Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot: The Century Club
Hadley Osborn, El Cerrito, Cal.
An extract from California Chapter News Letter
A few rhododendron hybrids are now more than a hundred years old, having been introduced in the 1860's. Much of the energy of plant societies is rightly spent in sorting out and rating new varieties for the guidance of members, but my heart is increasingly drawn to a few plants that have somehow survived the vagaries of human taste, disruption of wars, etc., and continued to give pleasure when well past their 100th birthday. Here are three charter members of the Century Club:
'CYNTHIA' - The rosy crimson color of this R. catawbiense hybrid has not been fashionable for years, but its truss when at its best can attain majestic perfection. The Portland Test Garden contains many of the finest rhododendrons, but the favorite plant of many remain the two grand old trees of 'Cynthia'. This is still in the nursery trade, and there are plants in Golden Gate Park. When I took my parents there during a visit in May they were polite when I pointed out more fashionable beauties, but they really only had eyes for the old dowager and it became their favorite rhododendron. Even if you don't grow 'Cynthia', there is a good chance that you grow some of her offspring. 'Countess of Derby' (often known around here as 'Eureka Maid') boasts 'Cynthia' as one parent; and 'Trude Webster', which recently won as best new hybrid in a Eugene show, is 'Countess of Derby' selfed. 'Cynthia' is currently rated 3/3. It's easy and vigorous, likes growing room, and is reported resistant to pests.
'ROSA MUNDI' - More than two hundred years ago Dr. Sam Johnson wrote: "Nothing can have pleased many and have pleased long that is without some (kind) of merit." Actually, he wrote "without some species of merit," - but I don't want to get into that again! 'Rosa Mundi' must have a lot of merit. This old R. caucasicum hybrid was already being recommended for reliability in the 1870's but has never been highly rated, yet the literature is littered with letters from angry gardeners who love it. I'm delighted when visitors repeatedly mistake my young plant for one of the currently fashionable yakushimanum hybrids. It has many characteristics of a yakushimanum hybrid. Its leaves are dark green and slightly recurved, and it retains them for several years, making a dense, low shrub. Its flowers are also pink in bud, eventually fading to white, and they are also fairly small and are held in a small, tight truss. Unlike the flowers of many yakushimanum hybrid seedlings, though, they have good substance and open very early in the year when they are most appreciated and when the cool weather helps them last.
'FRAGRANTISSIMUM' - This one received its F.C.C. one hundred and two years ago. Its currently rated 1/3, and when I suggested in public that the rating for habit was perhaps high I knew there'd be an explosion - and there was! If you tell a 'Fragrantissimum' fan that the plant has a lousy habit, you've made an enemy, particularly if the fan is from a hot weather area where its practically indestructible foliage is valued. They point out that if you prune it faithfully you can more or less con it into looking like a shrub for a few years and that the plant takes much more exposure than most rhododendrons. True, but if you grow it in full sun, the flowers have to be lucky in the weather if they are going to last very long. But 'Fragrantissimum' was one of the first three rhododendrons I ever bought and I wouldn't be without it. Its flowers are still as fragrant and, at their best, as large as any others of its type. The old rascal propagates like a weed, I've never heard of one dying, and I still wonder why someone doesn't try grafting some of the more difficult-to-grow lepidotes onto its enduring foundation.