Selection of Azaleas
by Alleyne R. Cook, Vancouver, B. C.
How do the breeders of all these new hybrid azaleas choose from the thousands of seedlings the ones which will be popular with the public? How do they select from small plants those showing promise of new colors, better shaped flowers, more blooms, a longer flowering period, or other attractive features? I shall try and describe something of the methods used at Knap Hill nursery and Exbury gardens, both of which I know very well.
It is not surprising that in a garden of maybe 200 acres many large areas are covered with massed azalea plantings not only seedlings of their new Exbury strain but Ghents Mollis and occidentale. The first seedlings of the former were planted along the main path between the house and the lake. In one sheltered corner I found 'Kate', 'Klondike' and 'Kips', a mixture of hot and cool shades, while not far away in a very prominent position on the main walk was a big bush of cream colored 'Basilisk' the best of the pale shades. Around all of these were hundreds of layers for they are old plants with many branches to work on.
The newer varieties are well away from the house. In a small clearing I found the brilliant 'Golden Dream', 'Honeysuckle' in another, along the path by the great curve of R. 'Fusilier' I found 'Hotspur' and 'Knighthood' so much alike that I could see no difference, while only 20 yards away was 'Aurora' itself just one of a big drift. When I first went there in 1951 they had a big planting of 'Scarlet Pimpernel' and 'Royal Lodge' growing under the finest of the autumn coloring Japanese Maple, i.e. Acer osakazuki, but most of these have now been sold. Many of the others are in the nursery at the forest end of the estate and here surrounded by their layers are 'George Reynolds' and 'Marion Merriman', old timers that must have started these thousands of seedling on their way. It can be seen that they are everywhere and except for those along the main drive I don't believe there was any attempt to landscape them, they were simple planted in a convenient place.
At the same time it must be kept in mind that the original selection were not for profit but for pleasure and in an estate of this size where thousands of the seedling being used to make a display of colour there were many that could be named if the garden had to make money. This is reason that I always maintain that any of the varieties named by Rothschild are superior to any that were named later and while the former are in a class of their own the latter are equaled by those from Knap Hill.
This nursery goes to more trouble in selecting its seedlings than most commercial firms. I remember being shown a small white flowered seedling one evening by Mr. Freeman the foreman, it was a very clear color and he had decided to keep it for trial. That did not mean that it would be named, many years would pass before it would be finally passed or rejected.
The following fall it would be moved to the stool grounds where it would be given a number and where some of the branches would be layered. Here visitors could examine it and buy it if they wished. Not only was the nursery able to judge its popularity but they could see how it stood up under full sun - a bad feature of both Exbury and Knap Hills is the way the flower droops in the heat of the day, how long it remained in flower and with the hot colors to see if they faded. If sales exceeded the layers being lifted more stools were put down and if their tests were finally past the code number was removed and it would enter their catalogue under a name.
When I went to work at Sunningdale Nurseries in 1950 we had several stools of a K. H. with only a code number, Mr. Russell considering it worth having; in 1952 it was named 'Golden Eye' and the following year Wisley gave it a A.M.
Finally I would offer a necessary word of warning against those nurseries that are naming Exbury seedlings and selling them as the Exbury strain. They are all good, but if they haven't a full collection how do they know that something very similar has not already been named.
Only Sunningdale Nurseries has the full collection, for Mr. Russell quick to realize how good they were, bought up all the early layers so excluding anyone else from having any. In my next article I shall describe how he handled then keeping them off the market until they were well known, then having quantities of what I consider the best horticultural product seen in my four years in England for general sale.