A Defense of Rhododendron catawbiense
By G. G. Nearing
Fig. 33 Guy Nearing being congratulated on receiving the Gold Medal of the
American Rhododendron Society. Left to right. Harold Epstein, John Wister,
Guy Nearing, Dr. Clement G. Bowers, Joseph Gable, Paul Vossburg.
We know from the records of that period, that a century ago the name Rhododendron catawbiense conveyed a suggestion of something very fine. If we did not know it, the existence of three names applied to still popular hybrids - 'Catawbiense Album', 'Catawbiense Grandiflorum' and 'Catawbiense Boursault' - would confirm the fact. None of the three is a form of the species. All are hybrids, though to be sure R. catawbiense must have played an important part in their parentage, as it did in nearly all the older hardy varieties. But plainly the named considered that the word catawbiense would help to sell his plants.
Today the once exalted name is usually accompanied by slurring remarks. Such is fame. The Catawba Rhododendron is not one iota less beautiful or less serviceable in breeding than it was a hundred years ago. At that time it had to compete with R. arboreum, griffithianum, thomsonii, barbatum, grande, dalhousiae, nuttallii, campylocarpum, and other species which for magnificence have hardly been excelled by more recent introductions. Yet it held a high place in popular esteem.
The fact is, writers like to create fashions, so play up what is new by disparaging what is old. They have hacked away at the name catawbiense for so many generations that at last it has tottered from its pedestal. Let us consider impartially to see whether its fate is deserved.
Naturally among the millions of wild plants belonging to this species, some are better than others. The plant habit ranges from straggling and leggy to densely compact. Flower color may be almost any shade of pinkish purple or purplish pink, but varies to a fairly pure red, a rather good lavender, and rarely pure white. No doubt there are also pure pinks. Visitors to the south claim that the color there is much superior to what they have seen in the north, but this may be due to some optical aberration traceable to a difference in surroundings.
It must be agreed however that mostly the shade is a bad one for general gardening, a "rosy purple" which most writers miscall magenta. Magenta is "a rich and somewhat glaring red pigment" according to my dictionary. Like most bright reds it has a tendency to clash with other reds, and this clashing tendency is the only trait it has in common with the shade which is popularly termed magenta. Since the discovery of this magenta red in 1859 it has enjoyed great popularity for women's clothing. I once heard a woman raving against the color magenta, and hadn't the heart to tell her she was wearing a magenta dress. After all, the color she thought she was naming is not a good one. It is the dominant shade in the genus Rhododendron, and in a great many other races of flowers.
R. catawbiense has a shapely leaf, usually a good shade of green, though tending toward yellowish when in full sun, and its flowers, whatever the tint, are borne in a truss of fine form, well above the foliage-the model for those old hybrids of Anthony Waterer and other breeders of a bygone century. New growth does not commonly start until after the flowers have faded, and these do not fade until at least ten days after opening. Nor do they open until danger of frost is remote.
Such qualities are all high virtues -all except the prevailing shade of purplish pink. But the highest virtue of all is hardiness. A night of thirty degrees below zero does not injure the plant and seldom kills its flower buds. There is no comparable rhododendron species of equal hardiness, not even R. maximum with its barrel of faults. Evidently the early breeders felt that if they could give R. catawbiense a better color, while retaining all its other qualities, they would have the ideal garden ornament. And so the older and better varieties are rightly called Catawbiense Hybrids.
Other races of hybrids are desirable also, but they face a high standard of beauty set by the Catawbiense Hybrids, and many of the most highly touted do not live up to it, even though their originators try desperately to force them down the throat of an unwilling public. And no other race can match this one in hardiness. But hardy though they are, even the Catawbiense Hybrids are excelled in this respect by R. catawbiense itself. For the coldest gardens where Rhododendrons can be grown at all, forms of the species should prove more resistant than even the hardiest of the hybrids. If only their color could be amended!
Looking through my files the other day, I came across a letter from Powell Glass of Lynchburg, Virginia, dated May 23, 1833. Of course he meant 1933, but his typing finger slipped, to make his words seem even more historic than they really are. He said in part:
"Have you ever seen, or do you know anything concerning, a white blooming catawbiense which is a sport and not a hybrid? Just a week ago I went for a walk in the Blue Ridge Mountains and on a small trout stream I try to fish each year found in a thicket of ordinary catawbiense one plant about eight feet tall and with a number of stems which had a pure white bloom."
The rest of the story is fairly well known. Mr. Glass eventually located more than one white catawbiense, moved them to his own garden, and sent seeds to his friends-among them Joseph B. Gable and myself. Gable's selection is now named 'Catalgla' (Catawbiense album Glass), and mine, which came from Gable, 'Catanea'. Both are evidently forms of the species without hybrid mixture and should pass the thirty below zero test. Independently Mr. Harmon of La Bar Nurseries has selected a white form from a different area, and it has been given the name 'Catalhar,' according to David G. Leach.
The reason for assigning these names is to save the gardening public from serious misunderstanding. Seedlings of 'Catalgla' have been widely distributed, but have not retained the white color, reverting in most cases to lavender. Any plant offered as white catawbiense is therefore under suspicion, and Gable has stopped the sale of these seedlings as far as he was able. But plants propagated vegetatively from one of the three clones are sure to be white. I have rooted cuttings of 'Catalgla' and 'Catanea', and I suppose the same has been done for 'Catalhar', so that these white forms of R. catawbiense can soon be made available for planting in cold northern gardens. After observing 'Catanea' for six years, I feel that its merits are only a shade under those of 'Catawbiense Album,' which is probably our best white hardy hybrid.
Comparing the three white clones is difficult, because I have not seen 'Catalhar.' Leach writes, "Catalhar is quite superior in foliage and habit, but I believe that 'Catalgla' is superior in flower to any album forms I have seen. I would like to see yours." 'Catanea' is also better in foliage and habit than 'Catalgla,' and nearly equal to it in the flower. I often show a Kodachrome slide of one truss of 'Catanea' which measures just six inches wide and six inches high, larger than most hardy hybrids. There is a lavender tint in the bud, but as soon as open, the flower turns pure white except the anthers, and a rather faint yellowish central blotch. Not all the clusters are so large, but all are shapely domes in the best rhododendron tradition.
It is possible that seedlings of either 'Catanea' or 'Catalhar' might, unlike 'Catalgla,' retain the white flower. I have small seedlings of 'Catanea' crossed with 'Catalhar,' and it will be interesting to see how they fare, but the results are years away, while propagation of 'Catanea' is already well under way.
Gable's red catawbiense is about the shade of 'Parson's Grandiflorum', not a pure, bright red, but a rather dull, somewhat muddy shade. Still, anyone seeing it will agree that it is red, not rose or pink or purple. If only it made the vigorous, shapely growth of 'Catanea', I would propagate it also from cuttings, but it looks a little sickly, with few leaves, and of a dull, yellowish green. Perhaps part of its failing is due to the fact that it is grafted on maximum, but a much smaller plant that was cutting-propagated does not look well either. Its chief value is for crossing with tender red hybrids, for it is fully hardy. But for red in landscape planting, we must still depend on the hardiest of our older red hybrids.
The hybrid 'Catawbiense Album' is of course misnamed, because the words are in botanical form, and seem to indicate that it is a natural variety of R. catawbiense, which is not the case.
But to try to take away from a plant a title under which it has been known for a century, would be a ridiculous mistake, adding more confusion instead of clearing up the muddle. It is certainly one of the best and hardiest of the catawbiense hybrids. The bush is shapely, though somewhat large, the leaves with fine form and an excellent shade of green, and seldom attacked by insects or fungi. It takes a year longer to start flowering than do most hybrids, but having reached a good size, blooms heavily every year. I do not remember exactly what temperatures it has endured, but the plant was not injured at 25 below zero, though I believe it may lose buds at about 20 below. My largest plants are grafts which at some time before I bought them, suffered from bark-split, but this, no doubt, was due to the use of fertilizers. No rhododendron is fully and dependably hardy here in the north if fertilized.
'Catawbiense Grandiflorum,' another misnamed hybrid, is one of the best lavenders, a good shade, not to be confused with the objectionable rosy purple of the species. Its hardiness does not compare with 'Catawbiense Album,' though satisfactory for the general region of northern New Jersey, southern New York and Connecticut. Its foliage, clean and smooth, tends to a deeper green than the average hardy hybrid, and in growth habit it resembles Roseum Elegans.
'Catawbiense Boursault' is not hardy and should not be included in the ironclads.
The actual parentage of these and other old hybrids can only be conjectured. It is hard to see in those mentioned and in 'Roseum Elegans' any influence except R. catawbiense and R. ponticum. The same is true of 'Purpureum Elegans' and 'Purpureum grandiflorum,' but here the ponticum is more evident. 'Boule de Neige' and 'Everestianum' seem to inherit the frilled margin of the corolla from R. caucasicum, but are nevertheless predominantly catawbiense, while the complex of hybrids commonly called 'Cunningham's White' derives much more from caucasicum and is less hardy. 'Mrs. C. S. Sargent' seems to combine some of the best features of catawbiense and fortunei, but may also have a certain admixture of ponticum.
The ancestry of most of the older reds is puzzling, but I should guess 'Chas. Bagley' to be mostly catawbiense and arboreum. 'Charles Dickens' shows strong evidence of catawbiense and thomsonii, as do 'Kettledrum' and 'Astrosanguineum,' for the flower in these has a suggestion of nectar pouches at the base. But characteristics of arboreum are evident also, particularly in the leaf of 'Atrosanguineum.' The dark wine-red 'F. D. Godman,' and the somewhat more purple 'Old Port' are even more enigmatic but less hardy.
One of our best and hardiest hybrids, though not red, is 'Lady Armstrong'. The leaves and growth habit resemble 'Atrosanguineum' so closely that the two varieties can hardly be distinguished until they bid. The pale pink flowers of 'Lady Armstrong', a most pleasing shade, can hardly be traced to any species except catawbiense and arboreum. 'Album Elegans' and 'Album Grandiflorum' no doubt stem from R. catawbiense also, but with a suggestion of fortunei, and no doubt a little ponticum.
New hardy hybrids can be produced by sowing the seeds of any of these hardy varieties, but the percentage of worthwhile progeny will be extremely low. Millions of such seedlings are being sold to an unsuspecting public. Some are hardy. A few are nearly as beautiful as the parents. But if one in a million is equal to the parents in hardiness and at the same time superior in quality, that is a higher average than we can expect. The possible combinations of characters among the few species here represented, have been repeated over and over until no gene is left unturned.
The ultimate parent species are catawbiense, ponticum, caucasicum, arboreum, thomsonii, maximum, campanulatum and fortunei. R. griffithianum has more recently been added to breed magnificent new hybrids, none of them hardy. It may take another half century or more before the immense fragrant flowers can be enjoyed in our northern climates. One likely method is to breed a griffithianum hybrid such as 'Loderi' with R. catawbiense itself, preferably in one of its superior forms, or with a hybrid of catawbiense. A million such seedlings would give few hardy plants, but the possibility of spectacular beauties, and sooner or later, the hardiness and beauty combined in the same plant.
Had Charles O. Dexter used some form or hybrid of catawbiense in every one of his crosses, we should certainly by now have attained this goal. For in many of his hybrids, the influence of griffithianum is strong, but in none is it supported by sufficient hardiness.
R. williamsianum is another species waiting to be proliferated into a race of hardy hybrids, yet no one to my knowledge has taken the obvious step of crossing it with catawbiense. My plants of 'Catanea' X williamsianum are still very small, and may prove sterile or slow to flower. More immediate results could come from combinations with the hardy hybrids, but so far, unhappily, these do not seem to give either hardiness or flowers in sufficient amounts to be useful. Several of us are still trying, and the example of Herr Hobbie in his milder climate is encouraging. The dense, shapely, semi-dwarf bush with hanging bells instead of trusses, and with little, almost circular leaves, intrigues all who grow it, and is so nearly hardy that it would seem certain eventually to fit into our gardening scheme for cold climates.
The yellow of campylocarpum and wardii, the scarlet of haematodes, repens, eriogynum, the fragrance of fortunei and its relatives, all are waiting to be combined into hardy races, and that combination can scarcely be hoped for until we bring catawbiense into the formula.
I am crossing 'Catanea', my best white catawbiense, with every worthy species which promises to give us an outstanding race of elepidote hybrids. Or when the color in prospect is red, I use Gable's red catawbiense. But final success from such breeding must await a second generation. For quicker results, the same species are crossed also on 'Boule de Neige', or 'Atrosanguineum' or 'Kettledrum'. Both roads lead to the same eventual goal with variations in the possible results. No matter what the course pursued, the idea is to combine new beauties with the everlasting hardiness of the toughest of all big-leaved rhododendrons, R. catawbiense (given no awards, no stars, no honors, not even any courtesies, by most of those who write on the subject.)