H.L. Larson's Rhododendron Legacy
"If an area grows rhododendrons, it's a good place to live; it's a good place for man. If it doesn't grow rhododendrons, get out of there!"1
Hjalmar Larson offered this sage advice to the garden editor of the Tacoma News Tribune, Malcolm MacNey, when he was well into his sixth decade of hybridizing and propagating the plants that were his passion. Though he is a fountainhead of rhododendron culture in the American Pacific Northwest, there is surprisingly little mention of him in related literature. This article is a modest attempt to share his contributions and, in a small way, pay tribute to him.
Hjalmar Larson was born in 1897 in Tacoma, Wash. As a child he was greatly influenced by an uncle, Henry Nelson, the first college graduate in the family, who was an excellent botanist. It was not long before young Hjalmar was building gardens in vacant lots and collecting rock plants. In his early 20s he "started fooling around with rhodies". His formal education had ended with the eighth grade, but, as will happen with those who become fascinated with a subject, he educated himself by reading everything available about rhododendrons and by corresponding with those who had like interests around the world. He thereby became a recognized expert himself.
He went to work in the local sawmills, rising to the position of sawyer, the top man on whose organization and decisions the success of the mill rested. At the same time he established a small nursery in the backyard of his home in Tacoma's North End. Some of his first plants were grown from seed he had sent for from China and Japan. He made an exacting study of which hybrids and species should give the best results in hybridization and then imported the best and the latest rhododendrons available from Holland and the British Isles.
He also went back to "the source" and accumulated a fine collection of species rhododendrons. Many of his early species came from the Greigs at Royston, British Columbia. Many others he grew from seed collected in the wild, the best of which he selected and attached the name "Bergie" in honor of his wife, Berghild. Still others were acquired through the network of friendships that he cultivated around the world, amongst whom were Dr. Rokujo of Japan, Seleger of Switzerland, and John Patrick of the United States. In this way Larson introduced plants never before grown in America. Britt Smith, a close friend of Larson, recalls accompanying H.H. Davidian to the Larson Nursery after its relocation to Bridgeport Way. Britt, himself, had wondered about the accuracy of identification of plants at the nursery, as some did not follow the published descriptions. All doubts were dispelled on the drive home when Davidian commented, "You know, that garden is the best and most accurately labeled species collection in the country that I have visited."
|H. L. Larson|
As a hybridizer, H.L. Larson was prolific, proud and discriminating. His earliest work involved large growing rhododendrons, the best cross of the period being 'Marinus Koster' x 'Snow Queen'. This seed produced three plants that each received the Preliminary Award and were registered as 'Mrs. Elizabeth Titcomb', 'Diane Titcomb' and 'Julie Titcomb'. He soon came to realize, though, that what the average homeowner needed was a plant more compact in size but which had the big, full truss of the large plants. Thus, he began crossing dwarfer plants, such as R. williamsianum, R. didymum2 and R. repens3 with plants with greater flowers. He was one of the first to hybridize with R. yakushimanum and was rewarded with a good yellow (unnamed) and 'Crimson Pippin' (yak #6 x R. haemaleum4)which remains one of the best first generation red yak hybrids. Another goal was to develop a hardy, clear yellow, the results of which are still appearing and being registered. Among these are 'Mrs. Lammot Copeland', 'Hazel Fisher',* 'Pacific Gold', 'Golden Folly', 'Virginia Scott' and 'Bergie Larson'. It just may be, though, that Larson will best be remembered for his reds. Larson had selected a very fine form of R. strigillosum whose off spring are 'Etta Burrows', 'Bert Larson', 'Double Winner',* 'Red Majesty' 'Larson's Crossroads'* and probably the finest, 'Malahat'. All in all, Larson registered 64 plants and felt that another 38 were deserving of registration, but the procedure was never completed.
Some Larson hybrids were raised and introduced by other growers, including 'Spun Gold', 'Len Loving'* and 'Ice Floe'. Joe Davis of Sumner, Wash., has registered Larson progeny under the names 'Claire', 'Diny Dee', 'Golden Wedding', 'Orange Marmalade' and 'Rosy Dream'. Larson crosses registered by Fred Minch include 'Skookum' and 'Skookumchuck'*.
"One thing about Larson that I think is important to mention," Joe Davis said, "is how many Larson hybrids are being used by today's hybridizers to develop the next generation of better and more beautiful plants."
Another facet of the Larson legacy was the seed business which supplemented the cash flow in what would have been the slow season at the nursery. Each fall, requests would begin to pour in for his latest seed list. In 1931, seed of 204 species, from R. aberconwayi to R. zaleucum, were offered. He also made available seed from several dozen of his latest crosses. At one time he was probably the single largest source of rhododendron seeds in the world! In the fall, if you were privileged to enter the inner sanctum of his basement office, you would find every surface covered in newspaper on which seed capsules were drying. Then, at year's end, when all the sorting and cleaning was done, a single typewritten sheet went 'round the world to tell what was available. But: "Before anyone starts raising rhododendrons from seeds, Larson advises two things: Acquiring plenty of land and reading David Leach's Rhododendrons of the World, the book Larson believes is the finest there is on the subject."1 A stack of photographs from happy customers showed their seedlings growing in Argentina, Japan, Mexico and elsewhere.
When someone is so devoted to a subject, it is possible for very strong feelings and opinions to form. To some, Larson was "cantankerous". Perhaps it was just impatience with others who had opinions less painstakingly molded than his own. On at least three occasions, plants named for prominent customers suddenly had their names withdrawn! One can only chuckle when imagining what transgression could have occurred to cause such an act. On another occasion, Larson took offense when an American Rhododendron Society form was returned to him for further minor details. Complaining that the forms were unnecessarily complex, Larson thereafter bypassed the ARS and registered directly through the Royal Horticultural Society!
On the other hand, if he sensed that you were keen to learn and at least willing to listen to "the world according to Hjalmar", he was very caring and giving. For a number of years he hosted his own radio gardening show and one of his special delights was to conduct young school groups through the garden. Said Evelyn (Jack) Weesjes, whose friendship Larson included among his closest, "He was always so enthusiastic and eager to share his accumulated knowledge with a neophyte like me. Those visits were always a delight and I often wondered why Mr. Larson should favor me so". Another example of his generosity was the presentation of collections of his choicest plants to the University of British Columbia and to the Great Park at Windsor. In 1979 he was awarded the American Rhododendron Society's Gold Medal.
Larson could never think of retiring from the work that he loved so much. Orris Thompson, retired former horticultural supervisor at Tacoma's Point Defiance Park, remembers: "Even in those final days visiting in the hospital, he continued to be very upbeat. Always the hybridizer, his looking forward to future crosses and his seed business kept him going. In particular, he had been working towards heat resistant rhodies that would stand the hot summers of Japan".
It has now been almost 10 years since his passing. His nephew, Bert Larson, who had worked for years at the nursery, considered carrying on the operation, but with years to go until retirement from his own full-time job, the task was just too great. The property was sold and Bert oversaw the dissolution of the plant collection. Ken Gambrill of the Rhododendron Species Foundation was invited to take first pick for what might be of interest for their collection. Great care was taken to place special plants in gardens where they would be appreciated and preserved.
I have observed that the name Larson is one that endures. Hardly a gathering of rhododendron aficionados goes by that one does not hear, "Mr. Larson told me once..." or "old Larson used to...". He, along with Halfdan Lem, Bill Whitney, Ernest Anderson, Don McClure, Karl Sifferman, Harry Madison and Ben Nelson are the founding fathers of rhododendron culture in the Puget Sound. The richness of the legacy they have left in part explains why so many of our communities have their own ARS chapters - that and the fact that as an area it grows great rhododendrons!
(The author thanks Evelyn Weesjes, Bert and Betty Larson, Britt Smith, Joe Davis and Orris Thompson for assistance in preparing this article.)
1 Tacoma News Tribune, Sparetimer, Feb. 16, 1980, p.2.
2 R. didymum (syn. sanguineum ssp. didymum)
3 R. repens (syn. forrestii var. forrestii)
4 R. haemaleum (syn. sanguineum ssp. haemaleum)
* Name unregistered but not in conflict with a registered name.
Bob Minnich is a member of the Tacoma Chapter and a former contributor to the Journal.