The Ghents - Where Are They?
Frank Arsen, Lindenhurst, N.Y.
Reprint from 1973 New York Chapter Newsletter
Recently at a meeting of the azalea study group, held monthly at the home of Emil and Betty Hager, I had the pleasure of giving a talk on a subject that is dear to me - The Ghent Azaleas. While it is still fresh in my mind (and after a bit of prodding by Betty Hager and Joann Knapp), I have decided to write a short article on what I consider a neglected group of old, deciduous hybrids, which are hardy, beautiful and at times, even spectacular.
Of course, it is realized by the writer, that the Ghents have been supplanted by the Knaphills, Exburys, De Rothschilds, Ilams, etc., yet the old Ghents still have a charm of their own. These azaleas will take minus fifteen to twenty degrees, or at the opposite end, a ninety degree plus week in the summer will not phase them one bit. They can take full exposure for the better part of the day. The color range runs the gamut, from the deepest red to the lightest pastel (no purple shades). There are singles or doubles, and this with an added bonus of a lovely scent. These plants will not grow out of bounds too soon, but seem to remain in manageable shape, without recourse to pruning, even after the allotted ten years. They will produce a bud at nearly every tip consistently. What more could one ask of any deciduous azalea?
A good many years have passed since I last added to my collection of the Ghent Hybrids. This collection was started by me twelve years ago, after one in particular, 'Daviesi', by name, a white with a small gold eye or blotch, caught my attention at one of the flower shows at Roosevelt Field. I finally located the source of this particular plant at Hicks Nursery, and perhaps a week or two after the show ended, was able to purchase the very same plant, still balled and burlapped. This particular plant will always hold a warm spot for me. My interest in azaleas was stimulated and I became a member of the American Rhododendron Society soon thereafter.
My next two plants, purchased in 1962, came from Ohio. The nursery only listed two Ghents:
'Ignae Nova' - a carmine red with gold eye, which flowers late, and 'Pallas' - a geranium red with orange eye, which is a bit taller, with nice color. Soon, I must move these two. Young trees have grown up, giving them too much shade.
In 1963, a catalog from a nursery in Massachusetts listed three Ghents: 'Corneille' - a double pink (my opinion - best of the bunch); 'Fanny' - a single violet-red with orange eye (magenta side); 'Raphael De Smet' - a double white, edged red (a rival to 'Corneille'). The following year, 1964, their new catalog listed another one: 'Bouquet De Flore' an orange-red with yellow eye, frilled.
This seemed to exhaust my list of Ghents which were available from the catalog source. One day in 1965, quite by accident, I discovered two more of the Ghents in a nursery within a stones throw of my home. They were: 'Narcissiflora' - a double yellow, and 'Nancy Waterer' - a single yellow.
The foreman, haunted by me, was later able to locate two others growing in the nursery, which were:
'Gloria Mundi' - an orange or saturn red with saffron eye, and; 'Willem III' - an orange-red with yellow orange blotch (Was so pleased with this one. I jinxed it. Lost it last year).
In 1966, a new catalog from the source in Massachusetts increased my collection by two more. They were: 'Coccinea Speciosa' - a vivid orange red (vivid is putting it mildly), and 'Josephine Klinger' - an orange red with yellow eye. This exhausted my source from available catalogs. There were no more from nurseries that were known to me at that time.
In self defense, or should I say out of frustration, I started raising them from open pollinated seed, to satisfy a hunger for more of these plants. 'Gloria Mundi' was the seed parent of most of them. I have about a dozen of the best of these seedlings still growing in my yard. Recently Narcissiflora set two seed pods. Out of these, I have about 4 seedlings coming along. All the rest were weaklings that succumbed. Raphael De Smet also set a few seed pods, about three years ago. Some of these seedlings will bloom this year for the first time. This was a more fertile seed batch, because about two dozen of these still survive, and are strong specimens.
Seldom has there been much said about this particular group of azaleas at our regular meetings. During the few discussions we have had, Ghents were mentioned only briefly, and only as a prelude to their more recent, improved progeny, the Knaphill, Exbury, De Rothschild, and Ilam azaleas. The latter are descendants of the further crosses and selections of the original Ghents. In some cases, they were improvements, inasmuch as the flowers are of a larger size in the truss, but the plant over-all, in most cases, has lost something in the transition. This is strictly my opinion. I do not wish to lessen the superlatives heaped upon the newer strain. They all have their place in our garden.
I wish to get back to the title of this article - "THE GHENTS - WHERE ARE THEY"? The following books list them:
"Azaleas" by H. Harold Hume - published in 1948. This book lists 22 Ghents
"Rhododendrons and Azaleas" by Clement G. Bowers - published in 1960, lists 39 Ghents
"The Azalea Book" by Frederic P. Lee - Second Edition - 965, lists 96 Ghents
This is quite an impressive number of named Ghents. Which nurserymen have them? Are they all in private collection or arboretums? Perhaps the dozen or so available, are the only ones considered worthy of propagation. The fact that there were 96 selections given names must mean something, although I realize there was a dearth of named plants available back then. We today, may be more selective in the naming of new hybrids.
The Ghents must have served some purpose for me, and still hold their place in my garden. Even though they remain my first love, I have gone on to the more popular breed of Ericaceae. In my case, it is the dwarf varieties of the hardier rhododendrons, the reason for this being that I only have a small piece of property to work with. These are the times one dreams of measuring his plot by acres, instead of feet, in the pursuit of a very rewarding hobby.