Down the Rhodo Trivia Trail: Kate Taylor's Tale
Clive L. Justice
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Most rhodo types know that Rhododendron cinnabarinum foliage is poisonous to cattle and sheep and if the wood is burned the smoke from it causes inflamed eyes and severe swelling of the face. However, very few of us know that there is a striking resemblance between the fleshy tubular flowers of particularly the R. cinnabarinum var. roylei [now known as R. cinnabarinum ssp. cinnabarinum Roylei Group, and the wider more campanulate flowers of R. cinnabarinum ssp. xanthocodon, with the narrow bell-shaped and fleshy flowers of the Chilean bellflower vine Lapageria rosea. Even the leaves of this vine bear a resemblance in colour and shape to those of the cinnabar rhodos.
Before I relate Kate's tale, there are several more points to set the scene. The first is that Lapageria rosea, the Chilean bellflower, is the national flower of Chile. It is much loved by the locals particularly in the wet warm mid portion of Chile where it grows or used to. It is now endangered or worse in the wild but is grown as an expensive florist's flower like Stephanotis. Like a tropical orchid it will last for weeks as a cut flower so is particularly favoured for bouquets on such occasions as Chilean Independence day: Feb. 12th (late summer below the equator).
This correspondent first met Kate Taylor at the ARS Annual Convention held in Pittsburgh, May 1973. Kate was German, married to an Englishman during WWII. After the war she left England to emigrate to South American; she never said where exactly. The ship she was on was severely disabled in a stormy passage through the Straits of Magellan and it had to be abandoned off the coast of Southern Chile. She and others got safely to shore with only the clothes they wore and a few personal effects. Settling in Valdivia and being a European trained and experienced gardener, she was soon in charge of developing the botanical garden for the Universidad Austral (southern) de Chile as well as landscaping this newly developing campus. Kate, being English trained, really knew her rhododendrons. She had come to the ARS meeting in Pittsburgh to hear one of the featured speakers, Dr. Gerd Krussmann1, director of the Botanical Gardens in Dortmund-Brunninghausen, speak on the topic "German Rhododendron Breeding in the Past and Today." On the Saturday boat tour down the Ohio River, on board a paddle wheel steamer on our way to New Harmony Village and a reception at Judson Brooks' garden, we met and talked rhodos and botanical gardens. My firm was currently designing the UBC Botanical Gardens under the direction of another Taylor - Dr. Roy. We met and talked about rhodos and establishing botanical gardens in similar coastal climates. Valdivia is about the same atitude at 40° south as Fort Bragg at 40° north with a somewhat similar climate. As in Fort Bragg, rhodos do well in Valdivia, particularly the cinnabarinums, while being a little warmer and drier than California's north coast. Kate and I met at several subsequent ARS annual meetings. She and Wanda corresponded and became quite good friends. She stayed with us several times when she came north and I remember taking her down and back the "rhodo route" via Whidbey Island-Hood Canal-Astoria to the 1977 ARS meeting in Eugene. It was during this trip she related the sad story of the Lapageria-cinnabarinum deadly confusion. Kate and her garden workers at the Universidad Austral de Chile had a great deal of trouble preventing the local poor people from picking the flowers from plants in the gardens. They would even steal the plants, though the botanical garden was fenced and guarded. The local poor and rural working people consider it their right to pick flowers no matter what. So it was that every time the garden's cinnabarinums bloomed, because they looked to the local people so much like Lapageria, they had to be guarded. In spite of this there were always some that disappeared. On one occasion in the early '70s, in a university labourer's cottage, a tragedy occurred and two people were found dead. On the table in a small room of this humble dwelling was a large bouquet of colourful clusters of cinnabarinum flowers. It was as if they had been asphyxiated by an unknown gas. Workers who die in Chile don't get autopsied. So we really don't know for sure what they died from. Kate, however, was sure that death had been caused by the pollen or transpiration from leaves and flowers of Rhododendron cinnabarinum, or a combination of both. The bouquet of beautiful flowers as the table centerpiece, stolen or not, that looked like something very precious to simple people wishing to celebrate their national day with their national flower was a local and unique tragedy. Sadly, Kate was convinced it would happen again, as no one would heed her warning not to pick and take indoors these beautiful Lapageria-like flowers.
1Krussmann is more famous as the author of a three volume work on woody plants and a definitive work in one volume on the world's conifers. However, he did write a slim volume on rhodos; the English version title: Rhododendrons: Their History, Geographical Distribution, Hybridization and Culture, Ward Lock, Ltd., London, 1970.