John Wister and His Rhododendrons
Franklin H. West, M.D., Gladwyne, Pennsylvania
FIG. 36. Dr. John C. Wister
R. 'June Maid'
Photo by Franklin H. West, M.D.
The above title could mislead you into thinking that rhododendrons claim Dr. John's greatest devotion.
They are very important to him, for sure, but they are only a segment of his widely ranging horticultural interests. The 1966 Daffodil Yearbook of the Royal Horticultural Society was dedicated to him, and in it was a heartfelt tribute from his late friend, Harry Randall, who had tried to find out whether it was peonies, iris, roses, hemerocallis, daffodils, rhododendrons, cherries, magnolias, crabapples, lilacs, or deciduous azaleas that were John's first love.
"I have not yet discovered which genus pleases him most, all I know is that whatever I talk to him about, I have the feeling I am talking to a walking encyclopedia with a bounding enthusiasm."
Take a look at the highlights of Dr. John C. Wister's career, starting with his founding of the American Iris Society in 1920, his secretaryship of the American Rose Society from 1920-23, to the gold medals from the Iris Society, Daffodil Society, Rhododendron Society, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Medal from the American Horticultural Congress, his honorary Doctor of Science degree from Swarthmore College, his recent award from the Lilac Society, his directorships of the Scott Foundation of Swarthmore College and the Tyler Arboretum at Lima, Pa., and his service as registrar of plant names for iris, hollies, and lilacs. It is obvious that he didn't fall victim to the malady that affects too many of the rest of us: the exclusive preference for one plant group. Those so afflicted cheat themselves out of all the delights and rewards that Dr. Wister has enjoyed from "playing the field".
Dr. Wister is a gentle man, with an enthusiasm for plant lore that is very contagious. He always shares his interests with great generosity and a friendly modesty that is often baffling. For instance, in telling about the beginning of the Dexter Study Committee, he allowed that he felt very pleased that Dr. Clem Bowers asked him to join the group. He told Dr. Bowers he didn't know anything about rhododendrons, so he doubted he would be very useful. Dr. Bowers retorted that he'd soon learn. "The question is," Dr. Wister, asked twenty - five years later, "did I?"
Another time, in response to some compliments about his June blooming hybrids, he responded with, "But are they any good?" It's difficult to know how to respond to such a question except to study his plants carefully enough to give an informed answer. This was exactly what he had in mind all along: to get rhododendron people interested and involved in finding the answers to problems such as, "Are they any good?" This challenge could lead to useful regional evaluations both of the Dexters he helped select and his own hybrids about which he is so modest.
Many Philadelphians are aware that the Wister name has been a distinguished one in that city for many generations. The first of the family, Caspar Wistar, came from a little village near Heidelberg in 1717. He spelled his last name with an "a". His brother, John, who followed him in 1722, spelled it with an "e".
They first lived near the corner of Third and Market Streets, and later John built his home, "Grumblethorpe", in Germantown where it still stands. A descendant of Caspar was the famous anatomist of the University of Pennsylvania for whom the Wistaria was named. The best know descendant of John was Owen Wister, author of "The Virginian".
Our John also was descended from the original, but he was named John Caspar Wister, for both brothers. He grew up in a typical Germantown 19th Century country place of ten acres, about a mile east of "Grumblethorpe". Because it had both woodland and open fields, horses, cows and chickens, and a big vegetable garden, he liked to think of it as a "farm". His special interest in flowers began when he was about ten. Next to the vegetable garden his mother had a patch of brilliant annuals and a small greenhouse of potted plant; cared for by an old gardener. He like to follow the man around and watch him sow seeds and make cuttings. Before long he wanted to try it himself. He planted balsam, and after they bloomed, he saved the seeds for the next year. Then he planted ageratum and nasturtium, and in the early autumn made cuttings of these to grow over winter in the greenhouse, and was fascinated that they rooted in about a week.
There were tall rhododendrons hardly 200 feet from the greenhouse. His grandmother had seen them at the Centennial Exposition in 1876 and purchased plants from Anthony Waterer. But he paid no attention to them because he said he would never be able to have any plants - they might cost a dollar apiece while he could raise a hundred or more ageratums from a five cent packet!
It wasn't until 1929 that his earnings from designing and planting a garden of 120,000 iris at the famous Z. G. Simmons estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, made him feel rich enough to buy a set of "Ironclads" from Andorra Nursery: 'Album Elegans', 'Charles Bagley', 'Everestianum', and many others. By this time, he had visited the Dexter Estate in Sandwich, Massachusetts, with its designer, Paul Frost, his Harvard 1909 classmate in Landscape Architecture. Dr. John was greatly impressed by the rhododendrons, but believed the varieties were too tender to survive the cold Pennsylvania winters. A little after that he had met Mr. Dexter, but unfortunately so briefly that he formed no clear impression of the man who remains so much of an enigma as a person to this day.
Clement Bowers and Henry Skinner really got John Wister started in a serious way when they asked him to join the Dexter Selection Committee in 1949. By this time he had been adding plants to his own rhododendron collection for almost twenty years, mostly from eastern sources such as Andorra Nursery, Koster's Nursery and Joseph B. Gable.
Bowers, Skinner, Paul Vossberg, Donald Wyman, and John Wister made their first trip as a committee in the spring of 1949. At the New York Botanical Garden they were at once struck by one Dexter plant which they tagged #1, and which Vossberg later named Scintillation. This variety still plays a very big part in stimulating tremendous interest in the Committee's selections of the finer Dexter hybrids. Plants were also tagged and numbered that spring on Long Island at the two Phipps' estates and at Mr. Parker's and at Mr. Everitt's. Later in the year, Paul Vossberg was given permission to gather cuttings from these selections. He rooted them at the Westbury Rose Company greenhouse.
In 1950 the Dexter Committee went to Sandwich and, surprisingly, made only fourteen selections. Henry Skinner held them down to that number by being very, very particular. His insistence on only the very best helped keep the final list of selections to a reasonable length. The propagation that year was done at Arnold Arboretum and, unfortunately, only three of the fourteen chosen were rooted. By the following year the plants had been sold and shipped away so the other eleven selections were lost.
Dr. Wister persuaded Mrs. Arthur Hoyt Scott to employ Paul Vossberg to propagate cuttings of the Committee's Dexter selections for the Scott Foundation plantings at Swarthmore. In this way, Swarthmore College and later Tyler Arboretum developed the largest collection of Dexters until Heman Howard began reassembling all of the clones back at the Dexter Estate, now the Heritage Plantation of the Lilly Foundation at Sandwich, Mass.
But before all this, Dr. John had guided Mrs. Scott's purchase of nine groups of Dexter seedlings, 120 plants in all, from Mrs. Dexter in 1945. Two groups of those seedlings proved to be unique: one, because they were mostly so very red, the other because they were so very late blooming. Apparently no one else got either of these.
The red set was numbered 12507 at Swarthmore. From it came 'Acclaim', 'Dorothy Russell', 'Todmorden', and many others. All of the 12507 set were hybrids of 'Pygmalion' x haematodes x Dexter #8. (Number 8 was supposed to be the species fortunei, but was probably a hybrid of fortunei with decorum.)
The other and very late blooming Dexter set was composed of seedlings of 'Lady Eleanor Cathcart' x decorum and was numbered 12506 at Swarthmore. 'Lady Eleanor Cathcart' was a Waterer hybrid of maximum x arboreum. As Dr. Wister put it: "It seems strange that we got two batches of seedlings nobody else got, but since Mr. Dexter didn't have any systematic plan of hybridizing that we could figure out, I guess it was pure luck on Mrs. Scott's part that we got them.
Most of the other lots were tender, but the plants of one beautiful, fast growing group of early fragrant pale pink fortunei were numbered 12499. A later flowering group of rose pink, of more compact plants that weren't fragrant, were numbered 12500. 'Madison Hill' is one of them.
"I started taking propagations of these Dexters to the Tyler Arboretum about 1953 - first in nursery areas in the north woods, and more each year afterward until we filled that area and had to start the larger, new planting near the Pinetum.
"In 1951-52 the Bowers Committee, plus David Leach and Edmund Amateis, went to the two Moseley estates in Newburyport and Ipswich. Mr. Benjamin Moseley had sent a propagator down to Sandwich to take cuttings from selected plants instead of getting seedlings from Mr. Dexter, and his garden had a full grown set of these. We numbered them B. P. P. Moseley #110: then at the Mrs. Frederick Moseley's we numbered #11-17: and then at Mr. H. W. Fowle's, who had been one of the Moseley's gardeners, we numbered #18, 19, 20. All of these were especially fine things. At the nearby property of Dr. George Clark, we numbered two particularly fine hybrids of smirnowii x fortunei but unfortunately we did not get cuttings of these later. In all we visited sixteen gardens that had Dexter plants and from which the first sixty Dexter selections came.
" Our Committee had a good time and picked only the best of what we saw. There wasn't any formal procedure or vote taken. The naming of the plants was left up to me to do later with the help of Heman Howard. I could never get the Committee together again to study their selections here, although members did come individually to see them, as did Joseph Gable and many others.
"Our hybridizing began here in 1953 when I had an Ambler graduate, Miss Joan Higginbotham, help me at the Scott Foundation. She made all those crosses under my guidance. Miss Mary Green, former librarian of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society made more in 1957 and 1958. In 1962 and 1963 Fairman Jayne and George Hewitt made crosses. What I wanted was something late to fill the gap between June 1 and 20 to provide a floral display at Commencement time. I went on the theory that a British iris breeder once explained to me. He said to cross one thing I liked with another thing I liked, and if I was lucky I might come up with something I liked.
"We used the #12506 Dexters, and two maximum-discolor hybrids from Nearing and Gable, and other late blooming sorts like 'Maximum Roseum', and discolor and maximum themselves. We saved pollen from May blooming sorts, particularly reds and deep pinks to add some color to these later ones. We repeated the maximum-discolor cross many times on many different plants. We were successful in reaching our main objective, but no one knows yet if they're any good or not. I believe they will be useful for further breeding. Gertrude suspects that they may be better than Clem Bowers' late bloomers because they have larger flowers. We need to put more colors into them, and more fragrance, and more compactness. But since there's no money in this, it will have to be through amateur breeders that further development will occur. June blooming rhododendron plants will never be commercially successful, or at least many nurserymen say that, and I'm inclined to agree. But for the hobbyist, these plants can add four or five more weeks of bloom in his garden. I do wish more of our rhododendron people would do breeding. If enough do, some of them are bound to produce good things. People like Joe Gable don't come along often enough, but who can tell?"
Dr. Wister has hesitated to nominate those Dexter plants or his own hybrids that he regards as best, because he believes they have not been sufficiently tested and evaluated. He consented to name many of them so they could be distributed and evaluated more easily. Recently rooted cuttings of both group have been made available to members of several eastern chapters. Here are a few possibilities that could prove to have outstanding merit:
DEXTERS (Dr. Wister's suggestions, all bloom mid-May except as noted.) 'Acclaim' (12507-12) glowing red 'Accomac' (12507-1) deep red 'Ben Mosely' (BPP Mosely 51-6) lavender, with dark blotch 'Champagne' (NY #2) pale yellow 'Gi Gi' (Ross GG) freckled rose red 'Glenda Farrell' (Ross RR) rose red 'Josephine Everitt' (Everitt #5) pink 'Lady of .June' (12506-5 (or 12) ) glossy leaves, large plant, pale pink, 6/25 'Madison Hill' (12500-2) rather compact plant, lovely pink truss, 5/25 'Newburyport Beauty' (Fowle 18) pink 'Scintillation' (NY #1-NYBG #67) pink, green blotch, splendid foliage 'Skerryvore Monarch' (Beinecke Young 59-49) rose pink 'Skyglow' (Dexter #9) pinkish yellow 'Todmorden' (Scott #1) early deep reddish pink fading rose pink, 5/10 'Westbury' (H. Phipps #3) frilled pink WISTER'S (Author's selection, blooming dates at Swarthmore) 'Delayed Event' (maximum x 'Dr. Dresselhuys') compact bright pink truss showing catawbiense influence 6/2 'Fairmont Lodge' ('Andorra pink' x 'H. W. Sargent') rose red, compact truss on tall plant 6/25 'Frontier' (maximum x discolor) new foliage bronze, pink bud, pale discolor type flowers 6/25 'High Hope' (discolor x fortunei) pure white 6/25 'High Regard' (discolor x fortunei) faint pink 6/25 'July Possibility' (maximum x Andorra pink') pale pink, medium sized flowers 6/18 'June Fire' (cover photo) [(catawbiense x discolor) x (fortunei x griersonianum, x discolor)] glowing red 5/25 'June Maid' (maximum x discolor) pure white, tight large globe-shaped truss 6/18 'Peach Brandy' (Scintillation x haematodes) apricot-peach 5/25 'Snow Shimmer' (discolor x (maximum x discolor)) lily-white flowers, loose truss 6/11, truly 'fills the gap' 'Sparkling Jewel' (discolor x fortunei) huge white open flowers with yellow throats 6/11, dazzling show 'Summer Jewel' (maximum x discolor) x discolor) large latest flowered white T/4, like discolor, blooms later. 58-297A (unnamed) medium com pact plant, excellent foliage with brilliant rose red trusses showing some maximum influence 6/2
There are many more Wister hybrids growing quietly among the thousands of rhododendrons at Tyler Arboretum, waiting for discovery and recognition. Next time you are in Delaware Valley in May, June, or early July, do visit and help us select the best of these.