Let's Talk Hybridizing: Bicolors and Picotees
West Windsor, New Jersey
Twenty years ago I stopped breeding gloxinias and other gesneriads and joined the active group of breeders trying to improve rhododendron hybrids. I decided that I wanted to breed a rhododendron with a truss like 'Lem's Cameo', orange flowers the color of the Fabia Group, and dark green foliage on a plant hardy enough to survive neglect when planted on a Chicago street corner. That ambition slowly eroded and I decided to breed just for "unusual colors." This seemed a reachable goal. In the nineties, bicolors and picotees were added to what was by now a modified and sensible enterprise. But don't misunderstand. I would still accept a gift of seed likely to produce the hardy orange I have described.
When referring to rhododendrons and other plants, the term "bicolor" usually means two contrasting colors in the same flower. In elepidotes it is quite common to see pale pink outside and white in the throat and lower part of the petal. These certainly may be regarded as bicolors, but those that attract the most attention usually have significant contrast, perhaps a strong pink or red with a white region in the center. The vivid colors are often red, strong pink or rose, or purple, and the gentler colors may be white, pale pink, pale lavender, yellow or a yellow orange combination. On some occasions the central region and throat contain flecks or spotting of the darker color which may reduce the desired contrast.
A dictionary description of picotee is "a flower having one basic color with a margin of another color." In some rhododendrons it may be difficult to decide whether the flower should be described as a bicolor or a picotee, and this often is a matter of opinion. The key descriptive words for picotee are "border" or "margin."
('June Fire'* x 'Hachmann's Charmant')
Photo by Richard Gustafson
How does one choose plant parents in the pursuit of bicolors and picotees? Getting seedlings to fit these descriptions is fairly easy but, of course, we need to bear in mind that hardiness, attractive foliage, and acceptable plant habit also deserve equal consideration. I made a cross several years ago that yielded a high percentage of very nice bicolors but all excepting one have been destroyed because of their ungainly habit. A cross made in 1994 of 'June Fire'* (Wister) x 'Hachmann's Charmant' has yielded some very nice red and white bicolors. All excepting one have dorsal blotches, including a couple with the beautiful red blotch of the pollen parent. More will be blooming for the first time this year.
'Todmorden' x 'Swen'
Photo by Richard Gustafson
An earlier cross of 'Todmorden' x 'Swen' yielded solid colors as well as bicolors, with quite a variation in plant habit. It's too bad that a sensational flower often appears on a plant with unacceptable faults. New seedlings are not pruned in my garden until they have been in the soil for a few years and have had a chance to reveal their ugly secrets. A typical cross might use a pink and white bicolor and either an almost solid red with some white in the throat or a strong red and white bicolor as the other parent. Plants that might be used are 'Ring of Fire', 'Point Defiance', 'One Thousand Butterflies', 'Yaku Picotee', 'Rhein's Picotee', 'Midnight Mystique', 'Marley Hedges', 'Trinidad', 'Consolini's Windmill' and many others.
The breeding of picotees is a little bit more mysterious. The cross of pure whites with pure reds often produces pinks fading to paler pink, or almost white. This seems to be especially true when the parent is a white species such as Rhododendron degronianum ssp. yakushimanum. But crosses with a hybrid white parent often yield seedlings with picotee flowers. For example, the two Shapiro picotees, 'Kristen Marie' and 'Critic's Choice'*, are the result of crossing the white 'Chionoides' with 'Graf Zeppelin'. In the early eighties I crossed the white hybrid 'Catalode' with the dark red 'Francesca', although I did not have picotees in mind when I made the cross. The result included three large picotees still growing on my property. 'Abbey Grange' is the named and registered member of this set of fraternal triplets. 'Yaku Picotee' is a plant produced by a "yak" and the red 'Moser's Maroon'. Although the latter plant is said to have a reputation for producing picotees, its tendency to vigorous sprawling growth demands something like a "yak" to aid in producing good seedlings. Other "yak" crosses with a red have produced pink and white bicolors or picotees. 'Swen', 'Powder Mill Run' and 'Fantastica' are three examples of a "yak" x red which may be used as one parent in a cross to produce picotee or bicolor seedlings that are 25 percent "yak". Consider also the many fine Dexter hybrids that are pink and white.
Some evergreen azaleas, i.e., 'Ben Morrison', and others, have patterns of color which are the reverse of the colors we have been describing. Here the vivid color is in the throat and interior region of the flower and the band of white is at the edge. A few elepidotes have pink and white reversed in this manner. Five or six are at Heritage Plantation among the thousands of seedlings there. The flowers are relatively small and late blooming and may be hybrids of red-flowered Rhododendron maximum which they resemble.
Let me call your attention to the short article by Chris Trautmann on red and white bicolors in the Spring 1997 Journal. There are probably quite a few experienced hybridizers and collectors out there with significant experience on this subject. Perhaps the regular feature "Let's Talk Hybridizing" is just the place for comments on bicolors and picotees.
* Name is not registered.
Dick Gustafson is a member of the Princeton Chapter.