Rhododendrons As A Hobby
J. Harold Clarke
America as a nation is hobby conscious and steadily becoming more so. Physicians and psychologists suggest hobbies for young people to keep them out of mischief and to direct their energies into productive things. They suggest hobbies for the harassed business man and the busy housewife. For old people who have reached retirement, hobbies are prescribed as a method of maintaining an interest in life and for health and recreation. Hobbies are suggested in boom times as a means of offsetting the strain of unusual business effort. They are prescribed in times of depression to give relief from the feeling of frustration and helplessness.
The kinds of hobbies are almost infinite. It would be hard to name any phase of human activity which someone has not made into a hobby, from eating to collecting buttons, or building a ship inside a beer bottle. For the purpose of simplification we can divide hobbies into two main groups, namely, collecting and handwork. Gardening brings in the best features of both types, plus the fact that the work is mostly done outdoors and is in itself healthful and relaxing.
There are many types of hobbies in the general field of gardening. Some people start by just maintaining their yard or garden in a little better condition than is usual for the neighborhood. Sooner or later, however, these real gardeners begin to do a little collecting. Then they are proud of the fact that they are raising not just tomatoes but have four or five different kinds and varieties of tomatoes, or perhaps they are proud of a greenhouse full of especially fine orchid varieties.
There are, at present, many gardeners who are making a hobby of rhododendrons, and this number is bound to increase because rhododendrons, and I am including azaleas of course, constitute such fine hobby material. I have never seen listed all of the advantages of rhododendrons in this connection, and that is what I am trying to do now although any rhododendron fan could probably add a great deal to the points that follow.
Many Species And Varieties
One of the first requirements of any hobby flower such as the dahlia, gladiolus, fuchsia, chrysanthemum, orchid, etc., is that there be many varieties. This is necessary in order that the collecting phase of the hobby may be challenging. The rhododendron fills this requirement better than any other group of woody plants as there are almost one thousand species named and described. Furthermore, the plant explorers have recently furnished seed of many new introductions which are now being grown by a number of rhododendron enthusiasts. Some new species will quite likely be named from this material. Experienced plant explorers, such as Dr. Rock and Mr. Kingdon Ward, indicate that even more species are waiting to be discovered in the remote fastnesses of Northern Burma and the high valleys surrounding the Himalayan area. There are, of course, thousands of named horticultural varieties, some being quite complex hybrids. Possibly the one unfortunate thing about rhododendrons as a hobby flower is that the plant material is so extensive that no one can hope to obtain all existing species and varieties. However, there is a lot of fun in trying to get as many as possible.
The great variation within the rhododendron group is of considerable importance as we do not have to depend on some slight difference in color or shape of bud to add interest. The plants range from the very small, prostrate, rock garden type to the tall growing varieties which will make good sized trees if given time. In between are many, many types. Colors cover a very wide range, as anyone will discover who attempts to make really accurate descriptions of rhododendron flowers. Practically every color maybe found, although, of course, certain shades and tints are still lacking. Some varieties have a very pleasant odor, others none at all. Flower size and form range from miniature to 6 or 7 inches in width, and from narrow, tubular to broad salver shaped with all intermediate types. There are evergreens and there are deciduous types with beautiful colored foliage in the autumn. The leaves range from extremely large-18 inches or so in length-to miniatures the size of a mouse's ear, some glossy, some covered with pubescence, especially underneath. There are varieties hardy enough to withstand -25° and still produce flowers, and others which are strictly greenhouse subjects. Much could be written on variation in the genus Rhododendron.
Rhododendrons or azaleas maybe grown over a very wide area, especially on both Coasts and in the Gulf States. The area is continually increasing as gardeners find hardier, more resistant varieties and new methods of maintaining the growing conditions needed. The plants are relatively permanent and can be maintained with less care than many other hobby plants.
There are many phases of handling rhododendrons which may especially interest people. One grower may want a few nice varieties so that he can show the blooms at a local flower show. Another may combine his hobby of photography with that of rhododendrons and make a fine collection of colored slides showing the wide range in color and type of flower. Another may get most pleasure from introducing this fine plant group to other gardeners who have had no experience with it.
The propagation of rhododendrons provides opportunity for a hobby in itself. The species may be grown from seed but some of them may require special methods and special care. Some horticultural varieties grow readily from cuttings, others root with difficulty and must be grafted or layered. New types of propagation, such as air-layering, may turn out to be useful and interesting.
Production Of New Varieties
Probably the last word in making a hobby of rhododendrons is a breeding project. This requires a knowledge of species, varieties, culture and propagation as well as the technique of cross fertilization. Some even bring in the more technical phases of irradiation and the use of chemicals such as colchicine in order to assist nature in producing new types. The rhododendron breeder has a boundless field in which to work-a thousand species and thousands of hybrids to consider as parents. The number of possible combinations is astronomical. Old combinations which have been tried by others may be made again and may yield better seedlings than any which have been produced previously. One pollination may produce a capsule with hundreds, or possibly thousands, of seeds, each of which will produce a seedling a little different from every other rhododendron in existence. All of these may be so inferior that you will want to throw them all away although this seldom occurs. This may be somewhat unfortunate in some respects as it means large numbers of new seedlings, not quite good enough to be distributed or named, but too good to throw away so that the breeder may be inclined to keep them or even to distribute them.
The rewards to the plant breeder are many and varied. One of the least, perhaps, is the having of many beautiful flowering shrubs for his own garden. More intense is the feeling of satisfaction when one can show a beautiful new thing, such as never existed before, to other rhododendron fans and hear their words of commendation. And then there is always the possibility of producing a seedling which will be good enough to name and which may perhaps receive special awards from the American Rhododendron Society. What could give more real satisfaction than being responsible for the production of a new rhododendron variety, more beautiful than any of similar type, or a little hardier than previous varieties, or one which will bloom extremely early or very late, and which may continue through the years to come giving pleasure to unborn generations of gardeners and adding beauty to gardens as yet unplanned?