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I had been looking forward to visiting Hokkaido ever since I came to Japan in September 1990. People were always telling me how lovely Hokkaido is, especially during the summer: Its wide open spaces are reminiscent of the countryside in Ireland or England.

The main reason why I wanted to visit Japan’s most northerly island, though, was to meet Tadaharu Tsuzuki, who runs a small alpine nursery in Otaru City, approximately 40 km west of Sapporo. I had first heard Tsuzuki’s name when I was working at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, Scotland.

In October 1983 I came to work at the Edinburgh gardens directly from the Royal Horticultural Society garden in Wisley, Surrey, England. I was assigned to work in the rock garden under the watchful eye of Alfred Evans, who was then assistant curator of the herbaceous department. Evans’ attention to detail was superb. Plants had correct labels and the name of the person who collected the seed from abroad or who donated the plant was indicated on all the labels.

The climate in Edinburgh is just right for growing mountain plants from all over the world, and this is without doubt the very best rock garden in the British Isles. Edinburgh is very well known for cultivating plants from Asia, especially the Himalayan mountain region (they have a superb collection of rhododendrons and primulas, or primrose), and the garden continues to sponsor seed-collecting expeditions to Nepal and more recently to Tibet.

In the rock garden there is a little valley called East Valley, which has hundreds of plants from Hokkaido. I had of course seen other plants from Japan in Ireland and England: ajisai (hydrangea), sakura (flowering cherry), momiji (Japanese maples), etc. The East Valley collection, however, was mostly of alpine plants, and this was my first introduction to alpine plants from Japan. The person whose name was at the bottom of each plant label was T. Tsuzuki, Japan.

Evans told me that Tsuzuki brought all of those plants over from Japan, by himself. Every year without fail Tsuzuki comes to the Edinburgh gardens with some new plants, which he donates. Tsuzuki also donates plants to the R.H.S. garden in Wisley and to Kew Royal Botanic Gardens just outside London. For someone like me who knew very little about the alpine flora of Japan, the large collection of plants donated by Tsuzuki in the East Valley was an ideal opportunity to study them first hand.

On Aug. 26, 1998, 13 years after I had left Edinburgh botanic gardens, I finally got the opportunity to visit Tsuzuki in Hokkaido. I flew from Itami Airport in Osaka to Chitose Airport south of Sapporo, and took the expressway bus to Otaru. From my window on the bus I could see masses of goldenrod (oawadachiso, Solidago gigantea var. leiophylla) in full flower, growing along the verge on both sides of the expressway all the way to Otaru. The bright yellow flowers of this tall North American plant are quite attractive, and I soon discovered that this species of goldenrod is naturalized in many areas around Sapporo.

From Otaru’s central bus station I immediately got a local city bus to Akaiwa, just a few minutes from the city center. I then made inquiries at a nearby convenience store on how to get to the Akaiwa nursery, and was dismayed when the lady told me she thought the nursery was probably not in business any longer. To confirm she made a quick phone call, and I was delighted when she told me they were open as usual after all.

Without any further delay I walked uphill to find the nursery. Written on the wooden sign close to the entrance was “Ever Since 1965, Akaiwa Nursery.” Tadaharu Tsuzuki was working hard putting the finishing touches to his new all-weather work shed.

Tsuzuki is well known in Japan for his successful cultivation of the beautiful blue-flowering Himalayan poppy (aoi-geshi, Meconopsis sp.). In his nursery he cultivates three species of the blue poppy: Meconopsis bectonicifolia, which is the true blue poppy, a short-lived perennial growing to a height of 2 meters, with flower colors ranging from mauve-pink to bright blue; M. grandis, a perennial growing to a height of 1.2 meters, with blue flowers; and M. horridula, of which he grows only a few specimens. This is a short-lived species, growing to 80 cm tall. The Latin name horridula (“little horror”) refers to the spiny bristles that cover the leaves and the leaf stem. Flower colors range from deep blue to violet to white.

Every year Tsuzuki buys fresh Himalayan poppy seed directly from seed companies in Germany. The cultivation of these plants is not easy. According to Tsuzuki it is almost impossible to successfully cultivate the Himalayan poppies in areas of Japan where the temperature exceeds 25 C. Even in his Otaru nursery the summer temperatures usually exceed 30 C on at least 10 occasions every year. During the summer of 1998 the highest temperature was only 26 C, making it a good year for the Himalayan poppy.

Incidentally, the botanic garden in Edinburgh has also had great success in the cultivation of Himalayan poppies.

The second most popular plant in Akaiwa nursery is a small perennial plant, curling everlasting (Helichrysum scropioides). It is native to southeast Australia and to Tasmania and will grow to a height of 40 cm. The leaves are gray-green and woolly on the underside. Small yellow flowers are produced during the autumn.

Tsuzuki does not only grow alpine plants. A popular plant this year is Clematis monta rubens, a vigorous deciduous climber from China; the new leaves are tinged purple, and the pink-red flowers are 5-6 cm in diameter. He also has over 80 different cultivars of scented geraniums (Pelargoniums).

Tsuzuki’s garden is full of plants from all over the world. The garden plants are used as mother plants from which he propagates new plants; he propagates approximately 50,000 plants per year. He sells many of them at flower shows in Sapporo and to the Sakata seed company in Yokohama, but he also sells plants directly to the public, and will undertake the propagation of any hardy plant that a customer may desire.

While you are in Otaru you might also take a bus to Tenguyama, 523 meters above sea level. There is a ski slope there, and during the summer the cable car takes tourists to the top to see a spectacular view over Otaru City.