VRS-ARS Members Remember
Early days with the Vancouver Chapter of ARS By a Charter Member
Clive L. Justice
Vancouver, British Columbia
Joan Bengough was VRS president in 1995. It was forty years since the chapter was formed and she had asked me to say something at a regular club meeting about the early days, as they say in cowboy songs, "before the wire," since I was in on the formation of the chapter. I remember we had to add BC after Vancouver, as there was already a Vancouver in Washington, just across the river from Portland, and we were afraid there might be confusion. We needn't have worried, however. When the ARS chapter was formed sometime later in southwestern Washington, they chose to name it after Lewis County where Vancouver, Washington, is located. Originally Fort Vancouver, it had been the headquarters of the Hudson Bay Company between 1827 and 1848 when the boundary between the colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island was established.
When Joan asked me, I had just returned - it was early March of '95 - from a trip up to Terrace and Kitimat to look at a CESO Aboriginal Project, for which I was to be an advisor. I remember beginning my talk by telling all assembled that there are now rhodos growing in Kitimat, and Terrace too - plenty of them. And then went on to explain that this wasn't always so. An old client of ours, Finning Tractor, now has rhododendrons 'Roseum Elegans' and 'The Honourable Jean Marie de Montague' alternating with pines and birches plastered all along the front of their office and parts department building in Terrace. In 1960 we wouldn't have dared to have considered, let alone recommended them, for an industrial site in the northern frontier Terrace. In Kitimat there were rhodos also nestled under the front eves of many houses while 5-foot high stacks of snow still lay piled all over the front lawns. These Kitimat rhodo occurrences reminded me of one of the reasons Desmond Muirhead started up the Vancouver Chapter.
Kitimat was the first of the planned post war suburban new towns (Fraser Lake, McKenzie and Gold River followed) built from scratch to house the workers in the Alcan Aluminum Smelter at the head of Douglas Channel. The town planning of Kitimat was done by Clarence Stein out of New York. However, go-getter bold and brash Desmond Muirhead managed to get some of the consulting work for our local Kerrisdale firm of landscape architects. We designed the cemetery, did landscape plans for a number of Alcan VIP guest houses in the new town site and set up a test plant nursery in the town site. It was this latter nursery experiment that got us involved with rhododendrons. No one could tell us if rhododendrons could grow at all in Kitimat let alone what varieties would do, if any. We thought maybe Exbury and Knaphill azaleas might do. Desmond's friend Jock Brydon was into them in Eugene, so Jock knew a little bit about these types of rhodos. Kitimat town site had been clear cut and graded so there were no trees to plant anything under and all the rain that Prince Rupert gets, combined with that of Tofino, falls as heavy wet snow in Kitimat.
The only types of rhodo hybrids available from local nurseries in Vancouver, Richmond and Whalley in those days were several of the Dutch hybrids, all red: 'Earl of Athlone', 'Britannia', and 'Unknown Warrior', developed for the post WWI British market - hence the names. These varieties and the deciduous azaleas we managed to plant out in the test nursery, with no overhead cover. They ended up, come the first spring, flattened into very, very low pancake type groundcovers. After that even though we did work in Kitimat we steered clear of suggesting any rhododendrons or deciduous azaleas. I think the rhodos that are now in Kitimat, safely under wide overhangs, came via Art Knapp's garden centres marketing efforts during the 1980s.
Information on rhodos was nonexistent and scarce, particularly for any on rhodos suitable for Vancouver and the Lower mainland. I remember Desmond buying the 1950 RHS Camellia & Rhododendron Yearbook, at David Spencer's Department Store on West Hastings - $2.95 hardbound. We noted all the AM's and FCC's and rhodos sent to Wisley for testing, but of course none of these was available at nurseries here. In those days you could only import plants from Holland, so at Haberlins, Murray's or Hunters they had only Dutch varieties like 'Britannia', 'C.B. Van Nes', 'Mars' and 'Earl of Athlone', none of the smaller English crosses from the '20s and '30s like 'Bow Bells', Moonstone Group, 'Elizabeth' (named for the Queen Mother) and the other fine williamsianum hybrids that make great landscape plants for small suburban gardens.
The only Loderi hybrids, either 'Loderi Pink Diamond' or 'Loderi Venus', to survive the 1955 November 11th freeze is in a garden on the Southeast corner of 49th where it slides into Marine Drive. This garden aside from having one of the largest dove/handkerchief trees in all of North America also has a July blooming red rhodo. This garden is one of those Kerrisdale gardens furnished from Hyland Barnes' very special nursery that was located just off Blenheim on 48th east of Point Grey Golf Course. That's really where I first learned about rhodos. I remember Hyland gave me a large old R. makinoi - as a house-warming gift when we bought our old house at 879 West 61st in 1956. Rhododendron makinoi is a Japanese species with pencil-thin furry leaves that became known in our garden as the Dr. Seuss rhodo. It had great character and I got my love for the species from receiving this plant from Hyland. Of course there was no way he could ever have sold such a bizarre plant. Remember those were the waning days of the cute pointed conifer landscaping craze, which we finally were able to stamp out - but not completely.
We founded the Vancouver Chapter in the spring of 1955. Ellen Hailey became the chapter's second secretary - after Len Living. Nurseryman/long bowman, small bore rifle and Bisley champion gave it up. Len was the first to bring R. 'Elizabeth' and Zabel's laurel to Vancouver. Our office used to type up Len's rough and sparse secretarial notes (he had no typewriter) and send them off to Ruth Hansen, the ARS Secretary in Portland, to be eventually and sporadically published in the ARS Quarterly Bulletin. This sparseness of recording is probably why Lil and Bill Hodgson's names were inadvertently left off the roster of the inaugural meeting.
A number of us got started in rhododendrons with RHS seed. The small garden at 879 W. 61st now has a thicket of large triflorums and a large R. fortunei x R. decorum and an R. auriculatum; the former is 15 feet high with an equal spread, while the latter is 20 feet high with a 10-foot spread. Both are now trees nearly 50 years old and with the triflorums were started from RHS seed received as an RHS Fellow in 1957.
In the early '60s we started a chapter display/test garden. It was located with permission of Bill Livingstone, Vancouver Parks Superintendent, in and about the native open treed area on the east side of Musqueum Park at Marine Drive and Crown Street. We organized several planting Saturdays there and we planted a number of large and small rhodos that were all donated by members and local nurseries. Bill Livingstone donated the largest plant, a R. fargesii, and I gave a big old hybrid 'Madame Masson', I remember. It wasn't long until most of the rhodos large and small up and disappeared, even some we had cabled the roots of. While we all felt very angry about it, we were not alone in our losses. Henry Eddie's Nursery bordering the west side of Musqueum Park had received equal if not greater losses in this wild westside rhododendron rustling. We suspected some Vancouver and West Vancouver gardens got some great and very unusual rhodos courtesy of a very rhododendron knowledgeable landscaper. We never did find out who it was, but it ended the Vancouver Chapter's thoughts of an open public rhodo garden like the Portland Chapter's Crystal Springs Garden.
Concurrent with the Westside rhodo rustling caper they were planting a rhodo garden in Burnaby at Cowan Centre/Art Gallery, now the Shadbolt Art Centre and Cowan Gallery. In 1967 it was Burnaby's official Canada Centennial project. The council had adopted the rhododendron as the municipal flower earlier. The garden was laid out under mature trees that had been the grounds and garden of the large house now the Burnaby Art Gallery. It contains a representative collection of English, Dutch, German and American hybrid rhodos that were available from Vancouver nurseries and Pacific Northwest and Oregon rhododendron growers in the first half of the 1960s. Be careful! 'County of York' is not an English hybrid; it is one of Joe Gable's, developed at his farm located in York County, Pennsylvania.
These remained intact until Vern and Doc Finley's winner 'Burnaby Centennial' with Jack Lofthouse's 'Burnaby Belle'* and Gene Rounds' hybrid as runners up were planted there in '92 along with hybrids added in the landscaping that came with the development of the Shadbolt Art Centre, named for Doris and Jack Shadbolt, Burnaby artists. The rhodos in the garden were originally grouped by colour of flower, all reds in one place, all pinks in another area, etc. The most successful group, I think it's my favorite, is the mauve with blotch corner where you can see 'Blue Peter', 'Susan' and a magnificent 'Arthur Bedford'. This same colour planting has been eroded somewhat over time but is still largely intact. Look for the Canada Centennial Plaque, a maple leaf of triangles at the top of the garden east of the drive/walk to the art gallery.
I will close off these rambling reminiscences by commenting how pleased and proud I am to have had a hand along with many others from the ARS District 1 flagship Vancouver Chapter in spreading the word up the valley and over to the island for these past forty years that has resulted in nine soon-to-be ten ARS chapters and to become the District with the largest membership of rhododendron enthusiasts in North America. Now if we can only get a chapter going in Nelson we would be also the largest in climate range and area.
* Name is unregistered.