Old But Not Necessarily Ugly
Dr. Mike Trembath
Aldergrove, British Columbia, Canada
Reprinted from the January 1991 Fraser South Newsletter
First, "old" seems to vary its meaning with the chronological age of the speaker - or writer - so quite arbitrarily I will set the period as pre 1940. Then, to make it in bit sized pieces, let's break into color categories. I'll start with the whites.
When I think "white rhodie" I think 'Helene Schiffner', awarded an R.H.S. FCC in 1893 and still unbeatable. She is a moderate growing plant with nice dark foliage and whose bud scales are so dark red as to look almost black, and whose flowers are pure white in a nice truss. She is still readily available and well worth growing. Of much the same vintage (exhibited prior to 1886) is 'Chionoides'. This is also widely available and I don't know why. It is also a moderate grower and a late May, early June bloomer with foliage rather coarse and rugose. Blooms are smallish and rounded and flowers are white with a slight yellow center. Goodness knows it is hardy, but the texture of blooms leaves something to be desired.
Who can forget 'Sappho', also pre 1887 and a very striking plant with its round white truss and strong purple blotch. If you grow her, you have to learn to live with her untidy habit or spend a lifetime of frustration trying to make her grow into a semblance of an independent plant. I once did see her looking like a normal shrub, but she stood parched, starving and alone in the middle of a lawn.
Ed Trayling grew a plant call 'Queen o' the May' with much the same color scheme but with a more upright truss and the blotch a bit subdued. She was an elegant plant and I yearn for it, but Ed's parent plant died, and no one seems to have been able to propagate it.
If you want to hide a neighbor's garbage dump - or some such - how about 'Mrs. A.T. de la Mare', a very big growing lady with impeccable foliage and a big white truss with green markings and fragrance. What more could you ask? Well, it would be nice if the flowers didn't get rust spots even in the dew let alone rain. But she is BIG. While we are on size, nothing can beat 'Beauty of Littleworth' with gorgeous dark foliage, huge Loderi-type truss of pure white set off by purple throat speckles. I suppose it really is a big garden plant but I wouldn't want to be without it. It blooms April and sometimes hangs on for the show.
Then there is 'White Pearl' (also called 'Halopeanum', 1896) another big growing plant with a tall truss of almost translucent appearance and a couple of red whiskers in the throat. It has very dark foliage completely characteristic of only itself, but I'm at a loss to describe its unique quality. As a young plant it is a bit tender, and perhaps needs some shelter even in maturity, but it is less likely to strip off its leaves than is 'Loder's White'. I have never been overly fond of 'Loder's White' (1911) and I'm not sure why, maybe because of its readiness to slough its foliage or if it doesn't, you wish it would when it burns so readily in frost or sun. Then, to prove the constancy of the human heart, in almost the same breath I confess to drooling in delight over 'Snow Queen' (1926) and goodness knows its foliage is usually at least half a horrid chartreuse shade, and the plant legs all over like a colt. But oh that patrician pristinely pure white bloom with its slight red throat, clean and elegant, and pyramidal truss full but not packed, clean edged with no frills. I love it.
'Gomer Waterer' (before 1900) almost never looses its mauve tint with me, but he's big and rugged and good natured. 'Mrs. Tom H. Lowinsky' (AM in 1919) is also a showy white with its golden blotch and round truss and slightly pointed leaves. Both are readily available and worth having. I suppose Mrs. L. might be superseded by 'Belle Heller' which has a much bigger truss, but I don't know the plant habit so can't really judge. Both above plants bloom late in the season. A June blooming white that is not well known, and I find delightful is 'Mrs. John Cutton' (FCC 1865), a medium grower and well branched plant with leaves and flower size in proportion and a neat pyramidal truss with small yellow blotch. You sometimes see 'Madame Masson' around (1849). It's another white with yellow eye (tho' the latter not prominent) and is a medium grower, but flowers lack substance, and I feel others are better.