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Journal American Rhododendron Society

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Dr. Glen Jamieson ars.editor@gmail.com


Volume 7, Number 1
January 1953

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A Little Chat About Eastern Breeders
By Edmond Amateis

Joseph and Mrs. Gable
   Fig. 11.  Joseph Gable with Mrs. Gable.  One of the many Gable hybrids
                  in the background.
                  Adee photo

       Though no limitations were placed on me by our President, when asking for this article, I soon found that its scope would have to be considerably limited, due to lack of space in our Bulletin. Reference, therefore, will be made only to the living breeders acquainted to me, north of the Mason-Dixon line.
        The fine work being done by our Department of Agriculture in Maryland is a story in itself as is also the work of those deceased, particularly Charles O. Dexter who has contributed so much to our needs in rhododendrons. There is a comprehensive story of the Dexter hybrids by John Wister in the 1951-'52 Rhododendron Year Book of the R. H. S. and the Jan. '52 issue of the A.R.S. Bulletin.
        It wasn't until 1922 that serious attempts at hybridization were made in this country by Dexter with material obtained originally from Jackson Dawson and John Farquhar. Then, a few years later, first Joseph Gable and afterwards Guy G. Nearing began experimenting with the Asiatic for hardiness and possible use in this section. If you consult Dr. Clement Bowers estimable book on "Rhododendrons" you will see listed the hundreds of different species these men tested only to find a pitiful remnant worthy of use. With the exception of a few favorable locations along the coast, breeders in the East have to contend with the most extremes of weather. Fluctuations of sixty or seventy degrees in a day are not unusual, hot summers, drying winds and winter temperatures of -15 to -20 often without snowfall. This is what we have to offer mountain plants that like cool fogs and dews of summer and a protecting blanket of snow all winter.
        Our aims on the whole are pretty much the same--to maintain the hardiness of our native plants and improve them with foreign blood. With the changes in our social and economic life a small leafed, compact dwarf that will take its place in size and scale with the smaller homes and gardens seems to be a desideratum. The native materials we have to work with are carolinianum and its later-blooming counterpart, minus, both admirable shrubs though somewhat difficult to breed. Maximum, though suitable as a background plant for naturalized settings is much too large in both plant and leaf structure to be used in a small garden. It also has the disadvantage of a small truss coming after the spring growth and concealed by it. Catawbiense, as a shrub, leaves little to be desired and is probably the hardiest of them all. It bloomed last spring in Western Pennsylvania after -30, when all the maximums lost their buds. Its great drawback is the dominant magenta that tinges all its progeny. With the advent of a white variant discovered by Powell Glass of Lynchburg, Va., that comes quite true from seed and that has been generously released by him, the difficulties of the Eastern breeder will undoubtedly be greatly lightened. Gable has named this 'CATALGLA'-that is CATawbiense, ALbum, GLAss. Gable has several natural red variants of the catawba rhododendron that also hold promise as breeders. This is a brief but not comprehensive picture of our climate, our aims and the palette of primaries with which we have to work.
        Without doubt Joseph Gable is the outstanding breeder of hardy rhododendrons and azaleas, not only here in the East but the entire country and to try to encompass the man and his work in a few paragraphs is a rank injustice--he deserves a book. To find out anything about his personal life is a difficult job indeed for he is a modest and a busy man. He first became interested in rhodos, so the story goes, when, as a soldier in World War I, he went to sleep in the dark under a bush in an English garden and woke up the next morning to have his eyes filled with the beauties of a rhododendron in full bloom. This story may be apocryphal but it's pleasant. I inquired here and there of his friends for any little personal story they might have. "Well," said Milo Coplen, in his genial, hearty way, "I suppose scandal has the most human interest but, so help me, I've never heard any connected with Joe." He went on to say many fine things, but let me quote verbatim from one of his friends, David Leach, which just about sums up everyone's attitude concerning Joseph Gable. "Gable has grown hundreds of rhododendron species as fast as plant explorers have discovered them and made seed, available to him. He knew that 99%, would not he useful ornamentals in the East and that he could derive no possible commercial benefit from his experiments with this multitude of exotic species. He did it as a labor of love and to satisfy his own inquisitive mind. Horticulture is the richer for the dozen or more species which he did demonstrate to be valuable in our part of the country: Fortunei, discolor, adenopodum, auriculatum, longesquamatum, racemosum, keiskei, albrechtii, etc., etc., Actually I believe no one else in the U.S. is even in the same class with him. He's a rustic, outwardly, but look sharp and you'll see Bach and Beethoven records under the phonograph in the parlor. "Country Gentlemen" is the top magazine on the table, but peek underneath and you'll see a smart British publication. One time he held me spellbound for an hour while he discoursed on the nature and meaning of the life processes. It was original, brilliant and product of a most remarkable intellect. He is devoutly religious (a Methodist) and when he has time to really write his prose has all the rich sonority of the Old Testament. He is shy, modest. introspective, pursuing an intangible idea of beauty which is a classic instance of the eternal quest never quite fulfilled. No other motive could give a man of his age such unbelievable energy to drive himself as he does." There's Joe Gable as his friends see him--a man to love.
        He has earned his living as an orchardist these many years--I believe he is in the neighborhood of sixty--though now I understand he is giving orcharding up to devote all his time to rhodos and azaleas. His place is at Stewartstown, Pa., (nearly on the Mason-Dixon Line) which lets him slip into this article under 39 43' north Lat. with only a few seconds to spare. Gable has produced many things of note but don't believe that all that bear his name are his or have his sanction. Everyone tells the same tale of shabby treatment by professional growers, who propagated and sold inferior plants given as gifts or, as in one case, actually stolen from his nursery. This is a sad blow indeed to a man of strict principles in business and high standards in his art.
        His list of productions is much too long to name in detail but among rhododendrons R. 'Carolbic' and R. 'Beaufort' have been introduced and R. 'Disca', R. 'Cadis', R. 'Wm. Montgomery', R. 'The Cardinal' and R. 'Sir James' are outstanding. Among his long list of fine azaleas 'Louise Gable' is my favorite. Over the years, in this ice-box of mine, she has never failed to produce her lovely shell-pink hose-in-hose blossoms on a shapely compact bush. Another outstanding production is 'Rose Greely' but I shall let Gable tell you the story in his own words as recorded in his notes: 'Rose Greely' D3G white hose-in-hose and so far hardy. A result of sixteen years planning though no one knew how long it would take in the beginning. Many people, including some plantsmen, think that hybridization is just a matter of crossing species and varieties and then waiting for something to turn up and maybe all too often it is conducted along those lines. Neither will I commit perjury. But if knowledge is lacking `Experientia docet' and it is a little short of tragic if a would-be hybridist spends too many years of the only life he has in attending only her school. Definite objectives should be set and whether we attain them or not a comprehensive longtime plan (but as short as we can make it) will bring us a lot closer to that attainment a lot sooner in this `onliest' lifetime. D3G plan was as follows:

1. poukhanense x mucronatum to get a hardy white. 100 seedlings. No whites.
2. Above cross selfed. 240 seedlings flowered. 3 single whites.
    la. poukhanense x 'Hexe' to get a hardy hose-in-hose. All seedlings deep rose purple.
    2a. (poukhanense x 'Hexe') x (poukhanense x kaempferi) to obtain lighter colors in those hose-in-hose form. Several fine pinks.
3. Crossed single white form 2 with hose-in-hose pink form 2a. Flowered nearly 200 and got one hose-in-rose white which is D3G or Rose Greely easily a hardier white than we ever grew here before. But I still think I made this cross "in a country cemetery on the dark of the moon and a rabbit foot in each pocket."

G. G. Nearing
Fig. 13.  G. G. Nearing
Newman photo

        In speaking of rhododendron breeding one seldom mentions Gable without Nearing--their names are often associated much as bread and butter, salt and pepper, and, more to the point, Damon and Pythias for, in spite of the fact that fundamentally they are competitors, there has existed between them for nearly twenty-five year, that fine spirit of cooperation that is possible only with big-souled and generous-minded men. During the tranquil years they exchanged seed, plants, pollen and ideas on a large scale and when disaster struck, there they were, staunch and firm giving each other a helping hand.
        Twice a hurricane hit Gable and when he was ill six months with pneumonia Nearing planted all his seeds for him. And then came the floods upon Nearing at his Ridgewood nursery and wiped him out--ten thousand plants and the efforts and hopes and aspirations of a lifetime drowned out in a night. In despondency he either gave away or sold what was left--some of his finest productions such as his Ridgewood hybrids, the famous 'Beatrice Pierce' and her siblings, and 'Ramapo' and 'Windbeam'. This was in 1946 but four years later he was starting his nursery up again at his new place in Ramsey, New Jersey and this was when his old friend Gable came forward with his offer to help in the way of seeds and cuttings of his own production.
        R. 'Windbeam', which was recently awarded a quality count of 90 out of a possible 100 by Vossberg and Hess, is a selection Nearing made from countless seedlings of R. 'Conestoga'. R. 'Ramapo' (carolinianum x fastigiatum) is another selection of seedlings Nearing raised from a cross by Gable. It is such a lovely little thing that Nearing writes, R. 'Ramapo' is now being sold by Thuem as fast as he can raise it. Hardgrove will offer it next year."
        Like many of us at the time, he served in World War I though he was severely wounded. Besides his activities as a nurseryman he gives illustrated lectures, using his own beautiful slides, on such diverse subjects as rhododendrons, hollies, alpines (he is the editor of the American Rock Garden Society's Bulletin), mushroom; and related fungi and mosses and lichens.
        You think this is all? Not a bit of it! Let us go on with other facets of this many-sided man. When he first got his Phi Beta Kappa key he expected to be a professor of philology. He never did quite explain why that didn't happen but apparently a course in botany led him into the nursery business and an article by E. H. Wilson into rhododendrons. Seems Wilson said that grafted rhodos were unsatisfactory and those on their own roots would do better, so with characteristic ingenuity be experimented and came up with a new system all his own.
        Music? Painting? Folk dancing? They're all grist to his mill, which is "grinding exceeding slow" these days due to stress of work in starting a new nursery. He says next spring he will start selling his hardy strain of R. racemosum and R. keiskei and some of his Guyencourt hybrids such as R. 'Brandywine', R. 'Lenape', R. 'Chesapeake' and R. 'Montchanin'. Like Gable he has been badly treated by those he thought were friends and some of his finest productions are denied him. He says, "As you know, I cannot introduce the Ridgewood hybrids because they are mostly in unfriendly hands. Three from elsewhere, however. are about equal to the best and I am propagating these for future introduction." When you see a man in his sixties breaking new ground and starting afresh with minute seeds that take years to mature, I say to you, there's courage!
        Before Gable and Nearing started sprinkling their pollen about and even before some of our younger breeders were born, Paul Vossberg, in 1913 was trying his hand at hybridizing, with Henry Hicks lending encouragement. In those days they had no knowledge of primary hybrids and merely crossed outstanding varieties of catawba hybrids. He says, "Out of hundreds of seedlings brought to bloom, there was only one worthy of growing on, which we named R. 'Meadowbrook', ('Mrs. C. S. Sargent' x 'Everestianum'). At present he is trying to develop a hardy race of evergreen azaleas for the midwest that won't barksplit or bud blast. He is using as a base a white sport of Azalea poukhanense. Vossberg, who is a consultant with the Westbury Rose Co., has a tremendous fund of knowledge concerning rhodos and plant life in general. He is better known as a propagator of the difficult things such as dogwood, magnolias, holly and catawba hybrids. So great is his skill I feel sure he could put roots on a toothpick.
        Frank Abbott of Bellows Falls, Vt., is another early vintage breeder who started over twenty-five years ago to produce rhododendrons of purer colors that would be hardy in the southern part of Vermont. He found that much effort was wasted hybridizing obtusums even as hardy as kaempferi. His conclusions are that R. japonicum, R. vaseyi, R. calendulaceum, R. arborescens and R. roseaum are the only ones definitely hardy and drought resistant in his area. Such a hardy plant as R. schlippenbachii fails completely with him. Although he has imported plants and seeds of practically every known rhododendron only catawbiense, mucronulatum and maximum have proven satisfactory in his climate.
        In his breeding he has never been able to cross R. vaseyi with any of its related Asiatic plants. Another observation is that in trying to develop scarlet flowered azaleas the better the color, the less vigor these plants seem to have. He says, "About the only hardy parent for development of red flowers is calendulaceum and after the F1 generation these crosses seem to lose vigor." (The wonder of it is that it will cross at all, R. calendulaceum being a tetraploid and, with one exception, the other R. luteums being diploids.) Of thousands of seedlings raised he feels he has developed only three outstanding plants. Two of them are azaleas, R. 'Jane Abbott' a large pure pink-flowered and fragrant plant and R. 'Margaret Abbott', a white flowered one. Both these plants are a cross of roseum x calendulaceum. In the evergreens he has produced a splendid, large flowered white rhododendron, 'The Virgin', (R. fargesii x R. catawbiense album) which he says flowers freely in small sizes and is a colorful thing when it attains proper size. The R. catawba used was a white sport (R. 'Catalgla',) and not the commercial clone, which is a hybrid.
        Dr. Henry Skinner, who has been recently appointed Director of the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., was for the past twelve years Director of the Morris Arboretum at Phil. Born in England, he was educated there and in this country. The work in breeding which he did in Philadelphia was an outgrowth of projects started at Cornell in the middle thirties, and will follow him to Washington. His interests were in three principal directions, (1) in developing a strain of A. japonica used originally in the production of A. 'Louisa Hunnewell', (2) use of native azaleas and (3) in the evergreen rhododendrons generally. With A. japonica he says, "we have worked by the Corn Breeder's methods in isolating a relatively few lines through several generations of self pollination. At the moment, most of these lines are in their fourth and fifth generations so that very soon now we feel that they will be sufficiently stabilized to commence intercrossing for the production of hybrid vigor." He has done considerable work with the evergreens, mostly in the lepidote group and now has upwards of 20,000 plants under test at both the Morris and National Arboretums. With the exception of a mucronulatum clone, R. 'Cornell Pink' nothing has yet been released due to the long period of testing that a careful breeder gives his productions. He says further, "The breeding work with native azaleas is only starting as an outgrowth of a very complete study being undertaken at the Morris Arboretum from the geographic, cytological and taxonomic viewpoints. During field work in 1951, 1 collected some 5,000 herbarium specimens of these plants throughout their range in the eastern United States, and at the same time acquired many living specimens which were used for the first time this year in hybridization work for the creation of better garden azaleas. This involves incorporating some of the outstanding characters such as hardiness, tall, dwarf or stoloniferous habits etc., possessed by our native plants often more conspicuously than by the introduced species. Some of the exotics such as A. japonica and perhaps the best of the Ghent hybrids will certainly enter into the program with these natives." I wish we had the space to publish his letter in full but maybe someday he will favor us with a complete account. of the original work he is doing.
        Dr. Hui-Lin Li, at the Morris Arboretum. will undoubtedly carry on the good work started there particularly, says Skinner, "with the native species in scientific breeding tests to try and discover something of the past evolutionary pattern of this group. He is very busy with his chromosome work at the present time."

David G. Leach
Fig. 12.  David G. Leach
White photo

        What is it that prompts men like Frank Abbott and David Leach to attempt rhododendrons in climates where winter temperatures of -20 and -25 are normal and -30 not unusual? The challenge of a difficult job or just self-immolation? That's Leach's climatic condition in western Pennsylvania, where he lives with his charming wife, Arlene, and their three children Brian, David, Robin.
        He was trained as a geneticist in college and subsequently did research under Dr. Warren Spencer, former President of the International Society of Geneticists and a world figure in his field. The breeding of rhododendrons is a preoccupation with Leach, which seems to take precedence over his profession of running two glove factories where he employs about two hundred and fifty persons. Dave is another example of the successful business man who belies the popular notion he cannot at the same time be an esthete. He lectures on art and his tastes, as exemplified in his paintings and new home, are impeccable. Good music, good literature, good food and good company are all part of his life for he is a sociable fellow and likes people.
        The first few of his eight years at breeding were devoted to developing an azalea of the Obtusum series for his locality. Though neither poukhanense or kaempferi was satisfactory, he did obtain a plant from that mating that is hardier than either parent and regularly produces good, clear frosty pink blossoms on a compact, bushy plant. Another result with azaleas was the production of a fine claret in the luteum series.
        The last few years have been devoted almost exclusively to elepidote rhododendrons except for one project designed to extend the blooming season of deciduous azaleas. Scores of crosses have been made but few of the seedlings have yet bloomed with the exception of a fine floriferous fragrant white, (R. catawbiense album x R. fortunei) and a pink which he considers superior to any of the ironclad hybrids in commerce. Each year is devoted to a different problem-one year on the reds, another on the yellows and oranges, etc. He is further experimenting with colchicine in an effort to induce polyploidy and with X-ray irradiation to induce mutations.
        Donald Hardgrove, who is Vice President of the Public Building Material Co., has been breeding rhododendrons for the past twelve years. He has given me very little information about himself except to say that he believes he has, "more plants of primary hybrids containing a fully hardy species crossed into a second generation than anyone else in this country." In our 1916 Year Book there is a photograph of him and an article by him on "Creating New Rhododendron Hybrids," also a list of crosses he has made or intends to make. In this list is the cross (racemosum x keiskei) x keiskei which he has named 'Springsong' and which was awarded 88 points this last April by a jury composed of Vossberg and Hess.
        Hardgrove, who is married and has two children, lives in one of several areas on the Atlantic Seaboard designated by the U. S. Dept. of Meteorology as having a winter climate comparable to that of Columbia, S.C. There's no doubt that he can grow many plants much too tender for most of us and consequently comes in for considerable ribbing as living in the tropics.
        Joseph Casadeval lives in New Jersey only a few miles from Nearing. He has plans for establishing a nursery, which come quite naturally to him as both his parents and his brother are professional growers. He is a tall, gentle rather shy fellow of thirty-two with a very friendly smile. His efforts at breeding, to date, have produced a set of twins, a rambunctious boy of five and an adorable little blue-eyed, tow-haired girl of three, who romped away with my heart.
        He has many crosses under way with doubleness in azaleas as his aim. He has imported quite a bit of breeding stock from England and, besides the usual catawbamand maximum is using as a seed parent, a magnificent R. chrysanthum his mother has growing in her yard. Although it has yellow blossoms and is exceptionally hardy there is considerable doubt about its being chrysanthum as it is four or five feet tall and as much through. Casadeval believes it to be niko-montanum and which Hiroshi Hara says is a natural hybrid of fauriei x chrysanthum.
        Also in New Jersey is Warren Baldsiefen 29 and the youngest whose interest in rhododendrons started when, as he says. "I was taken into the fold of enthusiasts during the blooming season of rhododendrons and had my indoctrination at Mr. Nearing's nursery in Ridgewood where I spent many a leisure hour." He is a professional propagator of catawba hybrids and uses Nearing's method for rooting cuttings. He recently wrote a comprehensive description of this method which has been or will be published.*
        What breeding he has done with the lepidotes was, as he says, "a successful failure." He'll soon be trying again for optimism like his can't be held down. One catastrophe after another has hit him--a broken ankle, floods, sun scorch, stolen stock--and not once have I heard him complain. What would life be without the Warren Baldsiefens--this generous, happy ebullient young fellow who meets disaster with a laugh. Bless 'em.
        And now we come to the author. With a sculptor for a father, a mother, an uncle on each side and a maternal grandfather as artists, the genes were stacked against me and I didn't have a chance--I'm a sculptor. The family consists of a patient wife and a fluffy cat both of whom take good care of me. We are all, actually or relatively, in our fifties.
        The growing of rhododendrons and azaleas from seeds started long ago but it wasn't until I read Dr. Bowers' beguiling book on rhododendrons six years ago that I started breeding. Many mistakes were made and much time lost with seeds and imported stock until I learned the West Coast is peopled with many kindly souls who seem only too glad to lend a helping hand with pollen. The Del James's, Edward K. Roth, Halfdan Lem, H. L. Larson and, in the East, Everitt Miller, Supt. of the Coe Estates, have all been most generous. Who makes the cross? The one who provides the pollen or the one who places it? I look upon them all as co-breeders. Anyway, Nearing says the most important job for the breeder is to have the courage to discard. I haven't yet been put to that test for, though I have some two hundred crosses simmering around, my first ones won't bloom until the spring of '53.
        The only contribution to date that I feel I can make with any certainty has to do with apomixes-or induced apogamy, or parthenogenesis, I believe they are all the same. It is the stimulation of the ovaries by a foreign pollen to produce seeds without actual fertilization taking place--a form of vegetative reproduction. When I told some eastern breeders that I had made successful matings of R. edgeworthii, R. bullatum, R. taggianum and R. 'Lady Alice Fitzwilliam' all on R. carolinianum, there was some slight raising of eyebrows and the suggestion that it was the result of induced apogamy.
        Such implied purity in the conception of my darlings was a staggering blow. There was no doubt that some of the seedlings had leaf characteristics similar to the seed parent but, contrary to Mendel's 1st Law of Uniformity in an F, cross, there was considerable variation in the hairiness between siblings in the bullatum and edgeworthii crosses.
        I didn't accept their suggestion, for if there could be a variation in the amount of hairs between siblings what was to preclude the possibility that the hairless ones might not contain other factors of the pollen parent, such as fragrance or blossom size-the original reason for making the cross Bearing in mind Dr. J. MacQueen Cowan and his splendid work on the difference in cellular structure in rhododendron leaves, I had Leach, who has a sixty power glass, compare the leaves of the various crosses with their seed parent. In each case there was a marked difference in cellular structures.
        Now it has been the practice of these breeders in cases of suspected apogamy to discard all seedlings with leaves similar to the seed parent. I feel that some breeders have been discarding material that might have been of value so, with the honor of my babes now safe and established, my little contribution is to advise them to keep all crosses until they bloom. Should they be like their parent (in my case R. carolinianum) you >would still have a carolinianum and that's a pretty nice shrub. And so, I close, with a little nonsense:

Oh! Mum
Do come
And tell me how 1 chanced to be.

My son,
You're the sum
Of (a x b) x c.

Now whoa!
Not so!

1 did it with my bottom cried the bee.
And so you see
The futility
Of thee
And me.


Volume 7, Number 1
January 1953

DLA Ejournal Home | QBARS Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search JARS and other ejournals