The Mills Of God (Or, Tis Better To Have Loved And Lost...Part II)
Austin Kennell, Afton, Virginia
When last heard from in the A.R.S. Journal, Spring 1982, our hero (that's me) had recounted the long and tortuous saga of his unrequited pursuit of the Danish mystery lady, R. exbeima. At that time, after some ten years, R. exbeima existed for me solely in my imagination as I had (1) never seen a real live plant, (2) never even seen a good, clear picture of her, and (3) never met my faithful Danish correspondent, Carl Adam Lehmann. Verily, the mills of God grind slowly!
But, I guess I forgot that Von Vogan's saying continues "yet they grind exceedingly small". For within the relatively short time of six months after my article, much happened to indicate the truth of Von Vogan's aphorism.
At the A.R.S. National Convention in Washington, D.C., in May 1982, my long odyssey took a sudden turn for the better. During a side visit to Germantown, Maryland, one of my favorite people and a very special friend, George Harding, gave me a seedling of R. exbeima grown from seed distributed by George Ring as detailed in my article. Ken Gambrill of the American Rhododendron Species Foundation brought me a rooted cutting of R. exbeima. This was propagated from one of the cuttings I had arranged to have Carl Adam Lehmann send to Ken in the Fall of 1981. Augie Kehr, the person responsible for my interest in R. exbeima brought with him a beautiful picture of R. exbeima which Axel Olsen had drawn and painted and had sent to Augie some 20 years previously. It was a real work of art.
At the convention, I met for the first time, Carl Adam Lehmann and his charming wife, Pia, of Vedbaek, Denmark. This was an even greater pleasure than I had anticipated and an experience I'll long treasure.
Just prior to the convention, I wrote Harold Greer to follow up on the information that he had received some cuttings of R. exbeima in 1978. Harold called me to let me know that he had flowered the plant and would send me a grafted plant. Shortly after the convention, I received the plant and, not too much later, a color slide of R. exbeima in bloom taken by Harold at Eugene, Oregon in the Spring of 1982 (see photo).
photo by Harold Greer
So, after a long, long time and many disappointments, I finally met R. exbeima in person. I had a seedling, a rooted cutting, and a graft. I had a good color picture of it.
My odyssey was winding down, I thought. But, like everything else that R. exbeima touched, things are seldom as they appear. As it turned out, R. exbeima was not yet ready to draw down the curtain on her drama.
The mills of God were grinding, grinding! In late June, a letter arrived from Bjarke Aunsbjørn, Randers, Denmark. In the letter, Mr. Aunsbjørn wrote that he had read my article about R. exbeima in the A.R.S. Journal. He explained that because of his and his father's interest in rhododendrons, they made several visits to Aksel Olsen's nursery years ago and became quite interested in R. exbeima especially the yellow form. The only other yellow rhodo they knew at the time was R. wardii. He said Mr. Olsen told them the original R. exbeima was gone; that he had never propagated the plant - but that there should be a plant at a place name "Højkol".
Mr. Aunsbjørn's fascinating letter went on to say that he located the plant referred to by Aksel Olsen which was called Gul (yellow) Højkol. Aksel Olsen indicated to Bjarke that Gul Højkol was obtained from him years before and was thought to be one of the original seedlings from the seed from Beima Shan and may be the only survivor of the original yellow seedlings.
Bjarke stated that he is growing three plants of Gul Højkol. In his words, "one is an acceptable yellow; one is yellow, very compact with nice leaves, a beautiful plant; and the third is one of the best plants I have ever seen with ivory-white flowers". And then he added these greatest of all words in the world of plants, "if you are interested, we can send you cuttings in the coming fall". Guess what my response was to that offer.
With the letter was an article about Aksel Olsen written in his 90th year from "Haveboldet" (The Garden, a Danish Garden Magazine). It was translated with the help of the Danish Ambassador, The Honorable Otto Borch. It was a wonderful article about a truly remarkable person and although there was no reference to R. exbeima in the article, among the pictures in the article were colored drawings by Aksel Olsen of two exbeimas. One was apparently the same plant as depicted in the drawing Aksel Olsen sent Augie Kehr 20 years or so earlier.
The article entitled "Portrait of Aksel Olsen" was an outstanding work about a fascinating individual. A few excerpts: "His unchallenged role as a pioneer within the fields of plants, their growth and improvement as the creator of many, many new plants..,"; "Plants and people are inseparably connected"; "...the words are kind, many and bespeak of wisdom"; "Aksel Olsen's life's work...to bring together nature and man in such a way that both were complimented"; "famed for his talent to make flowers live forever with pen and color:. It's a great article about a great human being. Thanks, Bjarke, for this glimpse of Aksel Olsen.
In late September, Bjarke sent me cuttings of the three R. exbeima plants. I immediately sent them on to Kenneth Gambrill of the Rhododendron Species Foundation to propagate and perpetuate so that others may enjoy them. Hopefully some day, I'll get a plant of each.
In a letter that accompanied the cuttings, Bjarke reported that he was on the trail of another R. exbeima from the original seed collection. This one said to be 6m high is located in Kolding but is a different plant from the one from which Carl Adam Lehmann sent cuttings in 1981. Bjarke said he would try to sort out the various plants and let me know what he discovered.
So, R. exbeima, what more surprises will you spring? What grist for God's mills awaits further grinding? Will it be more new friends like Carl Adam Lehmann and Bjarke Aunsbjørn? Will you appear in unexpected places in different form or color? Will it be new and interesting revelations about your past? The only thing I know for sure is that I will hear from you again. I don't know when - or why - or how - only that I will.
R. exbeima, I'm waiting!