John K. Weagle
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Reprinted from Rhodo-Info, NR 9 2004, the newsletter of the Swedish Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society. In the article John Weagle, a Canadian member of the chapter, related his impressions of his visit to Denmark, Sweden and Norway in 2003.
Translated from the Swedish by Brje Malmgren
I first became enamoured with rhododendrons in 1973. I now suspect a devious and clever plot by two friends, Captain Richard Steele and Walter Ostrom - maybe it was their irrepressible and infectious enthusiasm for the genus. Steele was our local guru and hybridizer who stirred the hybridizing drive in me. Ostrom was the then young disciple, mainly interested in lepidote species and lepidote hybrids, and stimulated an interest in lepidotes and the Taliensias [subsection Talensia]. The excitement over big-flowered faceless hybrids quickly faded. Sometime around 1978 Joe Harvey got us interested in indumented species by species crosses.
I had subscribed to the ARS and local chapter seed exchanges every year and it wasn't until the early 1990s that I noticed a strange pattern had developed in my seed growing records. The donors of most of the seed I was growing from the ARS were people whom I knew not, names that never came up at the hybridizers' talks or ARS meetings. But then again, neither did our favourite lepidote species or the Taliensias. It wasn't until I signed on to the Rhodo-L, a rhododendron chat group on the Internet, that I realized these "quiet" strangers were alive and well. These thinkers in the rhododendron world were Scandinavian! Soon letters, snail and email, flew back and forth along with cuttings.
I had never thought seriously about a Scandinavian trip aside from vague thoughts of visiting another friend, the Shortia guru in Denmark. In 1999, Ostrom, on my recommendation, visited him and came back raving abo ut the plants in Danish gardens. Denmark was on the "to visit" list but the chances of this were remote.
Then Lennarth Johnsson, with whom I have corresponded since the 1970s, decided that I should speak at the Nordic Rhododendron Symposium in Bergen in June of 2003, my busiest time at work. Soon an invitation arrived followed by another from Finn Haugli to speak in Troms, followed by yet another to spend a few days at Jens Birck's in Copenhagen. My head was spinning, the mission was daunting but there was no question - I was going.
In late May I left a cool, drizzly and foggy Nova Scotia and arrived in Copenhagen to a dry 27C summer-like day. Now the first thing you notice stepping off the plane in Copenhagen is the Danish attention to detail - design, aesthetics, mechanical and systems; this extends to gardening as well. I was rushed through the Birck garden fully jet-lagged to drop off luggage. Many blooms were over but the symphony of new shoots was what I came to "hear." I had not expected it to be of Mahlerian proportions.
I was whisked away some 70 kms southwest of Copenhagen to the garden of Jrgen Nielsen in Vedde. Now in coastal Nova Scotia we are plagued with rocks, rocky soil or no soil at all and so it was a pleasure to drive through rich farmland with presumably deep, deep soil (alkaline though it is) with nary a stone in sight aside from copious flagstone and cobblestones.
Where was Mr. Birck taking me? To perhaps the rockiest garden in Denmark and a big garden it was. Jrgen was in the stone business and had the machinery to move rock, and move it he did. There was rock everywhere, of all shapes and sizes - even one used as a bridge and weighing some 25 tons.
The plants grew in full sun, wind and in pure peat, contrary to the recommendations of some well-known garden writers. The rhodos grew to absolute perfection - R. strigillosum , R. wiltonii , R. adenogynum , beds of c.w. R. roxieanum and R. roxieanum var. cucullatum , still more beds of R. traillianum and R. proteoides .
in the garden of Jrgen Nielsen in Vedde, Denmark.
has stiff and
weakly V-formed, deeply vein marked leaves, deep green and shiny on upper surface,
lower surface covered by light cinnamon brown to rust red indumentum.
Flowers in April-May from rather young age.
Photo by Jens Birck
On high ground lodged in peat pockets grew Birck's own
and even the tender
'Ocelot' - the latter having been damaged the previous winter in more protected gardens in the city.
Two hybrids impressed me - 'Barbarella' and 'Fantastica' - but the best I thought was 'Golden Harmony'*. Liliums grew like weeds forming huge unrecognizable vigorous clumps.
A pompom Nothofagus antarctica was the first I'd ever seen but the crowning achievement was a mountain some 10 metres high made of huge rocks and packed with peat. To thoroughly confound me, close to the top in full sun and peat was a wonderful Magnolia sieboldii .
Clever Birck, here he had a garden for the species overload he and Svend Hansen had collected in NW Yunnan. And Jrgen Nielsen, more than happy to oblige Jens, at the same time was showing me a garden that embodied what took us years to discover in Nova Scotia; our best spots were in full sun amongst the rocks on the coast where the wind blew.
The next day we made an all too short stop at the garden of E. Jespersen in Herlev. Jesper, as we know him, is a plantsman of the highest order. His sizeable garden is a myriad of the most interesting plants of the planet.
We were greeted at the front door by Glendoick's 'Arctic Tern', some 1 meter plus in glorious bloom. Small greenhouses at every turn were full of the most incredibly difficult and rare plants, even the intractable Disa cardinalis . Shortias were planted throughout the garden in every conceivable position - S. soldanelloides , S. galacifolia and S. uniflora planted everywhere and all grown from seed. Their vast numbers exhibited just about every leaf shape and size, dwarf forms, huge ones, in every flower colour the genus can muster.
The very rare Chinese diapensaceous Berneuxia tibetica also were thriving here and there - more than exists in all of North America!
The Russian Cypripedium x ventricosu m, C. yatabeanum and other cyps grew like weeds here and there. There were rhododendrons grown from various expeditions and a Rhododendron wasonii still lingers in my mind along with a vigorous dark pink Pogonanthum [section Pogonanthum].
in the garden of E. Jespersen, Herlev, Denmark.
Photo by Jens Birck
The jaw-dropper was a fine dark yellow
, again grown from wild seed. Jens reckoned it was the best he had seen and he and Jesper were in quiet deliberation over it as departure time approached. As we drove away I said to Jens, "You must get that
propagated. His response was "Jesper would not give me cuttings." How strange and atypical of this generous plantsman, I thought. Long pause - "No, he told me to come round next week and dig the plant!"
We were now headed to Krnehuset, the garden and nursery of Birgit and Svend Hansen in Danstrup, Fredensborg, some 45 km north of Copenhagen. Now I was warned about Svend before going. They cautioned: you may find him slightly abrasive. If you think you know everything about rhododendrons, blindly accept the "truths" in books and cannot laugh at oneself then you might be in big trouble with Svend. I found him full of ideas, a questioning mind and thoroughly entertaining; instead it was Birgit I should have been warned about.
The rural nursery of 3 hectares was impeccably and efficiently set up in rolling countryside. From the house the land sloped gently down to a pond edged in marginals including Lysichiton americanum . Beyond that the land rose rather sharply and the trees had been thinned heavily to accommodate the thousands of rhododendrons.
I was not so interested in the commercial hybrids but instead the countless collected wild seedlings that Svend and Jens had collected in their Chinese adventures, Svend's five trips, Jens' two trips. A bed of R. bathyphyllum collected in the wild, R. proteoides , big leaf and small leaf selections of R. clementinae , scads of wild R. proteoides showing part of its scope, R. wallichii with its warm rusty shoots, true R. adenogynum , beds of R. roxieanum and R. roxieanum var. cucullatum intermediates rounded out a show you will not see in eastern North America.
It was wonderful to at last see R. comisteum ( R. proteoides x R. sanguineum ) which had recently bloomed a good red (!) and a plant of R. williamsianum x R. proteoides - I long wondered which of these two dominants would win the genetic tug-of-war in that mating.
Just to make sure the climate would remain puzzling to me I was taken to the burn unit - a R. campylogynum bed and winter burnt they were, not so unusual with ours, but a burnt R. aureum - never. What was probably the best R. x nikomontanum in cultivation is not a spectacle I am soon to forget. It is now rooting in Halifax.
We proceeded to the new rock garden where the marvelous construction was a perfect foil for what Svend called his "Taliense Forest." The plants of R. traillianum and one very good R. haematodes 96 CBH Cangshan 3681m were highlights.
Taliensia Forest, a smaller part of the great collection of species in the
garden of Birgit and Svend Hansen in Danstrup, Denmark.
Photo by Jens Birck
We then proceeded to a new state-of-the-art greenhouse Svend had purchased for Birgit, obvious that if it is not done right it is not done at all here. In this new structure we had a lovely Danish lunch in the sun. Beforehand Jens told me I must follow customs...Tuborg then herring, to be eaten first on this saucer, then egg, then sandwich, all easy enough. At the end Birgit produced the Aalborg Akvavit - why was I not warned? - and announced that it was traditional to have not one but two in rapid succession. I obliged, she did as well. Svend and Jens quietly observed. Two more plotters? What happened the rest of the day vanished in the ether but at least I was not asked to check for eggs in Svend's new birdhouse?
The Birck garden in Copenhagen skillfully combines the hardscaping of stone pathways and cobblestone edging with peat beds, peat walls and a bit of lawn. The plants are as well-behaved as the German shepherd, both equally intimidating. Does Jens train the rhododendrons and the dog? The plants are squeezed into the beds and yet not a single plant is over-growing its neighbouring plant, not a single plant is reaching for light, food or in need of attention. Jens, the Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli of the Rhododendron World, is simply the best grower of rhododendrons I have had the pleasure of meeting. The range of rhododendron species in his garden is astounding - only room for the best forms of the species and Jens does have the best. It is obvious that to be in this garden a hybrid or a species must, as the saying goes, "pay its rent twelve months a year." If it gets too big it goes to Krnehuset.
, showing the beautiful new growth, covered with a
golden brown indumentum, which flakes off during the autumn.
Photo by Jens Birck
Where else can you see beds of wild-collected
grown to perfection. A living
labelled "White Form" is the tell-tale sign of a master grower, but one that is in bloom and is indeed white is quite another matter.
This was Nirvana with a pyrotechnical display of new shoots, R. taliense , R. lanatum Sikkim, R. lanatum Hooker , R. wiltonii Berg, R. roxieanum var. cucullatum , R. adenogynum , R. roxieanum - lots of the latter; woolly, swirling, twirling, twisting multi-coloured shoots everywhere. And a stunning form of R. bureavii . It is obvious to me that a climate as mild as this one does not exist on the east coast of North America, where winters are mild enough to pull some of these through but the summers are simply too hot to grow them.
Rhododendron rex , R. sherriffii Berg and R. kesangiae support the view but shouldn't even be alive! Granted our own Walter Ostrom bravely grows R. kesangiae in a lath house in cold coastal Nova Scotia. What a wonder this species is, covering as it does all the plants beneath in its flaking "aluminum paint."
in the garden of Jens Birck, Copenhagen,
Denmark. Cultivation in Sweden has not succeeded.
Photo by Jens Birck
Birck is a man on the move, always thinking ahead and well ahead of the pack. Rhododendron cinnabarinum not hardy in Copenhagen? He selfs the best ones, crosses the best forms and years later has a handful of hardy, stunningly beautiful R. cinnabarinum - my first sighting of this species in bloom. Birck's 'What a Dane'* is perhaps the most shocking of his "Dane" series and very aptly named ([ R. ambiguum x Concatenans Group] Select x R. cinnabarinum 'Nepal' AM) but surprisingly hardy to -23C.
R. 'What A Dane' in the garden of Jens Birck, Copenhagen, Denmark.
Photo by Jens Birck
'Baby Dane'* (
white form x 'Panda'), 35 cm wide by 25 cm high was so heavily flowered that not a twig or leaf was to be seen.
Rhododendron bureavii x R. lanatum and Repens Group x R. proteoides in his seedling area are just a hint of the many good things to come from this all too modest gentleman.
A sobering thought was that he was coming to Nova Scotia in October 2003 to give a talk; Nova Scotia to be measured against these standards was ridiculous. We mere mortals would have to plan a diversion- a hurricane might do.
A quick and quiet train ride from Copenhagen and we were in Malmo, Sweden. We were met at the station by Brje Malmgren, the driving force of the Swedish Chapter, and Anders Falkstig and then drove to Brje's home. On either side of the drive were lepidote species, preferably from subsections Lapponica, Rhododendron and Rhodorastra. During my visit the flowering has ceased. Furthermore there were some splendid plants such as 'Ken Janeck' and R. yakushimanum x R. pachysanthum . It seemed to me that the Glendoick catalogue was laid out before us.
Anders and I were on hands and knees; it was at once clear that Anders had one amazing mind for Rhododendron species, collector numbers, collection sites and altitudes! What luck that he had decided to come from Hassleholm to accompany us. Brje stood back quietly watching us, trying the gauge the degree of our collective madness.
The street side garden was a planting of inter-specific hybrids - I was in heaven and several hours examining the plants could have been spent. I was happy to at last see Birck's 'Spider Dane'* ( R. yakushimanum x R. longesquamatum ), white with a smashing red-eye. I know of only one other longesquamatum hybrid, Steele's ('Catalgla' x R. macrophyllum ) x R. longesquamatum but no match for the Spider.
The street-side garden of Brje Malmgren, Malmoe, Sweden.
Photo by John Weagle
The hybrids included
with crisp foliage set off by red new shoots and beautiful indumentum,
R. bureavii x R. elegantulum
, all garden worthy for foliage alone.
The main garden was at the rear where a gate side Davidia involucrata announced a plantsman's garden.
The design was astounding, a clever combination of peat block walls edging the beds and a close-cut lawn for the cool look of the peat garden. It was reminiscent of Scotland and the RBGE in particular - peat walls, generously curved beds, everything done right and the plants grown to perfection. Had Brje ordered every plant the Cox's offered? The garden was a cornucopia: R. rupicola JN588 considered being the best and darkest, R. recurvoides Keillour with thicker indumentum, R. recurvoides Chas. Richmond Brown with a wider leaf, the fabled R. tsariense 'Yum Yum', R. tsariense Trimoense Group and Poluninii Group which on casual glance one would mistake for some R. lanatum , the peculiar R. lanatum aff. Muncaster and the selected cross R. tsariense x R. proteoides .
'Yum Yum' in the garden of Brje Malmgren, Malmoe, Sweden.
Photo by John Weagle
Among many species I can remember
EN 3520 or 3530,
aff. CHM 3093A,
CCH 4023 with larger leaves and pink flowers,
, Glendoick selection,
aff. McL AD106,
H.Sm. 13979 ex Gothenburg,
possibly JN 304,
W 1208 and Berg's
After our visit in Malmo we drive 60 km north to Sofiero Castle Garden at Helsingborg, our next stop. Originally, this place was the then King Gustav VI Adolph's summer residence during the year 1905 to his death 1973. This garden has been nicely described in a recent article by Brje in ARS Journal Vol. 58, No 1. The very large clumps of rhododendrons were reminiscent of some in Halifax planted in 1893 but it was hard to determine the identity of these, not the same mix of ironclads and R. catawbiense . We proceeded down the woodland path through the Rhododendron Valley amongst old species, some of which I had no idea would grow anywhere in Sweden. This section was in need of rejuvenation - increased spacing by the simple removal of unimportant rhodos or hard but judicious pruning. Nevertheless a most magical planting and setting.
x (are you sure that's what the label says?), yes, it's
Photo by John Weagle
From Copenhagen we flew to Bergen and as we approached we soon saw rocky islands, exactly like coastal Nova Scotia. We were to stay at the Fana Folkehgskule at the Milde Arboretum just a few kilometers from Bergen. Bergen itself is reminiscent of the area around St. John's, Newfoundland, but the surrounding rocky slopes here are steeper and are covered in sizeable trees - reforested with difficulty in recent times we were told.
The Arboretum was vast open forest and the range of material staggering. With so much space it did seem as if the species collection was rather cramped. Still the plants were again grown beautifully; in Nova Scotia we could never get such fine sturdy growth in woodland conditions and we are at the latitude of Milan and Eugene. In softer climates do rhododendrons have a greater ability to produce multiple breaks from bark and growing tips with weaker though longer summer light?
at the Milde Arboretum near Bergen, Norway.
One example of variation within the species. Furthermore,
rhododendrons can be attractive even without flowers!
Photo by John Weagle
In the woodland a worker seemed to be methodically checking plants for labels and relabelling for the meeting. It was a treat to see
bark on old plants, the new shoots on big plants of
, the prickly new shoots of
in flower (pollen collected), an outstanding collection of
and a very good form of
The high point was unquestionably the biggest and best R. aureum I have ever seen, 3 meters wide and 25cm high. The habit and foliage was flawless, not what we would expect from R. aureum growing in open woodland; in our conditions we recommend full sun for R. aureum .
Lepidotes - hybrids and species - in a sunny spot were not faring so well at all, planted as they were at the bottom of a very poorly drained slope in a dense and soupy soil; a point Kenneth Cox did not fail to point out to all tending the garden. They paid attention to his recommendations and I am sure they were promptly moved.
KR 150 from subsection Argyrophylla. Hardy to -20C,
oblong matt green leaves and flowers from early age during May.
Photo by John Weagle
A newly dedicated section in full sun boasted hybrids from various sources and I was particularly pleased to see some Canadian Brueckner hybrids that I had sent to Glendoick some twenty years or more ago - 'Isola Bella' (
) and 'Charme La' (
Carolinianum Group x
'Vater Bhlje' was good to see at long last - a German hybrid with the same parentage of the Kentville hybrid 'Minas Grand Pr - R. catawbiense , compact form x R. williamsianum . Its flower appears to be closer to R. williamsianum . The new Scandinavian section featured a 'Great Dane' and 'Yellow Dane'*.
On our way to the final banquet we stopped by the Mushagen, newly renovated thanks in part to Per Magnus Jrgensen. As Jens Birck pointed out the R. bureavii plants used as corner points in the formal garden (when have you seen R. bureavii used as one would clipped box or yew?) were one of the best forms he had ever seen. A R. calophytum nearby boasted a trunk some 30 cm plus in diameter.
at the Mushagen in Bergen, Norway.
Photo by John Weagle
A massive x Loderi type flanked one side of a formal marble staircase to the Victorian greenhouses above the parterre. To the other side
- the warm night air filled with fragrance.
The banquet via fanicula was held on the mountain overlooking Bergen. The great pity was that the Symposium was not held jointly with the ARS, the latter's great missed opportunity.
It was hard to duck out of the late night activities when the beer and music flowed - both egged on by those rowdy Finns and Faroeans - to see the new rock garden and Nothofagus collections, beautifully conceived and executed.
From Bergen I flew to the Troms Botanic Garden. Though some 1200 km North of Bergen and 350 km from the Arctic Circle the climate is a mild one. Their cultivational problems with rhododendrons are very similar in St. John's, Newfoundland.
Summers are extremely cool but winter here comes in October and snow lasts until late May. I was warned that in early June there would be nothing in bloom and that snow would still be about. They had also warned me to take an umbrella to Bergen so I was optimistic and so it was that Troms was having the earliest spring in years.
Finn Haugli, head of the Botanics, and I ventured off to the gardens - what a sight! My mercifully brief religious schooling had neglected to tell me that there was more than one Nirvana. Here were Meconopsis quintuplinervia , M. grandis , M. lancifolia , M. punicea , M. betonicifolia , Primula species, the ungrowable Rheum spp., Gentiana , Cassiope and Phyllodoce everywhere, and growing with wild abandon.
Sounds like a perfect climate for rhododendrons; it may very well be for some. There were rhododendrons there not looking happy at all, rot setting in from the winter burial. The challenge is to find out which rhododendrons will tolerate the 8-month covering and flattening effect of heavy, wet snow.
R. 'Frosthexe', a hardy dwarf hybrid, at the Troms Botanic Garden, Norway,
350 km from the Arctic Circle.
Photo by John Weagle
Luckily Glendoick can supply them with a wide range of species to try. The Hobbie Repens Group hybrids, Reich's 'Frosthexe'(a lapponicum hybrid), a few Brueckner hybrids and 'Myrtifolium' looked very promising; the best looking were the most difficult:
. Now you know what to give your
Finn's own private garden and that of his friend Dagfinn Brnlunn Nilsen were at the very pinnacle of plantsmanship, beautifully designed and full of delectable plants. We have sent them some Atlantic rhododendrons and hopefully we will be able to send more material for trial shortly.
The problem with alkaline soil has been entirely solved by planting directly in pure peat or peat blocks. I am not so sure this will work in our wet climate, especially as our local peats are home to Phytophthora and Pythium but it would be well worth a few trials given steam sterilization. The climate was far milder than I had ever imagined - R. kesangiae in Copenhagen and a Grandia section in the Milde Arboretum. Nowhere in Scandinavia - Troms with its unique problems included - did I see signs of the relentless biting cold, stinging wind and extremes of climate we face in eastern North America. While the record colds in Copenhagen are similar to that of Halifax, one day of -23C is quite different from the same followed by two more months of freezing night time temperatures.
It would seem that gardens vary in size just as they do here, but in Scandinavia small space is skillfully and aesthetically designed to maximize growing space. In eastern North Americas we are hopeless when it comes to designing small gardens for rhodos and intimidated by large spaces.
The comprehensive collections of species in gardens was far beyond anything I have seen in Canada and a visit to these gardens is almost prerequisite for the novice rhodophile. Many of the species might be grown in coastal Nova Scotia.
The growing abilities - by plant and seed - of those I met were phenomenal. I have never seen more perfectly grown rhododendrons anywhere and I am willing to live with the consequences of such a statement. Labelling was deadly accurate. The people were as friendly, forthright and generous as you will find, full of ideas and with the determination of northerners. The whole experience inspired me to return home with a renewed determination to try more species and concentrate on beauty twelve months a year. It will not be long before I make a return trip.
Jens Birck came to Nova Scotia in October of 2003. Jens' thought seems to concur with mine. In Nova Scotia we may do better with lepidotes, especially the Lapponicas and the potential of the Taliensias is very promising given full sun and exposure. The full sun requisite for Halifax at latitude 4438' N is rather puzzling as Bergen grows beautiful rhododendrons in filtered sun at latitude 6018' N. While Bergen is both frequently cloudy and rainy, Halifax has 100 days of fog per year; perhaps the long summer days in Bergen have more pronounced effect than we reckoned.
Hurricane Juan (Jens in Danish) arrived as planned, nine hours before Jens arrived. Landfall winds were clocked at 202 km/hr and yet no rhododendrons were wind damaged much to Mr. Birck's disbelief. Juan removed countless trees and the rhododendrons will be ever grateful for the increased sunlight, just the theme of Jen's talk.
* Name is not registered.