Desert Island Rhododendrons
Frederick Street, Woking, Surrey, England
It is along about ten o'clock of a nippy Tuesday morning and I am standing in the Horticultural Hall with Roger the Lodger, the landscape artist in my set-up, speaking of this and that, when the conversation turns to rhododendrons. Now this is not surprising seeing that we are standing right beside a group of these Ericaceous lovelies, and that we are both more than a little interested in the culture of same.
It is in the course of this conversation that this Roger the Lodger asks me to name one of all the many different varieties, which is rather more than a few, that I prefer as the one and only. Naturally, this is by no means an easy question to answer because we grow as many as two hundred different sorts of the said ericaceous lovelies and to choose the one that is one hundred per cent in every respect is some difficult piece of choosing. In fact, I contend that it is impossible, but Roger the Lodger says that I am in error, as the way to come to such a conclusion is to figure that you are marooned on a Desert Island and you can only grow one rhododendron. 1 do not feel disposed to mention to Roger the Lodger that if he is marooned on a Desert Island he will find a good keeping apple rather more useful than the prettiest of all the pretties in the Scow, and that the said Desert Island will need to have an acid soil and more than a little peat which is not usually to be found on many Desert Islands. Furthermore, I do not let it out that I think this Roger has been wasting a great deal of time listening to the radio when he might have been better employed. We get to arguing this way and that until we find we are almost agreeing on one of these Ericaceous lovelies named after a high-class Judy called 'Betty Wormald'. We consider this 'Betty Wormald' must be a gorgeous as many citizens say that if the particular ericaceous lovely that carries her moniker is not the most beautiful that ever hit a patch of acid soil it is at least in there, somewhere, scrambling close up.
But, seriously, when the Editor of the American Rhododendron Association Bulletin honored me by suggesting that I might write something for publication I felt it would be a small gesture of Anglo-American cooperation if I could write in the style of "The Master." I have tried. Sir Allan Herbert tried. We both failed. The best I can offer is a title and an introduction inspired by the United States of America. The choice of rhododendrons is mine - a purely personal selection. You may agree or you may not. I do not say that you should - if everyone thought the same about rhododendrons there would be much less interest in growing them. Therein lies a great part of their charm-their infinite variety.
I grow hardy hybrids. The "A"s, the "B"s and a few of the "C"s of the list in the R. H. S. Rhododendron Handbook. This is largely due to the fact that my ground is in a bad frost pocket. I am a hardy hybrid enthusiast. Unfortunately, I have not yet had the pleasure of visiting the United States but, where I can and as far as my knowledge allows, I will try to give a broad indication for each variety whether it is suitable for East or West.
It is very difficult to make a choice of a few varieties. As well as the different degrees of hardiness and stamina, the different types of foliage and flower, there are the all important factors of habit and flowering period. To make a choice of the major colors and shades alone to cater for all these different considerations would be enough to fill a small book. So that my notes shall keep to reasonable proportions I have selected my favorite variety, my Desert Island choice, in the following colors: Red, Pink, White, Mauve, Purple and Yellow. I will describe these in detail. I will give the reason for my choice and, briefly, mention a few of the "also rans."
Without wishing to indulge in an orgy of patriotism, without any personal feelings about the name, so far, the best red hardy hybrids rhododendron is, in my opinion, 'Britannia'. It is a fine scarlet red--pure for a hardy hybrid, with little or no blue in its make-up. The texture of the flower is rich, velvety. The truss, perhaps, leaves a little to be desired, sometimes having a sawn-off look as if it were not quite complete. The foliage is good, if a little yellow, and the habit is bushy and compact. It is as hardy as 'Pink Pearl', maybe a shade more so. The breeding, according to Millais, is 'Stanley Davis' x 'Queen Wilhelmina' - which may or may not be true. But I am not selecting rhododendrons for blue blood. I am selecting one of each color for a Desert Island. And 'Britannia' is a good do-er. Each year it can be relied on to give a good show of flower. It is not temperamental. And there is little room, I imagine, for temperament on a Desert Island, either in human beings or plants.
How true it is I cannot say, but a story is told that 'Britannia' was raised in Potsdam during the 1914-18 War. I believe that it was certainly raised by a German, but whether it was, in fact, produced in the very heart of Prussia is a little doubtful. At all events it is a nice story, not lacking in irony.
Two other varieties that are "in there, somewhere, scrambling close up" are 'Garibaldi' (very old) and 'Kluis Sensation' (very new). 'Garibaldi' is different in color being a bright light red and, although it has the advantage of being more hardy and easy to layer (a definite asset on a Desert Island), the color is not quite as good and habit is a little loose. But, if Kipling's crack about the white man's burden can be applied to the two coasts of the United States of America, 'Garibaldi' can be said to be the exception to "East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet." For 'Garibaldi' is hardy enough for the East and as beautiful as the best of the West.
And now, with no wish to appear unpatriotic or to draw sad analogies about the balance of payments, the dollar deficit or the limey's lament, I fear that 'Britannia's' days are numbered as the red hardy hybrid rhododendron to end all red hardy hybrids. 'Kluis Sensation' is even more pure in colour, the truss is not sawn-off, the foliage and habit are better than 'Britania's'. The only quality that is lacking in 'Kluis Sensation' that is present in 'Britannia' is the fine texture of the petal. I hope my good friend Mr. Kluis (who now lives in the United States and who may well read these notes) will forgive me for not choosing his magnificent rhododendron. But we are a conservative race that does not accept an innovation without due trial and pretty severe trial at that. If I had seen 'Kluis Sensation' through the winter of 1947 and if it had survived as well as 'Britannia' and if I were convinced that its performance year in, year out were as good-then my choice would be 'Kluis Sensation'. It is for this reason that I have said "so far, in my opinion, the best red hardy hybrid rhododendron is 'Britannia'.
It may not be iron hardy, it may need part shade, it may be inclined to grow a little leggy, but 'Betty Wormald' is, undoubtedly, gorgeous. The parentage, given to me by its raiser, Mr. Peter Koster, is 'George Hardy' x an unknown red. This is an interesting link with the runner-up in this particular heat for the Street Desert Island Stakes - 'Pink Pearl' ('George Hardy' x 'Broughtonii'). Perhaps the "unknown red" had a little griffithianum blood for 'Betty Wormald' shows more traces of this aristocratic forbear than 'Pink Pearl'. The size of flower and truss, the delicate pink color with the deeper shading in the throat of 'Betty Wormold' are so much better than 'Pink Pearl' that I would be prepared to see this lovely sight only every other year rather than 'Pink Pearl' every year. And that, for me, is some admission. I am very fond of 'Pink Pearl' and I am particularly fond of its reliability. But 'Betty Wormald', for a hardy hybrid, is verging on the exotic 'Loderi', 'Azor', type of rhododendron.
'Pink Pearl' is second and third is a very old, almost extinct, variety called 'Bianchii'. Iron hardy with a smallish flower and truss but of a quite pure shade of pink with no blue. This was Miss Gertrude Jekyll's favorite rhododendron. If I were intending to breed rhododendrons among the palms of my Desert Island I should find it difficult to choose between 'Betty Wormald' and 'Bianchii'. If the Island had an east coast climate then 'Bianchii' would win for, it must be admitted, 'Betty Wormald' is just a little tender - not in the 'Loderi', griersonianum hybrid, auriculatum hybrid class - but not as hardy as 'Gomer Waterer', or 'Lord Roberts', and not really quite as hardy as 'Pink Pearl'.
This is the easiest choice of all. Way back in the early thirties, when I first learned the difference between a rhododendron and a laurel I saw Rhododendron 'Chionoides' in flower in my uncle's nursery. I liked it then and, although the years have shown me all sorts of conditions of white rhododendrons, I like it now. It is my favorite white rhododendron. There are no runners up. It is old - very old. It is, I should say, a ponticum hybrid that ranks with such varieties as 'Mum', 'Minnie', 'Beauty of Bagshot', 'Mrs. Anthony Waterer', 'Snowflake', 'Purity', 'Duchess of Connaught'. The flowers are small, cup shaped, somewhat similar to 'Corona', carried in a neat conical truss. It is free flowering, it is reliable, it is charming. The habit is good-compact with dark green, graceful leaves. It is as hard as nails and could, no doubt, be grown easily in the east. Other whites that begin to come in to the orbit of 'Chionoides' are 'Mrs. Lindsay Smith - too leggy, floppy; 'Helene Schiffner' - dead white, almost albino, too white; 'Duchess of Portland' - delicate white, very fine but early and subject to May frosts, and an appetizing seven course dinner for the rhododendron fly. 'Mrs. P. D. Williams' - very lovely ivory white with an orange flare yet not nearly so reliable. But these only begin to be compared. For me, and this is a purely personal selection, they are not in the same class as 'Chionoides'.
A romantic color, a maligned color among rhododendrons. "No, it is too much like ponticum" - is often heard as a comment on a mauve rhododendron. I select 'Fastuosum Flore Pleno'. A strong grower with good foliage, hardy and reliable, late flowering. The double flowers are not oppressively so; they have a delicate beauty and grace. The truss is good, in part shade it is particularly fine. Incidentally the combination of Fastuosum Flore Pleno' and 'Chionoides' is delightful - cool and restful. There are many more good mauves. As, in fact, there are many reds, pink, whites, bi-colors, spotted rhododendrons, flared rhododendrons and other shades and combinations of shades. Rhododendron 'Lady Grey Egerton' is a very delicate lavender mauve - particularly beautiful under canvas. But of very bad habit - leggy, loose and lank. Rhododendron 'Lavender Girl ('Lady Grey Egerton' x fortunei) is another that is very good but not as hardy as 'Fastuosum Flore Pleno' and of that rather subdued shade reminiscent of oil color mixed with too much flake white. Another very old variety which is still worth growing and, to me, worth considering as a mauve for the Desert Island, is Rhododendron 'Everestianum'. The habit is good, the color is lilac pink and, probably its greatest claim for inclusion, there is the dainty frill of the petal. To count against the charm of the flower and the neat habit is the same fault that would exclude Rhododendron 'Duchess of Portland' it is a favorite of the fly as well as one of mine. I could go on with a long list of mauves and near blues - 'Blue Peter', 'Blue Ensign', 'Susan', 'Countess of Athlone' and many more, old and new. But, all things considered, I stick to 'Fastuosum Flore Pleno'
With some considerable risk of contradiction I go so far as to say that there is only one purple hardy hybrid rhododendron to be chosen. By this I mean a pure purple, not magenta, not maroon, not dark mauve, nor yet amaranth, but deep rich purple. The choice - Rhododendron 'Purple Splendour'. It is possible that this wild - categorical statement may swamp the editor in letters of protest but there is no other rhododendron with the same deep rich tone as 'Purple Splendour'. There are two reasons for this. The main color of the flower is a fine dark purple but in the centre is a deep black flare which makes it richer and, like 'Everestianum', the petals are frilled. The frilled petals attract and reflect the sun-light and the deep black flare makes a foil to the outer purple. The foliage is good, the habit is above average, the growth is strong and 'Purple Splendour' is very tough. Whether it is tough enough for the east side, I am not qualified to judge.
There are so few purples that it is not possible to mention even one that might begin to be considered in comparison with 'Purple Splendour'. A great favorite of mine, Rhododendron 'Old Port' is probably the only one but the reddish shade of the color prevents it from being called true purple.
If I had a dollar for every time that I have argued with Mr. Oliver Slocock concerning the respective merits of Rhododendrons 'Unique' and 'Goldsworth Yellow' I should be spending my holidays in Florida. Mr. Slocock prefers Rhododendron 'Unique'. I prefer 'Goldsworth Yellow'. Both were raised by the Goldsworth Nurseries where I had the privilege of working for two years before the War. The main reason for my choice, 'Goldsworth Yellow', is that it is a fortnight to three weeks later flowering than 'Unique'. And that can often mean a choice between a good flower in most years or a better flower in few years. The color is a fairly deep yellow and the young buds are tinged with pink, at a distance this enhances the yellow effect and, like many rhododendrons, this variety is most beautiful when the flower is half open. There are many people who say that campylocarpum hybrids are quite hardy. I do not agree. I find most of them more than a little tender but 'Goldsworth Yellow' is the hardiest of all. The exact parentage is not known as this plant was the result of the work of the late Mr. Faggetter, for many years the propagator at the Goldsworth Nursery. It is given as campylocarpum x caucasicum hybrid. From a long and careful study of the plant I should say that the caucasicum hybrid was that fine old variety 'Jacksonii'. My Desert Island choice of a yellow rhododendron is not difficult - 'Goldsworth Yellow', when all points of hardiness, constitution, foliage, time of flowering, etc., etc., are considered, is outstanding.
I will agree that 'Unique' is certainly a close runner-up but I find 'Unique' tender, verging on the very tender. One year we had a number of rhododendrons forced for one of the Royal Horticultural Shows, that were a little too advanced. To retard them they were taken out of a heated greenhouse and placed in a cold-house, and a draughty cold-house at that. The other varieties were 'Prince Camille de Rohan', 'Chevalier Felix de Sauvage', 'Souvenir de Dr. S. Endtz', 'Mrs. C. B. Van Nes', 'Peter Koster', a few more hardy hybrids and 'Unique'. One night, there was a strong frost of about 10°. All were unharmed with the exception of 'Unique'. The flowers were a pulpy brown mess.
I do not suggest that 'Goldsworth Yellow' is >an east coast rhododendron. But, from a study of the Bulletins and Year Book from the American Rhododendron Society I gather that May frosts are not unknown on the west coast. Whereas you will only see 'Unique' flower to perfection twice in five years, 'Goldsworth Yellow' will give a good show of flower four times in five years.
Those are my favorites in the principal colors, my reasons for choosing them and the varieties that very nearly might have been chosen. As I have said, you may agree or you may not. Perhaps, one day, I shall be able to visit the United States of America and you can tell me that I am either sadly in error or one hundred per cent right in every respect.
"A" Hardy anywhere in the British Isles and may be planted in full exposure if desired.
"B" Hardy anywhere in the British Isles, but requires some shade to obtain the best results.
"C" Hardy in sheltered and warm gardens.