Austin C. Kennell
The worst rhododendron problem? No, it's not weather extremes, or stem borers. It's not bark split, or even phytophthora.
It's found just about everywhere -but particularly in the gardens of ARS members where it's really prevalent. It's "Rhodonameneurosis ad nauseam."
That's right, "Rhodonameneurosis ad nauseam," and it affects more rhododendrons than any other plant problem. As far as is known, it is the only affliction that people give to plants. It is easy to spot as there is always a little bugger hanging around that looks out of place.
These pesky troublemakers come in many sizes, shapes, and composition. They can be quite fancy or home-made looking. They may have holes in them, or extended arms, or wires or strings attached. They wiggle, shimmer, and shake, bend and twist, fade and discolor. They excite, incite, and invite; detract - and distract; irritate and frustrate.
They are often called "Name Tags."
Rhododendrons and azaleas so dislike being tagees that over the years they, like some other growing things, have evolved a system of defenses to discourage the intruders. They shake them off or grow foliage to hide them. In some rare cases, they will even sacrifice the limb holding the tag by inducing something called die-back.
Name tags are one of those things that are similar only in their lack of similarity. They can be bought ready-made of sundry designs or fabricated a la Rube Goldberg. They require inscribing by scribbling, imprinting with a sharp object, or gluing preprinted strips to them. Attachment is likewise done in many ways - bending a tab, twisting a wire, tying a string, hanging on a hoop.
Some gardeners make up elaborate and attractive plaques with names boldly and artistically painted or burned into wood. Very nice, these are often more eye catching than the plants; but I devote whatever time and energy I have to taking care of plants and leave the woodcraft to others. Another gardening friend uses smooth flat rocks of the same size in front of his plants with names painted on them. Impressive, but not for me. I'm a gardener (despite what some people think), not a rock hound or Rembrandt.
Then there's those systematic souls who put name tags on the same side of all their plants. If nothing else, this makes the other three sides of the plant look better. Some stick their name tags in the ground to retard obliteration of the tag's inscription. Then, of course, plants from some nurseries come with paper or cardboard name tags. This must be what is known as "plant obsolescence" as the tags sure obsolesce pretty doggoned fast.
Name tags have a mysterious and powerful attraction on people. I've seen more than one flower or plant trampled underfoot by otherwise thoughtful people in their mad urge to find and/or read a tag. They have been known to start a hassle on the validity of the name or correctness of spelling. But their greatest malevolence is the way they pander to our baser instincts leading to such asides as "after all, they won't miss a few cuttings or some seeds, or a little pollen, now will they?" It says something about our hang-up about plant names that the most common question among us is not "How's your family?" or "How's your health?" but "What's the name of that plant?"
There are those who, for some reason, don't put names on tags - just a number or code. Somehow that doesn't do it for me. Calling a plant 130D-82 is like calling a person by his social security number.
Name tags pose a problem for the many ARS members who are doctors. I took a plant tag written by a doctor friend of mine to a drug store and was given a bottle of Hydrochlorothiazide capsules for it. I never did figure out the name of the plant but I fed the capsules to the plant and it sure is a healthy well-adjusted plant.
To tell the truth, I've never met a name tag I like. They're either too difficult to inscribe, or too hard to attach, or don't retain what's written on them, or too difficult to find among the foliage, or too obtrusive, or too tough to decipher or won't stay on the plant!
The design of a really practical means of identifying plants might be a good endeavor for the ARS Research Committee as well as a means of raising research funds.
We owe it to our plants to identify them in such a way that, if it doesn't add to their attractiveness, at least it doesn't detract from them. And then there's the names themselves -"Rhodonameneurosis ad nauseam infinitum" - but that's another matter!