We continue our brief introductions of selected plant groups. In recent columns, we have focused on plants from summer-dry climates because they are particularly well-suited to the Bay Area, which is within one of the world’s summer-dry climate regions.
Today’s focus is on plants from Asia, which is an enormous geographic area reaching from the Middle East region on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean basin to the Pacific Ocean. This area includes India, China, Japan, and several smaller countries.
While most of this area is not included among the summer-dry climate regions, Asia’s range of growing conditions include many native plants that can succeed in Bay Area gardens.
Our gardens have access to the world’s many exotic plants that plant hunters have gathered and made available to both public gardens, plant nurseries and commercial agriculture.
The early history of plant hunting in Asia began with Christopher Columbus, whose 1492 voyage from Spain was an attempt to discover a short route to the Asian source of highly desired and hard to get culinary spices, e.g., pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace, ginger, and cinnamon. He didn’t find that route, but made other important discoveries.
Later explorers successfully reached the spice-growing region. In 1511, Vasco da Gama sailed from Portugal around Africa’s southern tip, the Cape of Good Hope, and finally reached Indonesia’s Spice Islands.
In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan’s mission to find a route to the Spice Islands sailed south from Spain, around Cape Horn, South America’s southern tip, across the Pacific Ocean, and ultimately to the Spice Islands (now called the Moluccas).
Given those navigational searches for Asia’s culinary plants, plant-hunting gradually became oriented to exotic garden horticulture in that part of the world.
In early 1900, An English nurseryman, James Veitch, became interested in the commercial potential of a Chinese plant that he had seen as a dried specimen. The plant was the Dove Tree (Davidia involucrata), named for its small white flowers.
Veitch contracted with a young Biology teacher, Ernest Henry Wilson, to travel to China to hunt for seeds of this attractive tree. Wilson achieved that goal and then became a life-long plant hunter working for Veitch and later for Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum.
Wilson called China “the Kingdom of Flowers,” and eventually also hunted plants in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. By 1930, he had introduced more than 1,000 Asian plant species to western gardens.
Today, California gardeners enjoy a vast number of plants that originated in various areas of Asia, including both native species and cultivars developed by hybridizers.
Much-appreciated plants from Asia in my Monterrey area garden include Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum); the genus Cotoneaster, with varied species; Japanese Iris (Iris ensata), the very large genus Rhododendron and its subgenus Azalea; the large genus Clematis; Giant Rockfoil, also called Pigsqueak (Bergenia cordifolia); Chinese Fringe Flower (Loropetalum chinense); and Variegated Winter Daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureo-marginata’).
Here are examples of other Asian plants from my garden.
Chinese Ground Orchid/Hyacinth Orchid (Bletilla striata). This bulbous plant flowers from May to June, growing with minimal care outdoors in soil. Plants for a Future (ww.pfaf.org) reports that this is an important wound herb in China, where it has been used medicinally for more than 1,500 years.
Varieated Weigela (Weigela florida ‘Variegata’). This old-fashioned deciduous shrub grows in full sun to 6 feet tall and 8 feet wide, with flowers blooming in summer. It’s a favorite of hummingbirds.
Kahili Ginger/Ginger Lily (Hedychium gardnerianum). This member of the Ginger family is native to the Himalayas in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Under the right conditions, it can reach 8 ft. tall with flower spikes rising above the foliage.
Tree Peony (Paeonia suffriticosa) comes from China, Tibet, and Bhutan. It grows in full sun to part shade, and benefits from a winter chill. It takes several years to establish deep roots and is best not relocated or disturbed.
Japanese Anemone (Anemone hupehensis) grows readily. Popular hyybrids include ‘Alice’, with pink blossoms, and ‘Honorine Jobert’ with white blossoms. This plant grows in full sun but appreciates light shade during the day’s hottest hours. It can propagate vigorously by underground runners, so it needs either room to spread or regular management.
Advance your knowledge
The history of plant hunting throughout the world’s sources of exotic garden plants, and the stories of individual plant hunters, can be an intriguing study for gardeners. Carolyn Fry’s book, “The Plant Hunters: The Adventures of the World’s Greatest Botanical Explorers,” (2009) is an exceptional publication with inserted folders with reproductions of original notes. A quick search of the internet for “plant hunters” will yield links to several more books to explore.
Dan Hinckly, a modern-day plant hunter in China, Korea, Nepal, and other areas, has introduced and cultivated numerous plants, and written about his travels and favorite plants in several books, including “The Explorer’s Garden: Rare and Unusual Perennials” (Timber Press, 2009).
Enrich your gardening days
China and other Asia nations that are often included in current events, including the Olympics, very recently, have many centuries of horticultural history that have produced a great array of plants that can be successful and very pleasing features in the residential garden. The traditional Japanese garden design could provide unique qualities to the home landscape, but Asian plants also fit quite well into either formal or casual versions of typically Western landscapes.
Tom Karwin is past president of Friends of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society, and Monterey Bay Iris Society.