An Azalea Garden Resurrected
Otto Benesh and Ralph Schoeman came to the Myrtle Creek area in southwestern Oregon in the mid '50s in search of a place to start a daylily nursery. They settled on 5.5 acres of mostly creek bottom land 4.5 miles up the South Myrtle Creek Road. They grew daylilies for three or four years, but by 1963 they were hybridizing and marketing deciduous azaleas.
This garden came to be the home of a wide assortment of plants from all over the world. Unusual at the time was a red 'Bartlett' pear, Japanese pear apple, Cedrus atlantica 'Pendula' (which is 16 feet in diameter now), two yaks and a 'Crest' that cost $50. That 'Crest' is about 20 feet tall now and blooms beautifully each year. They also started many different plants from seed that friends brought from Japan. The records show only the yaks and Rhododendron weyrichii, and the R. weyrichii was lost but has been started from seed again.
Otto and Ralph started corresponding with David Leach, John Henny, Jock Brydon, Edgar Greer and evidently with Dr. Frank Mossman and Britt Smith, as they have quite a collection of R. occidentale. In fact they traded many plants with John Henny and Edgar Greer, so the record shows. They were so enthusiastic about azaleas that they hand copied "Producing Deciduous Azaleas from Cuttings" by David Leach. Also showing their enthusiasm is the statement: "We like to talk about anything as long as it is about azaleas."
| Beneschoen Gardens, Myrtle Creek, Oregon
Photo by Merle Sanders
With that background they started Beneschoen Gardens and were very successful for the short time they had it. During that time they hybridized 'John F. Kennedy', 'Ezra J. Krause', 'Thomas Jefferson' and 'Umpqua Queen'. They also introduced 'Jock Brydon' and 'Anna Pavlova'. (I for one, truly believe that 'Umpqua Queen' and 'Thomas Jefferson' are among the best deciduous azaleas on the market today.)
These gentlemen were quite some salesmen because they sold small plants of 'John F. Kennedy' for $25 each, and that was during the mid '60s. It is interesting to note how the name for this azalea came about. According to the newspaper in Myrtle Creek, The Mail, June 26, 1969: "On Nov. 22, 1963, a Roseburg couple was admiring an unnamed azalea in the garden when the news of Kennedy's assassination was announced on the radio. This couple left and returned the next spring to purchase the Kennedy azalea. They explained that they were there the previous fall when Kennedy was assassinated. So the 'John F. Kennedy' azalea came into existence." The newspaper went on to say that "their original cutting sold for $5, but now with the Kennedy name the price jumped to $25 as it was rare and most desired."
When Mrs. Ted Kennedy came to Roseburg on the last Kennedy presidential campaign, the 'John F. Kennedy' azalea was given to her. She later wrote to thank Mr. Benesh saying how much she appreciated and enjoyed the flowers and that at the Kennedy home there were two 'John F. Kennedy' azalea bushes growing.
| 'John F. Kennedy'
Photo by Merle Sanders
The Beneschoen advertisements stated: "The most beautiful azaleas in the world grow in Douglas County." Among the ones they had in their garden and for sale were the "rarely seen Mollis, the best of the Ghents...a number of Knaphill... occidentale...and an extensive collection of Exburys." Besides these and the ones named above they grew and sold many seedlings. In Douglas County they were the best source of deciduous azaleas. They invited one and all to come and see their beautiful azalea garden and, of course, buy just a few.
What has happened to the garden since that time? Dr. Seely of Roseburg, since deceased, owned it for a short time because he was a lover of rhodies and azaleas and didn't want to see the garden deteriorate. In fact, he had a beautiful garden of his own in nearby Roseburg. He hired a caretaker, but it didn't work out and he sold it to another couple who started the "Open House" that continues to this day. They weren't very experienced, but they did as well as they could under the circumstances. Then there was another person who owned the garden for a short time, and then it was vacant for some time and you know how fast it goes downhill with no care at all.
Then the Taylors - Steve and Barbara - bought the garden about five years ago. They love plants but were unacquainted with azaleas. They were willing to work and learn. They are striving to resurrect the garden to the way it was under Otto and Ralph and of course add a few things of their own liking which makes a garden truly different from anyone else's. In a short time they joined the ARS which was a step in the right direction. They also are starting azaleas from seed. The first seed they planted was from open pollinated seed and they hope to make some good crosses in the years to come that will prove to be a benefit to the azalea trade. Besides the named ones mentioned above that Otto and Ralph hybridized they have many of their beautiful seedlings from which to take pollen. In a few years they will have some prize winners.
In the meantime they are looking for some plants that were listed in the original garden maps that have disappeared. Maybe you can help locate some of these. They are: 'Beneschoen's Nathaniel'**, 'Basilisk', 'Superba'*** - double pale pink Mollis, 'Graciosa'*** - double orange yellow Mollis, 'Nancy Waterer' - Ghent, 'Directeur Morlands' - Mollis, 'Nancy Buchanan', 'Gloria Mundi'*** and 'Red Lodge'.* Identities of some may never be known because tags have been lost from the plants or plants have been moved or tags put on wrong plants. Also, there are no labels or maps of the evergreen azaleas. One evergreen azalea was identified. It is 'Mossieanum' and it is about 6 to 8 feet tall. Very impressive. The freeze last winter of 0°F for a week damaged it some.
It has taken the Taylors all of this time - five years - to get the garden back in a fairly decent shape. It was so overgrown that at times all they could see was one stem of a plant that was 8 to 10 feet back in the briers and other plants that had overgrown it. They have worked hard at restoring this once beautiful garden, and it shows. In a short time now I am sure that if you visit Beneschoen Gardens you will find a garden as beautiful as it was when Otto and Ralph owned it originally. Maybe even better. As you drive down I-5 in Douglas County stop in at a little town called Myrtle Creek, Oregon, and drive just 4.5 miles up South Myrtle Creek Road and enjoy the company of Steve and Barbara Taylor and their garden.
Merle Sanders, a member of the Eugene Chapter, is a member of the ARS Azalea Committee.
* unregistered but no conflict with name of registered clones.
** known locally by illegitimate name of 'Nathaniel'.
*** registered name of several different clones.