In Memoriam: Carl G. Heller, M.D., Ph.D.
For Whom Rhododendrons Were More Than A Hobby
Meta E. S. Heller, Poulsbo, WA
When Carl entered the University of Wisconsin in 1934, he wanted to be a farmer. His family thought this nonsense as his father was a civil engineer, his uncle Seattle's first internist, and his mother told him his ancestors on both sides of the family had been clergymen, counselors, doctors or appointed public officials for as long as anyone could trace. But, Carl was insistent, because, he explained, he just loved to grow things.
His father pointed out that the country was in a depression. He had been unemployed for several years, even worked for the WPA, but when the country took a slight upturn, he became re-employed in Milwaukee. Uncle Warmberg showed Carl the newspapers; farmers were going under, right and left. How could Carl expect to make a living farming? Besides, no one had the money then to buy him a farm.
However, his uncle introduced him to the new field of endocrinology. (He had Vol. I, No. 1 of the Journal of Endocrinology and all the issues thereafter.) He suggested that since Carl said he didn't want to work for anyone, wanted to do something on his own, medicine would be better than farming. His uncle further guided Carl's decision by saying he would help pay Carl's expenses at the university if he went into pre-med. Those trying days, and the family's strong support of Franklin D. Roosevelt's programs, had a strong influence on Carl, as well as his brother, Walter W. Heller, later to become President John F. Kennedy's first economic advisor.
Carl spent two or three years in pre-med, enjoying the classes but still wanting to get into agriculture. Then a flash of genius! His uncle could not chastise him for this! He switched to the School of Agriculture to study under Dr. Harry Steenbock, who was famous for his research on Vitamin D and irradiating milk with Vitamin D. Carl enjoyed his encounter with this great scientist, but at the end of the year he decided to get back into medicine (much to his family's relief). Furthermore, he had decided now to become a medical researcher. He felt it was his bent, but he had yet an M.D. and a Ph.D. to acquire. He got both from the University of Wisconsin in 1940 and was on his way.
During WWII, Carl might have been drafted, but since he was married and had two children, he was assigned instead as head of medicine to Permanente Hospital in Portland — the shipbuilding firm with the first group health hospital plan. He probably asked for the assignment as he wanted to live in the northwest; further, he was enamored with the thought of consumer-participant health programs.
Living in Portland opened the gateway to growing things. He bought a house for his family and envisioned it in flower, but didn't know what to plant. He scoured local nurseries for advice. Along the way, he heard about John and Rudolph Henny, that they were growing rhododendrons, perfect for the northwest. Carl made a beeline for the Hennys.
Both John and Rudolph were hybridizing at the time; Carl was intrigued and bought most of his plants for home landscaping from John. Further, John taught Carl how to request scions and seeds from England, which Carl did, John growing them on for him as Carl had no greenhouse.
Carl also met Jock Brydon at John Henny's when they incorporated in 1947 as Henny & Brydon, Inc. Carl absorbed all he could from John, Rudolph and Jock. John had begun by growing rhododendrons in 1935 on the onion farm he inherited from his father. In 1946, as soon as he could after WWII, he went to the British Isles to import the finest rhododendron materials he could find. Carl was impressed by John's savoir-faire and his uncanny ability to reproduce plants from scions and grow them on. He especially admired Rudolph's abilities in hybridizing - and later acquired many of Rudolph's crosses, as well as John's.
Carl, of course, became a member of the fledgling ARS, and was soon in the thick of it. He knew about Dr. Joseph Rock through his brother, Dr. John Rock of New York City. Dr. Joseph Rock was primarily a geologist, but a plantsman and a linguist as well. He was the last plant explorer into China, via India, in the 1940s. Among other responsibilities, he collected rhododendron seeds and took notes and pictures for articles on cultural anthropology for the National Geographic Magazine.
Carl treasured three ARS journals, and had me read them to him over and over again in his dying years - Vol. 3, No. 2, April 9, 1949; Vol. 3, No. 3, July 20, 1949; and Vol. 3, No. 4, October 15, 1949.
In the first, there is a general description of the "Dr. Joseph Rock Expedition" which starts by saying, "While Dr. Rock was in China under the auspices of Harvard University, he signified willingness to undertake another, possibly his last, expedition for the collection of seeds." Carl subscribed to the collection of seeds at $250 for one of 10 shares for a total of $2,500. Cecil Smith and others did also. Carl volunteered to become the distributor of seeds from Rock. In the same issue is a letter from Dr. Rock:
"Dear Mr. Grace. My men returned a few days ago from the Yunnan Tibetan border, the Salween Irrawadi divide, the Salween Mekong divide, and the Mekong Yangtze divide. I accompanied them to the Tibetan border but could not spend the entire time with them. However, I directed and planned their collecting activities, and am able to report we have had a very successful expedition." Dr. Rock goes on to relate his concern over the unusually wet weather, the unusually early snowfall in the passes, and the lack of receiving the U.S. Department of Agriculture permit from Mr. Grace for shipping lillium, nomocharis, rhododendron, meconopsis, magnolias, etc. via courier to Kunming, then by airfreight to Hong Kong, and on.
In a P.S. Dr. Rock states, "I have received neither paper nor cotton seed bags. The cotton bags I had made here, hundreds of them, but paper bags are not available here, and had it not been for the good offices of my friend, Mr. Andrew Tse of the Gloucester Arcade, Hong Kong, who has also kindly consented to forward the boxes by airfreight, etc. to your good self, and who furnished me with paper bags, etc., I don't know what I would have done." Carl says the ARS sent Dr. Rock cloth bags, but he apparently never received them.
In the ARS Bulletin, Vol. 4, No. 1 there is a "Summary of Dr. Rock's 1948 Expedition to the Yunnan-Tibet Border" by P.H. Brydon. Carl memorized it. The ensuing list of rhododendrons collected are marked by Carl in various codes and symbols - red, orange and black pen.
He grew many of the seeds Rock collected, proudly, as did many other subscribers. He rated them on the aforementioned list, when only seedlings. But his seedlings came to naught when his second wife dumped his trays on the ground in a fit of rage one night. He recalls, sadly, how he and her daughter Kathy tried to salvage some of them but the labeling was hopelessly scrambled.
After a divorce, Carl inherited some money from his mother and bought about 20 acres near Lake Oswego on which to grow rhododendrons. He planted his remaining Rock seedlings on this property, some of which he did get identified as they grew larger. He remembers a vast array of R. rubiginosum. He bought lots of 'Elizabeth' and many other hybrids he admired from other nurserymen.
In a set back, most of his rhododendrons were wiped out in the October 1955 freeze. He was horrified to see people come with pick-up trucks and shovel to dig his "babies", dead plants to the untrained eye, then take his irrigation equipment as well. Since he didn't live on the property (no one did), he couldn't prevent theft. Carl was then so disheartened he wanted to leave Portland and forget about rhododendrons.
In 1958 he moved to Seattle from the University of Oregon Medical School and joined the Pacific Northwest Research Foundation in Seattle to continue his medical research. For a while, he lived in a apartment on Capitol Hill with the only beautiful rhododendrons around being at Volunteer Park or the U. of Washington Arboretum.
I met Carl in the spring of 1962 in San Francisco. He didn't tell me anything then about his mania for rhododendrons. We were married in July, and soon I began to hear about them. I saw my first rhododendron, R. sutchuenense, in bloom in March 1963 at the Bovee Nursery. I began to understand his passion for them.
By 1964 we had acquired about 5 acres on Hood Canal of gorgeous forest. I love trees. Carl started to cut them down, 300 of them, saying he needed the space and light for rhododendrons and his hybridizing program. Our house got built amidst as many trees as I could rescue. The grounds did get planted in rhododendrons, back to back - no grass, as Carl did not like to cut grass. One couldn't call our place landscaped, just planted, a collection of many species and hybrids for his hybridizing - but it is lovely from late January through June.
Carl hybridized voraciously. It became my fate to grow them on. For years we did nothing on weekends except to plant and tend plants. But, ultimately they began to bloom, and he named a few:
'Bodega Ruby Red' (R. haemaleum x R. thomsonii) x 'David';
'Bodega Toreador' ('Matador' x 'Vanguard')
'Bodega Crystal Pink' (R. mucronulatum var. 'Cornell Pink' x 'Cilpinense')
'Shirley Rose Lent' (R. strigillosum x R. praevernum)
'Rose Pantaloons' ('Wilbar' x R. chamaethomsonii var. chamaethauma)
'Bodega y Quadra' ('Yvonne Opaline' x 'Loder's White')
'Leeann' ['Gill's Crimson' x ('Carmen' x 'Choremia')]
'Klassy's Pride' [(R. neriiflorum x R. strigillosum) x ('Loderi' x R. thomsonii)]
'Little Red Fox' (R. forrestii var. repens x R. euchaites)
'Orange Delight' ('Lady Berry' x R. xanthocodon) x 'Lady Rosebery'
'Meta' ('Lady Berry' x 'Ivy')
'Anne Henny' ('Avalanche' x R. calophytum) hybridized by Anne & Smitty
'Dr. Birdbath' ('Goldstrike' x R. xanthocodon)
'Graduation' (R. lutescens x R. viridescens)
'Karen' ('Scintillation', A.E. x 'America') hybridized by Dr. Jack Finklestein
In 1969 we took our first trip to Scotland in March to visit rhododendron gardens. It was exceptionally cold in Europe at that time, snow and ice. After a medical meeting in Berlin, we flew to Edinburgh. Carl was excited about spending some time with Mr. H.H. Davidian, seeing the plants in the botanical garden (even if none were in bloom), and rummaging about in the herbarium collection. We spent a week there. I did some sightseeing; while he spent all his time with Mr. Davidian.
He was especially thrilled to pull out the drawers in the herberia, read the collectors' notations, those of others, and examine those brown leaves and plant parts. For example, in his notebook for March 20, 1969 he writes: "R. coriaceum I. R.P. Soulie #1021, herbarium museum, Paris, 1 March 1899" with a detailed description copied from the herbarium notes.
Davidian asked Carl's help in assembling a new microscope in which they could examine the undersides of leaves of species R. falconeri and R. grande for hairs and cups, trying to differentiate the species ala Cowan. Carl had used such a microscope in his lab and would bring it home from time to time to spend hours with Ben Nelson of Suquamish pitting their skills against Cowan and his book "The Rhododendron Leaf." Examining the herbarium specimen of R. sinofalconeri from Mengtze N. mountains on March 21, 1969 might have been the most fun day Carl ever had.
We left Edinburgh, by train, to the warmer coast of Scotland where some rhododendrons were in bloom, having wonderful visits with Andrew Warwick at Culzean Castle, John Basford at Brodick Castle, and Sir Hay Campbell at his estate, Crarae. We also saw a famous R. eximium at Stonefield Castle, grown from seed sent by Sir Joseph Hooker in 1849. Huge R. thomsonii and R. barbatum were in bloom there.
Carl made further trips to London for the early competition', meeting many of those famous in rhododendron circles and watching Mr. Davidian judge. However, in December 1971 he suffered a severe stroke that left him stranded in a hospital bed at Hood Canal. That is when rhododendrons really became important to him.
We took out a nursery license. I cleared brush and planted out 300 flats of seedlings, many of the big-leafed species, others his crosses, and sundry more. As each kind blossomed, I brought in a truss so that even if he couldn't get out to see the plant he could at least enjoy its blossom. Smaller plants in bloom we temporarily potted for his room. He never tired of watching the plants from his window develop — new growth, buds, bloom.
Carl directed Jim, his orderly, and me to hybridize each season. He kept a list of possible plant names all year in case some cross of his turned into a beauty: Kit and Kabootle, Potpourri, Carousel, Calypso, Calliope, Elsinore, Tuscarora, Kilroy, Dynamo, Miss Muffitt, Lake Lucerne, Patagonia, Muli Kingdom, Longjohns, Amigo, Porcelain. Some of them may yet be used, as there are many crosses still to bloom.
He also maintained a "want list" and would go to great lengths to phone all over to other nurseries and collectors trying to find a particular plant. We further corresponded with John Bond of Windsor Great Park, John Basford of Brodick and others, seeking cuttings. Many were kindly sent.
Re-collecting rock-collected plants became another passion. Dr. Carl Phetteplace supplied cuttings of many of his, now large plants on our property. Then Lynn Watts told Carl about Dr. Albert deMezey of Victoria, B.C. who had a large collection of Rock plants. Carl did get to Dr. de-Mezey's garden this spring, shortly before his health began failing drastically. His trip to Victoria was the last time he left the house.
Although Carl was very ill, we began planning our next rhododendron project - developing plants with bigger leaves and trusses through use of colchicine for some species and some of his named hybrids. Dr. August Kehr has been very helpful in supplying the procedure for sprouting seeds. A geneticist, Dr. Darwin Norby, will do chromosome counts from root tips if a suitable oil-immersion microscope can be obtained for him. Hybridizing was a hobby; now Carl gets down to business.
Carl pursued all his interests with the same dedication, persistence, and abandon! There was always time and energy; the money would always be found, if not immediately, then soon. His personal motto was "I do only what I want to do." Mostly, he adhered to that. What might seem like drudgery to others - planting seedlings of rhododendrons from pot to flat, writing a scientific paper, making molds of petroglyphs from cliff sides near The Dalles on the Columbia River, for example - were simply fun. He could always see 'the light at the end of the tunnel", no amount of work was too much to achieve the result he wanted.
Of course, he expected everyone else to do likewise. He was good at shoving work onto others whether in his lab, his office, his garden, or his home. Some of us caught his fervor; others grumbled. But, if one tagged along, paid attention to detail, ran pell-mell just to keep up, one could also glory in the final result.
Carl was many things to many people. Above all, he was a beloved physician by patients. A number of them called, from all over the country, all the years after his stroke (December 1971). He was always delighted to hear from them. And, of course he had visits from doctors, especially if they were also rhododendron enthusiasts such as Forrest Bump, Alan Lobb, Bill Avery, Glen Hamilton and Ned Brockenbrough.
Carl had fun with rhododendrons. They piqued his imagination, just as the human being did in physiological research. Rhododendrons were his focus amongst plants. He couldn't help but apply his scientifically-oriented mind to rhododendrons, but he bemoaned he was not a better taxonomist.