More Notes on the British Tour
G. G. Nearing
An admirable account of our visit to England and Wales, as Dr. Clarke has narrated it in a previous issue of The Quarterly Bulletin, Vol. 3, No. 3, relieves me of any necessity for describing the gardens visited, or commenting on the pleasure we experienced in meeting their owners. I shall therefore confine my remarks mainly to a review of some of the Rhododendrons themselves and a critical estimate of the usefulness of some of them as landscape material.
The gardens as we saw them might be divided into those laid out primarily for landscape effect, as Leonardslee was outstandingly, and those designed rather to display the widest variety of rhododendron species and hybrids, as were Tower Court, Exbury, and of course Wisley, while Bodnant may be considered a happy combination of the two ideas. To see a species or variety in the show, then the same form in full bloom beside a woodland path, again perhaps, as a unit in a studied design beyond a pool, or edging a well planned glade, or in a naturalistic rock garden, gave exceptional opportunities for estimating horticultural value.
Most astonishing were the noble specimens of R. arboreum seen in Cornwall, especially at Heligan and Tregothnan, each tree a hill of dark, luxuriant foliage sometimes 50 or 60 feet high and as much through, bearing abundant clusters of blood-red bloom. In the less-mild climate of Wisley, this species gave no hint of such magnificence. It may be doubted whether any corner of North America can offer a sanctuary so sheltered from frost and storm that R. arboreum could pass in it the century necessary to unfold such grandeur, yet remain in vigorous health.
Arboreum hybrids include most of the red varieties produced long ago my Anthony Waterer and still grown extensively in eastern United States, though in some of these R. thomsonii too is evident. The hasty condemnation of all this race by the Rhododendron Society of England must be regretted, especially as no substitutes capable of withstanding severer climates without injury, even in central and northern England, have yet been offered. I will even venture to say that to an unprejudiced eye 'Atrosanguineum', first vilified as not worthy of cultivation, then omitted from lists of hybrids. For sheer beauty of flower lavishly displayed, no rhododendron has yet excelled the varied race known as 'Loderi'. 'Loderi King George' might be taken as the supreme development of the genus, with the flower so perfectly modeled, the truss so gracefully borne, that it is hard to conceive of any improvement except in hardiness. And of course we might ask to have it duplicated in all colors, though its faintly flushed White would not be surpassed, merely equaled by the other shades. 'Loderi Pink Diamond', a most enthralling rose-pink, the most deeply colored of the race, has a less lofty truss, hence a trifle less dignity, and dignity is the attribute most impressive in Loderi.
Not all 'Loderis' attain the 6-inch or 7-inch spread of flower which 'Loderi King George' frequently shows. Much depends on weather and the condition of the plant. However, there is no 'Loderi' with small or even average flowers. Few other races offer bloom of comparable dimensions.
At their best the 'Loderis' have good foliage, the smooth leaf up to 8 or 10 inches in length, with a tendency to droop rather too much. Plants in poor condition accentuate this fault, adding that of a poor, pale shade of green. Often enough of the leaves drop off to show the branches which are none too graceful. For climates more severe than the south of England, the 'Loderi' race must be modified, and is being modified, but with some loss of majesty. Probably for a long time we shall not see on Long Island, where Loderi is reported growable, what we have seen in Cornwall, and Sussex.
'Loderi' originated in a single cross between R. fortunei and R. auklandii, which is now considered a form of R. griffithianum. The same cross made later between these two species, even between the identical parent plants, has not equaled 'Loderi', nor can any of its progeny boast quite the quality of this now famous race. Sir Edmund must have borrowed a magic wand for the operation.
'Penllyn' (R. orbiculare x R. auklandii), seen at Bodnant where it originated, deserves to rank near the 'Loderis', especially for its color, a most luminous pink. The drooping, bell-shaped flower of R. orbiculare is here greatly enlarged, and again as in Loderi the lofty truss comes to lift what would otherwise be a good hybrid into a potentially great one. For unless the floret is held high, its long, arching stalk tends to lose it among the foliage, which, let me add, is better than that of Loderi, the leaf shorter, rounded dark green and raised at a good shelving angle, the plant not large and fairly compact. Let us hope Lord Aberconway will let the nurserymen popularize this new gem, if indeed it is hardy enough to gain popularity.
At every turn in our journey, we were greeted by another delightful hybrid of R. orbiculare, 'Temple Belle', deriving even greater compactness, neatness and smaller size from its other parent, R. williamsianum. Among the smaller rhododendrons this species stands alone and incomparable. As rounded and almost as dense as boxwood, R. williamsianum raises little pink, drooping bells on stalks arched like those of R. orbiculare, just clear of the foliage. In fact it resembles R. orbiculare, but in miniature with smaller, thinner leaves of a less deep green, the new shoots coppery. It has been known to grow north of New York City, remaining almost horizontal, it is true, and never flowering, but surviving the climate at least a few years. The habit of failing to flower follows it elsewhere except in the south of England or in Wales, almost its only fault, unless that a darker foliage might give it more body in the landscape.
'Temple Belle' boasts this darker, glossy color, is not too much larger, just as compact, and flowers generously. It is reported hardy on Long Island, though more experience is urgently needed before its behavior can be judged with certainty. Small plants which I bred from it remain alive in northern New Jersey. A race, not a clone, it may include individuals of unexpected adaptability.
The red R. thomsonii, in spite of its color, set off by the conspicuous large, pale green or yellowish calyx, disappoints because of its straggling habit and sparse foliage. At no season except the two or three weeks of flowering can it present a truly acceptable appearance. Since it is red, and almost hardy in the warmer parts of northeastern United States, it has served, and must continue to serve as a parent for red hybrids. The remarkably luminous rose-pink 'Cornish Cross', its hybrid with R. griffithianum, is hopelessly tender except in Cornwall, but Anthony Waterer, using it more subtly, gave us 'Charles Dickens', 'Kettledrum' and 'Atrosanguineum', our hardiest reds.
Of the many famous older red hybrids, derived mainly from R. arboreum and R. thomsonii, too few can be considered fully hardy in eastern United States, even on Long Island and Cape Cod. A dozen years prove little, for who wants to grow a shrub to impressive size, only to see it destroyed by a wind from Labrador? Or of what use is an April flower shriveled and blackened by frost? On May 9th, next to the last day of our tour, I called Mr. Hangers attention to the fact that there had been a frost reported in the newspapers. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "Ten degrees at Wisley." Ten degrees of frost is 22 degrees Fahrenheit. The magnificent 'Earl of Athlone', in full flower ten days previous, must have faded by then, and so had done its part for this season. But what of other years? Everything we had seen in those two weeks, except what grew just along the Channel, was subject to the curse of frost. How wise then Anthony Waterer's dictum - that he would not grow a rhododendron for sale which flowered before the last week in May!
For the hardier, redder hybrids of the future, we have been told to look with hope to R. neriiflorum, R. haematodes, and the many similar species grouped with them, some differing in little more than name. These and their hybrids 'May Day', 'F. C. Puddle', 'Carmen', 'Vega', 'Hebe', 'Welkin', and countless more offer various shades of red, some much purer and more intense than anything we had been taught to expect before the turn of the century. Perhaps the fieriest scarlet we saw was 'Gipsy King' at Exbury, unfortunately somewhat scant in both leaf and flower, but still too young a plant to judge with certainty.
Even aside from their early blooming season, all the neriiflorum races must be considered intermediate stages on the way to a horticultural triumph, not the final realization. The merit stars which have been awarded to them are misleading, for looked upon as objects of sheer beauty, if the average 'May Day' deserves four stars, then 'Earl of Athlone' should be given a dozen. 'May Day' and all its kind suffer drawbacks which only more intricate hybridization is likely to overcome. The flowers are usually grouped together a few in a truss which flops open so far that many of them hang below the level of the surrounding foliage, and are lost to view. Others show their rear ends only, with the calyx, usually holding the center of attention, and even in forms where this is colored like the corolla, it is distinctly less decorative.
There is no artistic requirement that flowers must be grouped many together in trusses. In R. williamsianum, the flowers give the effect of being borne singly, and the result is supremely charming, because each bell is molded with distinction and held gracefully clear of the foliage. Also the plant being very dwarf, the size of the floral unit is not disproportionate to the size of the whole. A larger plant calls for a larger floral unit or for flowers so massed that the unit is not clearly separable from the mass. The truss makes a larger floral unit, which should be of a size in keeping with the dimensions of the plant. When the flowers do form a truss, their relation to each other and to the foliage from which they rise, should follow laws of grace and beauty. Waterer's rule that they must of necessity be grouped in a compact mound, has rightly been abandoned. Other manners of grouping may be desirable as well, but only if they please the eye.
Moreover, the manner of growth, quality, color and texture of the foliage should harmonize with the flower, and contribute to the effectiveness of the whole. If twigs or branches are seen, their characteristic angles and curves should lend dignity or grace to the design. In all these respects the neriiflorum races generally fail to attain perfection.
'Elizabeth' (R. griersonianum x R. repens) came nearer to the ideal than any other griersonianum hybrid seen on our tour. Here the extreme dwarfness of R. repens, often a vining ground cover, but with the flowers almost of R. haematodes, overcomes the rangy habit of the other parent to create what is probably the most remarkable of dwarf reds. The low, dense plants seen at Bodnant cover themselves with sizeable and generous bloom held well above the leaves, and of a clean, bright red. Stars should be awarded here, and there is hope of hardiness.
Griersonianum itself and most of its numerous hybrids were not much on view during our tour, as their season arrives a little later. The indescribable, burning red of its best forms, which carries over into its offspring with unusual effectiveness, should eventually lead to superior races. If any of these have yet been produced, I have not seen them. The straggling, often almost creeper-like habit of R. griersonianum will require at least two generations in most cases, before it can be translated into forms with garden merit. A shapely bush of griersonianum flowers well displayed, might challenge the supremacy even of 'Loderi'.
Yellow, salmon and orange have long lured the rhododendron world to efforts more or less futile except in the Azalea section, where R. luteum, R. calendulaceum and R. mollis have furnished hordes of hybrids, each more brilliant than the next, and rightly filling an important niche in garden design.
The giant heads of soft yellow above huge, dark, glistening leaves in the best forms of R. sinogrande offer a truly noble sight at Caerhays and elsewhere in Cornwall, where frosts are few even in January. Often too, there is a crimson blotch at the base of the corolla serving to intensify the effectiveness of the yellow. Perhaps in a century or two, less favored localities may, through hybrids yet to come, gain some crumbs of this grandeur, but difficulties of climate, and the slowness with which these trees respond to the breeder's art, will stand for long as barriers. Generations roll slowly among these great.
Lesser giants, such as R. falconeri and R. fictolacteum, merit praise too, yet their glory is tinged with a somberness which could hardly win great popularity, even if the populace had suitable places in which to plant them. Sheltered mountain gorges with a mild and eternally dripping climate are not to be found in the vicinity of our great cities.
The prince of yellows is R. campylocarpum. We saw it and its hybrids burgeoning all about us, with now and then an intruding R. wardii or R. litiense, not too different. And I must not forget to mention the unexpected excellence of R. croceum, seen on a side trip to Mr. A. T. Johnson's unpretentious but gem-filled gardens near Conway in Wales. A dark center gives the yellow of the flower strength which is commonly lacking in related species. None of these yellows approach Azalea tints in brilliance, but they do shine out in shadowy recesses, set off by a background of deep green foliage. Most of what was said about the neriiflorum races might be repeated here. Foliage tends to be sparse and small and regrettably horizontal-for when you look at the leaf edge-on, you see virtually nothing. However, the twig growth in Penjerrick and some other hybrids compensates with a more graceful posture, and usually the trusses are well hung. 'Penjerrick' (R. campylocarpum x R. griffithianum) gave perhaps the best flower display of all the yellows in Cornwall - nearly the only place where it can be seen thriving.
A fine bush of 'Canary' at Wisley made the best impression of them all -shapely, free-flowering, and truly yellow, with a truss that could well stand close inspection for delicacy and daintiness. It departs from the older yellows, 'Cunningham's Sulphur', 'Ochroleucum', and so on, now omitted from the handbook, (but none the less fine plants) in the direction of R. campylocarpum. The older searchers for yellow, while they used this species, allowed R. caucasicum, with a much more compact but somewhat trashy growth to dominate their efforts. A neutral observer might consider that there is a place for the campylocarpum hybrids, and another, perhaps equally important, for the caucasicum hybrids. Or are we Americans too democratic?
Hybrids of R. campylocarpum are not often yellow, or the yellow fades to cream and ivory shades. 'Carita', a fine sight at Exbury, was nearly white, as were most plants of 'Moonstone' after the orange-tinted buds had all opened.
R. hanceanum nanum, (Fig. 6) so called, less than a foot in stature, is anything but dwarf in merit, with tiny leaves twice buried under a froth of the larger, creamy-yellow flowers. Since the stamens contain no pollen, is is evidently a hybrid, no doubt between R. hanceanum and R. chryseum. A somewhat similar, very hardy hybrid with violet flowers, 'Ramapo', was made on this side of the Atlantic by crossing R. carolinianum with R. fastigiatum, and is being feverishly propagated in more than one nursery. I trust that this ideal yellow partner for it will prove growable in eastern United States, where it is soon to be tried.
The same drawbacks appear in most of the progeny of that other glorious new red, R. griersonianum, later-flowering and even more promising of ultimate results. In the least pleasing of its hybrids, foliage is ranged in horizontal tiers or shelves upheld by visible, rigid stalks, and from these shelves the flowers hang in rows-an inept design, surely.
Most ingenious is the hybrid 'Mrs. Ashley Slocock', offering yellow, apricot, and intermediate shades in different trusses of the same plant. Buds and newly opened flowers seem to tend towards apricot or salmon, while more advanced stages fade to a pale yellow or cream, but with no faded appearance, all instead fresh and dewy.
Hope rests upon R. dichroanthum to give us hybrids of a real orange. 'Fabia', its cross with R. griersonianum, includes worthy forms, some of which may be called orange, but the inverted truss, with flowers deeply drooping, presents with exaggeration the problem confronting neriiflorum hybrids. Of what use is a hidden flower? To be sure, where the bloom hangs all at extreme tips, drooping is hardly a drawback, in fact offers desirable variety and contrast, since the flowers are then all visible. It is unfortunate that one name, 'Fabia', should be applied to plants which hide their flowers as well as these which show them, and to many shades of flower color, some not pleasing.
Repeatedly in many gardens we saw yellow rhododendrons set off happily against the blue forms of R. augustinii, great banks of it up to a dozen feet in height, and so covered, you could hardly push a finger between the flowers. To be sure, these are not as blue as a gentian, nor as deep a shade as the little two-foot lapponicums, R. impeditum and its many indistinguishable relatives. Slightly deeper and not so large are the hybrids of R. augustinii with these lapponicums, 'Blue Tit' and 'Blue Diamond', still lacking in purity, but any blue is welcome in a genus chiefly devoted to the other shades.
Most curious of all the rhododendrons seen was one at Bodnant with black flowers. It was a wild species from China called provisionally (I -hope) R. sanguineum, which is of course a well known red species. But the black flowers in sunlight were virtually invisible. So perfectly did they imitate shadows, that to the eye they were not there. Let us have no black hybrids, please.
These few estimates must not be taken to reflect on thousands of unmentioned rhododendrons, some of which, in our haste and confusion could not even be seen, while others had faded or not yet opened. In reviewing them, I can think of scores seen which deserve mention or description, and my Kodachrome slides are here to refresh an overloaded memory, but this series of notes must not grow into a bound book. Suffice it that what has been said is merely a glimpse at almost innumerable wonders included under the name rhododendron.