Donald G. Graham, Seattle Chapter
Starting in 1932 I have been importing from abroad a variety of plant material. By the middle thirties there were over one hundred varieties of hybrid rhododendrons growing in my garden, imported chiefly from England. In those days the Department of Agriculture only issued a permit to private growers for the importation of plant material upon a showing that it would be for educational purposes and that the grower's garden would he available to the public.
Pursuant to my representation to the Plant Quarantine authorities, I let it be known that anyone interested in new plants would be welcome in the garden. I believe it was in 1937 that a man with a Scandinavian accent came into the garden one Saturday in the Spring to look over the rhododendrons. He told me that he had also imported a number of hybrids from England and that he would like to propagate some of his things that were not in my garden in return for scions of my varieties he did not have. I believe about the same time he approached Herbert Ihrig along the same lines.
In this way I first became acquainted with Endre Ostbo, and I believe every year since then he has taken scions from rhododendrons in my garden and has reciprocated by giving me plants not only from varieties originating elsewhere, but also from cross pollinations he himself has either made or grown from seed from abroad. I think I have benefited more than he has from these plant exchanges.
Ostbo described the usual nursery of twenty years ago as being "full of Blue Cypress, junipers and cheerful camellias" and felt that someone had to take some progressive steps to enrich gardens with some of the fine material that could he made available by importations and by hybridizing at home.
Because there are few true plant breeders in this country, it may be of general interest to tell something about Ostbo's nursery and his work in the origination of new hybrids. While he had previously done some hybridizing it was not until he started his nursery in 1940 near Bellevue, Washington, which he called the "King of Shrubs Nursery," that he embarked upon an extensive propagation program. This nursery is really a peat bog in which rhododendrons thrive and bloom quickly from seed or graft. It has the disadvantage of being subject to heavy frosts, but with an extensive area under glass, he has been able to protect his young stock until it is large enough to line out.
I remember fifteen years ago Ostbo asking for pollen from certain rhododendrons for crossing on plants growing in his nursery. His main purpose he told me was to get some outstanding late blooming hybrids, something that had not as yet been developed to any number in England. Since that time he has made hundred, of crosses and out of the thousands of seedlings he has raised, he believes he has several that are outstanding plants. Some have received awards of merit. He has many new crosses, some of which have just started to bloom during the past year, and many of which will not bloom for another year or two. Judging by his success in the past. I would think that he will continue to produce each year a few new hybrid rhododendrons of such quality as to merit an award by the American Rhododendron Society.
R. 'King of Shrubs'
In addition to trying to get a later blooming period, he has continually worked for more substance and better keeping qualities with clearer colors. Among the large leaf hybrids, these might be mentioned: 1. 'King of Shrubs', P. A. This received an award of merit some five years ago from the Society and is fairly well distributed among discriminating gardeners. The seed was sent over here from England. It is dichroanthum x neriiflorum x discolor. There was a wide variety in the seedlings from this cross, and this particular plant was probably the best.
2 'Mrs. Donald Graham', P. A. is R. 'Corona' x R. griersonianum x R. 'Loderi'. This plant was named after my wife, and we treasure exceedingly a planting of some eight large plants in our garden. This, as well as 'King of Shrubs', have been pictured in color in the yearbook and Quarterly Bulletin of the Society.
Working with hybrids crossed upon discolor, auriculatum or kyawii Ostbo has produced a number of fine late blooming hybrids, some of which have never been released. He felt that because we have a longer summer, and because the new idea in homes is to have low rambling houses with good views not only from the front but also from the living room with windows sometimes extending to the floor, low growing plant material that will bloom as nearly as possible the year round is especially desirable. To be able to have rhododendrons in bloom from February to August. is certainly a step in this direction.
While Ostbo has not done as much as Lester Brandt in dwarf hybridizing, he has a few very good things that have bloomed from R. repens, R. williamsianum or R. haematodes crosses. He believes there is a fine chance for improvement in low growing hybrids.
Some of the finest things Ostbo has developed are his occidentale hybrids. They resulted from crossing this azalea with large leaf rhododendrons. They range in color from pure white though soft yellow into red, the shade of an American Beauty Rose. When they bloom in June and July they are not only beautiful but they have the strong fragrance of Azalea occidentale. In addition they have leaves which turn red in the Fall but do not drop. 1 think these R. occidentale hybrids as they become better known will become very popular garden subjects. Certainly anyone, even with a small garden, can use some of these graceful plants if only for their fragrance alone. Another advantage of these plants as compared with azaleas of the mollis type is that they do not set seed so that the work of removing seed pods is eliminated.
While new colors are to be hoped for in the future, such as a pure blue, some of Ostbo's hybrids, particularly in the yellows and the clear shell pink of the occidentale crosses are colors that have heretofore not been well represented.
I think perhaps the reason for Ostbo's success as a hybridizer is that he has always known exactly what he was aiming for in the way of plant improvement. Vague expectations may sometimes be satisfied by a haphazard cross but only definite aims will insure steady progress. He himself in answer to my question whether his main purposes have been achieved said "No. I have only made a start. I think I now have about ten to fifteen that will prove valuable and better than we have had before in late blooming and fragrant types. Anyway, it is food for thought for many years to come. It will look different five years from now. But we are living in 1953 and if no one does anything to improve rhododendrons, 1958 will not be any better than 1953."
The University of Washington Arboretum and the Society's Test Garden in Portland have been given many of Ostbo's new crosses. In addition he has shown some of them at the American Rhododendron Society accredited shows so that today most of the rhododendron enthusiasts in the Pacific Northwest are familiar with at least a few of his originations. It is to be hoped that his success along this line will inspire others to emulate this example of intelligent plant breeding. He feels that the American Rhododendron Society is doing some useful work but comments: "The people that need advice most don't take it from anybody; some take it from everybody which is just as bad. If the Society can correct this and reach more people I think it will serve the purpose for which it was organized."