Facts Without Handles
Max E. Byrkit, M.D., Hagerstown, Md.
Like wines, some years are of especially fine vintage and 1958 was one, for it was during this memorable year that The Royal Horticultural Society published The International Rhododendron Register. Through the efforts of Dr. Harold R. Fletcher and with the assistance of such notables as Dr. J. Harold Clarke, Frederick P. Lee, Dr. Henry T. Skinner, Dr. John C. Wister, Ruth M. Hansen and Mr. Herman Grootendorst, thousands of azalea and rhododendron hybrids and species selections were systematically organized and presented with short but illuminating flashes of information regarding the color, ancestry, hybridizer, etc. Although the publication lacked many details (probably due to lack of space) it still formed a matrix of information that rhododendron growers have found invaluable.
But even as the ink on the pages dried a small but perceptible rift appeared separating information from those who would be informed. Across this ever widening chasm many authors have extended tentative wires of communication but only two attempts have established any degree of completeness in the listing of registered cultivars, namely Frederick P. Lee in his 1958 published The Azalea Book and David Leach in Rhododendrons of the World, first published in 1962. The later work, facetiously referred to as "Die Bibel Von Rhododendron", made a serious attempt of "jelling" into one publication an organized detailed overview of rhododendron information and concurrently compiling a list of the known non-azaleas. In the intervening twenty-one years since the publication of The International Rhododendron Register, hybrids have proliferated while uncomplicated access to factual information has become tediously more difficult.
During this proliferation of hybrids Mr. Chris Brickell, the International Registration Authority in England, assisted by Ed Parker and his predecessors in the ARS and their counterparts throughout the world, have been dutifully if not heroically, recording the registered plants; and for years a new publication of The International Rhododendron Register has been "promised". Obviously, assaulting the task of publication in a conventional manner seems beyond our present capabilities. Yet the very growth of the various rhododendron organizations depend heavily on proliferation of this accumulated and composting information.
It is note-worthy that even if publication could be affected instantly, the book would suffer the same limitations of previous publications, namely, instant obsolescence. On such a bleak note it would seem only fair to offer some solution to the problems outlined.
It appears that the ARS's only reasonable option would be to turn to the ubiquitous computer and one with sufficient capacity to handle the annual increasing waves of new clones.
First let us consider the obvious. If the ARS chooses this method of information accumulation, it could on any given date extract by a computer printout a complete, alphabetized cogent list of all registered hybrids or species selections and then publish these and all subsequent lists on any regular basis the ARS should desire.
Conjecturing computerization of records in a system of adequate proportions: what could and should be included in the facts acquired and stored in the computer's memory? As the scope and amount of information would be only limited by the capacity of the system and the desires of the ARS, all of the data now included in the plant registration forms could easily be accommodated. In fact, the leaf shapes, flower shapes, etc., long given numerical assignments on current registration forms accommodate well to data adsorption in the computer. Colors, identified by code letters and numbers, would like-wise be easily assimilated. Standardization of the color identification system used would be highly desirable but not obligatory as cross references do exist.
Assuming the use of computerization of the rhododendron cultivars, current varieties would logically be programmed into the memory bank first. Then all recorded registered plants could be entered in reverse chronology, eventually including those published in The International Rhododendron Register, 1958.
Revision of the ARS plant registration forms to expedite data processing would of course be desirable.
The inherent plasticity of such a system would allow easy revision of data relating to hardiness, ARS ratings, and allow inclusion of information pertaining to ARS or RHS awards, etc. Regionalization of data regarding hardiness, ARS ratings could also be achieved if desired. Thus the potential applications would be limited only by our ingenuity and the size of the computer's "sponge" we use to absorb our information.
If computer technology were to be utilized there would be no area of rhododendron interest which would not be benefited. For those interested in the flower shows, the computerization of hybrids immediately resolves one show problem for both the grower and judge, namely, the assignment of plants by the flower color. As a given registered hybrid has been previously color classified and the classification readily available, show judges, could, with authority, sort the entries into their respective groups. Only the unregistered hybrids would have to be critically discussed and assigned locations, where assignment is dependent on color criteria.
For the gardener whose predilection for rhododendrons approaches addiction, the ARS computer would be able to afford him or her a surfeit of information. Included would be the usual information regarding hardiness, awards, quality levels, size, shape, color, plus a myriad of other facts associated with any given plant.
Nurseries and propagators, with their unique needs, could extract, that which is new or novel, the ease of propagation or regionalized information, or any of the information alluded to above.
A unique application of the computer for the rhododendron growers could be the development of a plant availability list. Any grower subscribing to this concept could list rhododendron hybrids or species which he or she currently grows for sale. The ARS would then make available to its members a list of available plants matched with the respective growers. While providing an advertising outlet for the growers, such a list would expedite acquisition and dissemination of select plants among the ARS membership. The Brooklyn Botanical Gardens has issued several similar lists dealing with more diverse collections of plants, a listing which has personally proven most useful.
To the hybridizer the sudden availability of a computer cornucopia of facts will provide him ideas for breeding yet un-conceived and save him time and effort duplicating those crosses which have been successfully done and would show little promise in duplication. A system of temporary registered hybrids by encodement could be devised to allow time for evaluation before naming, or to encompass those plants which, while inherently of insufficient merit to be named, still have significant potential for further breeding.
For the hybridizer seeking a particular parent, a computer search could be done, choosing those features considered essential. An example might be as follows: A first or second generation yakushimanum hybrid, red (give color code limits), blooming in late May, compact, with indumented leaves, hardy to -15°F. With proper and polite inquiry the computer would then graciously list all such hybrids. Such a service could be provided at nominal cost to the requesting member.
Innovative as the computerization of our recording system seems, other plant societies, e.g. The Daffodil Society, have already utilized this modality with good results and economic advantage.
Not only could The International Rhododendron Register be updated, but membership lists developed and used in the various activities of the ARS. To this end the ARS has already initiated some beginnings. An example you may have received, but not recognized, deals with information regarding this year's seed exchange. Other potential and highly desirable uses could include letters pertaining to annual meetings, regional meeting announcements and membership lists cross-indexed, listing members of individual chapters.
Already individual members, recognizing the computers potential, have utilized mini computers for their own private collections. It seems only reasonable that the society should explore not only the applications mentioned but also the possibility of enlisting assistance from enlightened corporations willing to share computer time as a gift to the ARS.
While no member to whom I have spoken regarding computerization of the ARS plant records has been less than enthusiastic, it seems vital that all members, thru their various chapters, provide the ARS board with a sense of direction.
President Fred Galle and past president August Kehr, along with ARS registrar Ed Parker have shown interest as have many to whom the ARS is indebted for leadership. However, without interest from individual members and component chapters the computerization of records may be a wistful dream.
Hopefully, the ARS leadership will see fit to explore the possibilities of computer usage and subsequently extract from the ARS a committee composed heavily of members associated with the computer industry. To this nucleus, should be added those members with wide expertise and experience who could define the scope and direction of this project.
It would seem not only desirable but essential that the fragmented, and too often regionalized, information be readied for use by the community of rhododendron enthusiasts both here and abroad. This could be accomplished most effectively with reference to all visible parameters, e.g. time, money, and completeness, thru computerization.
With such a plan we could at last put a handle on our accumulated world wide rhododendron facts.