Japanese Plants Have Been a Blessing and a Curse

  • The Japanese hydrangea vine is one of the 19th-century introductions from Japan that has remained a valued garden plant. It blooms in May. (MUST CREDIT: Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The Washington Post
Published: 9/5/2017 10:00:19 PM

Late summer is the time when I must deal with the porcelain berry. This is a hardy, woody vine that landed in America as an exquisite, bejeweled bower only to be reviled later as a beast. Unchecked, it will grow 15 feet a year and smother shrubs, trees and in time whole landscapes in its quest for world domination.

Now it is entwined with my gooseberry bush, and once a week I rip out the wandering stems before their white blossoms turn into seedy berries. I need to grub it out at the roots, but the gooseberry is full of thorns, and that’s a job for winter, when I can get a clearer view.

Where did this marauder come from? It came from a guy named Thomas Hogg Jr. Actually, it came from Japan, but Hogg was the person who brought it to our shores.

I know this because Peter Del Tredici, senior research scientist emeritus at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, has shed new light on how Japanese plants arrived to reshape the American garden.

The story is about expanding markets, consumer lust for the new and exotic, and the perils and delights of globalization. That was 150 years ago and, yes, not much has changed, except the scale of it today is much greater.

Hogg, who lived from 1820 to 1892, made two collecting sojourns to Japan. The first was a seven-year stint in the 1860s, during which he sent back conifers, including the northern Japanese hemlock, the Japanese false cypress and the Veitch fir. He returned in the 1870s, when he had access to the interior of Japan and collected much from seed, including the porcelain berry.

You might say he hit the invasive exotic trifecta, because he also sent us the all-consuming oriental bittersweet and the lil’ old kudzu vine. He wasn’t the only introducer of the vine that ate the South, but he may have been the first.

It can take years, decades, before the propensity of an introduced species to multiply and wander is known. Although some of the reasons for the spread of bullying vines is fairly obvious — the attractiveness of the berries to birds, for example — other causes are more complicated. Weeds tend to invade soil disturbed by humans, and we’ve proved to be good at that, whether for agriculture or road construction. And the more recent effects of climate change may be helping the most aggressive plants to the detriment of others.

Before you burn Hogg in effigy, consider this: He is also responsible for bringing us Japanese maples and other sublime acers, hostas, hydrangeas, kousa and pagoda dogwoods, Japanese snowbell, Asian persimmon, Japanese iris, stewartia, Japanese hydrangea vine, Japanese umbrella pine, the katsura tree and the weeping cherry.

One assumes that Hogg had no idea that some of his treasures would turn into thugs, that the porcelain berry, say, would be any different from the beloved and well-behaved hydrangea vine (Schizophragma).

“The invasives are only part of the story,” Del Tredici said. “I think you have to look at the big picture, which is the transformation of the American landscape.”

The work of Hogg and a slightly earlier collector named George Rogers Hall has been known among garden historians, but Del Tredici’s paper fleshes out the details of Hogg’s plant introductions. Published in June in a journal named the Botanical Review, it took him four years to pull together, he said.

He came to see that the work of the collectors was only half the story. The key to the distribution of the new plants was a nursery owner in New York City named Samuel Bowne Parsons.

It took Parsons more than 20 years from the first shipments of the Japanese plants to have a well-oiled production line of plants in place for an eager public. He employed a Swiss immigrant named J.R. Trumpy who by the late 1880s was grafting 10,000 Japanese maples annually.

But Parsons was also a great salesman, filling gardening magazines with enticing advertisements that dangled azaleas, camellias and maples like paradisiacal carrots before the gardening public.

“For me, the big takeaway isn’t so much about Thomas Hogg but the collaboration between the collector and the nursery responsible for increasing it and marketing it,” Del Tredici said. “Parsons was way ahead of his time in recognizing the importance of marketing his plants.”

Interestingly, many of the Japanese plants that came to the West were available in the United States before they appeared in Europe. “This is the birth of globalization, and people were super excited about it,” Del Tredici said.

The arrival of these plants coincided with a fundamental shift in the idea of gardenmaking. Previously, gardening was “really a form of agriculture,” Del Tredici said. But with the advent of designers such as Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the creators of Central Park, came the idea of designed landscapes rather than collections of plants. Parsons’s son, Samuel Parsons Jr., worked with Vaux and was a founder of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

“There was a shift where landscape gardening became landscape architecture, and Parsons Jr. was the personification of that,” Del Tredici said. “All these new plants coming in from Japan played a role in that transformation. It wasn’t just aesthetics.”

The idea of Hogg plucking ripe seeds of porcelain berry somewhere in Hokkaido during a long day of collecting somehow eases the tedium of ripping the stems from the tangle of the fruit bush. If I were to feel any animus toward him, I would force myself to think of the living sculpture that is the Japanese maple and its place in the garden and the gardener’s heart.

Gardening Tip: Order daffodil and specialty bulbs soon to get them planted and growing early for an optimum display in the spring. Early ordering from mail-order catalogues will also allow the widest selection of bulbs. Some of the choicest tulip and daffodil varieties often sell out early — something to consider if you are aiming for a specific color scheme.

Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784


© 2019 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy