With the receipt of the New Zealand Rhododendron Association Bulletin, it is noted with regret the passing of that Association's president and founder. A summary of Mr. Stead's work with rhododendron is given in the Yearbook of the American Rhododendron Society, 1947, Vol. 3.)
The activities of Edgar Stead however, which principally concern the members of the New Zealand Association are undoubtedly those which he devoted to the culture and propagation of rhododendrons and azaleas. His hybridizing of both genera entailed a great deal of careful study and patience in which only an expert could succeed.
Some of the rhododendron crosses produced at Ilam, the garden of Mr. Stead are of such wonderful quality and size that they bear comparison with anything of their kind in the world. There are some of the later crosses which are still to flower which may also give something of outstanding merit.
Mr. Stead's knowledge of this work was duly recognized when he was asked to judge at the Rhododendron Society's Show in England - a great honor which he in due time accepted. Christchurch is not an ideal situation for rhododendron as the rainfall averages about 25 inches yearly which is hardly sufficient for them to obtain full vigor and hardihood. This rainfall is not very evenly distributed as most of it falls during the winter while the summer and autumn months are often dry, hot and windy, so that expert knowledge is required to bring them to the perfection which is seen at Ilam. One factor which has made a great difference to the health of both azaleas and rhododendrons, particularly at Ilam was undoubtedly Edgar Stead's copious use of sawdust as a mulch.
Mr. Stead was probably a pioneer in the use of sawdust for rhododendron mulch, and showed how it could profitably be applied. He was a firm believer in spreading it during the late Autumn and Winter, so that it would get a thorough soaking in the Winter months. By so doing the moisture was retained about the roots of the plants during the dry periods of the year. Before the use of sawdust many of the rhododendrons were in very poor shape and constantly required frequent applications of water. After the use of sawdust as a mulch there was very little need for this watering and it's rare to find a plant that is not in perfect health. Before the use of sawdust many of the rhododendrons were in very poor shape and constantly required frequent applications of water.
With reference to Mr. Stead's many fine crosses only a few of them will be mentioned, for they are many, of a great variation in color and form. Those of you who are familiar with such crosses as 'Ham Violet' and the various crosses of 'Cornubia', 'Hookeri' to quote only a few must pay tribute to Edgar Stead's great skill as a hybridizer.
Azaleas also at Ilam perhaps give a greater wealth of brilliant color than even the rhododendrons, though there is not the same variation of types and colors as in the latter.
The size of the azalea flowers and trusses is remarkable and this has to a large extent been brought about by breeding crosses which although flowering profusely do not produce an abundance of seed. The usual hybrid azaleas are so often apt to lose much of their vigor by the excessive amount of seed set each year. The Ilam hybrids, however are so vigorous in their growth that in some cases the increase in height ranges between four and five feet in a year. Even the oldest bushes look a picture of health and bloom so profusely that they make a wonderful riot of color.
It was not only in the growing of rhododendrons and azaleas that Edgar Stead had such aptitude, but it was his skilled use of situation and blending of colors that made his homestead so attractive. There are countless other flowers and shrubs growing at Ilam which show that great range of interests in the various branches of gardening which only could be attained by such an enthusiast.
All who knew Edgar Stead' must be grateful to him for the willing and cheerful way in which he gave them advice as to how and where to plant rhododendrons and other plants.
It is most unfortunate that Edgar Stead could not have lived longer to see the full and glorious fruition of his patient endeavors in the breeding of azaleas and rhododendrons. The wonderful display of such varied flowers, plants and trees that flourish at Ilam will be a lasting tribute to one of New Zealand's greatest horticulturalists.