Commentary: Are We Being Shortchanged by Truss Shows?
Joe B. Parks
Dover, New Hampshire
I think perhaps we are! And if you'll stand back and take a hard look with me, I think you may agree. Of course there can be no question but that flowers are rhododendrons' sine qua non. However, I suggest that our headlong pursuit of "better" flowers with which to win truss shows causes us to, too often, lose sight of rhododendrons as a plant!
Certainly I would not be so foolish as to entertain the most momentary of thoughts that, without flowers, rhododendrons would be such a desirable plant as they are. On the other hand I am forced to point out that rhododendrons are a part of our landscape for over 11 out of every 12 months of the year, without flowers.
Can there be any doubt but that in our search for plants that will win truss shows we are influencing (even though unwittingly) the flowering season, plant appearance and to some extent, possibly plant quality and hardiness itself. Though supply-siders would no doubt say differently, our selection and exhibition of those plants in peak bloom at show time is bound to have a decided influence on which hybrids make it in the marketplace and which do not.
If you still feel the argument is questionable, then consider this: Does not the display of gorgeous flowers at truss shows strongly influence both members and the public to search out and buy those particular cultivars they have seen at the show? Or, if you've been a truss show judge, how often in the judging have you heard the remark, "It's a beautiful truss and a clear winner but what a horrible plant."? Or perhaps closer to home, have you never said to someone, "If it were in bloom for the truss show, it would have been a sure winner?" Even more to the point, how about those plants that are not quite hardy in your area but are coddled by an exhibitor so that there will be a truss for the show. I know there's always a bit of one-upmanship in growing something no one else can, but how can we expect the tyros and the uneducated public to whom we are promoting rhododendrons to understand this. Obviously the tendency of truss shows to concentrate our attention on a few plants with spectacular bloom at the time of the show is clearly a long term detriment to the genus. For a Society that is dedicated to improvement of the genus this seems to me to be a bit short sighted.
Now please, please do not misunderstand me for even a moment. This is neither a tirade nor even the barest whisper of complaint about truss shows. Far from it! Though some members I know believe that we should actually do away with truss shows, there is no question on my part but that shows serve an important purpose. It would be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to find a better way to educate members and the public about rhododendrons. What I am so concerned about is that the current approach is too narrow in concept and that we unfortunately are the worse for it. By providing a one sided, biased education and providing too little information (often called brainwashing) we reduce people's ability to make wise plant selections. It doesn't have to be. But we do need to correct this unintended bias by broadening our objectives so as to consistently - not just once in a while, but consistently - promote all aspects of rhododendrons as superior year round plants.
You might ask how such an objective could be achieved. My answer is that we should use the exact same techniques we use in promoting truss displays: set up competitions and offer awards. As a suggestion, why not, 1, set up two or possibly even three new areas of competition at our truss shows, 2, have an annual competitive fall show (at a chapter meeting) and 3, always have a competitive show at our regional meetings.
Certainly there can be no doubt as to the wealth of material available upon which to base such competitions. One area of competition could be for stems (a leaf "truss" if you like), a second could be for photos of flower trusses (perhaps limited at truss shows to plants not in bloom at the time of the show) and possibly a third competition for photos of entire plants.
Just as we do for trusses, rules should be simple but firm. Obviously they should invite the broadest possible competition and assure that it is fair, i.e., that to the extent possible any exhibit will be in competition with similar material (no apples competing with oranges except of course for "Best in Show" type awards). The exact rules will no doubt take some time to work out but this is no serious problem. To assure that exhibits are of plants that can be grown in the area, plant material and photographs should be of plants grown by the exhibitor. It also might be desirable to require that photographs have been taken within the previous year. Certainly classes should be established, perhaps not as elaborate as for trusses, but enough to assure a fair competition and to entice members to exhibit whatever material they have.
To sum up, there can be no question but that truss shows serve an important purpose for the Society. Unfortunately, because they emphasize rhododendrons that flower at show time, they also have a negative effect. The problem can be remedied easily. I trust we will be willing to do so.