By Warren Baldsiefen
In the past it has been my firm belief that seedlings of the old ironclad R. catawbiense hybrids were of no value, or that the percentage of acceptable plants in a batch of seedlings was extremely low as compared to the high percentage of worthless culls. This view derives from personal observation and experience, from writings of prominent hybridists and propagators both past and present, and from oral testimonies of reputable growers with whom I have had contact.
The evidence seemed conclusive, for these seedlings are raised and sold annually probably by the hundred thousand, and I had yet to see any until recently which measured up to the quality of our named cultivars. In calling these hybrids seedlings to pass in review before the mind's eye, I am vividly confronted with a few of their outstanding characteristics: I clearly see the harsh colors of sick magenta; the trusses which appear as though there were entirely too many flowers, giving the effect of a cluster that had never fully opened; the flowers that wither and fall while the remaining flowers unfold their petals; the pancake trusses; the floppy trusses; the trusses which when fully expanded are only slightly larger than a golf ball, and many more. It is by no means a pleasant remembrance, nor are these hybrid seedlings in any manner responsible for the mounting popularity of rhododendrons.
A few years ago, Dave Leach, one of my valued friends and a man of high repute, wrote me of the remarkable success with which Anthony Shammarello has for years raised seedlings of ironclad hybrids at his Euclid, Ohio, nursery, and urged me to view first hand a sight which I had considered an impossibility.
Due to the extended flowering period at his nursery, starting with the early Shammarello hybrids at the beginning of May and continuing to the end of the month and into early June, two trips were scheduled.
Joining me on the first trip to Shammarello's were Dave Leach, Lanny Pride, Peter Loesch, Noel Farr, and John Wister. It was at the close of the first week of May, and walking through the rows several hundred feet in length it was evident that a portion of the early hybrids had spent their bloom while others were at their peak or only approaching it, while others were yet to flower after a week or so of favorable weather.
The early blooming plants were what Mr. Shammarello proudly called his "Cunningham" hybrids and were the result of R. 'Cunningham's White' crossed with different old ironclads. The exact crosses were known only to Anthony Shammarello, but the end results were lined out before us, conclusive proof that this indeed was a new race of hardy hybrid rhododendrons, showering the landscape with reds, roses, pinks and whites, a full two weeks ahead of the usual season of bloom for our cold climate. Here was a race of hybrids unique with one nursery, with a growth habit everyone agreed exceeded anything we might have expected. The leaves of eternal jade clothed well formed branches on shrubs that in habit resembled the low-growing pollen parent, R. 'Cunningham's White'. The abundant trusses, arranged in an attractive manner, were comparable in size and habit to our recognized hardy rhododendrons and the leaves, being somewhat smaller than many of our hardy ironclads when grown in shade, gave the truss a flattering appearance of being somewhat larger than it actually was. Scanning the rows with a critical eye, I noticed a limited number of seedling culls, but the vast majority fn the field were plants whose overall beauty of flower and habit would do justice to the most discriminating grower. Mr. Shammarello pointed out that this block of plants, eight years old, had had the forest removed and it was the remainder we were viewing. We then saw a bed of selected plants which Mr. Shammarello had judged as outstanding since his "Cunningham" hybrids first started to bloom. These were named or to be named, propagated asexually, and distributed to the trade.
Next to bloom in the extended season of the Shammarello hybrids are the R. 'Boule De Neige' seedlings, followed later by the larger growing sorts-the crosses of red to red, rose to rose, and white to white. This latter group had a blooming period similar to our ironclads. The date of bloom in Euclid being almost identical with that of northern New Jersey, I therefore resolved to return again for more of the "impossible."
The second trip to Mr. Shammarello's was made in the latter part of May 1955 at a time when most of his R. 'Boule De Neige' hybrids had already begun making seed, and my purpose was then to see to what degree Mr. Shammarello had succeeded where all before him had failed who had sought the same simple solution for producing hardy hybrids.
The drive to the nursery on a narrow shaded lane is but a short quarter mile from the main road. A slight curve in the lane before driving out from under the heavy umbrage of the woodlot to the large open fields of hybrids in full bloom gave a stunning impression of thousands of blooming rhododendrons in all their dazzling glory spread out before the eyes. This was more than I had anticipated. For a short way on either side of the lane, masses of bright red and rose of varying shades and tints stood in all their beauty like the rich brilliance of a Persian carpet. These were the seedlings, and these indeed were the irrevocable testimony that Anthony Shammarello had found the right combinations from which to reproduce hybrid seedlings. Anxious for a closer look at these "impossibilities" Mr. Shammarello and exchanged only a brief greeting before we were wading waist deep into this sea of bloom. 1 do not have the capacity to express properly my admiration for what my eyes beheld. The colors were lustrous, clear, and pleasing, devoid almost entirely of any drab magenta rose, or erythrite red. The atmosphere a short distance above these billowing waves seemed to vibrate with their brilliance, giving the entire area a halo effect. The rows of plants were several hundred feet long, and as we stood at one end the light gusts of wind blowing up the fields and across the rows left a picture of endless ranks of blooming plants swaying in perfect concert. What, I mused, would be the reaction were we able to recall Anthony Waterer, if only for a fleeting moment. Would he not hasten to recognize this signal achievement and agree that here were hybrids in these fields equal and superior to many named cultivars. And might he not like to name some new ones to add to the limited number now available.
There were blocks of seedlings designed to be red that were truly red; blocks crossed to produce rose, with flowers that were indeed rose; still others were as white as their breeder intended them to be. Over the years, from these seedlings superior plants had been selected and set aside for asexual propagation, just as was done with the Cunningham race and the Boule De Neige race.
There can be no question but that Mr. Shammarello has worked out the genetic combinations which enable him to breed hardy rhododendron hybrids by formula, using as parents the same ironclads of commerce which have been with us for generations. And they are good hybrids. Out of an entire field of red-flowered seedlings, for example, scarcely a handful are off color or deficient in size of flower. Many are notably superior in foliage and plant habit.
Some of the Shammarello seedlings are superlative, far finer than any rhododendrons of similar color now in commerce. There are also represented among them some new colors, entirely lacking in the range heretofore available.
But in addition to the splendid new mid-season hybrids and the color novelties, Mr. Shammarello must be given full credit for the amazing success he had had in extending the period of rhododendron flowering for cold climates. When his best seedlings are propagated and introduced he will enrich our gardens with almost a full month of bloom from the beloved large leaved hybrids. He will provide a continuous period of blossoming from early May until after the first of June, starting with the hybrids of R. 'Cunningham's White', following with the seedlings of R. 'Boule De Neige' and finally ending the pageant of color with his extraordinary mid-season sorts which flower at the same time as our familiar commercial hybrids.
Only trial and error, and great patience can develop these combinations of ironclad hybrids, which "click" to produce such fine results. And I must agree that Dave Leach was right. The crossing of complex commercial hybrids can yield first rate seedlings. After all, here are the proofs. Thousands and thousands of them, for anyone to see.
'Cunningham White' hybrids
'Boule de Neige' hybrids
R. Holden Red R. Pink Cameo Pink R. Angela White R. Spring Glory Pink R. Satin Satiny Pink R. Diadem Red R. Venus White R. Tony Red R. The General Red R. Rocket Red R. Prize Pink R. Elie Pink R. Cheer Pink R. Best Red R. Ruby Red R. The Master Pink R. King Tut Light
In several years, in all probability, most of these cultivars will be available in limited numbers. It is the present design to then offer a more detailed description of each.