The Present Status of the Dexter Rhododendrons
As reported by John C. Wister at the dinner of the New York Chapter, January 22, 1958
For twenty years or more the Rhododendron world has been interested in the hybrid seedlings grown by the late Charles O. Dexter of Sandwich, Massachusetts. Much has been written about them and much more has been said about them at various meetings of the different chapters of the National Society. Many of the things that have been reported as facts are really not facts at all, but are opinions or surmises.
I will start with the only real facts. There is a place called Sandwich. There was a man named Dexter. He did cross pollinate rhododendron flowers, and he did produce seedlings in great quantities. Some thousands of these, more than ten years after his death, are still growing on the Dexter place, and other thousands have been distributed, some during his lifetime, and some since, to an unknown number of gardens.
The final fact is that no one actually knows what the crosses were, how many seedlings there were, where they now are, or how good they were or are.
Let us now leave these known facts and go on to surmises, beliefs and opinions. It is believed by some that the original plants Dexter used for breeding came originally from the Farquhar Nursery in Barnstable, Massachusetts, which had in turn received them from Robert Veitch in Exeter, England. It is reported by others that the plants came from Prof. Sargent's estate in Brookline, Massachusetts.
I incline to the first belief and to the belief that the first dozen or twenty-five plants were numbered by Mr. Dexter and used in his crossing, but as far as I know there is no exact evidence of the exact number or of what these plants actually were. The most famous of them were No. 8 and No. 9, but plants now grown under these numbers in different places do not seem to be identical and have not been positively identified as to species. They are generally believed to be fortunei, but such experts as C. G. Bowers and G. G. Nearing have questioned that. The best surmise in my opinion is that the Farquhar plants were seedlings of the species fortunei and decorum, the seed taken from plants in the Veitch Nursery where bees had had the opportunity to make hybrids by taking pollen from one species or variety to another.
It seems to be reasonably sure that in addition to the original Farquhar plants Mr. Dexter received various species from the Arnold Arboretum, and that Mr. E. H. Wilson begged or bought for Mr. Dexter rare pollens and perhaps also rare plants in England, and that therefore in addition to the hybrids of the species or of the series fortunei, there were among the ten thousand or so seedlings grown yearly for some twenty years, hybrids of many other species.
I use the term reasonably sure because the seedlings now known and grown by those who know rhododendrons give evidence of widely different parentages. Mr. Dexter indeed wrote certain parentages on certain labels or told the parentages to visitors. But, as he kept no careful written records, and it is not even known whether he emasculated the flowers of the seed parent or bagged the flowers after crossing, we again have no positive evidence of parentages.
We know that many people came to Sandwich to admire the new seedlings. We know that Mr. Dexter gave or sold plants to some special friends, but we do not know to how many people, or exactly what plants.
We do have evidence that plants were sent to such public collections as the Arnold Arboretum, the New York Botanical Garden, the Scott Foundation of Swarthmore College, the Morris Arboretum and the University of Washington Arboretum. We know that they went to the private estates of such persons as F. M. Moseley and Dr. George Clark of Newburyport, Massachusetts, Mr. Ben P. P. Moseley of Ipswich, Massachusetts, Mr. S. A. Everitt of Huntington, Long Island, Mr. Henry F. DuPont, Winterthur, Delaware, and Powell Glass of Lynchburg, Virginia. We know also that from these they went directly or through some other gardens or nurseries to such estates as those of Mr. E. J. Beinicke of Greenwich, Connecticut, Mrs. Arthur H. Scott, Wallingford, Pennsylvania, the Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina, and to such nurseries as Antonio Consolini, Sandwich, Massachusetts, H. B. Fowle, Newburyport, Massachusetts, Westbury Rose Company, Westbury, Long Island, Richard Schwoeble, Ardmore, Pennsylvania, and Paul Bosley, Mentor, Ohio, and that from some of these places additional plants or seeds were distributed.
And finally we know that when the Sandwich property passed after Mr. Dexter's death to Col. Brown, and then was resold by him about 1950, a nursery contractor in Scarsdale, New York, purchased the right to remove many of the plants, and that be dug either hundreds or thousands of these of varying sizes and distributed them far and wide, and that even after that many thousands of plants remained in their original home.
It is evident that Mr. Dexter numbered over 200 seedlings that he particularly admired, and that some of these he layered so that he could distribute them under number. Some thirty of these are known to exist today, but the authenticity of the Dexter numbering is in some doubt, because it appears that in his older years, Mr. Dexter became forgetful and sometimes used the same number for two quite different seedlings.
These generalities give a picture of the status of the Dexter hybrids as the various bits of evidence or of hearsay have been pieced together by a special voluntary and strictly unofficial committee of the American Rhododendron Society. This group, or committee, was brought together in the late 1940's by Dr. C. G. Bowers and Henry T. Skinner. The persons they invited to join them on various pilgrimages over a period of nearly ten years included Edmond Amateis, Paul Bosley, David G. Leach, Paul Vossberg, John C. Wister and Donald Wyman. Sometimes they acted as a full committee, in other years they broke up into smaller groups, but between them they visited all the collections above named and in each noted, described and labeled a half dozen to two dozen outstanding clones.
Through the cooperation and generosity of the owners, cuttings were secured of most of these clones and grown for the committee by the Westbury Rose Company. The initial costs were borne by the Scott Foundation, where the resulting plants were first grown. From Swarthmore surplus plants were distributed to the Arnold Arboretum, to Planting Fields (the former Coe Estate on Long Island), and to the National Arboretum. In the future it is planned that in each place evaluating committees should study these clones. It had been difficult to make fair comparisons of these in the different collections where they had been grown under widely differing conditions. It should be possible to make much better comparisons and to reach some final conclusions about the best dozen or two of the more than one hundred clones in the test. After that it is proposed that they be named, and that cuttings be distributed to a group of cooperating nurseries, which will propagate them in quantity and introduce them as the best of the Dexter hybrids.
This work has now been under way for nearly ten years, and it is realized that it will take another five or even ten years before this distribution can take place. In the meantime, we are faced with the situation that an untold number of thousand Dexter seedlings are already in the hands of the nurserymen or amateur growers who will propagate from them by cuttings, grafts, layers and seed, and offer plants for sale.
Such plants will be sold in good faith and bought in good faith because of the reputation of the Dexter hybrids. A few of them may be the equals of the best selected by the Committee. A few more may be almost as fine. A great many will be very good general run of the mine, mostly light pinks, fast growing, free blooming and probably fragrant. And finally of course the vast majority will be quite ordinary or have the predominating faults of the breed, namely trusses with only four or five flowers, awkward shaped trusses hidden under the fast growth of the new foliage, flowers with poor substance and of washy colors and foliage of poor color.
Those who buy these unknown and untested strains therefore are taking a chance and in general it can be said that the dice are loaded against them, and that they are apt to be disappointed when their plants mature and bloom, no matter how good the faith of the grower may have been when the plants have been sold. It is the old story that seedlings of highly complex hybrid parentage are a gamble, and that no hybridizer expects to get more than a few worthwhile new varieties out of a thousand or more seedlings.
The members of Dr. Bowers' group have no axe to grind in this matter. They have no rewards monetary or otherwise coming to them, beyond of course the satisfaction of having undertaken this interesting task and having followed it through. They want to continue the work to a point when superior new varieties are made available to discriminating gardeners.
There can be no doubt now, whatever the doubts may have been when the group first got together, that some of these hybrids have qualities of hardiness, distinctness and beauty that will make them important to the horticulture of the future of the New England and Middle States, Virginia and North Carolina. That is quite enough to begin with. Perhaps they may become important also in other places, such as Ohio. That cannot be foretold. No claim is being made that they will be important on the Pacific Coast where the many famous British varieties, which cannot be grown in most east coast areas, are so successful. Perhaps a few of the finest will in time win a place even out there. Meanwhile, there is enough to do to make them known and get them grown in our east coast gardens to supplement, not displace, the "Ironclads" and other types already so widely grown which have made rhododendron growing such a fascinating hobby and business. Let us hope that before too long many more people will get to know these fine Dexter varieties.