What Has Become of the Dexter Hybrid
By G. G. Nearing
A number of years ago Charles O. Dexter died, leaving on his Cape Cod estate and elsewhere a vast accumulation of rhododendrons of his own breeding. The youngest of them must now be nearly 20 years old, the oldest more than 30 years, yet I have not observed that a single clone has found its way into the general lists of hardy hybrids offered by nurserymen.
One day in 1934, Mr. Dexter led me to the top of a low hill at Sandwich, Mass., from which large fields sloped gently down in three directions. "These," he said, waving his arm over the first field, "are fortunei hybrids." I looked at the acres of them. Then the second field. "These are discolor hybrids." And the third. "These are decorum hybrids."
I thought of my own puny efforts, a few little beds of plants similar in breeding, and felt humbled. With hybrids being grown on such a grand scale, it looked as if the rhododendron of the century would surely be found among these, perhaps a truly hardy 'Pink Pearl', but better than 'Pink Pearl', a variety to capture the imagination of every gardener, to appear as a feature in all the big flower shows.
We talked about parentage, discussed lines of breeding, on many of which we seemed almost entirely in agreement. A couple of years earlier, the death of E. H. Wilson, on whom he had depended for advice and seeds (rather than on others who more recently claimed to have had his confidence), had left Mr. Dexter disheartened, at a loss what to do. But at that time I had persuaded him to join the Rhododendron Association of England. Now, encouraged by new contacts, he was forging ahead with renewed enthusiasm, to what looked like inevitable success.
At the time of his death, Mr. Dexter had made no provision for any continuation of his breeding projects, had not even arranged for the disposal of those acres of hybrids on the hill. His heirs, not interested in rhododendrons, took the most direct way of converting the plants into money. Much was written about Dexter hybrids, exciting the imagination of the gardening public, who paid fancy prices for anything bearing the Dexter name, even for second-generation seedlings from inferior plants.
Some of the Dexter hybrids I have seen make a fine show of bloom, with large florets derived mainly from the best members of the Fortunei Series, and mostly in pinks and whites. But what about hardiness? Virtually all of them had been planted in mild climates near the sea, and there was no knowing what would happen to them if removed inland. Even if tested for hardiness, who was to select that one finest plant of all, and distribute it among the nurseries? A superior artistic eye and keen judgment were called for. Mr. Dexter had made no provision for anyone to judge his plants.
Finally, in 1950 I think it was, a self appointed committee of distinguished rhododendron experts toured the Dexter country, to try to accomplish these necessary tasks which Mr. Dexter, had he lived, would certainly have tried himself to do for his hybrids. Yet now, six years later, there is still no word of decision, no rhododendron of the century. Perhaps it will come in time - perhaps never. In any case living breeders should learn a lesson from the long delay.
The name "Dexter hybrid" does not mean to the public what it meant a dozen years ago. Of the many thousands of plants to which it applies, the great majority are trash and are often seen, while the few fine ones have found their way mostly into private collections where the public does not view them.
The name Dexter is being inevitably deflated from its former connotation of something very fine, to suggest now instead an ordinary or perhaps inferior rhododendron. How would Mr. Dexter have liked that? How will you, Mr. Living Breeder, like what will happen to your name if you do not make better provision for the future of your rhododendrons than Mr. Dexter made for his?
The breeding of rhododendrons takes an incredibly long time. For best results it should be carried on as a family project, passed from father to son to grandson to great grandson, as the Waterers did. A lifetime is not long enough even to collect all the parents needed for full-scale breeding. Even after the lucky consummate cross is made, thirty years, according to Frederick Street, are needed to bring a chosen plant to commercial success. How then can any breeder hope to complete any such task within his own lifetime?
Most of us start without any particular plan, and pursue the work for our own amusement, envisioning the possibility that the one superb plant in a hundred million may arrive, not as the hundred millionth, but as the first or second. It is unquestionably possible. Then when we have filled our acreage with likely and unlikely things, we begin to wonder what to do with them.
Eventually we learn that to create is only one half the task. The other and harder half is to destroy. As soon as a plant shows that it will never become a truly magnificent specimen, it should be killed. If this can be done while it still occupies only a few square inches of space, so much the better. If because it shows promise, it is carried along until it fills a square yard, it will eat up the breeder's space and substance, and in the end be thrown out anyway.
No matter how carefully the destruction is carried on, there will still be present at all times, including the day of the breeder's death, a host of almost good plants awaiting the final decision. And so it was with Dexter. The more plants there are surviving the breeder, the more certain they are to becloud his reputation. What he should provide for in his will is not so much an executor as an executioner, someone to kill the worthless plants his indulgent heart has spared.
Perhaps breeders who live near each other could league together in local committees within the framework of the A.R.S. Each might provide in his will for the committee to take over his plants after his death, and decide which to keep, which to sell and which to destroy. Just how such committees should be organized, I would not like to say without giving the matter a great deal of thought. I should like to ask the Dexter committee, as individuals,- to draw up recommendations out of their experience.
And now a word about the selling of unworthy rhododendrons. The reputation of a man who sells plants is in the long run about as good as the plants he sells. A breeder ought surely to aspire to a reputation as good as that of the man who breeds nothing himself, but sells outstandingly successful varieties such as 'Boule de Neige', 'Mrs. C. S. Sargent' and 'Atrosanguineum', which, for all the abuse lately heaped upon them, are not only hardy and adaptable, but magnificent ornamentals. The breeder's rejected plants are far below these established hybrids in nearly every quality. If he sells these inferior rejects, every plant sold will lower his reputation. The public does not understand the ins and outs of breeding. One gardener simply says to another, "I bought this from John Jones the breeder." If it is a beautiful plant, the reputation of Jones goes up. If it is mediocre or just trash, the reputation of Jones goes down accordingly. And let me state that the merit of the plant is nearly always several points below the breeder's evaluation, because he sees it through gilded spectacles.
Furthermore such sales are usually at bargain prices, hardly enough to pay for the soil that goes with the plant. A nurseryman's problem is to replace the soil he sells. Part of the price of a good plant must be earmarked to buy the equivalent topsoil or peat. If then he unloads his trash at bargain prices, he is selling his reputation for next to nothing-hardly good business.
Of course if another breeder wants a cross between two unusual species in order to carry out some special project, or if a collector wants a relatively unattractive species to fill out his collection, the breeder can sell these without compunction. The species and the primary hybrid between two species are works of nature for which the man who raises them is not responsible, provided the buyer understands. For a more complex hybrid the credit or discredit belongs to the breeder.
Even those myriad plants which are "almost as good as Roseum Elegans" should not be sold to the public at any price. If the breeder has no standards, nobody will have them, and the public will gradually turn away from Rhododendrons which do not please.
What of the breeder who names and propagates clones by the hundred? He will fall victim to his own folly. If it takes thirty years to establish a good named variety in the trade, think of the time and money that must go into such an enterprise. An inferior variety will consume just as much effort and expense, but will never become established. So the breeder will have wasted all he puts into it.
Before a variety is offered for sale, it should be considered from every angle. Is it hardy in the locality? Is it markedly different from any variety already established or conspicuously better than any variety it resembles? Is it easy to propagate? But most of all-is it a superb garden ornament? If it is not all of these it has no future.
A breeder should not trust his own estimate of quality, an opinion too likely to be prejudiced. Instead he should listen carefully to the reactions of average gardeners, for unless the rank and file of the gardening public like a plant, it will never justify the effort put into propagating and distributing it.
When a rhododendron about which I am trying to form an opinion comes into bloom, I show it without much explanation to everyone who enters the nursery, observing carefully each reaction. If the prevailing comment is a perfunctory "Yes, an interesting plant," I drop it from consideration. Unless at least a few say, "Where did you get this beautiful thing? How soon can I have one like it?" I am not hopeful for its future.
There is of course a kind of superior quality which is not appreciated by the majority, or not at first sight, but which in time is supposed to "grow on" the beholder. A reasonably good education in the principles of esthetics will enable the breeder to perceive this esoteric beauty, and he may, if he so desires, set aside a group of such plants for his own enjoyment, but there is no use propagating them, for they will not pay their way. The truly, worthy rhododendron appeals to everybody, to the man in the garden, the man in the street, and the man in the clouds. That is the plant I want.