Species Vs. Hybrids
Hadley Osborn, El Cerrito, CA
An extract from California Chapter News Letter
What a boring argument! Rhododendron hybridizing is only in its infancy and most hybrids still differ little from the species from which they were derived. Thus, if you are put off by the lax trusses, fastidious feet, and uncertain digestion of some of the dwarf Thomsonii and Neriiflorum species, you had better also avoid some of the hybrids derived from them, and if the fragrant, white flowers of the Maddenii hybrids bore you, you'll probably also be unenthusiastic about the species from which they were derived.
A man who won't have a hybrid in his garden is clearly moved more by geographic and scientific (or perhaps pseudo-scientific) considerations than by ornamental ones. He also overvalues the purity of the species. There is ample evidence that they have not been nearly as chaste in the wild as he supposes, but tend to get very friendly indeed with one another when the opportunity arises. Occasional "best" forms of species as well as several reputed species themselves are doubtless first or second generation hybrids.
As for hybrids: They are always easier to grow and bloom and have larger flowers and showier trusses, according to their advocates-who thereby reveal a fund of ignorance. As it happens, one form of R. lanigerum produces 50 flowers to the truss. I've yet to meet a hybrid with that many, and the most spectacular individual truss I've ever seen was on the species R. macabeanum Of course it was yellow, which is not my favorite color in rhododendrons, but none of the big. pink-to-white hybrids could hold a candle to it, to say nothing of 'Crest' (which, by the way, is more difficult to grow well in this area). And speaking of hard to grow plants. more than one gardener in the Bay Area who neglected to provide suitable soil, drainage, or exposure for his rhododendrons has watched even his foolproof 'Pink Pearl', 'Alice', or 'Antoon van Welie' dwindle while a stray Maddenii species continued to thrive.
Then, the record for flower size is still held by some Megacalyx Subseries species and the vireya R. leucogigas. While when it come to blooming readily, R. keiskei, R. ciliatum, and a number of Lapponicum species will bloom at 20 months or less from seed and flower in their first year from cuttings, a record not regularly challenged by the hybrid Loderi's or Naomi's.
But the whole argument is absurd. When R. pallescens was first described as a species, it was noted that it might actually be a hybrid of R. racemosum and R. davidsonianum. Later, when 'Pallescens' was officially described as surely such a hybrid, I didn't notice plants of it suddenly becoming showier or easier to grow. Or, when it was decided that the species described as R. chasmanthum was actually just a variety of R. augustinii, the "hybrid" between these plants, 'Electra', didn't suddenly become more pure and tasteful, even though it thus also became but a form of a species.
In short, the distinction between species and hybrids is frequently imprecise. Whatever we call them, the best of both are beautiful plants.