Some of My Best: A Dutch Hybridizer Tells of His Progress
Nijensleek The Netherlands
Do you know something more interesting and fascinating than hybridizing rhododendrons and azaleas? If so, please, don't tell me. One disease is enough. And that's what it is for me. And if a doctor wants to cure me of it, please, he shouldn't come to me - it might be contagious.
Hybridizing is something very tricky. It is a mix of imagination and emotion, tragedy and enjoyment. It demands much energy, time, and space. Maybe someone with a small garden should not pay attention, just admire nice gardens and plants of those fools who let themselves be captured by this "hybridizing fever."
Nevertheless, let me tell you how this started with me and about some of the results. Maybe you like them as I do. They are my children so, please, don't tell me that you don't like them.
About 20 years ago we lived not too far from Rotterdam in a big house with a small garden. A heather garden was planted and here I tried hybridizing heathers. But after a few years we could hardly walk on the paths and terrace because we had pots with seedlings all over. So, it was about time to move on.
In 1982 we moved to Hattem, to a house near a large woods, with a garden of about two acres. I thought it would be large enough for the next 20 years, but no way. In the first two to three years I laid out a fine heather garden again around large shrubs of rhododendrons, which were at least 50 years old. Seeing the beauty of these rhododendrons I bought more and more new plants, and after five years I had more rhodos than heathers in my garden. Well, gardening starts with reading books and visiting other gardens. So I did.
My first efforts to create new rhodies didn't mean too much. I simply took seed capsules from 'Cunningham's White' or some Rhododendron ponticum or R. catawbiense hybrids. I just needed to know the best system to collect seeds, the time of sowing, the seed soil, how to grow the young seedlings, etc.mopolitan', 'Nova Zembla', 'Sappho', 'Furnivall's Daughter', and more of these old well-known hybrids. I discovered that crossing with 'Cunningham's White' gives many nice looking plants.
This brought me to the question of what objectives I have and what I and other hybridizers want for results. My first goal is a beautiful plant with nice leaves. Once I visited one of our nurserymen who has hundreds of hybrids and species in those long rows on long fields, typical for the region of Boskoop. We walked among all these plants and I asked him to point out nice looking plants without flowers. Well, he needed quite some time to pick out really good looking plants. Without flowers many plants don't look very nice, and we have to look at them 11 months not flowering and hardly one month with flowers.
Of course, my second goal is to get beautiful flowers, long lasting, not fading, cold hardy, bright yellows, like so many hybridizers. Unfortunately a kind of tragedy happened. I prepared new beds for all the hundreds of selected seedlings from the crosses mentioned above and planted them carefully in rows, labeling them at the beginning of each row. Then I had a very busy time at school (I am a teacher of German) and could not take care of the plants. After a couple of weeks I found out that blackbirds had taken out all the labels, so I could not exactly identify my hybrids anymore. Therefore I call these hybrids my "blackbird hybrids." As far as I could remember I made new labels, but with a big query mark.
One of these blackbird hybrids drew my attention. It looked so nice - thick, dark green, concave leaves, glowing as if they were made of leather, and compact growing! Wow! Would this plant meet my goals? What flowers would this plant get? I took cuttings and found out that the rootability is very high.
In 1992 I attended an ARS convention for the first time - held on Long Island. I enjoyed this "new world" of rhododendrons very much. Before I left home I saw the first flower buds of the plant coming out, and I was a bit disappointed - the colour was just red-purple.
('Cunningham's White' x 'Cosmopolitan') in winter.
Photo by Tijs Huisman
After coming back from the United States my first steps were through my garden to see what my plants had done. Well, the red-purple beginning had developed into a nice flower with red edges, white inside and a dark red-purple blotch. The mother must be 'Cunningham's White', but the father...probably 'Cosmopolitan'. Blotches are my favourites. One other of these blackbird hybrids is a cross between 'Sappho' and 'Cunningham's White', as you can see by the purple-red blotch and the flowers, which are about 4 inches wide, and not so leggy as the father 'Sappho'.
And, again, one of those blackbird plants - it must be a cross with 'Furnivall's Daughter' - is quite typical, a nice plant with purple buds, opening to pink-purple flowers which have separate petals! I showed slides for some American chapters and everybody told me that this is quite rare in elepidote rhododendrons - I guess only for people who are looking for something special.
Meanwhile in spring 1997, we moved to our present house with a garden of about seven acres. And at the end of 1998 we planted about two acres. Today I have space enough, but time...
Of course, I also crossed with Rhododendron yakushimanum, trying to get fine yellow compact and hardy plants with yellow flowers. I used the FCC form and crossed with 'Goldkrone' and 'Graf Lennart' from Hans Hachmann. The offspring was okay but never really bright dark yellow as I wanted. This year the Research Station in Boskoop released two plants from the same cross: 'Centennial Gold'* and 'Millennium Gold'*. I hope the latter will not cause any problems...
('Blue Bell' x R. yakushimanum 'Koichiro Wada')
Photo by Tijs Huisman
Another cross of 'Blue Bell' and R. yakushimanum 'Koichiro Wada' had some nice results, some with pure white flowers with a prominent yellow blotch, but also one with pink-edged white flowers with a yellow blotch.
('Melidioso' x 'Roteold'*)
Photo by Tijs Huisman
What could we do better in hybridizing than to use the best hybrids of others? What plants could I better use than the best from Hans Hachmann, who introduced such marvelous new hybrids? So I crossed some of his hybrids with another plant of German origin, mentioned in the illustrious book by Mr. Schmalscheidt, Rhododendron - and Azaleenzuchtung in Deutschland. I mean the hybrid 'Rotgold'*. It is a hybrid with a lot of yellow in it [('Koster's Cream' x R. wardii) x (R. fortunei ssp. discolor hybrid x R. dichroanthum ssp. scyphocalyx)]. So I made the cross ('Melidioso', a Hachmann hybrid x 'Rotgold'*), with some nice results, and another one ('Rotgold'* x 'Amaretto, also from Hachmann). The first time that I saw the latter in flower, I had a big smile, as I do many times seeing a new hybrid flowering. And all the "small smiles" I throw on the compost heap, which is growing very fast.
('Rotgold'* x 'Amaretto')
Photo by Tijs Huisman
What about hybridizing for double flowers? At the Hybridizers Roundtable during the ARS Annual Convention in 1994 in Asheville, North Carolina, I asked August Kehr what would happen if I would crossed 'Queen Anne's' with, for instance, 'Elizabeth'. The answer was that I might get red doubles as results. Well, so said, so done. Most of the results are double, but white or pink.
What more could I tell and show you? Well, it would be summing up a lot of hybrids, which I have to test in the coming years. Maybe you will hear more from me during the coming years as a kind of continuing story.
Writing this, it is winter time for me. It is like a tunnel, a tunnel to spring and crossing time. Far ahead of me I see a small light, the light that takes so long to reach through the cold, rain, and snow.
Oh, I forgot what hybridizing also is - patience. That's what I lack most. I try to get twice the growth on my seedlings in two years. Bringing them in and out of my greenhouse. Many of these seedlings make flower buds in the second year and will flower in the third.
I will end my story with the following comment. In the spring 1997 issue of the Journal, I read a very informative and sparkling article about hybridizers from the West Coast, Washington. Wouldn't it be an interesting to set up a "mailing list" for hybridizers on e-mail. Bob Stelloh did this for members of the Azalea Society of America. It works very easily, and all hybridizers of rhododendrons (and azaleas) could be in contact with each other. It's just a suggestion for some computer and rhodo enthusiast.
It would be so nice to get in touch with hybridizers from all over the world. I think that I am one of the very few hybridizers in Holland, maybe the only one.
For me, hybridizing is the best thing about rhododendrons. Let's enjoy it together.
Tijs Huisman is the president of the ARS Dutch Chapter.
* Name is unregistered.