Breeding beauty

  • By Debra Smith / Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, April 20, 2005 9:00pm
  • Life

When Frank Fujioka graduated from college, he didn’t know a dandelion from a rhododendron.

But the Hawaii native appreciated the Northwest’s changing seasons and the beauty of its native plants.

That was enough to draw him to the garden after a long day of work as a teacher and counselor for the Edmonds School District.

“I needed stress relief. It was nothing but problems,” he said of his work.

In addition to rhododendron hybridizer Frank Fujioka’s garden, the tour includes four private gardens:

Michelle’s Legacy: This one-acre garden is the legacy of the late Michelle Pailthorp, a passionate plant collector who sought out the rare and unusual. Deep shade provides a backdrop for collections of epimediums, hellebores and foliage plants. Meandering pathways through a ravine heighten the sense of adventure this garden offers.

MooseRidge Gardens: These gardens, arrayed over 11 acres within a 54-acre site, offer compositions that vary with the seasons. In springtime, flowering trees, some of them rare, combine with a wide variety of flowering shrubs and perennials throughout more than a dozen garden rooms.

Fun and Functional: Comfort is the primary design focus of this one-and-a-half acre garden. The garden includes an outdoor dining room sheltered by a vine-covered arbor, a sunken firepit and bathhouse with an antique cast iron tub. A vineyard with over a dozen varieties of grapes and an orchard with apple, apricot, plum and pear trees descend down a slope toward a meadow.

Crafted Elegance: This 3-year-old Japanese-inspired garden conveys serenity, balance and refinement. In a woodland setting near the front of the house, mature rhododendrons blend with Japanese maples to surround a complex watercourse and pond. A quilt of phormium, heather, lavender and nandina blankets the slope between terrace and lawn.

In the garden, he found refuge from a job that left him frazzled. Along the way he discovered a passion for plants, in particular rhododendrons. He would become a respected breeder and grower of the signature Northwest plant.

“Suddenly you get out into the world and you look around and realize, there’s a lot to this world,” Fujioka said, explaining the garden’s pull. “When spring comes and the flowers bloom, it’s like magic.”

Fujioka calls growing plants simply a hobby but the 67-year-old spends all day, most everyday, nurturing hundreds of rhododendrons at his Whidbey Island retirement home.

The public will have an opportunity to visit Fujioka’s private garden and a handful of others as part of the Whidbey Island Garden Tour April 30.

Fujioka’s home is tucked back in the trees off one of Whidbey’s many side roads. His house perches on a cliff above Admiralty Inlet and the view is so stunning most visitors spend their time gawking at the mountains and not examining the plants in the strip of yard facing the water.

There is plenty more to see here besides a grand view and rhododendrons. Rare and unusual plants, dwarf conifers and a collection of Japanese maples blend to form an Asian-influenced garden in front of his home.

Across a rural road he tends more acreage, and visitors can see the starting point for future prize rhododendrons: greenhouses with seedlings and cuttings and rows of plants he’s testing.

Fujioka’s journey from novice gardener to expert hybridizer began more than 35 years ago with a visit to Halfdan Lem, a granddaddy of rhododendron hybridizing and local legend.

Lem, a Norwegian, opened a rhododendron nursery in Seattle and went on to breed dozens of the rhododendrons that form the backbone of many Northwest gardens.

“When I saw what he could create, I thought, I’ve got to do that,” Fujioka said.

Hybridizing is a science and an art, both of which appeal to Fujioka. He studied biology along with psychology at the University of Oregon.

The act of hybridizing appears deceptively easy. Fujioka creates hybrids by placing the pollen of one plant onto the stigma of another. In nature, an insect performs this function.

Fujioka labels the pollinated blossom and collects the seeds in the fall. He plants the seeds in a fluorescent-lighted growing chamber in his garage and then moves the seedlings into planting beds.

Then he waits.

Hybridizing requires meticulous record keeping and the patience of Job. Fujioka waited five years to see the results of his first batch of hybrids.

Now he sees results of a different batch every year. He loves the challenge, the gamble of genetics and the anticipation of watching a one-of-a-kind plant develop.

Like any parents, every pair of rhododendrons produces unique offspring. He’ll plant the offspring in neat rows and observe the plants as they grow, testing them over several years to learn their true characteristics. Most will end up in the compost heap.

In the early years when Halfdan Lem and other pioneers began hybridizing, no one knew what to expect when they crossed one plant with another. Even after more than 50 years of breeding rhododendrons, there is little accumulated knowledge, Fujioka said.

At first, Fujioka focused solely on the color of the flowers, hoping to produce a rare yellow blossom. Eventually he succeeded, but the plants had other undesirable traits.

Most of Fujioka’s earliest attempts were botanical flops. The foliage might be ugly, the plant too leggy, the blooms’ color muddy.

Over time, Fujioka learned through experience and intuition which parents would impart the traits he sought. Like a good chess player, he learned to think several moves ahead, crossing parent plants with the third or fourth generation in mind.

He paid increasing attention to traits such as hardiness, blooming at an earlier age and sun tolerance. He strove to create hybrids that would grow in a tight, compact shape and produce beautiful and interesting leaf textures as well as a bounty of blooms. One of the elusive traits he’s seeking now is smell.

Fujioka registered only eight of his hybridized rhododendrons with the Royal Horticultural Society in England. These hybrids are asexually produced in mass and sold to the public. (Fujioka’s can be purchased locally at Meerkerk Gardens on Whidbey Island and Wells Medina Nursery near Bellevue.)

Eight registered plants is just a drop in the bucket when one considers the years Fujioka has put into the process. Other hybridizers register more but Fujioka is particular about the plants he sends out to the world.

The market is saturated with rhododendrons, he said. He doesn’t see a need to add more plants unless they are truly exceptional.

And his registered hybrids are exceptional. His attention to every characteristic of the plant has paid off with hardy hybrids that combine attractive foliage, interesting blooms with vibrant colors and good growth habits.

Some of his most popular hybrids include Starbright Champagne, which sports unusual pointed petals with a scarlet throat. Vibrant Violet is a mass of blooms nestled next to tiny rounded leaves. Glowing Gold puts on a spectacular show in the spring, with its multihued orange and gold buds.

“When you think back on life you wonder what did I contribute as a human being?” he said. “I contributed beauty, to bringing joy to people.”

Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or

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