Yaku Fairy's Charming Children
Kallista, Victoria, Australia
First printed in the Victoria Rhododendron Society Newsletter, and subsequently in Rhododendrons On A Western Shore, (Victoria Rhododendron Society, 1989). Article expanded for the ARS Journal
It does not seem so many years since the delightful prostrate Rhododendron keiskei 'Yaku Fairy' was introduced from Yakushima in southern Japan. The very name seems to breathe delicacy and romance. A fascinating account of its introduction is contained in the Royal Horticultural Society's Rhododendrons with Magnolias and Camellias - 1971. Since then this beautiful species has made its presence felt in the increasing number of hybrids that it has parented. The English introducer of this plant, Barry Starling, says that so far it has proved to be a better father than mother. Either way, hybridists in several countries have been having a field day ever since. It would seem natural to try and hybridize 'Yaku Fairy' with other dwarf or low growing yellows with the aim of a dwarf hybrid race of yellows of perhaps deeper coloured flowers, or flowers of another shape, just as compact and floriferous as the parent, or possibly something quite different, such as some of the delightful pinks which have been developed. Now I don't profess to know all about the proliferation of all these hybrids, but some lovely ones have come my way.
Well, what has happened so far? The first hybrid I obtained was imported some years ago from Glendoick Gardens in Scotland and is a cross between R. lowndesii and R. keiskei' Yaku Fairy'. The first time it flowered I must admit to being just a bit disappointed. The second time around I thought it quite ornamental, certainly more vigorous than its seed parent, but my plant was inclined to be a bit sparse, until its first year in my raised peat bed when it really took off and is now a different plant altogether, well clad and free flowering.
My second hybrid was American raised by Warren Berg, 'Yaku Fairy' was used as the seed parent with R. racemosum as the pollen parent. The first time I saw this as a pot grown plant at one of our local rhododendron shows, it was just one mass of bloom, pink in bud but really opening white (no matter what the catalogues would have us believe), or perhaps I should say white in my growing conditions. Later that season I was given two cuttings, and less than two years later, lo and behold I had my own first flowers. There is no doubt that this one is a good doer and covers itself each year unfailingly with dainty flowers. This is the rhododendron which since has been named 'Ginny Gee' SPA.
| 'Ginny Gee'
Photo by Felice Blake
But I was still waiting for something better. Then I found that one of my friends was flowering R. ludlowii x R. keiskei 'Yaku Fairy', another Scottish hybrid from Glendoick. This I thought absolutely bewitching, and one of the best dwarf yellows I had ever seen. Later I acquired a cutting and once again this flowered in less than two years, to my way of thinking, a superior flower to the R. lowndesii cross. This charmer has now been named 'Wren', and so far is a very dwarf plant.
| 'Wren', R. ludlowii x R. keiskei 'Yaku Fairy'
Photo by Felice Blake
What comes next? Well, it had to be a cross between R. luteiflorum and 'Yaku Fairy', this time an English hybrid from Barry Starling, named 'Elfin Gold'. Now I think we would all agree that R. luteiflorum is a superb plant, but it can get a bit too big for the smaller rock garden or the small peat bed. However, if one could reproduce the deep yellow campanulate flowers on a smaller or prostrate plant, would that not be about the ultimate in dwarfs? Alas, my plant has not thrived the way it should have, and I am still awaiting the result. I think I should try a similar cross myself.
In the meantime, I have been the grateful recipient of 'Patty Bee' SPA, R. keiskei 'Yaku Fairy' x R. fletcherianum, the famed American hybrid, again raised by Warren Berg. It is still a fairly small, spreading plant, but bigger in the leaf than some of the other hybrids, and is charming with its clear yellow flowers. 'Golden Bee' is another Berg hybrid, using R. mekongense var. melinanthum, but so far I have not been able to acquire it. Unfortunately our quarantine restrictions make importing plants both hazardous and very expensive.
On a recent visit to the Pacific Northwest, I set out to try and find other 'Yaku Fairy' hybrids. The first I saw was outstanding - 'Honsu's Baby' - found in the garden of Betty and Herb Spady. In this instance R. scabrifolium var. spiciferum. was used, resulting in a low growing plant smothered with flowers of a delightful pink making an irresistible picture.
| 'Honsu's Baby'
Photo by Herb Spady
There were more goodies in store when I visited Warren Berg's treasure trove garden, where I found 'Too Bee' A. E. and Wee Bee' A.E. in perfect beauty, both with frilly pink flowers and low growing, and both children of R. campylogynum 'Patricia' x R. keiskei 'Yaku Fairy'. As I understand it, 'Wee Bee' was originally named 'Not Too Bee', but the "Powers That Be" decided that 'Not Too Bee' was not to be, and it was renamed 'Wee Bee' (if you can follow me)! There is apparently another of the same parentage called 'Pikeland' which hails from the eastern USA.
| 'Too Bee'
Photo by Felice Blake
A visit to Pat Halligan turned up what sounded like the most extraordinary hybrid, 'Yaku Fairy' x 'Else Frye'. As we looked down on this child, one of my companions was heard to murmur "It's like mating a St. Bernard with a Chihuahua" as we thought a wild sense of humour must be behind it! But no, it was a very serious line of thought to hybridize a low growing plant with Maddenia perfume but tough enough to stand cold winters, and he certainly succeeded with this. Although it has not yet been registered, it is patented under the name 'Scented Springtime'. Unfortunately the flowers were just over at the time of our visit, but Pat Halligan gave us this report. "The flower is about 2.5 inches (60-65 mm) across, wide spreading, not frilled, light yellow with rose markings. Trusses have 4 to 7 flowers. The fragrance is moderate, but more pleasing than most Maddeniis that I have experienced." This should have an interesting future.
| Rhododendron keiskei 'Yaku Fairy' x 'Else Frye'
Photo by Pat Halligan
Apart from the R. keiskei 'Yaku Fairy' hybrids, there are other hybrids using prostrate forms of R. keiskei. Sometimes one wonders whether confusion has existed between the various forms. One hybrid of interest using a prostrate form crossed with 'California Gold' has been developed by Dr. Bob Ticknor. It is a yellow flowered plant of nine inches high and eighteen inches wide at five years, but this has not yet been named. Dr. Ticknor has also developed other hybrids using a prostrate form of R. keiskei, so some more fascinating plants will hopefully be available to rhododendron collectors.
| Rhododendron keiskei, prostrate form x 'California Gold'
Photo by Robert Ticknor
There is certainly a wide interest in breeding these hybrids, and I am sure there must be others hiding in gardens which we have not yet heard about. When one looks at the parents used, one realizes that the possibilities are fascinating and endless!