Another View Of Halfdan Lem
A Conversation With James Elliott Of Knappa, Oregon
I received about seventy letters from Halfdan Lem between the dates of April 2, 1963 and March 12, 1969. Most of these letters are long ones, some as many as three pages, written on both sides and occasionally, the pages are framed with writing on all the margins.
Mrs. Lem once said, "My goodness! What you two don't say in some of your letters". Well, maybe we did stray a little on a few occasions from our normal serious discussions about rhododendrons.
Let me tell you some of the mutual interests that led to our correspondence. Mr. Lem was interested in birds. At the same time, I had a hobby of raising wild geese.
He had an Alaskan connection where he had fished and hunted and I had made a few trips to the tundra country of Alaska because of my wild goose hobby. His hunting days were over, but I was still roaming the local hills carrying a rifle, mostly for exercise.
Photo from Journal files
We were both interested in rocks and we both had some lapidary equipment. He was a master at preparing and consuming lutefisk, while I was an amateur. I wasn't introduced to lutefisk until my courting days, when I was invited to a dinner at the home of my wife-to-be. She was of Scandinavian parentage. Lutefisk, in those days, was prepared the old-fashioned way, starting from scratch with the dried fish. When I walked into the house and smelled it cooking, my first reaction was that I didn't realize that people usually ate something that had been dead that long. After I got up courage to face it at the dinner table, I found it to be quite edible. If it tarnished the silverware, it was properly prepared.
We had our differences, also. He had a keen sense of humor to which I had to "adjust".
He had been a commercial fisherman. I am a very poor sailor and I want no part of the ocean.
I had always had a dairy herd during my adult years. I doubt if Mr. Lem had ever milked a cow.
In his first letters, Mr. Lem introduced himself by giving some of the details of his early life. Perhaps I should introduce him in similar fashion: You may not know I'm a real bird-man and have been so since I was a young boy in Norway. My Uncle Landmork was the main birdsman for the Norwegian government. He had his own steamboat, traveling around looking for rare birds in the Arctic and Greenland. When I was about 15-16 years old, he once asked me along on an expedition for to look for a certain kind of swallow, a Storm Swallow, which was very rare. We were without luck.
The birds of Europe were very much different from our birds here. I was collecting one egg of each bird in Norway. I had 54 different kinds. Still short at least a dozen others.
Really, it was the bird life, and let me add, animal life which drew me to Alaska from Norway in 1911. And of course, I had read a lot about all the salmon in Alaska, also. It was just the country for me.
By 1912, I was in Alaska with my first trolling boat. I was trolling for salmon around Ketchikan, Alaska, for twenty years. I was, also, in the herring business. We were eleven stockholders and I had a little more stock in it than the others.
First, by 1933 did I start my rhododendron nursery here - ten years too late. But still so, I was the very first to start with rhododendrons in a commercial way. It was a slow start at least. My correspondence with Mr. Lem began when I requested his price list. A prompt reply informed me that he had no price list, but he invited me to visit his nursery. This I did several times during the following years and he and Mrs. Lem once visited us.
In our correspondence our letters almost always started out "Dear Mr. Elliott". A few times he got careless and wrote "Dear Friend Elliott". He never called me by my first name and I never called him "Halfdan". I assumed that his name would be pronounced with equal emphasis on the first half and the last part of his name. However, Mrs. Lem emphasized and made "Half" the better half and the "dan" just seemed to fade away.
Not once did Mr. Lem ever say "no" to me. The first time I visited his nursery and asked for a particular plant, he caught me by surprise when he said "nye". He had crossed R. repens and 'Letty Edwards' and had then combined parts of their names to name their offspring 'Replet'. Now that he was hybridizing, he combined the words "nay" and "aye" and "came up with a new word "nye". I heard "nye" a good many times in the succeeding years.
My vocabulary increased a good deal during my association with Mr. Lem. "Yay" H. van Nes meant 'J. H. van Nes', "tudulu" meant calyx, "quils" meant quail. "Fine stuffs" might refer to some of his favorite hybrids or to the lutefisk prepared by his wife. It might even describe some of the food he prepared for himself while his wife was away on a visit.
"Go stuck" referred to a situation in which he found himself when he could go no further in some involvement or on some project before he completed it. And then there was the word "snurt". How well I remember that word. Instead of a little snort of whiskey, it was a little "snurt". I found out later than two snorts equaled one Lem "snurt".
A Seattle friend once visited the Lem nursery the same day that I arrived there. At noon we were invited to have lunch which Mrs. Lem was preparing, but Mr. Lem suggested that we have a little "snurt". I thanked him, but I told him that I didn't think I was quite up to one of his "snurts". Mrs. Lem interceded with, "Oh, Mr. Elliott, I will make it very mild". That sounded O.K. I received a healthy-sized glass in which 7-Up dominated. It was cool and very refreshing on an empty stomach. However, the "snurt" or two that was lurking in the 7-Up soon had its effect. While drowsiness increased by leaps and bounds, it felt as though my equilibrium was retreating at a similar pace. Fortunately, Mr. Lem and his Seattle friend were engrossed in a serious rhododendron discussion in which I wasn't asked to take part. Thus, they didn't notice my dilemma. I placed my elbows on the table, nestled my chin in the palms of my hands and used my little fingers to prop my eyes open. By the time Mrs. Lem finally had the goodies on the table, I was beginning to come around and by the time the lunch was completed, I was back to normal again.
Some time later, I confessed to Mr. Lem about my "slumber party". He wrote, "If I should feel as sleepy as you did by taking a little 'snurt', I would be sound asleep the rest of my life. 'Snurts' like these go on almost every day in our house - we didn't find time for coffee."
When I related my experience sometime later to a lady well known in the rhododendron world, she responded with a story of her own. She was following Mr. Lem around the garden, each carrying a glass of the real stuff - no 7-Up. Behind his back, she was able to swish a little on first one plant and then another until she got the drink down to an amount which she felt she was able to handle. If those leaves turned brown a week or two later, I'll bet Mr. Lem would "go stuck" trying to figure out what went wrong there.
Mr. Lem took great pride in his hybridizing and in his top-grafting success, but he seldom boasted about his rooting ability. He states: We all have a lot to learn yet in that cutting business - and I mean a lot. When we get into the hard-rooting varieties, we more or less go stuck. But even so, I more or less try new methods each winter and perhaps some day I may be able to root everything. One thing is sure - why I lost so many cuttings to start with last fall, was because I went by an article written in our 'Rhod Quarterly' by a grower in Canada. The very best method, he wrote, was to make a slice an inch long of the bark on one side of the cutting as you put them in. So I did this with every cutting this year for to find out if it was better than my method. But it surely was not.
His top-grafting was usually done in July or August after the understock and cutting were past the very tender stage and before they were completely mature. After grafting, they were covered with a plastic bag and placed in the shade house out of direct sunlight.
I hesitate to attempt to mention the numerous crosses he writes about in his letters and the various colors of the flowers and foliage. He never let me forget for an instant that of all the hybridizers Lem had the finest. His domain extended beyond the Seattle city limits. He had the finest in all the world because he had such "fine stuffs" to work with. He writes: There are people who says that I think my rhododendrons are so much better than others doing hybridizing. Yes, they are right, absolutely right. Because I have the good things to work with and because I started crossing ahead of everybody, so I know where best results can be expected - both in flower and leaves. With 50,000 rhods growing from 2-3000 different crosses you are bound to learn something. That you are a 'fool' or a 'brainhead' has nothing to do with it - it is just plain experience what counts most!
'Anna' seemed to be his favorite plant for hybridizing, but some of us have had problems using it, regardless of whether it was the seed plant or the pollen plant. He told me that when 'Anna' was the seed plant, I should withhold applying the pollen until the flowers were fading and past their prime. This worked for me most of the time.
To get pollen from 'Anna' was something else. He suggested that I cover the flower with a plastic bag to see if that would work. It didn't. He got pollen from a plant he kept in the greenhouse. He stated, "I can swear to it pollen was running from the flowers an inch long. There were pollens enough to cross thousands of rhododendrons and I know absolutely for sure it was from 'Anna' #1." Mr. Lem used names for his plants that sometimes were quite different. Potato Peeler was an example. When a customer who worked in the kitchen of an eating establishment asked him the price of one of his large plants, Mr. Lem quoted him the price. The customer said that he would take it, but he would have to peel a lot of potatoes to pay for it. Thus, a name was born. However, this was an exception and none of the other names were quite this drastic. When Mr. Lem asked me for some suggested names, I responded with some that were a little more far out than Potato Peeler. He condemned some of them as being the worst known to mankind and he never made the mistake of asking me to suggest names after that. With reference to names, he wrote, "No, I don't like to have 'Lem's' ahead of the name. I have already 'Lem's Coal' and then I had to change 'Cameo' because there was an azalea by that name before."
One of his favorite hybrids was well named and widely distributed as 'Pink Walloper'. According to the dictionary, walloper refers you to whopper, which is large or remarkable. 'Pink Walloper' is that and it is pink. After Mr. Lem's death, the same plant was re-named and widely distributed at another nursery under the name 'Lem's Monarch'. This has caused considerable confusion. To my knowledge, neither name has been registered. If this plant is ever described and registered, I would hope that the name the hybridizer gave to his creation would supersede that which someone else might give to it in later years. Also, Mr. Lem has stated in writing that he does not like to have 'Lem's' ahead of the name.
With respect to his favorite, he writes: This 'Cameo' is but the finest of all the rhod. I have. I was able to root only eight cuttings of the 24 last winter and these I hold for my dear life. So you understand how foolish it would be for me to start telling everybody about a prize winning rhododendron when I have only 6-8 plants of it. Trouble is you start to sell the first few cuttings made from an outstanding new hybrid - you are almost done for! You never get any further ahead with it. But you know how it is when you have all your friends asking to be first to buy it. When they know you have sold it to one friend they cannot understand they are less worth! So that is the way it goes until you sit down and realize what darned fool you are, anyway. I got ten dollars for the few rooted cuttings sold. That was the price on the rooted cuttings of 'Walloper' too. But I charged only $5.00 this year.
In one of the last letters, "We have all the flats of rooted cuttings to take care of. Hundreds of flats to transplant and thousands of larger plants to move. And every hour someone comes and disturbs my work, just talking and talking until I see black cats flying in the air everywheres. I'm getting to believe it is the last days of Lem." I wonder if most retailers don't occasionally have days like this?
Then came the last letter, dated March 12, 1969. He was still hobbling down to the greenhouse to check on the cuttings that his wife, Anna, and the neighbor woman (working woman) had put in. In spite of pain, he still had his sense of humor. Again, he mentioned his favorite hybrids and praised 'Lem's Cameo' and said he probably should have used it more for hybridizing than he did. To my knowledge, he never did use it. His excuse always seemed to be that he didn't know just how hardy it might be. It has always been hard for me to accept this reason, while he didn't hesitate to use 'Fabia', 'Loderi King George' and others which were not noted for hardiness. He often told or wrote that some of his friends suggested he hybridize with 'Cameo'. Could the real reason be that the old pro had too much pride to start taking advice from a bunch of amateurs?
Not only to me, but to many others, did Mr. Lem sit up writing letters at night as indicated here, "Every night of the year I write one or two or even three letters. Very seldom in my life do I go to bed before midnight. It is usually one o'clock in the morning. A bad habit I brought from Norway with me. Lobster fishing was done only at night."
All the years I knew him he was completely dedicated to his rhododendrons, which his letters will indicate. When Anna suggested that they sell out and move into a city home, he couldn't agree. "That would be the last of Lem," he said.
Also, all the time I knew him he was working and trudging the pathways in pain, but he was still jolly. Part of the time it was the foot or the hip or, sometimes, the whole leg. Later, the ailments became even more serious.
I had heard stories about Mr. Lem selling a sister seedling to the customers instead of the plant that they ordered and then joking about it to his wife and saying, "Won't they be surprised? But who knows, it might even be better." I rather expected that this might happen to me, but it never did. I always got what I ordered.
Finally, a letter from Mrs. Lem, dated May 17, 1969, arrived stating that Mr. Lem had passed away on May 12, 1969. Thus ended my association with one of the most unforgettable characters that I have ever known.
Gwen Bell, Seattle Chapter member and grower of fine rhododendrons, has long been a fan of Mr. Lem and his rhododendrons.
James Elliott was honored recently by the Portland Chapter for 25 years of ARS membership.