Bark-a-lounger Botanists #3, April 5, 2020

Valiant Rodgersias

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Rodgersia pinnata ‘Elegans’ from Sichuan in 1998

Boldness Incarnate for PNW Gardens

Can you even imagine? Only a bit over a century ago, all you need do was sail a boat into a harbor in Asia and your legacy would be cemented into the genus of a plant. Sometimes even a good plant at that. This was the case with Admiral John Rodgers who commanded the expedition to Japan in 1850. I am tempted to refer to him as Mr. Rogers, however that would probably only reveal more of my bitterness. He probably didn’t even like plants. These days, after days of flying and driving to remote regions with the express purpose of studying the local flora, the acknowledgement I receive is generally a small bag of pretzels and a disposable toothbrush I have spirited away from the plane lavatory.

For such a small genus of plants (only five recognized species), they are not only associated with some pretty heady plantsmen (but for the aforementioned Mr. Rodgers) but add a brilliant dash of bold foliage and, in some cases, dazzling color to our gardens. Heronswood boasts a rather immense collection, with all of the known species represented. Many are from wild collections of known provenance.

Rodgersia podophylla was the first described from Rodgers’ voyage to Japan. For what it lacks in floral punch—tall clusters of white flowers—it makes up for in foliage, with immense compound leaves often emerging in resting tones of purple or copper.

Pere Armand David (aka Davidia involucrata, Acer davidii) is responsible for introducing both R. aesculifolia (leaves like an Aesculus or horse-chestnut) as well as R. pinnata (possessing leaves ostensibly pinnate). Their ranges overlap in W. China where natural hybrids between the species occur. Undoubtedly it is from these two species that come the most beguiling in flower, while there are forms with deep purple bruised foliage that can cause minor heart afflictions when encountering them for the first time at just the right moment in spring.

Rodgersia sambucifolia (leaves like a Sambucus or elderberry) is very distinctive and easily recognized, as each leaf extends to 3′ in length. It is present at Heronswood but does not sing as loudly as the others and very few people inquire as to its identity. In some ways, it is similar to R. nepalensis. This too has long pinnate foliage and is represented in the garden by only one plant from seed I collected in Nepal in 2002. It is the only species of Rodgersia that remains geographically segregated from the other species, making it rather certain you are collecting the real McCoy and not a hybrid.

Mr. Rogers plants (sorry, I simply could not help myself again) are at their prime in the garden this week, both in foliage and flower. Come to explore the collection and discover in the process the magic inherent to the collection in our garden. We hope to see you this Friday, Saturday or Sunday, from 10-3pm on each day.

– Dan