J. W. Gerdemann, Urbana, Illinois
'Sefton' is a unique and attractive Rhododendron variety. The flower color has been variously described as dark maroon, plum maroon, or dark reddish plum; however, the closest match in the Royal Horticultural Society Colour Chart is Garnet Lake (828). The florets are approximately three inches in diameter, the edges are frilled, and the upper portion of the corolla is flecked with black. The light colored stamens provide a striking contrast against the dark flowers. The truss is full and for me the total effect is one of quality and old-fashioned dignity.
'Sefton' is extremely hardy. David Leach reports that it has bloomed for him following temperatures as low as -35° F. In Illinois it grows well in full sun and the foliage is never scorched. The flowers, however, last longer in partial shade. The plant is sometimes described as open growing or straggly. In my garden it is low growing and compact. This, however, is to be expected. Most Rhododendron species and varieties tend to be more compact in the midwest than in the more "favorable" climates.
The origin of 'Sefton' is an enigma. Its parentage is always given as catawbiense X; (A. Waterer 1881), but in a recent letter David Leach stated "I do not understand the parentage of the deep purples, whatever their alleged inheritance. All are popularly attributed to R. ponticum or R. catawbiense but I have never seen a form of either that could possibly produce a 'Sefton' or a 'Purple Splendour' or any of the others, presumably from a cross with a red." "I ask myself, if 'Sefton' did not exist, and I were asked to produce it, how would I proceed? I haven't the foggiest notion."
One might suppose that a variety with as many good qualities as 'Sefton' would be popular, yet, I am aware of only one nursery that lists it today. What is the reason for this lack of interest? David Leach suggests that "the increasing standardization in the nursery industry allows no room for the offbeat in color or season" He also suggests that the flower color is currently unfashionable. However, 'Purple Splendour', which has a somewhat similar landscape effect, continues to be popular in regions where it can be grown. Is it possible that in our constant striving for new varieties with purer colors we are neglecting some fine old hybrids with truly unique qualities? It would be a great pity if 'Sefton' were to be lost.