A Small Miracle
Gordon Emerson, Sec., Great Lakes Chapter
In February of 1966 1 wrote to Charles Puddle, director of Bodnant Gardens, North Wales, asking for pollen of Rhododendron 'Clotted Cream,' a complex caucasicum-auriculatum hybrid which does not seem to be in general commerce, but which would seem to hold considerable potential towards breeding of large flowered, hardy yellow hybrids which might be expected to bloom during the peak season in the Eastern U.S.
Very shortly an airmail letter arrived from Mr. Puddle in which he said he was sending, under separate cover, a scion of 'Clotted Cream.' And in a day or two the scion arrived.
What should I do with it? Should I ask a nurseryman friend to tuck it in a propagating bench? Should I try grafting it?
In March most Ohio propagating houses are in turmoil, with rooted cuttings being flatted or potted up, and general conditions being oriented toward pushing seedling growth. Not a good time to stick a fresh cutting.
But what to graft it on?
The only things available were some rather spindly three-year-old seedlings of R. ponticum which had wintered in an unheated plastic greenhouse and some R. maximum seedlings which wintered in the open. Both were entirely dormant. I decided on the R. ponticum since it could be expected to break dormancy earlier.
The strongest plant was selected and potted and given one day to thoroughly thaw (there were ice crystals among the roots) and then set in a sink until the pot and root ball were saturated. The top was lopped off, the R. ponticum slotted, the scion of 'Clotted Cream' sharpened, inserted and tied in place with soft string-all as in the style of green-grafting rather than dormant grafting. The wound was then wrapped with plastic electricians' tape and a piece of moistened sphagnum moss tied about it; and plant, pot and all slipped into a plastic bag and set beside a window just out of the direct sunlight.
I had no hope for success. In fact, from the moment I potted the under stock I was only going through the motions, so to speak. I owed it to Mr. Puddle to at least try to make use of the scion.
About three weeks after making the graft I opened the plastic bag, peeled back the moss and lo, and behold, there was heavy white callus bulging from both the top and bottom of the plastic tape. I peeled the tape, removed the strings which were already cutting into the swollen bark, and replaced the plastic tape and moss.
In less than two weeks a flush of growth had been made and I was airing the plant.
Having to keep the plant in the house under low humidity conditions several more weeks (until the threat of freezing was completely past) resulted in some damage to the leaves, and the mid-summer heat in the plastic greenhouse caused more damage, so that the plant was a pretty sorry sight. Had Mr. Puddle happened by, I think I would have told him the graft didn't take.
About mid-August what I assumed was the signal for a second flush of growth occurred. The bud swelled and swelled.
"Doesn't that look like a flower bud?" I asked a nurseryman friend, pointing to the gooseberry-sized bulge.
He looked closely, and then laughed. It was just a deformed vegetative bud, he said.
I didn't take another close look until late fall. By then the bud's character was definitely established. It was a flower bud of sufficient size to contain perhaps four or five flowers.
If the winter was half way decent I could expect not only to have pollen but to use the little plant as a seed parent. And as it happened it was a mild winter and the bud came through undamaged.