The title of this article may seem a bit serious, but I like it, for the following is meant to address the ambiguity of the horticultural world. As many readers already know, Kalmiopsis leachiana is our Garden’s signature plant, perhaps the most notable legacy of John and Lilla Leach. The Leaches were credited with the scientific discovery of this species after collecting specimens on June 14, 1930, at Gold Basin in the Siskiyou Mountains of Curry County, OR. By 1932, the species had been named and renamed until receiving its final moniker, courtesy of Alfred Rehder of Harvard University.
The Siskiyou Mountains were accepted as the only habitat of K. leachiana until 1954, when another population was located northeast of the Siskiyous in Douglas County, OR, along the North Umpqua River watershed. A party of plant enthusiasts, including Marcel Le Piniec and Warren Wilson, were credited with the discovery. Specimens were analyzed by Morton E. Peck of Willamette University in Salem. Peck identified them as K. leachiana.
Human nature is predictable, and it’s no surprise that soon after the discovery and publication of the new species, attempts were made to grow and market them. Rehder acknowledged that the shrub would soon be introduced into cultivation, and expressed concern regarding its conservation. The Leaches wrote that numerous plant collectors and nursery growers gathered vast numbers of cuttings from the Siskiyous. Interestingly, they also reported that very few of the harvested plants survived in cultivation. This latter detail inspired me to write, because in my years of working at Leach, I have heard time and again that K. leachiana is very difficult to grow. When I began working here, I was shown a K. leachiana specimen that was labeled “Le Piniec form.” Its name represented that it was cultivated from the Umpqua population discovered by the Le Piniec party. Le Piniec and Wilson successfully propagated and marketed the Umpqua form. Our accession records do not indicate the wild source of the Garden’s Kalmiopsis specimens, but they list the names of the growers. Each nursery I contacted reported that their plants were derived from stock originally collected in the Umpqua watershed, while one stated that they were unaware of the source. Late last year, I attempted to propagate cuttings from wild specimens collected in Umpqua country, with a decent rate of success. Evidence supports that the Umpqua form is the preferred (and likely ONLY) stock for growers.
In 2007, the Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas published an excellent article about Kalmiopsis by Robert J. Meinke and Thomas N. Kaye of the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at Oregon State University. In the abstract, Meinke and Kaye wrote:
“The genus has typically been considered monotypic, consisting of only Kalmiopsis leachiana (Hend.) Rehder. However, comparative studies of the morphology, floral biology, and ecology of the northern and southern population groups have determined they are best treated as distinct taxa. The northern populations are described here as Kalmiopsis fragrans . . .”
The authors’ conclusion has implications for the nursery industry and LBG. First, it suggests that most of the K. leachiana plants that have been marketed since its discovery are actually K. fragrans. Second, it requires LBG to present more accurate information. Several weeks ago, our Curator/Gardener, Courtney Vengarick, and I used taxonomic literature to determine the identity of each Kalmiopsis plant in the Garden. After considering numerous plant features, we concluded that all specimens are K. fragrans. Of course, we suspect others may some day analyze these plants and disagree.
Have nurseries and gardens misrepresented themselves all these years? It’s a good question, but I think a fair answer was provided in my conversation with Thomas Kaye. In response to my question about whether he thought the plants propagated, sold and displayed over the years were actually K. leachiana, he answered, “Well, yes and no. Everything being sold before we made our conclusion was Kalmiopsis leachiana, and now we know differently.” These revelations offer another interesting chapter to our story, and may compel you to change the name of that attractive little shrub you’ve been growing on your property.
Note: My research involved contacting additional faculty members at Oregon State University who have been involved in the study of Kalmiopsis. Included were Kenton Chambers, Daniel Luoma and Robert Meinke. All three were unable to provide insight about the percentage of K. fragrans sold as K. leachiana.