The Rhododendron Page on the World Wide Web
The idea of creating a World Wide Web site devoted to rhododendrons began after talking to Tom Conover, a fellow rhododendron fancier, who mentioned that Tyler Arboretum had a major collection of East Coast rhododendron hybrids, many of which have not been registered or named. Tyler Arboretum, with help of the local ARS chapters, was attempting to catalogue the rhododendrons in the collection. At the same time, my sister Barbara and I, both veteran Internetters, had been toying with the idea of putting up a Web page just for the experience of doing it. Here was the perfect opportunity to do something constructive while learning to write HTML (HyperText Markup Language, the language of the World Wide Web). We searched the Web for sites devoted to rhododendrons, and found very few (that was in late 1994). The Pukeiti site, the Rhododendron Species Foundation site, and the Meerkerk Gardens site had appeared over the previous year, but there was little else, and all of these sites lacked the one thing we thought we could provide - pictures, and not just a smattering of pictures, but quality pictures of as many hybrids, varieties, cultivars and species as we had time (and money) for.
We began taking pictures as the plants at Tyler started blooming, not yet knowing how we would get them into digital form and onto the Net. We began by taking 35mm slides with the idea that these could be scanned into Kodak photo CD format after being developed. That turned out to be a mistake. Uncut print film could be scanned for about $0.69/picture, while slides or cut film cost $1.29/picture, and since a standard photo CD holds about 100 pictures, the difference was about $70 per CD. Of course all of the inevitable "bad" pictures were scanned along with the good ones, but the cost savings made it worthwhile.
Although photo CDs come in a series of resolutions up to 3,072 by 2,048 pixels, those high resolution files are too big for Internet use (about 18 megabytes per picture). Besides, HTML doesn't support the photo CD format, so each picture had to be changed to a size and format acceptable to the World Wide Web standards to load reasonably quickly and not use up the total 8 megabytes of server space we had available. We opted for 512 by 341 pixels at a color depth of 24 bits, or16.7 million colors. This would allow us about 250 pictures total. Using a lower color depth (say, 8 bit, or 256 colors) might have made the pictures more readable and faster loading for low-end video systems, but we stuck with 24 bit color so that people with high-end monitors and video cards could appreciate the "true color" pictures. Since photo CDs have an inherent tendency to look "flat," we used digital enhancements in Paintshop Pro, L-View Pro, or Adobe Photoshop to give them more "snap."
After writing the pages, designing the logo, proofing, and endless discussions about backgrounds, colors, etc., the pages were uploaded to the server on Aug. 8, 1995. The response to the site was immediate and gratifying. On Aug. 12, our site was named "Gorski's Cool Site of the Day." On Aug. 21, a German site, "der Web des Tages," named us "Web of the Day." On Aug. 30, Mecklerweb's "Webpointer" named us "Cool Site of the Week." Many other awards continue to come in (see our "Accolades page"). The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Dr. Homer Salley, co-author (with Harold Greer) of Rhododendron Hybrids: a Guide to Their Origins and Rhododendron Hybrids: Second Edition, graciously joined us as a co-author and, along with Dr. Tom Conover, has been answering many of the questions that we get by E-mail from all over the world. Many of the questions concern diseases or carry a brief discussion of symptoms afflicting a plant or plants. Not being plant pathologists, we generally refer these people to their local Extension Service. Quite a number of questions have been about pruning, a topic we didn't cover, but which we may add later, and quite a number are about propagating, something many people seem to be interested in. We've had letters from Exbury Gardens wanting to swap plants or germplasm, and from the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, asking for a link to their site. Finally there are those who want to know where to get a certain hybrid, or want an identification based upon their description of a favorite plant, those who want to know whether they should plant under black walnut trees, or whether they should fertilize now or later, etc., etc. It's a humbling experience to put a work like this on the World Wide Web for all the world to see. If you've made a mistake, someone will point it out to you. If they don't like the way you've done something, they'll let you know. But the advantage of this medium over the printed word is its flexibility. When a mistake or typo is brought to your attention, it can be corrected quickly, something you can't do in print. And the site can be under constant revision and (hopefully) improvement. New pages can be easily inserted, and outdated material can be deleted. In the world of the Web, if a site isn't under constant construction, it soon looks "dated," and the number of visitors will start to fall off. We average about 60 "hits" per day. It's not a huge number, but that's more than 20,000 every year. We consider that a very reasonable number of visitors for what is admittedly a special interest site. One outcome of having put up this site is that I have been asked to assist with creating and running the Web page for the American Rhododendron Society, which should debut on the World Wide Web sometime this fall or winter. The "Webmaster" at the ARS page will be Stuart Celarier, who has also created "Rhododendrons Galore," a demonstration site with links to most of the important rhododendron pages on the Web. Since websites are constantly evolving entities, we both would welcome your suggestions about what you think should be included in the ARS website. Stuart can be reached by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I can be reached at: email@example.com.