Bosley - Dexter Rhododendrons
by Richard W. Bosley
Plant Systems, Mentor, Ohio
For many years I have felt that there was an interesting story of the Dexter rhododendrons that had not been recorded and so I prevailed upon my parents to recall their impressions of Mr. Dexter and the plants that they collected from him. Both of my parents have worked very closely in the nursery business and I am grateful to them for the following remarks.
Mr. Paul R. Bosley Sr., my father, has been growing hybrid rhododendrons in Mentor, Ohio, for almost forty years and this is what he had to say about Mr. Dexter:
"Many years ago I had heard about Charles O. Dexter, and had on occasion written to him and always had cordial replies. In the early days of the Model A Ford we made our first trip to see Mr. Dexter at Sandwich, Massachusetts. Sandwich is definitely affected by the Atlantic Gulf Stream and the weather during the winter was so mild that sometimes only a skirt of ice would form on their fresh water ponds and seldom would they have ice thick enough to skate upon. As one came off the road from the village there was a slight downward grade as you passed the big barn on the right and came toward the house nestled among the pine trees and the big lake just beyond. They lived in a charming true Cape Cod house, part of which had a deed or sales agreement which dated twenty years after the Pilgrims landed at nearby Plymouth. As with all true Cape Cod houses they were covered with hand-split shingles and were an unpainted silver gray color. The shingles were so eroded by the wind and sand that the harder, small knots stood out a quarter of an inch.
Mr. Dexter was a tall man, perhaps six foot two with a large angular frame. He had deep set eyes and heavy grey eyebrows with hair to match. He was an easy man to meet and a most gracious host. He was a true Yankee businessman and president of the Beacon Manufacturing Company, which made Beacon Blankets. Years later Mrs. Dexter said that the keen interest that Charles Dexter had in plants and in rhododendrons surely extended his life for at least four or five years.
When I first saw the Dexter estate, he already had a very impressive collection of hybrids which he had grown and were now at a blooming stage. He was working with Rhododendron fortunei and had gotten his original plants a number of years before from a local nursery. Mr. Dexter's grandest and most impressive plant - was his number nine. The panicles of bloom were exceptionally large and tubular shaped, much like that of a lily. The color was a very distinct but soft apricot in the throat. There were not many flowers in the panicle but that didn't matter because they were so large. The blossoms, in addition, had a very distinct and lovely fragrance which I have never known to be duplicated in any other flower, let alone the rhododendron. His other hybrids were very lovely and anybody would have been glad to have them but the number nine was king of the group.
I arranged to go to Sandwich and take cuttings of his fine varieties as he was most generous with them because he wanted people to know and appreciate them. We would graft these and after the plants were large enough, they got planted out, but in the long run none of these fine varieties were hardy enough for our climate in north eastern Ohio. He was just as disappointed as we were that these fine plants would not survive and he said, "I'm going to let you pick out of a new block back of the barn that is just coming into bloom and we will send a carload of these to Ohio." Together we picked out some of the loveliest things he had. He said these had one shot of Catawbiense blood that the others didn't have. He did not want to be bothered with boxing or shipping individual plants so we would select fifty plants at a time to make up a freight carload for shipment by rail to Mentor. They grew nicely but after the winter of '33 and '34 which was our hardest on record they were very much reduced in number so that we then had approximately thirty-five promising hybrids. Some of these were peculiar in that they would stand plenty of cold winter and be perfectly hardy through anything we had until spring came and warm days began to put them into growth when a light freeze would damage some to the point that they would be killed. The numbers began to dwindle. We now have, after thirty years, approximately ten varieties that are distinctive in many respects. All of the Dexters that we have are now being asexually reproduced. We are trying to find names for these fine rhododendrons that will express their delightful character and describe their true qualities."
The following remarks were as a result of questions I asked of my mother. Mrs. Paul R. Bosley Sr.:
Q: How did you first come to know Mr. Dexter?
A: We were told that if we wanted to see some beautiful rhododendrons that we should go to Mr. Dexter's place. He was very friendly to us from the first.
Q: Did Mr. Dexter make many crosses?
A: Mr. Dexter used to make hundreds of crosses with the Fortunei rhododendron, and he couldn't use all of them but he would plant them all out. After he had seen them bloom he would mark certain ones he wanted to keep but most of them he wanted to sell, so he was very happy to sell to us. We would try to select from these ones that would sell in Ohio. They were nicely grown plants. We would mark them when they were in bloom but they wouldn't be dug for almost a year. If there were ones that we liked specially well they would be marked, "to keep." We would buy in lots of no less than a carload. One year the bloom got frozen before they were dug, in Sandwich, and so we decided to keep the whole group a year to see what the bloom was like. We were glad we did as we found a nice lot in this bunch that we decided to keep.
Q: How many years did you visit Mr. Dexter?
A: I don't remember that but I do remember the last time Dad felt that he couldn't get away and so he wanted me to go. (This was the last time they went before Mr. Dexter died). I picked out enough for a carload and before we got through that night it was almost dark and we hated to quit but the wind started to blow hard and it started to rain. Mr. Dexter came to get me and said that he thought I should come in because the weather was getting so bad. That was when they had a tornado. The storm broke trees and tore down wires. Help had to come in from even as far as Ohio, to help restore the phone service. I had tagged the rhododendrons with descriptive tags and the storm had torn them all off. All that was left was the little eyelet, so we had to hold those for an additional year to see what they were like.
Q: You say that was the last group you got?
A: Mr. Dexter died shortly after that. We never went back again.
Q: Where did you sell these freight car loads of rhododendrons?
A: A lot of them went to the estate of Mr. Oglebay in Gates Mills near Cleveland, Ohio. I would like to go back there now and see the estate. We sold him some very nice plants. Other estates in the Cleveland area also bought many large rhododendrons and azaleas from us.
Q: How did you eventually come to select the ones that you now have numbered as Bosley-Dexter rhododendrons?
A: They were the best out of the ones we had bought over the years from Mr. Dexter. Some of them that we considered the very best weren't hardy in Mentor. There was one that looked like a tiger lily. It had a long trumpet and it was a beautiful pink. His number nine was a salmon color and was Mr. Dexter' favorite. We tried protecting it but none of them survived. I don't know if there are any in existence any more.
Q: The numbers that he had were not related to the numbers you have are they?
A: No. The ones that he liked best were just not hardy here. We never did introduce any of his selections. We introduced the seedlings that we purchased from him. He didn't propagate any of these. They were original seedlings that nobody else had.
Q: The numbers, such as 1020, are your own identification then?
Q: You say that Mr. Dexter was very hospitable to you?
A: Yes, they would always have us for at least one dinner while we were there. They had a typical Cape Cod house with grey shingles and Wisteria growing all over the front of the house.
Q: Were there other nurserymen buying seedlings from Mr. Dexter?
A: It is possible but I am not sure.
Q: Did he have quite an extensive estate?
A: Yes it was very large. It was a beautiful place with some lakes with the rhododendrons planted around in a landscape effect although the ones we would buy were planted in the field. He planted them in the field until they would bloom and then if it was something he wanted to keep he would plant it on his estate.
Q: Was there a particularly severe winter in Mentor which proved to be the undoing to all but a few of the Dexter collection?
A: The winter of 1933-34 was the worst winter in our memory.
Q: Did the numbered types you now have survive that winter?
Q: You mentioned that Mr. Dexter had also been growing azaleas. Could you tell me something about them?
A: He was making crosses with the Ghent azaleas.
Q: Did you buy some of these?
A: Yes, we got these by the carload too.
Q: Did you save some of the Ghent azaleas?
A: We selected some of the best ones and they are still planted in our garden at the nursery. They are now 7-9 feet tall. There are many lovely colors and many of them fragrant. We have never lost the buds on these, even in the coldest winter.
Q: Have they been difficult to propagate?
A: They were, but I think it could be done easily today.
Q: What was the Dexter home like inside?
A: Mrs. Dexter had a very elegant home furnished with antiques. She had a cupboard filled with Sandwich glassware. The factory in Sandwich made this beautiful glass from special local sand. She had a lovely collection of this glass.
Q: What type of person was Mr. Dexter?
A: He was a wonderful, generous man. Whatever he had he wanted other people to propagate. If he knew that somebody was going to propagate one of his plants he would do most anything to help them get the cuttings.
Q: Were there many other people growing rhododendrons in the Cleveland area at that time?
A: Not like there are now. Landscape people would bring in carloads of clumps of the wild ones. Some hybrids were imported from Holland but there were problems with them.
Q: So these Dexter hybrids must have been quite spectacular by comparison?
A: Yes they were. There were more true pinks and true reds in Dexters.
In conclusion I would like to add that these Bosley-Dexter rhododendrons are in a class by themselves in regard to cold hardiness, number of blooms, size of blooms and the general impact of the display produced by an adult plant in flower. Recent research work in Ohio indicates that at least one (1020) has a substantial natural resistance to root rot organisms which might make it a good candidate for warm climates.