In Memoriam: H. H. Davidian
John M. Hammond
The rhododendron world lost a major icon with the death of Mr. Davidian on 15th April, 2003, at
the age of 96. He passed away peacefully at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Edinburgh, Scotland, and
the funeral service took place on 19th April at the Cloister, Warriston Cematorium.
Mr. Davidian was born in Larnica on 1st April, 1907, and was of Armenian/Cypriot origin. He graduated from the University of Beirut and started his career as a schoolteacher in Britain in the 1930s where he taught natural history. He was tremendously interested in British botany and, in particular, rhododendrons. After re-training and joining the R.G.B., Edinburgh, having graduated with Honours in Botany from Edinburgh University in 1947, he devoted his life, interests and energies to study of the Rhododendron genus. His work involved not only the study of herbarium material but virtually all forms and species of rhododendrons in cultivation in the British Isles, Ireland and the West Coast of America.
As a botanist, Mr. Davidian was recognized as an outstanding authority on rhododendron taxonomy, and he will be remembered by many of his friends in the world of rhododendrons for his set of four highly detailed monographs of the genus that were published over the years 1982 to 1995. His published works had commenced many years earlier with the milestone series of articles that began in 1947 in the pages of the R.H.S. Rhododendron Year Book that, in collaboration with J. Macqueen Cowan, reviewed the descriptions of rhododendrons in their series. Mr. Davidian was one of a small group that undertook to make sense of the tremendous rhododendron influx that began in the early years of the 20th century and we owe him a great debt in respect of the extraordinary contribution that he made to our knowledge of the rhododendron species. At this time it is of little consequence that the 1980s was a period of intense debate in regard to the re-classification of the Balfourian series by a later generation of taxonomists. Time moves on and, as history will show, the road to achieving a perfect classification system has been extremely problematic and convoluted.
He was a quiet and modest gentleman, but in reality very little is known about Mr. Davidian; nonetheless, his legacy in the plant world continues. Fluent in both Greek and Turkish, amongst his travels during his lifetime he had visited Norway and Sweden as an invited guest to identify rhododendrons growing in the garden of the King of Sweden, in Gottenburg University Botanic Garden and in Bergen University Botanic Garden. He traveled extensively in Great Britain, Ireland and the West Coast of American visiting innumerable gardens to study plant material and, even today, many owners of older gardens remain grateful for the time he spent with them discussing and naming their plants. He will be remembered as a taxonomist who carried on the Edinburgh tradition of maintaining a link between the scientific work of the herbarium and the gardener in the real world who struggles to understand and cope with a large and difficult genus.
Mr. Davidian officially retired from the R.G.B., Edinburgh, in 1972 but continued to attend the institution for another thirty years to take forward his researches at the Herbarium, although little is known as to the direction of his studies in his later years. He was awarded the Silver Medal of the ARS in 1975 and its Gold Medal in 1993. In 1956 he was honoured by the R.H.S. with the presentation of the Veitch Memorial Medal and the Loder Cup for Rhododendrons in 1958. Old taxonomists never completely retire, they just seem to fade away. And, in the case of Mr. Davidian who enjoyed a long and productive life, it was probably most unfortunate that he lived to see his years of taxonomic work questioned and overtaken by a new scientific approach, a situation that he was unable to come to terms with. He will be missed by many older rhododendron enthusiasts, some of whom had a deep respect for his work, his way of approach and his publications.
Remembrance of Mr. Davidian by Peter A. Cox:
I first set eyes on Mr. Davidian (known by most people as Davidian as we never knew what his initials H. H. stood for) when he and I were wandering through the old Rhododendron House at the R.G.B., Edinburgh, in 1951 when I was a student in Edinburgh. We soon became friends and I used to go and sit with him for hours in the old ex-wartime hut which then was his work place. There he chain-smoked but after a few years he suddenly stopped and took to sucking sweets instead! The destruction of the rhododendron greenhouse was one of Davidian's pet subjects to moan about and it has been a great regret of mine too that it was never replaced.
Over the many years that I knew Davidian we did not really discuss the taxonomy of rhododendrons much. I feel that he may have considered me an upstart and when I began to publish articles and books which included my interpretation of the classification of rhododendrons, he would barely speak to me for a while, as it became obvious that I did not always agree with his version of how the species should be classified.
It is very sad that Davidian never managed to see any species in the wild other than R. macrophyllum and R. occidentale in the Pacific Northwest. I am sure that if he had been able to do so, and had traveled widely in south-east Asia, he would have been more flexible in his ideas, and been willing to discuss the taxonomy of rhododendrons with others deeply involved in the genus. As it was, he shut himself off from those that were not willing to accept his classification to the letter and paid no attention to other peoples' research using modern techniques such as leaf waxes and DNA.
I once offered to show him herbarium specimens of some species that I had recently introduced and his answer was "another time, Peter, another time." I believe that was the last conversation that I had with him.
Remembrance of Mr. Davidian by Mavis R. Paton:
Hagop Haroutune Davidian decided when he came to Britain to use the first part of his surname as a familiar form of address, as he thought his first names were difficult for the British to remember and pronounce.
I first met David in 1947 when he had not long begun work with rhododendrons at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. At that time he was to be found in the cramped quarters of the wooden huts which held some of the herbarium specimens at the back of the main buildings. I needed help in naming rhododendrons in connection with my work on American petal blight (Ovulina azaleae) not realizing I was presenting him with a lot of hybrids!...
The genus Rhododendron is not just of interest to the botanist in the herbarium, but is important to the gardening public. Many species are grown in gardens and owners want to name them. Garden owners who had contributed to the plant expeditions of George Forrest, Kingdon Ward, Cooper and others found themselves growing thousands of seedlings. Over the years many young rhododendrons were planted out in woodland and began to flower. The R.B.G. had persistent requests to confirm identification and in time Dr. Cowan decided David should take on the task. Thus began years of garden visits to name plants which led to detailed knowledge of rhododendrons growing in Britain and where most of these people with large estates were pleased to have his expertise and entertained him well to repay all his time and labour (his own time, I may say, mainly at weekends). A few treated him less than courteously...
It was not until his retirement in 1972 that he felt he had time to begin writing his books on the genus, Rhododendron Species, Vol. I (1982), Vol. II (1989), Vol. III (1992), Vol. IV (1995). They are the most detailed and complete study of the genus ever to be undertaken. The volumes are the culmination of his life's work, and in completing this task credit must be given to his dedicated secretary, Eileen Wood, who began work with David in 1978.
During the years that David was writing his manual, taxonomists at the R.B.G. were busy reclassifying the genus Rhododendron, replacing the system used since 1920 with one more in line with other genera of flowering plants. David would not accept this and saw no reason to give up the Balfourian system. As many people are aware, the subject caused bitter argument, not to say confusion, especially among gardeners. It is no wonder that the rhododendron enthusiast was eager to have his books which were easy to read and understand, based on a familiar system of classification.
David was that rare person, a professional taxonomist who would go out of his way to help the gardener struggling to make sense of a large and difficult genus. He will be greatly missed.