Lester Brandt: Tacoma Nurseryman and Hybridizer
North Vancouver, British Columbia Canada
Reprinted from the Atlantic Chapter, May 1997, newsletter
Several years after leaving England, I was transported back to Tower Court by the scent of new rhododendron growth and late flowers on bushes trapped, not under Scotch pines, but under our western Douglas fir. This occurred in the nursery of Lester Brandt located near Tacoma, Washington. This experience, still vivid in my memory, only happened once. While working at Tower Court I don't recall a special scent even though we were amongst the greatest concentration of species in England.
When I started working in Vancouver in 1954, after Tower Court, the leading local nurseryman here stocked four rhododendrons - 'Fabia', ponticum, and two "nothings" created by the local rhododendron enthusiast, George Fraser. After the formation of the Vancouver Rhododendron Society in 1955, interest in the more rare and odd plants started to develop, and I took it upon myself to wander through the nurseries of the Pacific Northwest in pursuit of unusual material.
Twice a year, with request lists from chapter members and a plant permit in hand, I would head south. In 1961 Canadian Customs became curious why someone living in an apartment would be buying and importing hundreds of dollars worth of plants. They sent round an inspector and fortunately it turned out to be Ed Darts, a friend who also belonged to the Alpine Garden Club of B.C. The American nurserymen would charge me the full amount but would make out the bills for exactly half price. This allowed me to return with twice the permitted value! First I'd buy a few plants and have them inspected; then I'd continue on buying a whole collection. Once I returned with 50 Exbury azaleas and on another trip with 30 clematis in one gallon cans.
Over the years most of the first rhododendron introductions to British Columbia were brought here in this way. Although I never made anything from these ventures, they were always enjoyable events and great fun too.
Back to Lester Brandt's nursery. The first time I visited, the gate was open and I walked in. Lester was busy killing an animal known as a mountain beaver. Apparently mountain beavers and rhododendrons don't mix. He was very surprised to see me watching the process and his greetings were rather coarse and my reply was even more forceful. A great start! Being an ex-marine, Lester had the reputation of being a very difficult man. But he and I got along very well - maybe because we had similar ideas on hybridizing, maybe because I was a good customer. As a marine, Lester had served in the Pacific and he also collected books about the war in that area. When he got to know me, I would come home with his books, returning them six months later. He was one of the very earliest American rhododendron hybridizers, but time has shown that his goals were in the wrong direction. Today there are few, if any, of his hybrids in nurserymen's lots.
In Europe there were two distinct trends in rhododendron hybridizing. The most important trend was the one made famous by the nurseries of Waterer, Knaphill and the Slococks. Their creations were graciously called the "Coloured Cabbages" - large trusses, flamboyant colours, strong growth and a show of flower power unequaled by any other broadleaf evergreen. As grafted plants, these plants flowered early in life and were distributed world wide, mainly by the Dutch. These hardy hybrids were plants of the common people and their logical successors were the flamboyant American hybrids.
The second trend came out of the great English estates. These hybrids were never intended to become the property of the common folk but were the playthings of the rich landowners. They were created using the new exotic species that were pouring in from Asia via the great collectors. The new species were, in their homeland, a second layer under the forest trees and so these new hybrids were created to fill the same niche in the great estates. They were characterized by the long time required to reach the flowering state. The Loderi clan, 'Lady Bessborough', 'Naomi', 'Carita' - all could take six to eight years before the first flowers appeared. This was not a feature endearing to the masses of gardeners who want early results. Furthermore, the trusses were often times flat, with rims of flowers leaving an empty centre. The colours were mostly in the pale pastel range having little appeal to the home gardener. Today it is the gaudy American efforts, on their own roots and flowering at a young age, that are to be found in every sales yard across this continent. Brilliant for a few short weeks, they soon become the ultimate of dreary dullness for the rest of the year.
Lester and I had similar ideas about hybridizing. Both of us thought a very lovely Exbury hybrid named 'Grosclaude' would make a good parent. In Vancouver's Ted and Mary Greig Garden in Stanley Park it is about 10 feet high, of upright growth, good habit and leaves dark green with a reddish-brown reverse. The flowers are a dark but bright red. It has, however, two faults - the flowers are in a flat truss and it flowers in mid June. Remember that full, rounded trusses are still in fashion and that mid June is long past the rhododendron selling season on the West Coast. And so, you will find 'Grosclaude' hybrids nowhere today. But Lester had rows of 'Grosclaude' hybrids, and when nothing outstanding turned up he would simply sell the seedlings to landscapers just to empty his land.
'Grosclaude' wasn't the only hybrid he used; in the short time I knew him, he grew thousands of seedlings. But I doubt if many of his named plants can be found or purchased today. We have three in my Vancouver garden mainly for sentimental reasons. 'Blood Ruby' (R. forrestii var. repens1 x 'Mandalay'), a dwarf bright red with 2-inch wide flowers in a lax truss. It is not totally hardy in my Vancouver garden but does its best with what remains after the colder winters. Rhododendron 'Thor' ('Felis' x R. haematodes) is too close to 'May Day' to be of value. From a distance the two hybrids are the same colour with foliage and habit the same as well. 'Thor's' flowers are more open, each with a large red calyx. Rhododendron 'Gold Mohur' ('Day Dream' x 'Margaret Dunn') with its lax yellow flowers and open habit of growth soon fades away. Interesting is the fact that in the warm New Zealand climate it is popular. His 'Dream Girl', of the same parentage (and a grex), had no stamina passed on to it.
The dark red hybrid on the rise at Lester's must have been 'Black Prince' ('Romany Chal' x R. thomsonii). This was in full glowing red the night I was transported back to Tower Court. In our garden it is perpetually unwell - 8 feet high, open growth and branches always dying. 'Queen of Hearts', an Exbury hybrid, is a much better plant. It blooms at much the same time with a stronger habit and much better dark green foliage.
In my garden there is also a hybrid called 'Brandt's Gold'* (I think) and I don't know where it came from. Most likely it was found in the many rows of seedlings at Lester's nursery.
Lester made extensive use of all members of the R. cinnabarinum group in his hybridizing, something rarely done in North America. It is probably the last group of hybrids to be given space in any North American garden. I cannot recall ever seeing one good specimen. This species has always been a great favourite of mine. In 1949, I imported to New Zealand from England my first rhododendron hybrid. It was the orange flowered 'Lady Chamberlain' (R. cinnabarinum 'Roylei' x 'Royal Flush')2.
The cinnabarinums themselves are very much different from all other rhododendrons. Their growth is twiggy and slender and the habit sprawling. The leaves are neat and reasonably small, coloured from beautiful pale blue in R. concatenans, blue in R. cinnabarinum 'Roylei' to grey in R. xanthocodon. Their leaves are strongly scented. The flowers are generally narrow, hanging, tubular bells in exotic shades of yellow, red and orange. They were so different and unusual that then they appeared to be an entirely new genus. In those days the series were three separate species with many varieties, but that was before the arrival of the "publish or perish brigade." What followed their effort was a clumsy mess of names with but one species. Don't ask me to explain!
Ellen Hailey purchased a seedling of a cross between R. flavidum x 'Lady Rosebery' (it could well have been (flavidum x 'Lady Chamberlain') but Greer doubts this). Rhododendron flavidum is the last species of the Lapponicum Series to flower here in late April. The flowers are a bright yellow and comparatively large. A very hardy species with tiny leaves, R. flavidum can ultimately reach 3-4 feet. 'Lady Rosebery', the pollen parent, is (R. cinnabarinum 'Roylei' x 'Royal Flush') and 'Royal Flush' is (R. cinnabarinum x R. maddenii).
This unnamed hybrid, R. flavidum x 'Lady Rosebery', is a good hardy garden plant with masses of small, tubular, rich cream flowers flushed pink on the outside. The original Hailey plant is now in the Ted and Mary Greig Garden with a layer from it growing beside our gate at home. Someone has pointed out that the flowers are sterile. It would appear that another plant of this cross by Brandt, R. flavidum x 'Lady Rosebery', has reached Halifax from Greer Gardens. There it is borderline hardy and quite bud tender, which is not surprising considering the maddenii in its background. It differs in its amber and pink flowers. Two other plants have also been registered, 'Strawberry Cream', a pastel pink named and registered by Peter Cox (not to be confused with 'Strawberries & Cream'!) which Greer sold as 'Flip', and 'Chartreuse' by Brandt himself with yellow flowers.
Every spring, when I went south, I would find several hundred of the common garden varieties in Lester's nursery. It's what the people ask for, he would explain - this, in a nursery where there were thousands of the most exotic, original hybrids. One day I went down to his nursery to find a new, very large greenhouse full of Maddenii Series rhododendrons, many in full flower. You can just imagine the scent in there. I never did learn how one could go out and buy a greenhouse full of tender rhododendrons. The next time I went was with my wife, Barbara, and those rhododendrons were all gone; in their place was a greenhouse full of orchids. In those days in New Zealand a single Cattleya orchid was the ultimate of luxury. Barbara came home with 14 of them, a carload!
And then Lester was murdered, at least that was how it was told to me. He had acquired a wonderful collection of Japanese samurai swords. Made of the finest steel, he never ever touched the metal with his hands. The guard on each sword was entirely separate, highly decorative and visually very beautiful. They were also very valuable and Lester had so many of them that the lot kept us fascinated for an entire morning. Someone wanted those swords and, tragically, Lester was in the way.
Lester also had the biggest cat I've ever seen. He seemed twice as big as Horse, which was our own huge pet.
Despite the fact that he raised thousands of seedlings of such infinite variety, Lester never landed on a popular theme. This explains why practically none of his hybrids are offered today. No matter, he was one of the first hybridizers, a pioneer, and his work and enthusiasm helped make the genus Rhododendron popular.
Alleyne Cook, a member of the Vancouver Chapter, told of his experiences at Tower Court in the Spring 1997 and Summer 1997 issues of the Journal.
* Name is unregistered.
1 Now known as R. forrestii ssp. forrestii
2 Readers are referred to The Rhododendron Handbook (1998) for current treatment of the species R. cinnabarinum
Readers with an interest in the hybridizing work of Lester Brandt are encouraged to refer to the article "Lester E. Brandt" by Mrs. Roy Hacanson in the Quarterly Bulletin ARS, 25:3, 1971.