also are Gentiana acaulis , G. septemfida and G. sino-ornata , some Androsacea , Dryas octopetala and Lychnis alpina . I am beginning to feel like I am walking through the pages of Alan Bloom's Alpines for your Garden.
In spite of his fine collection of alpines, Dr. Jacobsen clearly prefers the rhododendrons and he guides me to 'Baden Baden' and tells me it is one of his best reds from Germany. Though past blooming, the bright green foliage is beautiful. There is R. orbiculare , tree-like R. concinnum , and across the lawn 'Blue Tit.' He shows me R. smirnowii and beautifully growing R. yakushimanum and R. yakushimanum crosses. Growing next to each other are R. calostrotum 'Gigha', named for the Scottish island where Achamore garden is located and R. hypenanthum which Jacobsen tells me he got from Birck. He also shows me other plants he has obtained from Birck's nursery and I realize that the gardens in the Copenhagen environs have been made more beautiful because of the availability of Birck's superbly grown plants. We look at a new Dutch evergreen azalea which blooms with vibrant pink flowers and Jacobsen says this is from the Cox collection. When Jacobsen tells me he has good examples of twenty more series of species rhododendrons, my head begins to spin a little and I am quite ready to take him at his word and not require him to show me that evening where each is growing in his garden. Dr. Jacobsen invites us to join him for a typical Danish dinner that his wife, Helen, has prepared for us. The Jacobsen home is a white brick ranch that would feel familiar to most Americans. It would be quite comfortable on any street in a suburb of an American city. We are joined at dinner by their two teenage sons. The Jacobsens are gracious hosts and the dinner is delicious. Like most artists, painters whose work is never really complete in their own eyes, Dr. Jacobsen confesses he is not satisfied with his garden and intends to redo a small area at his first opportunity. Over dinner he continues to talk with great enthusiasm about his garden and his rhododendrons. He says he is expecting seed from three interesting places - R. pseudochrysanthum from Taiwan, some native azaleas from Japan collected by Rokujo and a variety from Mt. Omei in Szechuan, China.
Dr. Jacobsen puts us on a train for our return to Copenhagen. During the train ride I think back over all we have seen in both the Forest Garden and the Jacobsen garden in just a few evening hours with the aid of the "midnight sun." I want to return to properly examine the plant gems; alpines, rhododendrons, conifers, etc. in those gardens. Yet, my strongest impressions remain of the beauty of Danish garden design. With all the unique plant material available to be enjoyed and the delightful gardens, wouldn't it be grand to plan some year in the future an ARS Annual Meeting in Copenhagen!

Mrs. Arnovitz, an active member of the Azalea Chapter, ARS, toured Scandinavia in 1985. A previous contributor to the Journal, she is also a member of the Garden Writers of America.