My Decade at the Heritage Plantation of Sandwich
By Heman A. Howard
Reprinted from The Rosebay
During these past few years, many articles have been written covering the life of Charles O. Dexter and his accomplishments in the field of rhododendron hybridization from the year 1921 until his death in 1943. The results of his hybridizing program became known to rhododendron enthusiasts throughout this country as well as parts of Europe and Eastern Asia. (See Vol. 25, No2, April 1972, ARS Quarterly Bulletin)
There were recently published in the Massachusetts Chapter publication, "The Rosebay" (Vol. 7, #2, Fall 1978), two fine articles written by Chapter members Jack and Eveleth Cowles covering the activities at the Dexter Estate from May 1958 through 1967. During that period, Jack served as horticulturist for Mr. Stanley Berns, then owner of the property.
It was from Mr. Berns that the Dexter Estate was purchased in 1967 by Mr. Josiah K. Lilly III for the purpose of creating a museum to be dedicated as a memorial to his father, Josiah Kirby Lilly, Jr. During the next two years, much work was done in restoring the 76 acres to conform to the plans already approved by Mr. Lilly and his Board of Trustees. When restoration is completed, this beautiful estate will be known as the Heritage Plantation of Sandwich.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Lilly and Mr. Nelson O. Price, his newly-appointed Director of Heritage Plantation, on one of their visits to the Arnold Arboretum during the summer of 1967. An invitation was extended to me to visit the old Dexter Estate and see first hand the changes that were to take place. On that visit, I was offered a position as a part-time horticultural advisor. During this restoration period, a complete mapping and record system was to be established similar to the one used at the Arnold Arboretum.
These were two very busy years for the small Heritage horticultural staff who assisted the Boston landscape architect, Philip Ansel, and his crew with this huge project. Buildings were to be erected; roads throughout the 76 acres were to be built; trees and shrubs, large and small, were to be dug and stored until ready for replanting. And, with all this, there were hundreds of plants arriving from outside sources which had to be cared for until planting sites were ready. All these details were completed on schedule and Heritage Plantation was officially opened to the public in June 1969.
In July 1970, I retired from the staff of the Arnold Arboretum to accept the full-time position as Horticulturist of Heritage Plantation of Sandwich. This appointment offered me many new opportunities and challenges - to which I eagerly looked forward!
Soon after my arrival, I was asked to attend to the details of hosting a group of rhododendron lovers who had scheduled a meeting at Heritage Plantation for early October to discuss the possibility of organizing the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society. This group arrived on Saturday, October 3, 1970, and after a tour of the grounds, a meeting was held in the theater of the Antique Car Museum followed by an illustrated talk by David G. Leach, Past President of the American Horticultural Society and author of "Rhododendrons of the World". We then adjourned to the Coonamessett Inn in Falmouth for dinner and a discussion of the many details necessary in making application for a club charter and membership in the American Rhododendron Society. It was only a few weeks before the Chapter's request for membership was accepted and the Massachusetts Chapter was born - with Edmund Mezitt being elected its first President.
I soon found that I had much to learn about Mr. Dexter and his rhododendrons. My exposure to this group of plants during my years at the Arnold Arboretum was limited, though we did have a collection of about 100 miscellaneous seedlings given the Arboretum by Mr. Dexter in 1929. The plants received were mostly of R. catawbiense strain; and in later years, when a survey was made and photographs taken, none was found worthy of naming, but many were interesting.
By mid-September 1970, our search for Dexter cultivars began, and the search was continued since that time. Using the March 15, 1963, report by Dr. John Wister entitled "Rhododendrons; the Dexter Strain Hybrids" as a guide, it was noted that of the 79 cultivars listed Heritage had only 17 represented in its collection. This fact made us more determined than ever to locate and return these plants to the garden of their origin. Contacts were made with several arboretums and botanical gardens as well as a few private gardens from Cape Cod to Virginia. A two-week collecting trip was planned and the gardens I visited included: Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware, U.S. National Arboretum, Washington, D.C., Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, John J. Tyler Arboretum, Lima, Pennsylvania, Arthur Hoyt Scott Foundation, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, Dr. John C. Wister's private garden, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, Morris Arboretum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Planting Fields Arboretum, Oyster Bay, Long Island, NY.
(The largest collection of mature Dexter cultivars to be seen anywhere in this country will be found in three gardens within a five-mile radius of one another - namely the Tyler Arboretum, Swarthmore College, and the garden of Dr. Wister.)
These organizations were most interested and cooperative in our project, and we were able to obtain cuttings from 45 cultivars not represented in our collection at Heritage Plantation. The interest and encouragement conveyed by the staff of these gardens added to our incentive to locate the remaining cultivars.
All cuttings collected on this trip, plus a few hundred gathered at Heritage before leaving, were to be propagated by Roger Coggeshall, President of the Cherry Hill Nurseries, West Newbury, Massachusetts. This seems to be a suitable time to extend the appreciation of Heritage Plantation for his willingness to propagate our cuttings for the next few years. There are also two other men deserving of our thanks for their help (help without which our program would have been greatly delayed), namely Dr. John C. Wister, former Director of the Arthur Hoyt Scott Foundation, Swarthmore College Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and Director of John Tyler Arboretum, Lima, Pennsylvania; also Edmund Mezitt, President of the Weston Nurseries, Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Thank you Roger, John, and Ed!
The rooting percentage of our 1970 cuttings was excellent, and young plants were returned to Heritage Plantation late summer of 1971 and planted in our nursery frames.
During the winter of 1970-71, our first "Dexter Appeal" was compiled (see Vol. 25, No2, p. 109, April 1971 ARS Quarterly Bulletin) and mailed to many rhododendron growers through out the country. The response was most informative, and we were able to locate sources for 75 of the 79 listed cultivars.
Our search continued during the spring and fall of 1971. Following that year's National Convention at Philadelphia, a small truck was rented which made it possible for us to stop at the following nurseries on the return trip where plants of several cultivars were purchased. Also, in many cases, additional plants were donated by the owners and other plants were ordered for 1972 delivery.
Tranquility Nursery, George Arrington, Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania
Laurelwood Gardens, Mrs. John Knippenberg, Wayne, New Jersey
Indian Run Nursery, Mrs. Leon Heuser, Robbinsville, New Jersey
Oliver Nursery, Fairfield, Connecticut
During the winter of 1972, the number of Dexter cultivars nearly doubled. It was at this time that a group of rhododendron enthusiasts in the Philadelphia area, headed by Dr. Franklin West and Philip Livingston, became interested in publishing a much-needed book to include the works of several Eastern United States rhododendron hybridizers. With this in mind, Dr. John Wister, with assistance, was persuaded to write the chapter on Charles O. Dexter. Having acted as secretary for the original Dexter investing committee, he was the most qualified man in the country to head this important task. It was my good fortune to be invited by John to assist him with this project - providing me with an experience and information that could not be obtained elsewhere. It was felt by many members of the book committee that at long last the best of the Dexters growing at Swarthmore, Tyler, and Wister's under test numbers should be named so they might be included. This task received top priority, and the number of cultivars immediately jumped from 79 to 141. It is agreed that this is too many, and it is hoped in the near future that out of this list a selection of 30 to 40 of the best will be made and propagated by interested nurseries. The remaining cultivars, and it is certain many of them are nearly as good as the top 40, will remain in cultivation for rhododendron hobbyists and collectors.
Because of circumstances beyond the control of the book committee, there was a delay in its publication. However, in April 1978, "Hybrids and Hybridizers, Rhododendrons and Azaleas for Eastern North America" was published. The editors, Dr. Franklin West and Philip Livingston, should be proud of their efforts. Every gardener interested in the genus rhododendron will find its contents invaluable for reference.
This sudden increase in the number of named Dexter cultivars made it necessary for additional trips to the Wister and Tyler Arboretums. Annual collections were made each fall with the exception of 1974. Our special thanks are extended once again to John and Gertrude Wister and the Tyler Arboretum for their willingness to share their plants - by furnishing Heritage with many, many cuttings.
During the fall of 1972, a three-acre wooded area was selected at Heritage Plantation to be cleared and prepared for our future Dexter Rhododendron Display Garden. Trees of various sizes had to be removed. Large oaks especially had to be thinned, and underbrush had to be removed. A water line was laid throughout the area making it possible to reach any plant with a 100' hose. Available plants were set out in the spring of 1973, and as young plants reached the necessary size, they too were planted. By the summer of 1977, there were over 300 plants representing nearly 100 cultivars. There were also small plants of an additional 25 cultivars in the nursery to be planted in 1979. Our goal to have a plant of every named Dexter cultivar represented in our collection for the 1980 National Convention will not be reached, but only a very few will be missing. The Display Garden will be of value to those interested in the Dexter collection of rhododendrons. Here the many cultivars can be studied and evaluated since they are growing under similar conditions. It is also the desire of Heritage Plantation to distribute cuttings in the near future to those friends who helped make this collection possible.
Previously, in response to many requests and realizing that the aforementioned cutting distribution program was several years away, we had formulated plans for a "Dexter Distribution Program". For three years, 1973-1975, a few rooted cuttings from several Dexter cultivars were available to the Members of Heritage Plantation, at a reasonable cost. After contacting several growers capable of propagating for a program of this type, Dr. Thomas Wheeldon, Gladsgay Gardens, Richmond, Virginia, agreed to proceed in the rooting of three cultivars for the first year and to furnish us with 400 small plants. Robert Carlson, owner of Carlson's Nursery, South Salem, New York, with much experience in shipping plants through the mail, agreed to assume that responsibility. This was a new venture, and after a few "kinks" were ironed out, it worked very well. One important fact we failed to take into consideration was that there were very few stock plants available for mass propagation, and the number of cultivars we anticipated was not as complete as expected.
The above three-year program was discontinued after the 1975 delivery was completed. During that period, it became known that several nurseries throughout the country were offering small Dexter plants for sale. A list of 145 Dexter cultivars was sent to over 100 nurseries asking them to check and return an enclosed list indicating the cultivars they would be offering for sale in 1976. A new "Source List for Dexter Rhododendron Cultivars", dated May 1, 1976, was compiled and distributed to all registrants at the Valley Forge National Convention later that month. The demand for that brochure was so great another printing was done, and a copy will be sent upon request to anyone sending a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Miss Jean Gillis, Horticulturist, Heritage Plantation, Sandwich, MA 02563.
With the cooperation of the ARS Plant Registrar, Edwin Parker, we were able to register 17 additional Dexter cultivars (see Vol. 32, No2, Spring 1978 issue of the Quarterly Bulletin). With the exception of 'Skyglow', all others were plants named by Jack Cowles between 1959 and 1967. From available records, this brings the total registered Dexters to 42. With the combined efforts of the John Tyler Arboretum and Heritage Plantation, an attempt will be made in 1979 to obtain the necessary information to register an additional 31. This is a project that Registrar Ed has been stressing for some time, and we hope to see his wish fulfilled.
How was the "Dexter Story" spread around the country during the 19671977 decade? At first, there were some "old timers" who were a little doubtful of the sincerity of the new owners of the Dexter Estate. This property had passed through four different owners between 1943 and 1967, and these same "old timers" know what had happened to many of the plants. They wanted to be sold on the sincerity of the new owners before committing themselves. It did not take long to convince them that our programs and goals were to restore the reputation of Charles O. Dexter as a hybridizer as well as obtain a complete collection of his cultivars then in cultivation. As this is being written, we know Mr. Dexter stands high along with Joe Gable, Guy Nearing, Tony Shammarello, and other well-known rhododendron and azalea hybridizers. During the 1967-1977 decade, it was not possible to obtain the complete collection, but we were gratified to obtain about 90%!
The Quarterly Bulletin editors were always willing to publish material. Invitations to speak on the "Dexter Story" at the meetings of many chapters from Massachusetts to Virginia were accepted and enjoyed. The friends made on these occasions will remain some of my fondest. If meeting dates and propagation time coincided, I often took cuttings along to be distributed among the members. There were many times that I, too, returned to Heritage with cuttings and small plants voluntarily brought to the meetings. Members had seen our search list in the Quarterly Bulletin and wanted to help in our endeavors. It was also my good fortune to be on the program with Dr. Franklin West at the 1976 Valley Forge National Convention where we told the story of Mr. Dexter's life and rhododendrons. My last invitation was to speak to the Canadian National Rhododendron Society meeting at Vineland, Ontario, in May 1978. Much to my surprise, I found there are many Dexters being grown in the Niagara Toronto area as well as areas in the vicinity of Halifax, Nova Scotia.