July 5, 2020

An Island of Discovery

Kerria japonica 'Pleniflora'

Janine Pineo Photo - Kerria japonica 'Pleniflora' blossoms outside the library on Vinalhaven.

• By Janine Pineo •

In the cool drizzle of a gray morning, it glowed Creamsicle orange, the branches shooting straight up, then arching in all directions under the weight of the moisture-laden blooms.

Miles out into the Atlantic on the rock that is Vinalhaven I stood, adrift in the wonder of finding a plant I had never seen and reveling in the life that is Vinalhaven.

The Friday ferry had brought me to this place – that and an invitation from a co-worker seeking advice about gardens she wanted to start at the family homestead. Last summer I had answered yes (who would have the fortitude to say no to a few days on a Maine island? Not me) but hadn’t been able to make the journey until this month.

Everything happens for a reason and in its own season.

It was my time to find this plant in this place on this Saturday this June.

Winging behind these highfalutin thoughts came the realization that I needed to find someone who might know the name of the bush I was admiring.

Fortunately, this bush and a smaller one a few feet away were planted next to the public library. I had hoped I could find the answers there, especially since it was obvious the bushes were planted strategically alongside the building and not just growing willy-nilly.

I stepped inside to find a bevy of children gathered for storytime. I waited for a moment to speak to the librarian and asked the fateful question: “What is that orange bush planted beside the building?”

A pregnant pause and then she replied, “You would ask me that.”

My hope deflated. Rapidly.

She continued.

It seems she was going to buy one last year but didn’t because she thought it was just a bit too expensive.

She also said I should go down to The Plant Place and ask there, for that was where she had inquired and that the owner would know what the bush was.

With hope soaring again, I thanked her kindly and stepped into the drizzle once more. After a small detour to look at the spectacular stained glass windows of the church under renovation, I headed for the greenhouse, pausing to visit a gaggle of geese. Never once did I think that each decision to wander off course would put me in the perfect place at the perfect time.

I arrived at the greenhouse and poked around, comparing prices and looking for anything unusual I might want to take home with me, until I found someone working and told her of my quest.

She didn’t know the name of my unnamed bush. But she had a couple of reference books we could thumb through right there.

Scarcely had we begun to look when the telephone rang. My quest cohort answered, listened, answered and then asked for the name of the orange-flowered bush beside the library.

“Kerria?” she asked, then requested the spelling of it for me.

I riffled through the book and there it was.

A member of the rose family. Japanese rose. Likes sun, likes part shade. Grows anywhere from 3 feet wide and tall to 10 feet wide and tall. Zones 4 to 9.

But the picture didn’t match. It was of single flowers and what I had seen was definitely a double.

And then I read Kerria japonica ‘Pleniflora’ and knew I had found my mystery plant.

I would later find that Kerria is a genus of one species of deciduous shrubs from China and Japan. This singular plant is said to have golden blossoms – I still think they are Creamsicle orange – and was “discovered” in 1805 by William Kerr, a gardener from England’s Kew botanical gardens, who also is credited with the introduction of the tiger lily. K. japonica would become popular in cottage gardens throughout England, long after Kerr died mysteriously in 1813.

I thanked the woman at the greenhouse for solving my mystery. I jotted down a few notes, and before I left, she asked me if I would be interested in purchasing such a plant.

Would I.

One could be ordered, I was told.

But I live north of Bangor, I said, with no idea when I might return to the island.

Oh, that was too bad. But I should keep in mind that I could get one there and that I really shouldn’t pay more than $30.

Armed with knowledge, I left, thinking of the places where I could look for my own Japanese rose.

I may not look too hard, though. It would be reason enough to return to Vinalhaven.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in June 2003.

Check in tomorrow when the featured Daily Plant is kerria. And read the second part of the Kerria story, written after seven long years of waiting.