Commentary: A Tribute to H. H. Davidian
Mavis Richmond Paton, B.Sc., Ph.D.
When I got the chance of a place at Edinburgh University after the War, I wanted to take a degree in horticulture but there was no such course in those days. So I read botany and the classes and lectures were based at the Royal Botanic Garden.
At that time, much emphasis was placed on teaching the classification of flowering plants. The order beds were just a step outside the classrooms and the glass houses were full of species representing tropical families. There was also the magnificent rhododendron house with its extensive collection of Maddenii species. Those beautiful fragrant blooms kindled my lifelong interest in the genus, and I have never ceased to grieve that the house was dismantled in subsequent modernization.
The students are also long gone, the Department of Botany being moved to the other side of Edinburgh to be accommodated alongside the other science departments. Botany and horticulture seem to have parted company somewhere along the line.
From the beginning of the century to the outbreak of the Second World War, the botanists at Edinburgh Botanic Garden cooperated with gardeners to their mutual benefit. Many of the large garden owners provided financial backing for the plant collectors risking their lives in Southeast Asia to bring back new garden plants, especially rhododendrons. The flowering plants raised by these gardeners provided valuable additional information for the taxonomists in the herbarium.
Time moves on, however, and revision including reclassification seems to be the order of the day involving many plant families. More than one botanist has worked on Rhododendron classification since the War, including Seithe, Sleumer and Spethmann before Cullen and Chamberlain produced their recent revision. All these botanists based their classification on herbarium material only.
I believe that to most gardeners classification is not the main priority. It is nomenclature - the naming of the plants that they are growing - that is their first concern. Up till now books from which one could name species rhododendrons have been practically non-existent. One needs a manual which is explicit and relatively simple to use, and if based on a familiar system of classification all the better.
At long last we have such a manual in H. H. Davidian's three volume work on the Rhododendron species. A fourth volume on the azaleas is to follow.
Davidian's study of the genus covers a period of over 40 years. The work involved not only a study of herbarium material but an assessment of practically all species and forms in cultivation in the British Isles, Ireland and the West Coast of North American.
For a professional taxonomist, this extensive study of plants in cultivation is unique. In his travels round the country, he gave freely of his time and knowledge to garden owners and members of rhododendron groups. He also spent many hours at the Edinburgh Botanic Garden naming specimens for growers.
Davidian is that vital link between the taxonomist in the herbarium remote from the world of horticulture and the gardener trying to cope with a large and difficult genus.
Horticulture owes him an immense debt of gratitude for his contribution to our knowledge of rhododendrons. It is my opinion that his published work will be the horticultural manual of the future and will be consulted long after the discussion on classification has died away.
Mavis Richmond Paton is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh with an honors degree in botany and a Ph.D. in bacteriology. For more than 30 years she has been a partner in the nursery of King and Paton which specializes in rhododendron species.