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Journal American Rhododendron Society

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Volume 22, Number 3
July 1968

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Collecting Rhododendrons in New Guinea
Maurice H. Sumner, San Francisco, Calif.

        Someone has said that when God created the world, He had a lot of mountains and rivers left over and he dumped them all in a great pile which we now know as New Guinea. It is indeed a land of rugged mountains and muddy rivers. One third of all the rhododendron species in the world are to be found in New Guinea and the surrounding Malesian* area.


* More commonly spelled Malaysian in the U.S. The name Malesian was given to this group of species by Sleumer.


        Of the known 288 Malesian species less than 40 have ever been brought into cultivation and grown in Europe or the United States and most of these within the last 15 years. This would appear to be the last frontier for rhododendron collectors.
        Why hasn't this vast group of rhododendron species been introduced into cultivation? The answer lies partly in the history of New Guinea. It was one of the last areas in the world to be acquired by European nations as colonies. The Western half was finally taken by the Dutch and the Eastern half was divided between Germany and Australia. In the 1919 peace treaty ending the first world war, Germany's portion was transferred to Australia to administer under the auspices of the League of Nations.
        German botanists during the early years of this century explored and identified many rhododendron species and sent herbarium material to Berlin where it was destroyed during the second world war. There is no record of any New Guinea rhododendrons being introduced into cultivation during the period that Germany controlled a portion of New Guinea (1885-1919).
        This was undoubtedly due in part to the difficulty of transportation by slow ships through the tropics.
        English collectors on the other hand did find and introduce some seven Malesian species beginning about the middle of the nineteenth century. These included R. jasminiflorum with white flowers, R. javanicum with orange flowers, R. brookianum with yellow flowers, R. malayanum with bright red flowers and R. multicolor with cream, yellow and red flowers. These were discovered and brought into cultivation by such collectors as Thomas Lobb and Frederick Burbridge sent out by Veitch's Nursery in Exeter, England. Great interest was shown in these new rhododendrons. Veitch began an extensive hybridizing program within the Malesian group with the result that his catalogue in 1890 listed 200 named hybrids of Malesian rhododendrons. To demonstrate their ever-blooming characteristics, he displayed a tray of blooms of these new rhododendrons at every fortnightly meeting of the Royal Horticultural Society for the entire year of 1897. It must be noted, however, that not one of the species used in these crosses came from New Guinea and only seven of the 288 species now known were involved.
        I have not been able to find any record of any rhododendrons from New Guinea ever being introduced into cultivation except those few species brought in within the past fifteen years.
        As Americans we know almost nothing about New Guinea. Ask the average person where New Guinea is located and he is as likely as not to place it in Africa or South America. Yet it is the largest island in the world except Greenland. The equator runs right through its center and the jungles along its tropical coast are the densest in the world. But it also has high mountain ranges. One of them towers 17,000 feet above sea level and is covered with snow the year around. It was only discovered fifty years ago and has been climbed only once by a white man and that as recently as 1961.
        The world first became aware of New Guinea when the Japanese captured the entire island except a small area around Port Moresby and began to actually stage bombing raids on the Australian mainland. I remember reading a newspaper account of some American airmen forced down in the highlands of New Guinea. They reported finding a race of people living in the stone age, 50,000 years behind the rest of the world. They were living on a high plateau surrounded by nearly inaccessible mountains and had never before seen white men. We landed by plane on this plateau and found a town built there since the war where now some 2,000 Australians are living. Just a few miles away the natives still exist in conditions not far removed from the stone age. We will show a few pictures of this region which we took from a helicopter. They have no metals for tools, no means of transportation-not even carts or wheelbarrows-no cows, horses, goats, or sheep, in fact, no domestic animals except some half wild pigs. Ninety per cent of their food consists of yams. There are seven hundred and eighty five tribes and, even hundred and eighty-five separate languages. One tribe cannot even communicate with the one over the hill. While we were in Mt. Hagan, a tribal war broke out just thirty miles away and eight natives were reported killed. Ten years ago a native would carry a forty pound pack all day and accept two tablespoons of salt as pay. Even in 1961 when the ascent of Mt. Carstenz was being made, the native carriers in this interior section of New Guinea were content to be paid in sea shells. Even today the wages paid the natives on the coffee plantations are only $3.00 a month.
        Our interest in New Guinea rhododendrons was first stimulated by hearing of the experiences of Dr. Sleumer, a botanist from the Netherlands. He carried on extensive collecting in New Guinea over a two year period in 1960-61.
        The California Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society subscribed to his expedition as did some of the individual members. As a result we received from him a quantity of seed and on his return through San Francisco some of our members had the opportunity to meet him. A brief report of his exploration and search for rhododendrons in New Guinea and other Malesian territories is found in Flora Malesiana Ser. 1, Vol. 6, part 4. In addition to seed some live material was given to Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco. This included a cutting of R. leucogigas undoubtedly the most spectacular plant found by him. We will show a picture of it later as it bloomed for the first time in the United States this past January.

R. aurigeranum
     Fig. 35.  R. aurigeranum near Wau,
     New Guinea.
     Photo Maurice Sumner

        As a result of growing some seed obtained from Dr. Sleumer, we learned a little about these species. We learned, for example, that the New Guinea rhododendrons tend to bloom continuously throughout the year though they do bloom more freely in some months than in others. We knew that all but four species are lepidote. We found that the seed pods are entirely different from those of species from Asia, Europe or America. The seed pods on Malesian rhododendrons are greatly elongated and have a tail or appendage at one end. The first seed pod we found in New Guinea on R. aurigeranum was as long as my index finger and contained nearly enough seed to cover the State of Oregon with rhododendron plants. The seed pods that are now ripening on R. leucogigas in Strybing Arboretum are nine inches long by actual measurement and still growing. We know that the seed is reported to lose its viability rather quickly, but more experience is necessary before we can be sure that this statement is universally true.
        We do know that cuttings from these plants generally strike very readily. In fact we had an unbelievable experience in this connection in New Guinea. A native boy had climbed a mountain and brought back an armful of rhododendron branches about five feet long. We carried these around in the back of an open truck all day long and the next day they were planted by simply poking these five foot un-rooted branches into the ground. They were not even watered. The Botanist with our party assured us that ninety per cent of them would root and grow.
        One of the first questions that needs to be answered is how hardy are these plants? With only forty species in cultivation out of two hundred and eighty-eight, no one can give a positive answer. They have been growing out of doors in Strybing Arboretum and in some private gardens in San Francisco for the past three winters with no damage. Some of them come from elevations as high as 11,000 feet in New Guinea, above the timber line. Many more will have to be collected and brought into cultivation before anyone can accurately appraise their hardiness.
        Another important question is whether or not it will be possible to breed the deep golden yellow color found in the New Guinea species into the hardy, large truss Asiatic species. Again far too little is known about them to give any definitive answer. Some crosses have been attempted both in Australia and California, but it is too early to say whether or not the few seeds produced are the result of a true cross. Hortus Veitchii reports that two successful crosses were made after many trials. The International Rhododendron Register lists at least two others. If these are in fact true crosses between Asiatic and Malesian species, an exciting new field awaits the attention of the hybridists.
        When Mrs. Sumner and I decided to go to New Guinea to see whether or not two amateurs could find any rhododendrons growing in their natural habitat, we had no idea where to start. We had no contact there so we wrote to the Australian Forestry Department asking for any suggestions they might make as to where rhododendrons might be found and what means of transportation were available. We had received no reply up to the time we were scheduled to leave San Francisco, but we learned later that our letter had been referred to the Lae Botanical Gardens in New Guinea.
        Our travel agent told us that New Guinea was no place for tourists. He said that living accommodations were primitive, malaria and tropical disease were a risk, the weather was hot and snakes and insects were a danger. Nevertheless we packed a small case with drugs and water purifiers and another suitcase with food not knowing what to expect. All of these precautions were later proved to be unnecessary. Living accommodations were better than expected. It was safe to drink the water as it rains nearly every night and rain water is collected for drinking purposes. Nearly all the food is brought in by air from Sidney 3,000 miles away. This includes fresh milk, ice cream, butter, meat, nearly everything except vegetables. Even cement, nails, roofing, clothing, almost all necessities are flown in by air from Australia.
        We first landed at Port Moresby, a hot tropical sea-coast town and the point where the Australians and Americans first met the Japanese army and began the painful drive back over the Owen Stanley Mountains. Two days later we flew over those mountains to the northern side of the island and arrived in Lae. As we descended from the plane a lady approached and asked if we were Mr. and Mrs. Sumner. This reception was totally unexpected. She was Mrs. Andree Millar, technical assistant to the director of the Lae Botanical Gardens. Without her help, I doubt if we would have ever seen a rhododendron growing in New Guinea. Mr. John Womersley, the Director of the Botanical Gardens and Mrs. Millar had both accompanied Dr. Sleumer on his collecting expedition in this part of New Guinea. She informed us that she had made all arrangements to take us on a three day field trip starting the next morning. A Land Rover was supplied together with a native driver, a native boy to cut trails through the dense undergrowth in some areas as well as two other botanists who greatly helped in the search. Later the Botanical Gardens even furnished us with a helicopter to take us into a part of the highlands which could not be reached by road.
        I would now like to show a few pictures beginning with the tropical area along the coast, including some of the Botanical Gardens at Lae, then the field trip to Bulolo, Wau and Eddie Creek where we found most of the rhododendrons, then by air to the highlands where the natives live much more primitively and finally the trip from Mt. Hagen to the Bayir River and the end of the road where we found a hillside covered with R. macgregoriae. I would then like to conclude with some pictures of a few of these species growing in Australia and in San Francisco.

        The presentation at the Annual Meeting was based on slides showing the nature of the country and a number of the species in flower. - Ed.


Volume 22, Number 3
July 1968

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