by Mary Jasch
Want great color? Or fun and unusual plants? Take a drive to RareFind Nursery, Purveyors of Fine Plants, in Jackson, New Jersey. It is a garden and nursery of extraordinary plants.
“I sell plants so I can indulge my habit."-Schannen
Rare rhododendrons and azaleas, collections of magnolias, hollies, and Japanese maples -- varieties you've never heard of or are searching for -- grow under the dappled shade of native Pine Barrens trees. This 11-acre garden empire is also home to Henry "Hank" Schannen, entrepreneur, plant breeder and grower, and proprietor of RareFind, who harbors an all-encompassing passion for plants, rhododendrons and azaleas in particular.
Step from your car into the midst of the remarkable. Well-tended and shapely potted rhododendrons and azaleas decorate the central display yard under pitch pine.
Greenhouses fan out for leisurely inspection, each one dedicated to, say, large-leaf rhododendrons (elepidotes) M-Z or perennials A-H. House 5 holds many of Schannen's 100 varieties of Japanese maples including Acer palmatum 'Orange Dream' with a delicious coloring of gold, orange and lime, and thread-like A. Taranto that moves through the seasons in orange-red, purple on green, and brilliant gold foliage. Autumn is certainly the time to see what fall color these plants can bring to your garden.
About 80 varieties of luscious magnolias are housed in Number 11, which also contains holly, and pitcher plants including Sarracenia leucophylla 'Tarnok.' House 15 holds deciduous treasures -- among them, Cercis Canadensis 'Forest Pansy' with small heart-shaped burgundy leaves and yellow-leafed Quercus robur 'Concordia' with young chartreuse leaves.
Walk the sandy lane past Schannen's once-intended summer, but now permanent, home, into a 4-acre display garden of pleasure, breeding and testing.
“We do hybrids where we take the pollen from one plant and place it on another plant in hopes of growing out 100 or more and when they bloom picking out superior plants and then growing them vegetatively," he says. (see how he does it here)
Schannen grows about 3,000 varieties of everything, including about 1,000 varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas. Although he breeds and grows many of his own plants, he also obtains some unusual and spectacular specimens from other collectors, breeders, and nurseries.
Hank Schannen's Favorites:
- Solidarity: "There's no question that is a great plant. It's a great nurseryman's plant. It's tough. It stands a lot of sun, doesn't burn, and doesn't die from root rot."
- My Jane: "I can't resist it even though, I may say, it's a little garish."
- Calypso: "I have a 7- or 8-foot tall plant you can't walk past when it's in bloom. You have to stop. It's upright. I plant compact 'Yakushimanum' to hide its knobby knees."
- R. maximum: "I like it in hybrids. It always gives great character to the leaves."
Schannen began learning how to hybridize roses at the age of five by his grandfather, an amateur rose breeder. His father, too, was interested in plants - rhododendrons and azaleas. “We were an immigrant family. We all lived together in an extended family so as a small child I was immersed in plants. I got interested in bonsai in my early 20s. I joined the Rhododendron Society in 1965 to learn more about using azaleas for bonsai. I got bit by the rhododendron bug and I stayed there," he says.
After working for a major pharmaceutical company, Schannen left and founded and co-owned his own marketing research company, Hase-Schannen Research Associates, for 40 years in Princeton. He eventually sold his share and the company still thrives today. Meanwhile, he had been growing plants in four locations and finally moved them to the Jackson property in 1996. “I hadn't decided exactly where I was going to do my nursery when I retired so it took us three-four years to move the plants over to here," he says.
In 1999, Schannen opened the gates of Rare Find Nursery to the public. So, with such a wealth of rhododendrons and azaleas, what made him get involved with perennials and woody plants?
“Money. Man does not live by rhododendrons alone. I knew that in order to be successful you have to supplement whatever you do. There's money in it, but not enough. You have to offer a full line because, let's face it, there's just so many rhododendron nuts in the world; there's just so many rose nuts. You have to offer a full line to be a viable growing business."
Schannen is a 1997 recipient of the Gold Medal of the American Rhododendron Society. He serves as Chairman of the ARS Research Foundation and is a Board member of the Rhododendron Species Foundation.
On one sandy lane, Schannen points out a pretty, tree-like rhododendron.“I like that leaf, but the tree isn't full enough; the yellow isn't deep enough," he muses. "I might come down with a better flower and put it there. We'll take the pollen from one and put it on the stigma on the others. We'll let genetic material develop."
If you love plants, don't miss this private garden/nursery. It'll bedazzle you for a long, long time.
Approximate Numbers & a Few Facts:
- 15 deciduous azalea species live in the US with 10 globally
- 75 rhododendron and azalea species & tens of thousands of varieties are hardy and grow well in the East
- 1,000 species of rhododendrons and azaleas live in the wild, most are not hardy here
- Most species evolved in the Himalayas, probably from magnolias
- Relict populations from Pangea survive on the West Coast
- 15 native azaleas on the East Coast with 2 in NJ: R. viscosum, fragrant swamp azalea, and Pinxterbloom, R. periclymenoides
- 1 native azalea on West Coast: R. occidentale
- 3 species of large-leafed rhododendron native to U.S.: 2 East Coast, 1 West Coast
- Fossil track of rhododendrons stretches coast to coast
- Rhododendrons related to Stewartias and Camellias.
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published October 24, 2007