ARS Annual Convention in Vancouver
Some two years ago I was invited by Joe Ronsley to be a speaker at the Annual American Rhododendron Society Convention being held in Vancouver, British Columbia, in May 1997, organized by the Vancouver Chapter of the Society. Joe and his wife Joanne had first visited me at Rosemoor in the early 1980s and subsequently entertained several members of the International Dendrology Society (IDS) at Montreal prior to the Rocky Mountain tour in 1988. At that time he was a professor at McGill University; their hospitality was unbounded. The Ronsleys have since visited us here in New Zealand and joined in a couple of days plant hunting in the northern mountains of the South Island where we were led by Lawrie Metcalf and his wife Lena.
When the invitation arrived to visit Vancouver with all expenses paid, including my return flights, it was too tempting an offer to refuse, despite the fact that I had done very little public speaking since coming to live in New Zealand seven years ago. Having accepted, I had anxious thoughts for the next two years, hoping I could justify the faith that had been put in me and that I would be capable of giving a talk which was to be repeated twice over! The Ronsleys kindly invited me to stay with them before the convention; this proved to be a most enjoyable and entertaining experience.
In addition to my own modest contribution, other IDS members had been invited to give lectures. One was Chris Brickell, C.B.E., former Director General of the Royal Horticultural Society, recipient of the Victoria Medal of Honour and other distinguished awards; he was to give two talks. The other IDS speaker was Dick van Hoey-Smith, awarded the Veitch Memorial Medal by the RHS, the highest award given to a non-British member of the Society. Like me, he was to speak twice on the same subject.
Chris Brickell and his wife Jeanette were hosted by Victor and Mary Comber Miles, friends and neighbours of Joe and Joanne Ronsley with whom I was staying. Mary Comber Miles is the daughter of the famous plant hunter Harold Comber, who collected and introduced many new plants from South American, Tasmania and other countries, into cultivation in the United Kingdom; Mary is a skilled botanical painter and honorary artist to the VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver. Since the Miles are neighbours of the Ronsleys we were able to join forces for garden visiting and evening gatherings which the Ronsleys had arranged for us prior to the convention. During these four days it rained constantly day and night, but despite the weather we visited gardens of some of their friends and also the matchless 35-acre Asian Garden which is a part of the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden.
The day I arrived Joe took me on a tour of his and Joanne's garden which slopes steeply from the house down towards the sea - not an easy garden to manage but filled with a good collection of species rhododendrons and associated genera planted along winding, graded tracks and crossing at intervals a merry, fast-flowing stream which adds another dimension to this attractive garden. Gentians, meconopsis and ground cover plants are clearly planted on ledges beside the paths and along the stream. It is a still developing garden and will be a constant source of interest and work for both Joe and Joanne for many a year!
'Etta Burrows' in the Ronsley garden.
Photo by Glen Patterson
The following day we took a ferry to Sechelt to visit Erwin and Eva Diener, of Swiss nationality, who a few years ago built a house on top of a rocky hillside; here they have made a really splendid garden in a comparatively short period of time, covering a wide range of different plants growing in a variety of conditions. Starting in a woodland section with rhododendrons, magnolias and associated species prevailing, one continues into a more open area to find a fabulous collection of herbaceous and bulbous plants, all skillfully maintained by Eva and her husband. Of particular interest to me were several species of Arisaema, Epimedium, Viola and a charming group of Anemonella thalictroides in its rare white form, while one sheltered corner was being devoted to a collection of New Zealand plants which are often difficult to establish outside their natural habitats. While perhaps Eva is predominate in the garden, she is also an artist of repute, and Erwin is a scientist specializing in immunology and as a hobby an astronomer complete with telescope and camera attached for photographing the galaxies, all installed in the roof of the house. After a wet but fascinating tour of the garden a delicious lunch of soup made with unsieved lentils and vegetables proved a wonderfully satisfying and delectable meal for a cold, wet day which, combined with an abundance of excellent wines, engendered cheerful conversation. After this we were invited to climb up an inside ladder and, through a small aperture, to see the telescope and hear a little about the wonders of the universe from Erwin.
Charles Sale and his wife Margaret Charlton have developed a garden in a woodland setting. Like the Ronsley's, it runs down a steep slope to another of the numerous sea inlets which are such a feature of the waterways of Vancouver. The narrow paths which wound down the almost perpendicular hillside were planted on both sides with a tremendous collection of rhododendrons, including many rarities such as the true Rhododendron lepidostylum, so often wrongly named, masquerading as R. trichocladon; Meconopsis x sheldonii and M. grandis seemed very happy in this situation with plenty of rain to sustain them in a climate comparable to their native habitat. After a wet but extremely interesting exploration of this important collection we passed a well-organized area set aside for propagation (another example of the expertise of these two dedicated gardeners) and were entertained to a delicious lunch in a relaxed atmosphere. There was no indication of the task lying ahead for our host and hostess, that of coordinating the huge number of buses required for conveying members to the gardens selected for two days of trips planned to be held during the convention. As the total number of convention members amounted to over 500, arranging the transport was no mean task, especially as limited access to many of the gardens prevented more than one or two buses arriving at the same time.
Peter Wharton, Anne Berry, and Hideo Suzuki at the UBC Botanical Garden.
Photo by Joe Ronsley
In passing I have already referred to the "matchless" University of British Columbia Botanical Garden. Still in torrential rain, and accompanied by the Japanese delegate Hideo Suzuki, who came with the Ronsleys directly from the airport, we spent a very interesting two hours, meeting first Bruce Macdonald, the director, who was officially to open the convention proceedings on the morrow, and thereafter being conducted round the Asian Garden collection by Peter Wharton, the curator. In this fairly benign, temperate climate surrounded by sea and mountainous coastal forest of Douglas fir, there is an abundance of rain but also hot dry spells in summer; during the convention the climate seemed near perfect, with the blue skies and warm sunshine of spring. To mention every plant which we saw that morning is not possible here but to refer to some which seemed outstanding to me is perhaps of interest. On arrival at the office block we were faced by a hedge of Paeonia suffruticosa 'Rockii' - this form introduced into the United States varies slightly from that distributed in the United Kingdom by Sir Frederick Stern, I was told, being more pink in bud. There were buds galore and on a later visit some had come into flower and a truly memorable sight they were. Crossing a wooden bridge we looked down on a small lake skillfully planted with Rodgersia, Hosta, Epimedium and Euphorbia and beyond was a fine specimen of Rehderodendron macrocarpm some 6 meters high with wide, spreading branches, in full flower; close by a shrubby, suckering plant of Sorbus pseudo-vilmorinii caught my eye; it has pink fruit and would be a good species for a small garden. Notable also were Sinocalycanthus chinensis, Heptacodium miconioides, Meliosma veitchiorum, Ilex zhegiangensis - the holly in particular being a new introduction with strikingly long, glossy leaves. A very good form of Rhododendron thomsonii, collected by Roy Lancaster, had waxy, very dark wine-red flowers. It appears that a great many of the present generation of plant collectors send seed to this garden and one can only hope that it will continue and the garden used as a holding ground for plants rare and endangered in the wild. The collection comprises many new and important introductions, including species of Quercus, Lithocarpus and Castanopsis to mention just a few of the genera present.
R. quinquefolium with 'Sonota'
in the Glen Patterson garden.
Photo by Glen Patterson
Next day, the last prior to the convention, we woke up to see blue skies and bright sunshine, and luckily this weather pattern continued throughout the convention. The Ronsleys took us to West Vancouver to visit Glen Patterson, whom I had met briefly at the end of the 1988 IDS tour. His property overlooks a waterfront park, and with a backdrop of towering Douglas firs makes an ideal setting for this beautiful and interesting garden. Glen cultivates a very large number of good plants which are grown in a comparatively small area, and he follows the Japanese garden style of careful and constant pruning to keep each plant within its allotted space. At the entrance is an attractive oak species, Quercus phillyreoides with pinkish young growth, pruned to keep the plant small and bushy; there are some good rhododendrons of recent in introduction such as Rhododendron kesangiae and R. coeloneuron and some large-leafed species. Clever plant associations are prevalent, quite simple but effective, like Dicentra eximea 'Alba' and Corydalis 'Pere David'; Hydrangea indo-chinensis with striking purple under-leaf indumentum combined well with Baptisia australis 'Alba'. Mouthwatering groups of shortias, both the American and Japanese species, were the envy of us all, and there was much else to see but too little time to absorb such a wealth and variety of plants. Once again we were handsomely entertained to an excellent lunch, the main course comprising local sole which resembles the Dover sole found in European waters where, in Britain at least, it is regarded as a great delicacy.
After all these interesting garden visits and meeting with so many friendly and hospitable people, the time came for the convention to begin and I moved from the comfort of the Ronsleys' home in Lions Bay to an excellent hotel of the Westin Group in Vancouver where most of the delegates were staying. My room overlooked part of the port and a marina; at intervals one could watch ferries and boats coming and going on their journeys to peninsulas and ports along this most dissected coastline, and even an old paddle-wheel boat offered tours on the waterways.
The first day of the convention was spent visiting a selection of gardens with the accent on rhododendrons, and to my delight I found Eva Diener had booked on the same bus so we were able to spend the day in each other's company which for me especially was a particular pleasure, since I was now on my own without the company of the kind Ronsleys.
In the hotel a large room had been allocated for plant sales where a wide range of rhododendrons in all shapes and sizes were displayed in pots and a multitude of tissue culture plants in their original tubes. Another room contained tables of trusses set out for evaluation and in another books, arts and crafts were on display, the two latter executed by talented people of Vancouver. One was Mary Comber Miles, who "comes from several generations of distinguished botanists and horticulturists. This background...has put her work into a unique category of being scientifically acceptable to both plant enthusiasts and art collectors." On sale were her illustrated note cards and the first prize for a winning raffle ticket, a painting she had donated of Rhododendron williamsianum. Ron Feicht was exhibiting his pottery and I bought some elegant pots for presents to my friends in Vancouver. Rosemary Burnham had worked under Ann Farrer at Kew and was exhibiting some of her work; there was also a photographic competition.
That first evening of the convention was devoted to an Official Opening and Welcome by Bruce Macdonald, director of the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden. This was followed by dinner after which an erudite talk was given by Richard Pearson entitled "Rhododendrons and Their Home in Asia's Misty Mountains." This set the standard of the speakers invited from several countries to address this large convention. Delegates mostly came from the United States together with Canadians, Australians, British, Japanese, Dutch and New Zealanders. Imagine my increasing apprehension in taking part in such a high-powered representation of speakers!
Chris Brickell gave his first talk on the second evening, the whole convention party present following dinner. His lecture was entitled "A Chinese Odyssey: Plant Hunting in Yunnan"; it was very well received and his slides showing some of the fascinating mountain plants were excellent.
Just one of the three and a half days of the convention was devoted to the lectures. They took place in two halls each holding around 250 persons, and the talks ran concurrently so members had to select one of two talks at each session. The Japanese representative, Hideo Suzuki, and I started the ball rolling and we were both expected to speak for 45 minutes. Once underway this was no problem for me, and with a variety of slides, mostly borrowed, I found no difficulties. At the end quite a number of people came up to question me and collect leaflets on Rosemoor and Hackfalls. My talk was entitled "Amateur Gardening Experiences" and virtually amounted to an abbreviated life history with reference to Rosemoor prior to the RHS taking over, and to Hackfalls. In the afternoon the performances were repeated so I never got to hear Hideo, whom I heard was very interesting and humorous. Dick van Hoey-Smith spoke on rhododendrons and showed some fine slides of his important arboretum Trompenburg situated in the centre of Rotterdam, which he has now gifted to the city. His collection of hardy rhododendrons both species and cultivars; his fine trees amongst which is a big oak collection; conifers many of which are dwarf cultivars, and an enormous range of host species and cultivars combine to make an important display of great benefit to visitors and specialists. Charles Nelson, formerly of the Dublin Botanic Gardens, spoke in the morning on "Irish Gardens and Their Plants" and in the afternoon he gave a romantic dissertation on The Burren in Ireland, a wild and wonderfully remote limestone area in the west of that counry. Peter Wharton, curator of the UBCBG, spoke of "Rhododendron Species for Larger Landscapes in the Pacific Northwest"; Dan Hinkley, a well-known nurseryman from the North Kitsap Peninsula near Seattle, spoke in the morning on "Tree and Shrub Companions for Rhododendrons in the Shaded Garden" and his afternoon lecture was entitled "Unusual Herbaceous Plants for the Shaded Garden." Hideo Suzuki, whom I was unable to hear owing to my own talks running concurrently, spoke twice on "A Selection of Japanese Rhododendrons and Maples."
Joan Bengough was the overall convention chairman, organizing so many diverse activities. Joe Ronsley and his committee, whose task it had been to invite and coordinate the speakers, achieved a really good mix with a splendid final evening banquet. The president of the Vancouver Rhododendron Society, Carolyn Finlay, had had a very active week proving her competence too, as an organizer and coordinator; she conducted the Raffle Draw. The evening was concluded with a talk by Walter Ostrom on "Developing a Garden on the North Atlantic." He showed some wonderful slides, accompanied by a very amusing commentary, on the amazing achievement of creating a magnificent garden in a most unexpected and seemingly hostile part of the world - on the coast of Nova Scotia. He was most entertaining in describing his efforts and we were able to see some remarkable results with rhododendrons growing in what one would expect to be very alien situations; especially notable were the dwarfs and alpines cleverly planted amongst rocks for drainage and shelter where they appeared to be growing very happily; and some of the large-leafed species thrived too even though from one or two of the slides the surrounding wind-swept coast made one marvel that anything in the nature of a rhododendron could survive! This talk, in a somewhat different context, was repeated next morning and was equally informative and enjoyable. Both talks gave me an urge to see that extraordinary place and the garden which had been created with such skill in such unfriendly conditions!
After Walker Ostrom's second talk Chris Brickell wound up proceedings with slides and a description of "Rosemoor - Present and Future." This carried on where I left off in my talks, with slides showing how the transformation from farmland to gardens had been achieved with the resultant outcome now drawing crowds exceeding 100,000 a year. For me it was very moving to be reminded of that familiar farm territory as it was until 1988 and to see on film what it had now become: a remarkable achievement by the director and curator of Rosemoor whose combined skills of engineering and botany had made such a transformation possible in so short a time.
Thus ended the convention which was really enjoyable while my whole visit to Vancouver had given me lasting impressions of this fine area of Canada. On my final day Lillian Hodgson, aged 85, drove me skillfully to the UBCBG once more, this time in glorious sunshine which enabled me to see yet more of the fabulous collection of Asian plants there. We had lunch at the VanDusen garden restaurant and in the evening I was honoured to be invited to share Mothers' Day with the Ronsley family, to meet their son, his wife and four delightful children aged 3 to 9, all of whom are highly intelligent and of justifiable pride to their grandparents. It transpired that the young couple and their family had spent a period in Wanganui, New Zealand, during his training as a psychiatrist and they promise to re-visit the country and come and see us here some time in the future.