Doublespeak - or Doublecross?
Austin C. Kennell
The by-laws of the American Rhododendron Society state that the purpose of the Society is "the encouragement of the culture of rhododendrons, including azaleas, and the increase of the general understanding of and interest in all aspects of these plants." Now those are nice words! While they will never be mistaken for the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, they do have a certain substance to them. They should make any rhododendron feel downright secure in the knowledge that a whole society is committed to their welfare. They conjure up visions of a legion of men and women, standing akimbo, jaws jutting, fists clenched, ready to fight at the drop of a shovel to do whatever is necessary to insure a happy, healthy life for their beloved plants.
Alas, the truth of the matter, however, is something else. With friends like us, the rhodo doesn't need any enemies!
More than the coldest blasts of Mother Nature, the hottest rays of Old Sol, the insatiable chomping of borers, or the insidious cancer of root rot, we are responsible for the reputation of the rhododendron as a temperamental plant difficult to grow. Not so much for our treatment of rhodos in our own gardens - but what we don't do for rhodos in general.
Every year in just about every rhodoable area, many people make their first purchase of a rhododendron. So, a large number of people join the ranks of enthusiastic rhodo fans (and become potential ARS members) every year. Right?
Don't bet your plant auction money on it! What really happens is that a very large percentage of these rhodo-virgins not only don't become rhodo-hustlers (or ARS members) but rather join the rhodo-defamation league.
What happened? Well, too many of the plants die - and many that don't just sit there pleading for rhodo-euthanasia. What starts with ecstatic expectations, fizzles into expensive disappointments. And, the poor rhodo, already saddled with a less than euphemistic name, is again reviled with an undeserved reputation as difficult to grow.
Why? A lot of the rhodos bought each year are purchased direct from growers or from people who specialize in plants year round - and these usually can look forward to a long and healthy life. However, too many of the rhodos bought each year are purchased from "merchandisers," not plant specialists, and these don't have very good actuarial odds.
Rhodo-hucksters buy, advertise, sell rhodos for a few weeks each year. In most cases, their knowledge of the plants is limited to name, color, and price. Often though their rhodos actually look better than most sold through plant outlets - lush and heavily budded.
Some of these rhodos should have stayed in bed (at home, that is), as they were not suited to the area in which they were sold. Many are tough for even an experienced person to handle - root-bound, inadequate root system, etc. And almost without exception, they are sold without adequate planting and care instructions - and without a fighting chance. This goes on year after year, in area after area. And for the most part, we don't seem to do anything about this annual rhodocide. In a society blessed with so many knowledgeable, caring, and articulate members, we ought to be able to do a better job of living up to all those nice words in our bylaws. I'm sure a lot of rhodos would appreciate it!
Austin Kennell, a frequent contributor to the Journal and a member of the Middle Atlantic Chapter, served as ARS President from 1989-1991.