The Story of Helen Everitt
by Henry Fuller, Easton, Connecticut
The real life Helen Everitt, deceased, knew little of rhododendrons. She was an editor for the same publishing house for which I worked and my wife took pleasure in sending small flower arrangements for her desk at the office. When Helen's daughter married my wife was asked to make the bridal bouquet. We would not accept payment, so when early spring came Helen took us to Long Island to her uncle Sam Everitt long-time collector and hybridizer of rhododendrons. He was being forced by age and ill health to give up this work and to dispose of his estate. He sent a nephew out with me to dig up two large Dexter rhododendrons and eight small seedlings of the last and he hoped the best crosses he had made. They were the last Mr. Everitt ever made as he died a few months later. When the two big plants bloomed later that spring they were unlike any rhododendron we had ever seen and by far the most beautiful. That was the start of our love affair with rhododendrons and especially Dexter rhododendrons.
The seedlings survived several hard Connecticut winters and as they began to bloom they were mostly light pink with very large blooms. But there came a morning when the last one bloomed and its blooms were pure white four to five inches in width with heavy textured petals, a purely feminine flower with no stamens and a delicious fragrance. Truly a lady, and we later learned a good mother.
The day 'Helen Everitt' opened we had planned to go to the annual meeting of the American Rock Garden Society but the N.Y. Chapter of the Rhododendron Society was holding its Show that day too. We had never been to a Rhododendron Show or even a meeting of the Society, but my wife, gazing at this miracle in our garden, announced. "Henry, you must take a truss to the Rhododendron Show, and if they have something there better than this find out how we can get it because I am bound to have it."
So I took a truss to the Rhododendron Show, rushed from there to the Rock Garden Society meeting, rushed back at the end of the day to, the Rhododendron Show to find a blue ribbon on our baby as "Best Dexter in Show", and people asking "Who the devil is Henry Fuller?"
When a name was called for, "Helen Everitt" seemed inevitable. Since then 'Helen Everitt' has survived fire flood, three movings, some very cold winters and hot dry summers and a generally harsh climate ten miles from the water, with no plant injury, though sometimes some of the flower buds are frozen. Budding has been heavy every year. It seems to us that the fragrance is sometimes very strong and in other years not so, strong, and we do not know why.
One of the big Dexter's given us by Everitt, which we believe to be S.A.E. 21 - now named by others 'Honey Dew', has abundant pollen. Our first cross was putting this pollen on 'Helen Everitt'.
The seed pods were not harvested until December, and almost immediately planted in a mixture of peat moss and sand in clay azalea pots. At that time, before the fire I had a green house and a propagation case, and the seed germinated promptly in two weeks. We grew the seedlings until late in the cool greenhouse, and spring then, in ignorance planted them out doors in what we later learned to be a cold pocket and left them there all winter without protection. The following spring less than a tenth were alive but they were tough and continued to show a strong will to live. Later batches of seedlings we treated more kindly and brought a greater number through the first winter. Then fire destroyed our home and interrupted further breeding until recently, as we were occupied in moving and preserving the hundreds of young plants in a new place and making an entirely new garden, But from those early crosses we now have many large-flowered children and grandchildren in light pink, white and, most excitingly, creamy yellow, showing in varying combinations the distinctively different flower shapes of 'Helen Everitt' and that of True Love - our private name for the Dexter now known as 'Honey Dew'. Both are saucer shaped. The form of 'Helen Everitt' open and well rounded is one of mature and classic beauty; True Love is more uprightly and jaunty, with an engaging twist to one side.
So far 'Helen Everitt' has been found difficult to root but I hope that this means merely that no one has discovered the best time to make cuttings. One May I gave Sid Burns the truss which had been in the N. Y. Show and he rooted it and grew it into a big plant. Could this possibly indicate that 'Helen Everitt" roots better from late cuttings than from early? I hope someone will find the trick so that more people can enjoy this rhododendron, a truly lovely addition to any garden. Perhaps that gifted propagator, Dr. Fluharty, who was a speaker on the program of the national meeting, may be the one to turn the trick.