In Memoriam: Arthur A. Childers
Arthur A. Childers, a member of the Southern Oregon Chapter, a former member of the Eugene Chapter and a 40-year member of the American Rhododendron Society, died May 8, 1992. With his wife Maxine, Art owned and operated Rhodoland Nursery in Vida, Ore., for many years. When the ARS quest for a species garden first began, Art chaired a committee for the Eugene Chapter which was formed to locate rare rhododendron species previously imported to the United States and England. Well known for his success with plant propagation and plant identification, he propagated cuttings gathered during the earliest search for species by the society. Though many were discarded as questionable species, some of them, along with hundreds of plants propagated from cuttings by the University of British Columbia, ultimately became the nucleus of the world famous Rhododendron Species Foundation in Federal Way, Wash. Dr. Milton Walker and many others were deeply involved in the origins of the foundation, initially located in Eugene.
From his early background, Art was a most unlikely man to acquire expertise with rhododendrons. Born in Casper, Wyo., in 1914 to pioneer homesteaders Bessie Farmer Childers and Arthur Childers, his youth was spent on the isolated family ranch 40 miles from town. As a child he spent hours studying plants and birds. His parents built a log school house on the ranch, providing room and board for the teacher. With the harsh Wyoming winters, school was held just six months of the year, and he finished all eight grades there. Attending high school in Casper as a boarding student was too disconcerting to the quiet loner, so he took to his books at home. Self-educated in botany, Art was a great reader all his life. In June 1935 Art married Maxine M. Kerr, a lovely redhead from Casper. After a World War II stint as a welder in the California shipyards, Art moved his wife and four children to Eugene, Ore. On Father's Day 1947 Art's life changed its course - Maxine presented him with a Rhododendron 'Purple Splendour'. From that moment his enthusiasm for the genus never waned.
Visiting gardens and nurseries all over western Oregon, Art soaked up all the knowledge he could. He particularly admired the rhododendrons developed by Del and Rae James, and acquired their best yellow hybrids. By 1956 he was hybridizing rhododendrons, but with his super critical eye did not select any for registration until 1970. By then he had made a total of 760 crosses, 260 of which were for yellows and 67 for indumentum. One hundred of each cross were grown out. In an article "Breeding for Yellow and Indumented Rhododendrons" (Quart. Bull. ARS, Vol. 31, No. 3) Art describes the planning given each cross he made, and tells some of the adversities breeders face. In his own words: "Selecting seedlings for further observation has not always been my choosing. While I have burned thousands that were not improvements, Mother Nature has also been instrumental and perhaps a little too energetic. When 60 inches of snow crushed my lath house in 1968, I saved less than 100 of 10,000 seedlings. The freeze of 1972 was devastating. Approximately 20,000 of my seedlings were killed."
Another of Art's articles, "Notes From an Amateur Rhododendron Buff' (Quart. Bull. ARS, Vol. 25, No. 2), offers ideas on plant registration, suggesting a method for limiting the indiscriminate naming of "every pet plant that is brought into bloom." If it wasn't an improvement on what was already available, it wasn't worthy of naming.
Art could be difficult to know, sometimes gruff, but those who made the effort found him an honest, kind and generous gentleman, always willing to share pollen or cuttings with those requesting them. According to Paul Beistel, a former Eugene Chapter president and former Director of Parks for Lane County, the Childers donated all the rhododendron plants (truck loads full) to the aspiring Eugene Alton Baker Park project.
In later years, as he became less mobile with hip problems, Art limited the number of seedlings to be grown out to 25 for each cross. He might be sitting around in pain, watching it rain, with a case of the can't-help-its, but if someone dropped by to talk rhododendrons, his pain was forgotten, and the old enthusiasm lighted up his face.
Some of Art's elegant rhododendron varieties, each given years of critical study before naming and registration, are: 'The Chief', 'Bessie Farmer', 'Tanana', 'Ming Toy', 'Pink Crepe', 'Lady April', 'Snow Crest', 'Satin Bouquet', 'Lady Elberta', 'Cherry Jubilee', 'Bryce Canyon', 'Tea Time', 'Katie Childers', 'Ditto' and the intensely yellow 'Art Childers'. Rhododendron yakushimanum 'Rhodoland's Silver Mist' was a superb selection made from over a hundred plants Art raised from seed collected on Yakushima, Japan. 'Star Trek' is a form of R. davidsonianum he obtained by crossing R. davidsonianum 'Ruth Lyons' x R. davidsonianum Exbury form. He registered several rhododendron crosses made by others - 'Swen', a Willard Swenson cross for which Art provided the pollen, 'Gayle Vincent', 'Marlene Saye' and 'Amber Gem' were Del James' crosses which Art raised and registered.
Throughout the years, Maxine Childers was a source of strength, determination and hospitality in their business. They were two halves of a whole and mention of one without the other is unthinkable. Her shining moment was the day she placed the pollen of 'Elizabeth' on R. strigillosum. Dr. Carl Phetteplace, in writing about R. 'Maxine Childers' (Quart. Bull. ARS, Vol. 31, No. 2) had this to say: "Visiting him (Art) one day, he gave me a tiny plant from the lot, remarking it might prove to be the only really good one. Perchance this has happened. We have compared a number of these at blooming time and agree his gift is superior. Of course, it should bear the name of 'Maxine Childers'!" Dr. Phetteplace registered the strikingly colorful and hardy red rhododendron, and the Childers named and registered 'Maxine Margaret' from the same cross.
By the mid-'80s Rhodoland was a mature garden in a lovely, rural setting. The pond with its yellow iris, bullfrogs and wild ducks, surrounded by the many majestic ornamental trees the Childers planted, provided a source of beauty all year long. Strolling through the garden during bloom time was an immense pleasure. Besides the gorgeous array of species and hybrids, their colorful, often fragrant "Armax" deciduous azaleas (produced by crossing Exbury Knap Hill varieties with Illam Knap Hill varieties) were a blaze of unforgettable color. Those registered were 'Del's Choice', 'Double Eagle', 'Hell's Fire', 'Pure Gold', 'One-o-One', 'Torcia', 'Pom-Pom', 'Gladngay' and the stunning 'Arctic Sun'.
The Childers retired in 1988 - Rhodoland awaits someone with a younger dream. Writing in the context of future generations from his crosses, Art said, "This is all in the future of another lifetime." Yes, Art was an uncommon "common man", a good friend of the genus and to those who sought to learn, a wise mentor. He will be missed.