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Grand gardens of Europe are a revelation

After seven days of river cruising along the Rhine on a Uniworld Tour, through Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, with a stop for the giant green industry expo called Floriade, I have three words to say: "Wunderbar!, Merveilleux! and Ongelooflijk!" (That's "Wonderful!" in German, French and Dutch.)

We ate like royalty. Oh, the Netherlands cheeses, German beers and Belgian chocolates; the fresh salmon, endive and waffles -- and yes, mussels in Brussels! -- plus river cruising with a 5-star chef

We took in history and art, city walls from A.D. 800, castles and cathedrals. But I also had a mission: to tell gardeners about the horticulture of the cities, towns and front yards we toured and passed. What plants are they using, and how?

>Plants along the way

Early April in central Europe is much like our region (USDA Zone 5 to 6) in temperature ranges and length of growing season, and the days were quite chilly, typically 45 to 50 degrees with some wind. Like here, the daffodils were finishing, the tulips opening, and the popular forsythias were in full bloom. Along the highways and riverbanks, both naturalized and planted, we saw fully flowering azaleas, serviceberries (Amelanchier) and many Prunus, both plums and cherries.

In groomed landscapes and parks, I saw lots of Kerria japonica (a bright yellow-flowering shrub) and many viburnums, including Koreanspice (V. carlessii), Wayfaringtree (V. lantana) and many Leatherleafs (V. rhytidophyllum). Pieris japonica (Japanese pieris) and Mahonia (Oregon grape holly) were common sightings, especially as understory plants.

And wasn't I thrilled to see several large plantings of Sorbaria, including the darling pink-leaved cultivar "Sem!" In general the shrubs were used in large mixed borders, layered with small trees and some sweeps of perennials. No single-species rows in sight.

I struggled to identify some white flowering shrubs along the way, possibly spireas. But particularly bright, white, small flower clusters strung along the branches led me to guess at Deutzia, especially the Lemoine Deutzias, hybridized in France.

At the castle Konigswinter, in Drachenfels, Germany, landscapers were installing some shrubs with yellow-dotted, leathery leaves. The gardeners among us guessed at mountain laurel (Kalmia), but the landscapers couldn't name it in Latin or English. With research I identified it as a Japanese Aucuba "Variegata," also called the gold-dust plant, commonly mistaken for a laurel.

I don't see it used here much, except perhaps in protected locations, because it's been considered a Zone 6 plant. But it tolerates tree roots, likes partial to full shade, doesn't interest deer, and isn't fussy about soil -- a good workhorse for shade gardens.

In traffic circles, highway medians and some front yards I noticed that German and Netherlands landscapers were using many of the same suspects you see in the United States, including bulbs, barberry, low-growing junipers, lavenders, perennial geraniums, campanulas (perennials always massed) and cotoneaster. I saw widespread use of Stephenandra -- underused here -- with its delicate leaves.

>The trees

The most-asked plant questions along the way were, "What have they done to those trees?" and "What kind of trees are those knobby ones?"

Answers: The trees with big knots or knobs at the end of branches are pruned in a special style called "pollarding." It's done in much of Europe, and in California. It can be done to many kinds of trees. In Europe the victims were mostly sycamores/ plane trees or lindens; in California it's often done to Sweetgum (Liquidambar). Trimmers cut tree branches at the same spot every year, outside a joint, so that a callous forms and grows thicker.

Many tree lovers think it's an unpleasant thing to do to a perfectly nice tree, but the purpose is to create a shade canopy or arbor over sidewalks or simply to get that sculpted look. It's a style. The trees of Europe are subjects of books and beyond the scope of my limited vision.

Just remember, horticulturists were designing parks, enhancing royal palaces and protecting tree specimens for centuries before American landscape architecture was born. Massive English oaks, beeches, and non-native imports tower over grand gardens. I hope to visit many more.

>Floriade

Created every 10 years, Floriade is something like a world's fair or Disney World for plant people. Each version is in a new location, mostly in the Netherlands, and each leaves behind permanent structures and landscapes. This year it was in Venlo, Netherlands. My group was there on opening day, which presented a few glitches, and it was damp and chilly.

The outside plantings, like public landscapes in our region this month, were not yet breathtaking, but they will be. The five areas or worlds, divided by woodland, span 163 acres; 100 gardens or pavilions focus on gardening, plant science and environmental innovation around the world. A serious learner could use two days to a week, and repeated trips, as displays and plantings change through the seasons.

One building alone is responsible for a third of my photographs: Villa Flora, the equivalent of Canada Blooms or another medium-sized flower show, with individual nations' showcases. Mexico's and Japan's were especially unforgettable.

Best of all: the magnitude and drama of the flower displays: 6-foot flower vases bursting with orchids, Volkswagen-sized baskets full of daffodils-provided mind-opening inspiration for students of garden design or flower arranging. It all screamed, "Think bigger!"

***

Now I've come home to my own beloved garden, with the serviceberry and hyacinths blooming, plenty of weeds, and the peony shoots 6 inches tall (and still 45 degrees and windy). The dog is wriggling ecstatically; cats are purring; and it will be good to see the faces of friends and family. I recommend river cruising, the experience of horticulture in other places, and Floriade. Still, east or west, home is best.

A bientot, zo lang, auf Wiedersehen!eos

Columnist Sally Cunningham is a master gardener.