Let's Talk Hybridizing: Hybridizing is a Journey
Don S. Wallace
Everyone has heard the phrase "It's not about getting there, it's the journey." Since I started hybridizing twelve years ago, I'll have to say they were right. It really is a journey. And every piece of the puzzle seems to show up at the perfect time in the process.
It really all started when I purchased my first rhododendrons. I was doing some landscaping, and I thought it would be fun to plant some of those big flowering plants that I had seen around called rhododendrons. I figured there were four colors, red, purple, white, and pink. I would get one of each. So I was off to the local rhody nursery here in Eureka, California, to pick some out. It was April, so when I drove in, you guessed it, there was every color in the rainbow there! I was amazed to see reds of all shades, light pinks, dark pinks, bicolor pinks, yellows, peachy shades, white flowers with rich blotches, blue and gold blends and on and on.
I was overwhelmed. I had to have them all. And I didn't want to wait for little plants to get big, so I bargained with the owner for some of her large 10-year old stock plants. Well, I ended up with forty huge plants that took me weeks to dig and move to my property and plant into my landscape. The following spring when they all bloomed it was so magical; I just had to have more. So I began to collect. I collected plants with large showy blossoms first, and then moved into collecting earlier- and later-blooming hybrids to extend the bloom. Then it was the species. If it was a species, I had to have it. Now my garden was starting to get filled up, so the next obvious choice was the dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties. I really had to have some of those.
By now, I was starting to attend some of the ARS conferences, where there were "PLANT SALES". There I was, first in line when the plant sale opened, so I could buy all the newest hybrids. If it was new, I had to have it. I even resorted to renting a car-top carrier at one conference to get all my purchases home. But I would do anything to make sure that my new valuable bounty of plants made it safely back into my garden.
By now, I had set up a small nursery plot on my property to hold all of these new little jewels. Since my obsession was to collect all the new hybrids, I was scanning the catalogs for those little "stars" that meant the plant was "new." Little did I know at the time, that this collecting obsession was part of the journey to have a great selection of parents for my future hybridizing.
So as it often does, the journey was about to take a big turn as, about this time, I read an article in the ARS Journal about hybridizing. Wow, was I intrigued! By crossing one plant with another, I could create new hybrids of my own! This seemed like the Holy Grail for the rhododendron collector. So, I began to read every article I could find in the old ARS Journals, and any other books that talked about the process. Now that I had my collection in place in my garden, all I had to do now was make some crosses, and, voila, fabulous new hybrids of every color combination would appear that I could make selections on. I could even start registering some of my very own creations. Wow, this seemed easy and fun.
Well I found out that it really was fun, but "easy" may not have been the best adjective.
I remember that first spring when I made my first crosses. I needed to find a plant that had some pollen that I could use, and when I came across 'Pierce's Apricot'* with its long strings of pollen drooling out of each flower, I knew I had found my parent. So off I went around my garden putting 'Pierce's Apricot' pollen on every flower I could find that was ready to open. And it was easy to remember the pollen parent side of all my crosses too. This, I thought, was clever. So, out of fifty or so crosses that first year, I have one or two plants that are not bad - notice I didn't say "good" either. They have been used for further breeding.
The one thing I did learn was that the pollen side of the cross can have a big influence, which was seen in many of the hybrids. The other thing I learned was that it may be a good idea to have a goal, rather than just dancing through the garden dabbing pollen on any flower that will oblige. So, I started studying Greer and Salley's book, Rhododendron Hybrids. I definitely want to thank Homer and Harold for putting together their first and second edition of this book, as it has helped me more than anything to learn about the thousands of combinations of genetic material that have been created, and the outcome. Now, I could make crosses that were more intelligently thought out, or at least pretend to.
Seedlings in the author's garden.
Photo by Don S. Wallace
One of my first goals was to produce showy hybrids with fragrance. I liked 'Lem's Cameo' very much, and was happy to see Rhododendron decorum in its parentage. I noticed when studying the parentage of fragrant hybrids, there was fragrant genetics on both sides of the cross. The characteristic of fragrance seems to be recessive, so to create new fragrant hybrids, I would need to become aware of the fragrant rhododendrons in my collection that I could use. I located several possible parents: 'Cheyenne', 'Pleasant Dream', 'Award', 'Loderi King George', 'Malemute', and 'Ruby Bowman', all with the very fragrant species R. griffithianum and R. fortunei in their parentage. I also had the species R. decorum and R. fortunei in my garden. I could use any of these along with 'Lem's Cameo' to make crosses with potential fragrance. Since those early days, I have made three selections that have quite good fragrance that I like. The most fragrant one is a cross of 'Pleasant Dream' x 'Lem's Cameo', with large highly fragrant trusses much like 'Lem's Cameo'. Another successful cross was 'Award' x 'Malemute', with its large pink, white and yellow fragrant trumpets. And then there is 'Cantaloupe'*, 'Cheyenne' x 'Lem's Cameo', with its melon fragrance. I have also worked with selected lepidote fragrant hybrids and species. 'Else Frye', 'California Gold', 'Fragrantissimum', R. calophyllum (now R. maddenii ssp. maddenii), and R. polyandrum (now R. maddenii ssp. maddenii) have been excellent parents to hybridize with for more fragrance. I am still waiting for some of these crosses to bloom.
'Cantaloupe'* ('Cheyenne' x 'Lem's Cameo').
Photo by Don S. Wallace
('Award' x 'Malemute').
Photo by Don S. Wallace
'Double Bubble'* ('Pleasant Dream' x 'Lem's Cameo').
Photo by Don S. Wallace
'Little River'* ([R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum x 'Corona'] x
Photo by Don S. Wallace
Another early goal was to produce orange-flowered, full-dome-trussed hybrids. Using parents like 'Orange Marmalade', 'Brandt's Tropicana', 'Orange Schnapps', 'Dazzler', 'Nancy Evans' and 'Brigadoon' has resulted in several good orange-flowered hybrids, but with unsatisfactory foliage. I am now back-crossing to improve the foliage, yet hoping to retain the bright orange flowers. The challenge here is to find parents that have dome-shaped trusses of orange flowers with good foliage. Many orange flowering rhododendrons have bell-shaped flowers in loose trusses.
Some of my more immediate hybridizing goals include: producing dwarf, compact purples; indumented yellows; and compact rhododendrons of all colors with very shiny foliage. In an attempt to produce dwarf, compact purple flowering rhododendrons, I am using 'Bambi' x R. proteoides as the pollen parent for dwarfing, which I have crossed with a variety of purple flowered rhododendrons. The first generation will probably have light lavender or violet flowers with some dwarfing. I will make crosses of some of the selected offspring in hopes of getting to my goal. There are several hybrids available that could be excellent stepping-stones toward producing dwarf or compact purples. 'Caroline Allbrook', 'Ernest Inman', and 'Lightly Lavender'* are all hybrids of R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum x 'Purple Splendour'. They all have light lavender flowers, and are compact. One might make crosses between these hybrids, or with other yak x purple crosses. Jim Barlup's hybrid 'Plum High' is a cross of ('Fancy' x R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum) x 'Frank Galsworthy'. This plant could be an excellent jumping off point for producing compact purples.
I have already had some good results in producing a fine indumented yellow. My cross of ('Fabia' x R. bureavii) x ('Pacific Gold' x R. pachysanthum) has yielded a nice light yellow with thick cinnamon indumentum. I would like to darken the color, so I plan to continue along these lines. The characteristic of indumented foliage tends to be a recessive trait, so to produce plants with this quality, it seems as if both parents need to have the genetics of indumentum. I also have a cross of 'Nancy Evans' x (R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum x R. proteoides) which could add the necessary ingredients I'm looking for.
To create compact rhododendrons of all colors with very shiny foliage, I have started using pollen from a cross R. forrestii ssp. forrestii Repens Group x 'Noyo Chief'. R. forrestii ssp. forrestii Repens Group is a low growing plant that will impart dwarfness, while 'Noyo Chief' is an R. arboreum that has very glossy foliage, and has been used by hybridizers to impart better foliage. I have used 'Noyo Chief' often with very good results. Granted it is not very hardy, but it could be a good step along the journey for developing excellent foliage. It will be fairly easy to produce shiny leafed reds, as there are several red flowered rhododendrons that have similar foliage traits. The challenge will be the other colors. So, hi ho hi ho it's off to work I go. One thing I have realized as a hybridizer is that there is always something to look forward to.
People I Have Met
Another part of the journey that has unfolded over these exciting few years of hybridizing is the people that I have met. This is an important part of the hybridizer's life, as it is the people who bring new ideas and suggestions to the table, and who offer their experience as potential new directions to embark upon. I have searched out many of the hybridizers who live on the West Coast, and have found them all to be so much fun to talk to. It's like a language unique to the lot, and if you can speak it, you will find rhododendron hybridizers incredibly excited to be with you on the journey.
Some of the people who have become dear friends and helped me along the way include: Fred and Jean Minch, whom I ordered seed from early on, and who gave me many of their own seedlings to use in my bank of genetic plant material.
Roy and Evelyn Thompson of Thompson's Nursery have graciously shared much of their knowledge of hybridizing. We have spent hours together discussing our successes and foibles. I have been so fortunate to witness many of their new hybrids' flowers opening for the first time. Being both hybridizers and wholesale nursery owners has given them a different perspective on new hybrid evaluation, enabling them to determine which ones are going to last out there in the nursery trade. They have shared with me some excellent insights relating to which genetics will really end up creating a "top performing" plant.
The late Joe Davis invited me to his garden and was so excited to show me some of his many successes. I still have plants in my garden from the cuttings that Joe gave to me. I have used his hybrids in many of my own crosses. I remember Joe giving me an entire flat of seedlings that he didn't have space to grow. I saw the first one bloom last season, and thought of Joe.
Jack Lofthouse sent me many cuttings of his new hybrids that I could play with in the genetic playroom of my garden. I have used several of Jack's plants as a springboard to achieve goals that wouldn't have been possible had I not met this fine plantsman.
How lucky I was to meet Warren Berg, who has helped me immensely by sharing his knowledge of species and his very successful new hybrids. Warren has so generously given me many cuttings, plants and pollen that have added new ingredients for new concoctions on my journey. Among other goals, Warren has been working with R. proteoides as a parent for some time now, and has created some very lovely plants. He has inspired me to be thinking of compactness, leaf retention and overall excellent habit when making my crosses.
Frank Fujioka has also been a true friend along the way, with his gifts of plants, pollen and knowledge. Touring Frank's garden at bloom time is definitely like being a kid in a candy store. I think Frank's dedication to a goal in his hybridizing has given me so much to reflect upon and apply to my own directions. And it was Frank who showed me the value of being ruthless in selecting only the very best to keep.
I was lucky enough to visit Ned Brockenbrough's garden a few times at bloom time, and Ned was very gracious to show me some of his new plants blooming. I think I have been influenced quite a lot by Ned's successes. I remember seeing 'Horizon Monarch' for the first time in Ned's garden and learning that it was a cross of 'Nancy Evans' x 'Point Defiance'. Ned told me that he thought that 'Point Defiance' was a pallet waiting to be painted. Since then, I have used 'Point Defiance' as a parent to create some new hybrids of my own.
I met Jim Barlup at one of the ARS western regional conferences, and have really enjoyed our sharing of knowledge. I think Jim has made more crosses than just about anyone I have met out here on the West Coast, and his garden is only one-half of an acre. Jim has shared plants, pollen and ideas about hybridizing and seed growing that has influenced my madness to a large degree.
When I attended the ARS spring conference in Eugene, Oregon, in 2000, I happened to meet Nolan Blansit. Nolan is a hybridizer extraordinaire! He is using parents in his crosses that no one else is using, and he is having incredible results. He has been so generous with his knowledge and enthusiasm, and has introduced me to theories about hybridizing that have added twists and turns to the road I follow. Thanks to Nolan, I will be embarking on some new directions that I would never have thought to consider.
So, on my journey down the road to creating new rhododendron hybrids, it has never been about "getting there," because just when the best new flower you have created is blooming, your mind isn't even considering that you have arrived. This new flower is part of a new possibility for something even better, and there you are out there tearing the blossoms apart so you can make new seed that may possibly be that "Holy Grail" of rhododendron hybrids.
* Name is not registered.
Don Wallace is a member of the Eureka Chapter.