Standing on the shoulders of giants

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Many of today’s popular landscape plants were introduced more than a century ago by prolific breeders.

May 2, 2019

Jelena DeBelder shares plants and knowledge with Tim at her family estate near Antwerp, Belgium.
Photos courtesy of Tim Wood

The year 1823 was significant in the annals of horticulture. Victor Lemoine was born in Delme, France, and a young, adventurous German physician set foot on the man-made island of Dejima, a trading post for the Dutch East India Company off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan. These two events would help usher in a Golden Age of plant breeding.

Fresh out of medical school, Phillip Franz von Siebold was looking for a bit of adventure when the Dutch East Indian Company offered him an opportunity as resident physician and scientist at Dejima, Japan. He was to be the successor to Engelbert Kaempfer and Carl Peter Thunberg, both famous plantsmen you may recognize from the specific epitaphs on a number Japanese plant species including Larix kaempferi and Berberis thunbergii.

Siebold excelled as a physician and botanist while in Japan. His unique abilities as a cataract surgeon (along with his knowledge and supply of belladonna for dilating the pupil) gave him a freedom of travel afforded to few foreigners in this isolated country. Between his personal acquisitions and the gifts paid to him in kind for his doctoring and teaching, Siebold amassed over 1,000 native Japanese plants in his backyard garden. Amongst these plants were Hydrangea paniculata (wild type) and H. paniculata ‘Grandiflora’ (aka Pee Gee hydrangea), both of which he sent to Europe and today are still common landscape plants.

Meanwhile in Nancy, France, the now 27-year-old Victor Lemoine started his nursery, which went on to introduce a treasure trove of ornamental plants. While most famous for his 214 French hybrid lilac varieties, Lemoine, along with his wife Marie Louise and son Henri, gave our industry a plethora of plant introductions in the genera Philadelphus, Deutzia, Weigela, Gladiolus, Delphinium, Potentilla, Astilbe, Heuchera, Penstemon, Diervilla, Spiraea, Chrysanthemum and still others. He developed the first double flowered perennial potentilla, tuberous begonia and geranium. He was one of the first to make wide, interspecific hybrids of Streptocarpus, Weigela, Syringa and Philadelphus. What is truly amazing is that so many of his plant introductions are on the market and being grown to this day. His contributions to horticulture were so vast that the Royal Horticulture Society in London awarded him the Victorian Medal of Horticulture, the first time it was given to a foreigner, and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society named him a George R. White Medal of Honor winner. With all of these accomplishments and innovations, the nursery industry of his day must have appreciated Victor’s work, right? I’m not so sure. I recently read an article about Lemoine that contained a quote of a contemporary complaining that Lemoine was introducing too many plants. Can’t you just hear people saying, “Victor, do we really need another lilac?”

Siebold amassed over 1,000 native Japanese plants in his backyard garden, including Hydrangea paniculata (wild type) and H. paniculata ‘Grandiflora’ (aka Pee Gee hydrangea), which are still common landscape plants.

In my 27 years as a plant hunter, I’ve met some remarkable plant breeders and have witnessed some incredible modern plant introductions. One of these was while visiting the late Jelena DeBelder in the summer of 1996. We met at Hemelrijk, her family estate near Antwerp, Belgium. As she shuttled us about the grounds in her beat-up Volkswagen Rabbit filled with pots, shovels and plants, I soon realized I was in the presence of someone special. Her every word was filled with passion. With the pride of a mother, she introduced us to her hydrangeas: ‘Pink Diamond’, ‘Unique’, ‘The Swan’, ‘Burgundy Lace’, ‘White Moth’ and her personal favorite ‘Little Lamb’.

“This is a very special plant,” she told us. “Little lambs dancing about in joy. Very special.”

Soon after, I met the renowned plantsman Pieter Zwijnenburg. At the time, Pieter and his wife Anja had a small nursery in the Boskoop area of the Netherlands. As the “Heronswood of Europe,” his nursery offered over 2,500 different varieties of trees and shrubs. In his career, Pieter has introduced over 50 different new plants. On this particular day, he showed us his newest development, a hydrangea that would soon be named ‘Limelight’. And just down the road a few miles, on another day, Rein and Mark Bulk showed me their new, early flowering hydrangea that had volunteered in his nursery. In a few years, we’d introduce this one as Quick Fire Hydrangea.

H. paniculata breeding from Dr. Johan Van Huylenbroeck brought Bobo to the market.

Still later and to the south, we and the world came to know Dr. Johan Van Huylenbroeck of the Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture. Johan’s outstanding Hydrangea paniculata breeding would give us Mega Mindy, Pinky Winky and Bobo. Meanwhile in France, Jean Renault was also breeding H. paniculata which would yield Vanilla Fraise, aka Vanilla Strawberry. And back in Grand Haven, Mich., while standing on the shoulders of all these giants, I helped to develop and introduce five additional H. paniculata plants.

It is simply remarkable how this once unassuming Japanese hydrangea has changed and improved. We now have cultivars with stronger stems that do not flop. We have dwarf and early blooming selections. We have green flowers and flowers that age with hues that range from green to bubblegum pink to rich pomegranate red. We have big and small flowers, full and lacey flowers.

What is most amazing to me is that Pee Gee hydrangea is still being grown 157 years since it was introduced by Dr. Phillip Franz von Siebold. With each generation and with each new breeder it has gotten better and better. Also amazing is that very little has changed since the days of Victor Lemoine. I regularly hear people exclaim, “Tim, do we really need another hydrangea?” And I answer, with a smile and in a way that I suspect Victor would approve. “Yes, of course we need another. So long as it is better, we need more ______________.” (You can fill in the blank.)

Tim Wood is a fourth-generation plantsman that travels the world hunting for new shrubs for the Proven Winners plant brand. He is also an accomplished plant breeder with over 100 plant patents to his name. An avid lecturer, photographer and writer, he writes a blog called “The Plant Hunter” and has written three books.