What's New on the Blue Ridge?
A Look at Hybridizing in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Glenville, North Carolina
To answer this question, we must ask our hybridizers. Many years are required to grow a new plant to the time of its name registration. Some seedlings are very slow to mature. Then there is a period of time for evaluating the plant, its hardiness and general habits. There is much more to it than simply having a lovely bloom. Let's take a closer look at what our "gang" has been doing recently.
Now retired, physician Reid Bahnson began his hybridizing of rhododendrons in 1971 when he abandoned orchid hybrids that had refused to bloom after 20 years. Two hybrids have just been registered: 'Jeanie's Good Fortune' - a cross of ('Mary Belle' x 'Goldfort') x 'Yelton's cream-flowered fortunei; and 'County of Forsyth' - a cross of 'Lemon Ice'* x 'Madonna'. Most exciting has been his pure white (even in bud) Rhododendron catawbiense, written up in the 1988 Spring Journal. Now in tissue culture, these plants will, hopefully, be available at the convention. Also exciting to aficionados is Reid's breeding of deciduous azaleas of Stead and Yeats plants, personally selected in New Zealand. Reid, the past president of the North Carolina Botanical Foundation and a Winston-Salem native, is currently growing about 125 different hybrid crosses. This amounts to more than 1,500 plants, with about 140 superior plants "in the wings."
| Reid Bahnson cross: 'County of Forsyth' ('Lemon Ice' x 'Madonna')
Photo by Reid Bahnson
The late George Beasley began Transplant Nursery in Lavonia, Ga., as a hobby. George was fascinated by the native azaleas and spent many hours searching for unusual forms, taking and rooting cuttings and collecting seeds. His wife, Mary, and son, Jeffrey, have carried on his legacy. When Jeff and Lisa were married, the circle was complete. Outstanding have been the Choptank River group which are natural crosses of R. atlanticum and R. periclymenoides originally found in Maryland by Mrs. Polly Hill. George further crossed these with R. austrinum, among others, to produce hardy yellows with ball trusses. 'My Mary' and 'Kennell's Gold'* are some of the named crosses. Lisa has been doing much of the hybridizing lately, combining the various traits of other native species. Newer releases have been: 'Harry's Red'* (formerly known as "Harry's Speciosum") - a full dense plant covered with scarlet blooms in April, 'Currahee'* - orange, rosy pink edged blooms cover large plant in late May, and 'George Beasley'* - vivid rose with blue undertones and gold blotch, large fragrant blooms throughout June. With many hundreds of seedlings being grown, more will follow.
| Transplant Nursery cross: 'George Beasley'
Photo by Mary Beasley
Dr. Russell Gilkey, with his wife, Gloria, began hybridizing in 1972, when they acquired several acres of land in Kingsport, Tenn. Russ is especially interested in blotches, flares and bicolors. His main goal is to develop a white rhody with a scarlet blotch and good habits. As a retired research chemist with a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, he has an excellent scientific background for producing something great. Although there are no registered crosses, they have eight promising plants under observation and plenty of seedlings coming on.
| Russell and Gloria Gilkey cross:
'Besse Howells' x R. yakushimanum
Photo by Russ Gilkey
A curving gravel drive leads up to the home of C. Russell Haag, and his wife, Velma. Located in Cedar Mountain, N.C., a small community a few miles south of Brevard, N.C., their house is an almost round dwelling with plenty of windows and a mossy, wood-shingled roof. Paths, lined with all kinds of rhodies and wildflowers, lead in every direction. Both Velma and Russ are natives of Indiana and Purdue University grads. Velma was a professional cake decorator and Russ was a chemical engineer, now retired. They moved to their present property from New Jersey in the early 1970s and continued their hobby of hybridizing which began in the 1950s. Striving for the perfect yellow rhododendron, they would plan during the entire winter the crosses to be done in the spring. Not only were the immediate parents investigated but as many previous generations as possible. Although they are no longer making crosses, they are watching thousands of un-flowered seedlings, as well as several hundred mature plants. One just might be "the one." Their latest releases have been: 'Blue Ridge', a hardy blue lepidote (so blue it defies photographers to capture the intensity) and 'Whitewater North Carolina', a white elepidote. Some of their unregistered crosses have us all drooling.
| C. Russell and Velma Haag cross: unnamed Gable
seedling x unnamed Ted Richardson seedling.
Photo by Velma Haag
An instructor at Isothermal Community College, Wayne Hutchins is a resident of Forest City, N.C. He began making crosses in 1975, using 'Scintillation' AE and 'Janet Blair' with 'Wheatley' as the pollen parent. He has kept three of these seedlings, of which two are pink and one is tangerine. When he obtained a yellow hybrid from the Haags, which he describes as "dripping pollen," he began looking for new colors. New hybrids must be able to withstand the 95-degree heat of his Piedmont location. With more than 600 seedlings in his nursery, you can expect to see good things from Plants-A-Plenty.
| Wayne Hutchins cross: 'Janet Blair' x 'Wheatley'
Photo by Wayne Hutchins
When his newly purchased property in Hendersonville, N.C, proved to be too shady for vegetables, Dr. August Kehr turned to rhododendrons. A plant geneticist with a Ph.D. from Cornell University, Augie had retired from the USDA where he was an agricultural administrator. With his education, it was only natural that he would begin "tinkering" with the genetic structure of rhodies. Active in the ARS, he has held many offices both on the chapter level and in the Society. He is a past president of the Society and a frequent contributor to the Journal. He has received the ARS Gold Medal and has been elected to Who's Who in America. Working also with magnolias, he was awarded the D. Todd Gresham Award in 1992 by the International Magnolia Society. His dream of achieving a yellow evergreen azalea has been elusive, but he has produced 'Cream Ruffles'* in the near-yellow field. His quest for doubles is ongoing. A new release is 'Janet Flick'*, a double pink evergreen azalea that is useful as a groundcover. A most exciting new seedling, named 'Augie Kehr'*, is a double yellow rhododendron, a hybrid of 'Queen Anne's' (Skinner) x 'Golden Star'. With more than 20 hybrids being evaluated and an excess of 300 seedlings planted last year, expect something spectacular. You can bank on it!
| August Kehr cross: 'Augie Kehr'*
('Queen Anne's' [Skinner] x 'Golden Star')
Photo by Ed Collins
A native of Lenoir, N.C, and a practicing attorney, James Todd, Jr. has been actively hybridizing for more than a quarter of a century. His first knowledge of rhododendrons was of the natives that grew nearby in the Appalachians. When he was urged to visit a rhododendron flower show in Asheville, he learned that there were many more colors than the pink, white and purple of these natives. This experience aroused his interest in hybrids, and he began collecting them. In the years that followed, he visited or corresponded with most of the well-known hybridizers, frequently receiving plants, seeds or pollen from them. Desiring even better hybrids, he began working on his own. He was looking for clearer colors, better foliage and superior blooms. With many local awards for his trusses, Jim continues to evaluate a large number of seedlings. Among his registered plants are: 'Doctor Elton Trueblood', 'Elizabeth Todd Cobey', 'Mary Davis Cobey', 'Edwin Hartshorn' and 'Mary Todd'. More hybrids will be registered soon.
| James Todd, Jr. cross: 'Mary Davis Cobey'
('Tom Everett' x 'Exbury Naomi')
Photo by James Todd, Jr.
Only a few miles south of the North Carolina border in Walhalla, S.C, Dr. Clarence Towe works with native azaleas. An outdoorsman, Clarence hunts for unusual azaleas along the Appalachian Trail. On his somewhat limited growing space, he is very selective of his plants, destroying anything he deems inferior and replanting with newer seedlings. As an administrator for the Oconee County School System in S.C, with his Ph.D. in education from Clemson University, he is a part-time hobbyist. He began hybridizing in 1970 when he became interested in developing brighter colors with improved foliage and compact growth. Located in the foothills of the Appalachians, he was afforded ample opportunities to collect extra fine azaleas. Fishing, another of his interests, provides him with access to the lakes and streams where many of the natives prefer to grow. Rhododendron arborescens, with its glossy dark foliage and delightful fragrance, is his favorite. It is used often in his crosses. 'Cherokee Sun' is a natural hybrid collected in the wild, believed to be a cross of R. arborescens x R. calendulaceum or R. bakeri. 'Fontana' is also a natural hybrid, believed to be an R. arborescens x R calendulaceum or R. bakeri cross, with rose blooms and a yellow blotch. His favorite is 'White Lightning' which is compact, gold blotched and believed to be a natural hybrid of R. arborescens x R. calendulaceum or R. bakeri (see cover of Winter 1994 Journal for photo). For warmer climates, he is working on R. flammeum x R. canescens. Watch for his new releases through Transplant Nursery and The Cummins Garden, Marlboro, N.J.
There are others, too. Many are just getting started and, like the lottery ticket buyer, could hit the "jackpot." Ray Head of Rutherfordton, N.C, makes crosses whenever he finds something worthwhile. Charles Larus, a neighbor of Dr. Kehr, has been infected with the fever. Dan Veazey, MD, a family practitioner in the Hendersonville area, is one of our youngest members. He has a lively interest in hybrids, hikes about the mountains looking for specialized forms of natives and is just getting started. Active or retired, younger or older, this Blue Ridge area attracts many rhodophiles. Keep an eye out for our achievements.
Barbara Leypoldt is a member of the Southeastern Chapter.
Editor's Note: * Name unregistered but not in conflict with a registered name.