A New Rhododendron Society
Fred Knapp, Locust Valley, New York
(Reprinted from New York Chapter Newsletter)
A new rhododendron society is starting in England - where else would it start? The motto and name of this new society are quite counter to today's world-wide peace movement. The new group is called the "Kill-a-Rhododendron-a-Day" society.
Eugene Teichner, one of our chapter members, found a curious clipping in the European edition of the Herald Tribune last summer and passed it to me via Henry Dumper. Shortly afterwards, I found another reference to it in the New York Times, a reprint of portions of a letter to the London Times. Putting these together, I obtained the following conglomerate quote from one David Hutter, a British landscape painter whose favorite landscape must be overrun with broadleaf evergreens. Mr. Hutter writes "My attention is becoming increasingly drawn to the scarring of the English countryside by the naturalization of garish and hostile rhododendrons. I had a vision of them marching across England. They are spreading like wildfire and it will not be long before they have ruined the character of the English landscape as they have ruined the English garden . . . I should be pleased if others, similarly persuaded, would help me to found a society dedicated to their destruction". Mr. Hutter quotes an ardent supporter, "They are nothing more than an obnoxious weed - much worse than stinging nettles. At least you can make wine out of stinging nettles." This latter plant lover is evidently unaware that although many forms are toxic to varying degrees, wine and jelly have been made from certain species, notably R. arboreum.
To understand what has brought on this aggravated attack on our genus, one must recall that for a very long time the chief method of propagation of the plants was to graft them on an understock of R. ponticum. This plant was also used in early hybridization attempts and was bred for selected garden forms in the early days of English rhododendron culture. The understock will, in a mild climate, sucker if unattended. Neglected gardens are soon well along in reversion to the basic ponticum stock, which first choke out the more desirable grafted tops, and then choke out other vegetation as they spread rapidly by layering and seeding themselves.
The spread of R. ponticum is reputedly wide in favorable areas of England. Dr. Bowers speaks of a cultivated plant in England 281 feet in circumference and over 20 feet high, and mentions that its ability to naturalize there has led some growers to warn that it is difficult to keep in check. This may explain why so many British flicks seem sooner or later to surround the spy, the policeman, the lovers, etc., with rhododendron leaves. They are as ubiquitous for outdoor scenes as are trains for indoor scenes. The British version of "Sleeping Beauty" might well hide her castle in an impenetrable stand of R. ponticum rather than the usual thorn bushes.
Since this particular plant is certainly one of the less desirable sorts, we must extend Mr. Hutter some small (very small) sympathy. Let us hope, however, that he can be selective in how and where he fulfills his motto. Perhaps we are fortunate that our own climate does not encourage a similar rampage of self propagation by the dangerous R. ponticum.