Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The resonant velvety harmony of plant collections

Weeping Scholar's tree (Styphnolobium japonicum 'Pendulum') in City Park, Denver

My mentor, Paul Maslin (an eminent Biologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder) was born in 1909 and grew up in central China. He eventually came to the U.S. for his college education and stayed, although memories of China haunted him all his life. When Nixon opened the doors to that country in the 1970's, Paul and his wife Mary were some of the first tourists who went there from Colorado. I well remember many stories he told contrasting the Feudal China of his childhood, and the dramatic changes of post Cultural Revolution China. One of his observations that stuck with me was the abundance of  weeping Scholar trees (Styphnolobium japonicum 'Pendulum'--still usually called Sophora japonica by fuddy duddies like me) he saw in China "why do you never see these in America?" he kept wondering. I only know the one above in Denver--growing beautifully in the terrific perennial garden in City Park. I discovered this two decades after Paul had died, and think of him whenever I visit it.

Dennis Hermsen, myself and a young weeping Sophora last Saturday at Iowa Arboretum
Paul's nagging question has occasionally come to mind--especially when I make a yearly pilgrimage to enjoy the gardens at City Park, where I always stop to admire Denver's sole weeping Sophora. So you can imagine my surprise when I spoke last Saturday at the wonderful Iowa Arboretum in Madrid, Iowa when one of the audience came up to me and presented (among a bevy of gifts) a wonderful 4' specimen of weeping Sophora.

One of the many benefits of being a Senior Curator of a public garden is that America's great plantspeople use you serve as a conduit (as it were) between great collectors and their intention that important plants find their way into significant plant collections. I'd heard of Dennis from our mutual friends, Gary Whittenbaugh and Jerry Morris. Meeting him at this Symposium and receiving the Sophora and other treasures are the real pay off for the day to day work one does: incidentally, the specimen he gifted the Gardens came from a scion off the very same Sophora in the first picture above. It took a rather circuitous route back home!

I am already savoring the picture in my mind of the wonderful specimen this will form in a few years time in our Japanese Garden complex. It will combine in my mind the ancient traditions of Oriental horticulture with memories of my mentor and his long experiences in China, and a beloved tree in City Park, and finally getting to know one of America's great plantsmen.

Dennis owns a nursery in Farley, Iowa that I have now put on my bucket list! And I look forward to his visiting Denver Botanic Gardens soon (he has come in the past, but we've never connected) and showing him around my private garden as well. And you can be sure I shall be planning some appropriate gifts for him in anticipation.

I am sure there are other hobbies where people are as thoughtful and generous--although none spring to mind. Each of the gifts Dennis gave to Denver Botanic Gardens: three hefty grafted specimens of a weeping white spruce discovered by Jerry Morris in Montana and a fantastic miniature Gingko in addition to the weeping Scholar tree--all of these represent plants that he has grafted, grown for years and cherished. None of them are easily found in Commerce, if you can find them at all.

A surprising number of plants at a botanic garden (or private plant collection as well) are the result of these sort of serendipitous meetings and relationships. The interplay of people and their passions and history provides a sort of resonant velvety harmony, as it were, to the beauty of plant collections.

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