Marvelous Mutant Maples

One of the first lessons I learned in horticulture was that leaves are one of the most unreliable features to identify a plant. For any particular species, cultivars can vary greatly when it comes to leaf shape. Another lesson learned was that the longer and more often a plant is cultivated, the greater the number of mutations and cultivars. The perfect example for each of these lessons is the Japanese maple, Acer palmatum. Japanese maple has been cultivated for centuries, and there are hundreds of cultivars. The leaf variation is simply marvelous. Most often these new plants originate as stem mutations that have been discovered, propagated and named, while others are discovered from chance seedlings and intentional breeding efforts. 

Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood'
One of the more commonly grown Acer palmatum cultivars in the nursery business is a hardy selection called 'Bloodgood'. Its leaves are similar to your typical Japanese maple found in nature with the exception of reddish-purple coloration instead of green. But Japanese gardeners, nurserymen and collectors have found numerous other leaf mutations, and it appears that this plant has no limits when it comes to sporting new cultivars. Here is just a small sampling of cultivars I've seen in my travels over the last year.

Acer palmatum 'Crimson Queen'

Acer palmatum 'Felice'

Acer palmatum 'Fior d'Arancio'

Acer palmatum 'Shinedeshojo'

Acer palmatum 'Osakazuki'

Acer palmatum 'Osakazuki'

Acer palmatum 'Pung Kil'

Acer palmatum 'Purple Ghost'

Acer palmatum 'Ryu Sei'

Acer palmatum 'Seiryu'

Acer palmatum 'Shaina'

Acer palmatum 'Taylor'

Acer palmatum 'Ukigumo'

Deutzia for the Garden: New and Improved

Like many ornamental plants, deutzia was not discovered in the wild, but rather as cultivated plant in Japan. Named in honor of Dutch plant hunting patron, Johann van der Deutz, deutzia was discovered, became popular and then with time fell out of favor. So it goes with many ornamental plants, their popularity ebbs and flows like the whims of fashion, just like mini skirts and big glasses become popular once again with the passing of time.

Deutzia setchuenensis

Over the last fifteen years, it has been a standing joke around our nursery that we've cornered the deutzia market, funny only because we've introduced (more correctly reintroduced) a number of beautiful Deutzia species and cultivars like Deutzia setchuenensisDeutzia ningpoensis, and Deutzia scabra, only to find out they don't sell. 

Deutzia x 'Magicien'

Ok, so if people don't want white-flowered deutzias, surely they'll want pink-flowered ones. We proceeded to offer 'Pink Pom Pom', 'Godsell Pink', 'Pink Minor' and 'Magicien', but only to be greeted with poor sales once again. We sold some decent numbers of Deutzia 'Magicien' but within a few years the plant ran its course and sales dropped. Over the last fifteen years, the only deutzia that had any attraction to our customers was Deutzia gracilis 'Nikko'.            

Deutzia gracilis 'Nikko'

Despite having white flowers, this plant built a following due to its low spreading stature that makes it a great landscape plant. It's the perfect little (2'x4') shrub for covering large areas and choking out weeds. Like many ornamental plants, it was discovered not in the wild, but in cultivation in a Japanese nursery. In 1976, John Creech and Sylvester March of the US National Arboretum found 'Nikko' at the Watanabe Nursery in Gotemba City, and the rest is history. In 1989, the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society awarded it the prestigious Gold Medal Award. Yet even with its PHS honors and useful habit, people complained, "The flowering period is too brief" and "Why can't the flowers be pink?"     

We had what we thought was a major deutzia breakthrough in 2001 when we found a variegated form of 'Nikko' in the Netherlands. At last, we had a deutzia with season long interest, but as is often the case with plant hunting, our initial excitement was unwarranted. Our new find was hopelessly unstable. Even after years of propagating the best variegated stems, the darn plant kept going back to green. As a list ditch effort, I said to our propagator, "Why don't you take cuttings off the stems with yellow leaves. Perhaps we can create a gold-leafed plant that is stable."   

 An unstable variegated selection of Deutzia gracilis

Well, like they say, "Even a blind squirrel can find a nut sometimes." Those yellow-leafed cuttings were the birth of Chardonnay Pearls® deutzia. 

Chardonnay Pearls® Deutzia

Mass planting of Chardonnay Pearls®  Deutzia

We introduced Chardonnay Pearls®  deutzia in 2004 and over the years it has become quite popular, especially at retail. The bright yellow leaves give the plant season long interest while the bloom time coincides with the peak garden center traffic. Finally, cornering the deutzia market was more than just a joke. For the first time, deutzia was selling!     

I never stopped looking for a stable variegated form, and I dreamed of the day we would offer a pink flowered form of 'Nikko'. In our quest for a pink 'Nikko, we enlisted the help of Dr. Tom Ranney of NC State and set him to work crossing 'Nikko' with some of the pink flowered varieties mentioned above. It was a long shot, and it would require an investment of time and money, but you have to make a start and work towards the dream. 

A few years later, we found another variegated sport of 'Nikko' in, of all places, a small Japanese nursery in the original home of 'Nikko', Gotemba City. But again, the plant was unstable. A few years later, we found yet another variegated form of 'Nikko', this time at Les Pepinieres Minier in France. This selection's margins were creamier than yellow. It was quite attractive, but it too had a reversion problem, although not nearly as bad as our previous finds. To stabilize the variegation we took only the best cuttings over successive generations. After about three years and six generations, we had a plant that was quite stable and worthy of introduction. It was christened Crème Fraiche deutzia and introduced in 2013.

Creme FraicheDeutzia

Like Chardonnay Pearls, Creme Fraiche deutzia has great retail appeal and offers season long color. The creamy-yellow variegation is attractive and blends well with other plants. On occasion, it will make a green shoot, but compared to our previous selections, this plant is fantastic. An odd shoot once in a while can be easily pricked out.  
Meanwhile, Dr. Ranney was making a lot of crosses, but with limited success. His early seedlings yielded plants with light pink flowers that quickly faded to white. We also tested some crosses made by the National Arboretum, but these too were more blush than pink. Then, as is often the case, we discover a new plant that had nothing to do with our breeding goals. One of Dr. Ranney's seedlings stood out from all the others, not for its pink flowers, but rather its abundance of flowers. It had so many blooms that you could hardly see its leaves. While it was not what we were looking for, it was too good to pass up. This plant was introduced in 2014 under the name Yuki Snowflake (pronounced U-Kee).      

Yuki Snowflake Deutzia

This spring, we will ship for the first time ever a 'Nikko' type deutzia with saturated pink flowers. It took Dr. Ranney ten years, from concept to introduction, but the results were worth the wait. His last round of seedlings had very good pink coloration, with many holding their color over time. After further testing, we picked the best and introduced it as Yuki Cherry Blossom.   

Yuki Cherry Blossom Deutzia

Deutzia is without a doubt is a beautiful plant. But as we discovered over the years, (while cornering the Deutzia market), the deutzia market is not all that different than the rest of the shrub market. People no longer want 12-15' tall plants. They want smaller shrubs that fit into smaller landscapes, that can be mixed in with perennials, or that look good in a patio container. They want useful shrubs that serve a function. They want more colorful flowers, and they want the season long color you get with showy foliage. So while it's great to corner the deutzia market for fifteen years straight, it a whole lot better now that we have plants that people actually want to buy. I'm so glad the joke is over.

Yuki Cherry Blossom Deutzia the first 'Nikko type with true pink flowers