We might think our are gardens are natural and timeless, but that is far from true. Fashion trends in how our gardens look come and go, but so do plants, and most nurseries offer plant varieties that are pretty recent. A variety more than 50 years old is exceptional, yet it’s very likely that in your shade garden are varieties more than 100 years old – check out your Astilbe collection. Some of our most enduring varieties come from the first decades of the 20th century, and are still grown and admired. In fact, around 95% of all Astilbe sold today were bred by just one person – Georg Arends. All those German-sounding names – ‘Fanal’, ‘Rheinland’, ‘Deutschland’, Bridal Veil (‘Brautschleier’) – really are German, and that is why the label often says Arendsii Hybrid.
Georg Arends also shows us that ‘cross-pollination’ is something that gardeners as well as plants do, because when Arends travelled and worked in England for a short time, he picked up a new approach to gardening, and went home to Germany to implement that approach by doing something new – growing and breeding hardy perennials. His followers became so proficient they created many that are still widely grown today, and that are almost as old as Arends’ Astilbes. As well, they created the ‘roots and branches’ that made possible many of today’s modern perennial varieties.
So enormous was the contribution of this one person that it would be possible to create a decent garden using nothing but plants Georg Arends created or that are named after him, from Roses to Rhododendrons and, of course, a wealth of perennials. He is generally credited with introducing about 350 new plant varieties, many of which are still widely grown in gardens around the world.
Once there was a country called Prussia, that included all of today’s Germany, much of Poland, and even a slice of France. It was into this powerful kingdom, in 1862, that Georg Arends was born. His family ran a nursery in Essen, the industrial powerhouse of Prussia, based on coal, steel and munitions. Such industries create wealthy citizens, who enjoy gardens, and the nursery supplied many of the plants that went into those gardens. Georg was not the oldest son, so he was never going to inherit the business, but he loved plants.
The lack of responsibility for the family legacy left him free to learn what he wanted, so he took up an apprenticeship at the Botanical Garden of the University of Wrocław. Today in Poland, at that time it was the Prussian city of Breslau, and the University was, and still is, famous for scholarship. It’s botanical gardens were founded in 1811, for the benefit of medical students. However in 1852 the gardens was put under the direction of the botanist Heinrich Göppert. His enthusiasm, skill, knowledge and hard work transformed a tiny backwater into a major garden, with 12,000 species and many scientific activities.
By the time Georg Arends went there, around 1880, it had become a place we today would recognize as a center of botany. The exposure to all those plants, compared to the small number of shrubs and trees in his father’s nursery, must have opened Arends eyes to the possibilities he would later turn into reality.
His next step was to move to England in 1885. There gardening had already undergone a huge transformation. Gone from fashionable gardens, or certainly greatly reduced, were the beds of annuals, changed as much as 4 times a year, filled with ‘bedding’ plants – everything from bulbs to petunias, geraniums to dwarf evergreens, depending on the season.
The enthusiasm of the British for gardens, and the long reach of their Empire, had brought to them a profusion of new kinds of flowering plants – hardy perennials. Spurred largely by the famous names of Gertrude Jekyll and especially the garden journalist and writer William Robinson, the perennial border had been created. A whole new garden style had been born. The use of hardy perennials was already widespread and the height of fashion by the time Arends stepped off the boat in England.
If Wroclaw had opened his eyes, his experience in England must have blown his mind. The young Arends, still only 22 years old, spent a year working at one of the most prominent of the new nurseries propagating and selling perennials – Mr Thomas S. Ware’s ‘Hale Farm Nurseries’, in Tottenham, today a suburb of London. On 20 of their 30 acres they grew nothing but perennials and alpine plants by the thousands, including, according to an account written around the same time, “an acre of Peonies, a class of plants which, considering their easy culture and highly ornamental character, is far too little known.” A lack of knowledge that wasn’t going to last long, it turned out.
From England he moved to Trieste, today an Italian city, but then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a Prussian, close allies of Austria, Arends would have felt at home. In Trieste was an extraordinary rose nursery. It was the ‘hobby garden’ of one of the most famous of Italian tenors at the time, Guilio Perotti. Acclaimed for his operatic performances from Chicago to Budapest, Perotti decided to settle in Trieste, and being a rose lover he and his family opened a rose nursery and flower shop in the town in 1879. The nursery became as famous for its roses as Perotti was for his performances, and it carried a large and extensive catalogue of varieties. Born Julius Prott, Perotti was actually a Prussian, which perhaps explains how Arends came to choose his nursery.
Roses of the time were already highly-bred plants. Many, although not all, of the perennials being grown in England were close to the original wild species. We can perhaps speculate that it was the hybrid roses that gave Arends the idea of breeding perennials, and the skills needed to make it happen.
In 1888 Arends returned to Prussia, opening a nursery in Ronsdorf on the Wupper river, just 20 miles south of his family in Essen. Like Essen had been for his father, this area was booming, with factories opening (Bayer patented aspirin there in 1897), and is today part of the large city of Wuppertal. The nursery was an immediate success, and in 1892 his first hybrid plant, a Fuchsia, appeared in their catalogue.
The first hybrid Astilbe appeared in the catalogue in 1902, and in 1908 we find him using the name Astilbe arendsii for the first time, describing it as a cross between a plant of Astilbe japonica and a plant from an earlier cross made between Astilbe davidii and a plant he called ‘Astilbe floribunda’ that can’t be accurately traced to any modern species. A possible candidate might be Astilbe thunbergii, from Japan. Astilbe davidii is today considered to be a botanical variety of Astilbe chinensis.
Here we see the wild forms of the plants Arends used, growing in, or near, their native habitats:
Top row, left: Astilbe thunbergii, growing wild in Shimane province, Japan
to row, right: Wild Astilbe japonica, Makino Botanical Garden, Japan
Bottom: Wild Astilbe chinensis growing on Mt Gayasan, South Korea
It is a remarkable tribute to plant breeding, and Arends’ vision, that this handful of unassuming plants was transformed into the colorful profusion of Astilbe we have today.
In the 1920s another hybrid Astilbe appears, Astilbe x crispa. Still available today in Europe, this is a dwarf plant in several varieties, with, as the name suggests, very crinkled, glossy leaves. It was perhaps bred to be sold as a potted plant, something that Astilbe were once widely used for. It’s parentage is unknown.
Arends bred many other plants too, including the first ‘garden’ phlox, now superseded by newer varieties in most gardens, unlike the persistence of his Astilbe. His phlox are hybrids between the tall Phlox paniculata and the shorter Phlox divaricata and are called Phlox x arendsii. They first appeared in 1912 in his catalogue, and can still be found in specialist nurseries. A steady flow of new plants from many other plant groups continued throughout the following years, even into the first years of WWII.
Because of the heavy industries in the area, Allied bombing during the war destroyed most of the nursery. By this time it was over Arends was 83, yet he was determined to restore the nursery to its past glory, so he rebuilt it, with his two sons. The catalogue re-appeared in 1949, and Arends died in 1952, having never given up his control of the nursery, which was by now a shadow of what it had been in the glory years.
The Post-War Period
After his death his sons inherited the nursery. The oldest, Erich, was already in his sixties, and sold his two-thirds share for housing development – a common fate of nurseries the world over. The remaining third was kept going by the other son, Werner, and today still operates under the direction of Georg Arends great-granddaughter, Anja Maubach. A legacy foundation of volunteers continues to preserve records and keep alive the name ‘Arends’. So familiar as a label tag, it is easy to forget the real human being behind the name.