Tips for Beginners: Have You Entered A Show Lately?
Reprinted from the Potomac Valley Chapter newsletter, April 1993
If you listen to people who have never entered a rhododendron show, you might hear something like this: "I have no experience. I don't know what to do. How can I compete with those who have been showing a long time? They are almost professionals." The thought of competing in such an environment can be daunting, but it really should not be. Those who have been competing for a long time, those "professionals," had to start from the same place - no experience! So, how do you get experience? Obviously, by entering the competition.
There are a number of things that may be done to enhance the chances of winning, but the first step is to jump in and enter a show. Once that decision has been made, start asking questions about everything that has a bearing on the show. Learn how to select and groom a truss. Plan to help out at the show. Help set up. Help tear down. Offer to assist the judges by being a recorder, or one who places the ribbons on the winners. Study the show schedule. To sum up, the thing to do is to participate.
Of course, experience is the best teacher, but to provide a head start consider doing the following. Before growth has started, look over your collection of plants. Notice which have good leaves - those not eaten by insects and with few, if any, spots due to fungus. Look for plants with a good number of buds.
If you do some of your searching now, you will have a good idea which of your plants to watch as the buds start to swell. You can start to see a good truss developing if the color starts showing evenly around the lower part of the bud and each bract holds an emerging flower. Those places on the bud where color does not show indicate that a flower is missing and that the truss will be incomplete, although one or two missing flowers is not a disaster.
The bud normally opens from the bottom to the top. Hopefully, not much time will elapse between the opening of the top and bottom of the bud so that most of the flowers will open at the same time, and you will end up with a good choice for an entry.
If you feel that the flower will open too soon for the show, you may cut the truss early, placing it in a refrigerator to hold back its progress a few days. Sometimes the weather can be a problem because winds, heavy rains or thunder storms may ruin the truss you were planning to enter. Sometimes it is best to cut the truss to get it out of harm's way. Some people cover the truss on the plant with a plastic storage bag, but if you do so, remember to remove the plastic after the danger is past or you may "roast" the truss.
Perhaps it is time to discuss the ideal truss - the "Best In Show." I think most people have a picture of the ideal in their minds. The truss would be complete. There would be no missing flowers. All the flowers from top to bottom would be open and in good condition. There would be no spots of petal blight or other damage on the flowers. There would be no place on the truss where there is no flower, this is, the stem (pedicel) which supports the flowers holds the flowers in place and does not allow the flowers to separate to show the skeleton. (With some cultivars, this is normal, but in my mind it is difficult for a lax or open truss to win the Best In Show.) The truss would be a straight elongation of the stem, as usually occurs near the top of the plant. Those at the side of the plant have a bent stem with the bud turning upward - sometimes at nearly a right angle - and are undesirable. There would be a collar of leaves appearing to support the flowers, and that collar would be complete and symmetrical. The leaves themselves would not be damaged by insects or diseases, and they would have a good green color without a hint of chlorosis or yellowing. Inside the truss there would be no dead pips (flower buds that were killed and blackened by the winter cold). All of the bracts and bud coverings would be removed so that all that can be seen inside the truss is the truss itself. The leaves would be natural, with no leaf shine, dirt, or other foreign material.
For azaleas, both deciduous and evergreen, and for lepidote rhododendrons the entry may be a spray or a single truss or group of trusses. The size limit for a spray is usually 15 inches in any direction. At the show the entry will be passed through a hoop of the proper size. Any branches extending beyond the hoop must be cut off by the exhibitor before the spray can be accepted.
Most of the time a large spray of azaleas or small-leafed rhododendrons will win over a smaller group of flowers. On the other hand a medium sized, near perfect entry will win over a large entry with obvious faults. There is a balance then between bigness and perfection about which the exhibitor must decide. Presentation of the flowers is important. Some cultivars of azaleas cover themselves with flowers. Others allow some of the leaves to show. In either case the presentation must be pleasing to the eye. If there is too much green, or if the flowers are at locations which detract from the overall appearance, that entry is not likely to win. Sometimes an exhibitor takes entries from the lower part of the plant where the branch may droop. The stamens and pistil in each flower turn upward. When this type of spray is inserted in a vase, the flowers are upside down. This type of entry is unlikely to win.
Over the years I have seen only a handful of near perfect entries. There always seems to be a few faults. But think about it. The buds and leaves have been there on the plant since the previous fall. They have had to stand up to drought or excess rain, the desiccating late winter sun, snowstorms, freezing rain, high winds, the ups and downs of temperature, humidity, and light, and maybe more. It is, after all this, that we seek perfection. So continue seeking, but also learn to accept some faults. In entering the show, you enter the best that you have of each cultivar.
To do well in the show you must present each entry as best as possible, and that implies grooming. The best place to start grooming is with a good choice of the truss or spray. First, the plant itself should be in good condition, so that the flowers are turgid, i.e., holding a lot of water in their cells. If it has been a dry season, make sure the plant receives water a day or two before the entry is cut. It is best to do the cutting in the morning, before the heat of the day robs the water. The entry should be cut the morning before the show to allow it time to season. As soon as reasonable after the truss or spray is cut it should be brought inside. Make a fresh cut at the bottom of the stem to cut off the cells which may have died. Either crush the stem or cut it at a steep angle to increase the amount of water the cut flowers can take up. I have found little difference between the methods. After preparing the stem place the truss in bottle or other container filled with rather warm water. Warm water is absorbed more quickly than cold. The idea of seasoning is to fill the truss or spray with water so that it can survive through the judging and the show.
When all the material has been cut and placed in water it is time to start grooming. Look at each truss carefully and try to make it perfect. Remove all extraneous matter from the truss and leaves. You might start by looking up into the underside of the truss to see what needs to be done. Sometimes the shape and spacing of the leaves allows this. You may have to gently separate the flowers to look inside. Everything that is not stem or flower should be removed: dead pips, bracts, parts from trees above the plant, insects, etc. What is left should be a clean skeleton. Be careful not to damage the flowers.
Look at the leaves. It is best to clean them with a moist paper towel to remove accumulated dirt, bird droppings, or other things that should not be there. Do not use anything to add shine to the leaves as this will automatically disqualify the entry. Hopefully there will be no more than minor damage to a leaf or two. You can carefully cut the leaf of a rhododendron to remove minor damage. Trimming should be done in such a way as to maintain the shape of the leaf and enhance the appearance of the total entry. If a leaf is severely damaged consider removing it entirely. The question is, "Does the entry more nearly approach perfection with or without the damaged leaf?" Generally it is better to remove it. For all entries look closely at what is underneath or inside, and remove all extraneous material.
At this point I may look over the trusses to be entered and ask myself why I cut a particular one. It may leave a lot to be desired, and I question whether or not it should be entered. Almost always the answer should be yes. There have been many shows where a weak entry has taken a ribbon in a class because there were none better. To say it another way: if only almost perfect trusses were entered, there would hardly be a show. So bring the best you have of everything. You just never know what the judges will decide.
You now have a set of show stoppers sitting in the basement or kitchen or somewhere. The job is now to get them to the show site in good condition. There are many ways to do this. During transport, each truss must be separated from its neighbor so they do not damage each other as the vehicle goes around turns and over bumps. They must be in water, carried where there is no wind and where the air will not get too warm and wilt them. I have used shallow cartons upside down with holes cut in them for the bottles, which are then set in another carton. I have used soft drink crates to hold a few bottles. Some people have special boards with holes cut for containers. There are almost as many ways as there are people.
Your job is not over yet. Upon arrival at the show, the entry card must be filled out. Consult the show schedule to determine in which section each entry will be placed. On the entry card, enter the name of the cultivar, the section, and your name and town as indicated, and fold the card so that your name does not show. Attach the card to the bottle holding the truss and either place it in the proper section or have one of the show committee place it for you. When this has been done you may go somewhere to await the outcome of the judging.
Of course it would be better if, somehow, you were to help out in the show. During the judging no one outside the show committee may be in the showroom. One way of learning about shows is to be one of the committee that assists the judges. As the judges do the judging, there is a lot of discussion among them about the candidates for the ribbons, and by listening you can learn much of the criteria being used to determine the winner. There is usually a group attending each set of judges. Two or three sets of judges may be used, and each set needs a recorder and two people to attach the ribbons, so there is ample opportunity to help. Much can be learned too by helping to set up and tear down the show.
Your chapter needs your participation. The more entries, the better and more beautiful is the show. "Professionals" were mentioned at the start of this article. Because they have been competing for a long time, they are no longer young, and may find it more demanding and difficult than it once was. It is probably best to start grooming some future "professionals" now, and you are invited to be among the group.
Bruno Kaelin is a member of the Potomac Valley Chapter.