Concerning Ys, Zs and Omissions
G. G. Nearing
Since the advent of the newer rhododendron hybrids, there has been a tendency to deprecate the old Waterer hybrids and their like, or preferably even not to mention them at all. The American Rhododendron Society has tacitly appeared to accept the verdict of certain British publications, which was first expressed by a Y meaning "Not up to present-day standards," then later a Z signifying "Not worthy of cultivation," and finally many of these older varieties were omitted altogether from rating lists, probably indicating "Unworthy of being not worthy of cultivation."
Isn't there something singular about all this vilification? Certain weeds like the evening primrose and the. mulleins are not worthy of cultivation, but is there any equality between them and the Rhododendron 'Caractacus', F.C.C. 1865, Z today? A beautiful plant does not suddenly become ugly because of the introduction of one that is more beautiful. Rather both remain beautiful in their degrees. In any case, old varieties should be allowed to recede gracefully, not be hustled summarily from the scene. When the public seizes upon a new and superior variety, naturally it begins to neglect the older ones, but does not suddenly despise them, for memories and old pleasurable associations envelop them protectively.
The Rhododendron Yearbook for 1949 contains an address by Mr. O. C. A. Slocock to the Rhododendron Conference in London. These printed remarks, however, were not what Mr. Slocock actually said. Instead he talked to us plainly about the old hybrids and the new. Many of the new four star varieties, he felt, are not good garden plants, and have not been accepted by the British public or the British nurseries. Those who plant rhododendrons for ornament outside of the great coastal collections often seem still to prefer hybrids not rated with four stars, or even three or two or one. Some of the Ys and Zs are holding their own in nursery sales.
There are evidently two reasons for this. Waterer knew that people don't like to have a treasured specimen winter killed, or its flowers ruined by frost, so he bred for hardiness, which many modern breeders ignore. Secondly, considered as garden ornaments 52 weeks of the year, some of the old varieties with Y and Z ratings are actually superior to some of the new four star hybrids, or so the planters appear to believe.
No words of praise are adequate to express my unbounded admiration of the flowers of four-star 'Loderi King George' as I saw them in Cornwall. They are majestic beyond description. But after the couple of weeks of blooming, there remain 50 weeks in which I would rather have plants of 'Boule de Neige' or 'Catawbiense Album', both unmentioned outcasts, horticultural untouchables. For the foliage and habit of 'Loderi' are only moderately attractive, if that. When we plant our landscapes, shall we consider only the moment of blossom, or shall we lay some stress on the long year of green alone? Of course what we need is a plant with magnificent foliage and also the flowers of 'Loderi King George', modified to endure cold winters, delayed to escape spring forests. Hybridizers are busy trying to produce just such a plant.
Elsewhere the gulf between four stars and Z, even when the plants are in flower, is not nearly so wide as some of us have been led to suppose. I have Kodachrome slides of Roseum Elegans (Z) in the same file with hundreds taken among the best plants of the best varieties in the south of England, including many with three and four stars. Would it be total heresy to say that 'Roseum Elegans' looks well on the same screen as the three-star 'Cornish Cross'? I try to be objective, forgetting all previous convictions and prejudices, to look at each purely as a thing of beauty. And I cannot escape the conviction that some among my audiences who have still fewer prejudices, actually prefer 'Roseum Elegans', Z and all.
Take the hybrids of R. haematodes, such as R. 'May Day', R. 'May Morn', R. 'Humming Bird' and many others. There can be no doubt that their color is purer than that of the old exile R. 'Atrosanguineum' (and therefore more difficult to harmonize with other flowers). The colored calyx which adds interest to some of these new varieties, unheard-of when R. 'Atrosanguineum' originated, and the beautiful bell-shaped corolla which R. 'Humming Bird' derives from its other parent, R. williamsianum, must be taken into account. Yet for general effect, a good plant of R. 'Atrosanguineum' in bloom can challenge all but the best of this group. R. haematodes frequently gives its offspring sparse foliage, ungraceful branching habit, and a small, unfilled flower truss in which the inadequate flowers tend to droop down among the leaves, out of sight. Here then we have, not a gulf dividing the Zs from the four-stars, but actually a doubt which is the better in total appearance. Further breeding will doubtless produce R. haematodes hybrids unquestionably superior to any of the older varieties, but in my opinion the awards and condemnations in many cases have been made prematurely.
R. 'Temple Belle', for some reason not listed among the rated hybrids, though it dates from 1916, has a growth habit at least equaling that of the older hybrids, even superior to many, and flowers resembling its four-star parent R. williamsianum, but much more abundantly produced. It stands high in my recollection of the most desirable plants seen in England.
R. 'Lady Chamberlain' on the other hand flaunts four stars and F.C.C., as well as the following description: Orange bells. Vars. in shades of orange to salmon pink." What I saw at Exbury, Caerhays and elsewhere was an ungainly bush with sparse, unattractive foliage and poorly arranged flowers muddy red or rose shades. I have had training in art, and particularly color, but detected no orange shades, though there was some tendency towards a rather poor salmon. We are told that this variety should be looked at with the setting sun behind it. I think I should prefer to look at it long after the sun has set. In any case, the sun does not spend much time in setting, and is not much seen at all in the south of England. I was not alone in feeling utterly perplexed that such a plant should have won high awards.
Later reflection, with due heed to the information given by Mr. Slocock, has led to the conclusion that while British awards of rating stars, A.M. and F.C.C. may indicate real garden merit, other considerations often enter into the estimate. Some of the plants so honored, though not in themselves of the highest class, possess immense value for future breeding. R. 'May Day', R. 'Fabia', R. 'Arthur Osborn', R. 'Racil', and if not R. 'Lady Chamberlain', at least its parent R. 'Royal Flush', seems to me not at all over-rated if the stars refer to value as breeding parents, but for garden merit do not compare with the equally rated R. 'Earl of Athlone', R. 'Mrs. Furnival', R. 'Betty Wormald', and 'Mars', none of which would be likely to produce outstanding offspring.
Here then are two separate ideas which seem to be included under one rating. One cannot but suspect a third. The originators of some of these most highly honored hybrids, Lionel (N.) de Rothschild and Lord Aberconway, for instance, have done such conspicuous service to horticulture in general and rhododendrons in particular, that judges must at times have been tempted to confer awards on the plants as a means of honoring the men who grew them. If stars are to be awarded to men, I say give Lord Aberconway a dozen and Mr. de Rothschild a score. But let us not mislead the gardener who wants to choose a rhododendron.
Would it not be helpful if the Committee on Nomenclature of the American Rhododendron Society made an effort to separate these two ideas by giving one rating for garden merit, another and different kind for other value. Personal opinion must of course play a large part in any rating system, and there is no such thing as complete objectivity on the part of the judges. It is possible that many will believe R. 'Charles Dickens', which was awarded F.C.C. in 1865, really deserves a Z today, and that R. 'May Day' should be rated as high as R. 'Earl of Athlone'. I happen to know several competent persons who most emphatically disagree. In any case, a rating system which misguides those who use it, will collapse of its own weight.
There is no comprehensive catalog of either old or very new varieties. Most of our lists of the older ones are extremely sketchy, while there is hardly any guide at all to the new names flowing in from Holland. These facts, coupled with the progressive omission of older varieties from modern British lists seem to call for a master list in our own Society. I know that some of our members, Paul D. Vossberg, John C. Wister and others have devoted considerable time and effort to such compilations for their own use. If these were correlated and checked with all the lists in available literature, and some descriptive information included, it could stand as a work of permanent value which could be brought up to date periodically. The longer the task is put off, the more information will have faded from the memories of our older members. Such a list would be most helpful to those who have new varieties to name, for lacking it, much duplication and confusion are sure to arise. Rhododendrons grown under favorable conditions will often live a century or more. The list could refer to collections preferably permanent public ones, where an authentic specimen of a given variety is known to grow, thus defining it much more accurately than the customary vague description of "pink" or "white." Many magnificent specimens might thus be prevented from lapsing into the limbo of namelessness through loss of a label or death of a gardener.