QBARS - v12n2 Some Experiences of an Amateur Rhododendron Grower

Some Experiences of an Amateur Rhododendron Grower
George D. Grace

George Grace founder member, and first Secretary of the American Rhododendron Society presents in this Part I of a two part article his experiences with species rhododendrons. Part two will follow in the July Bulletin and contain notes on hybrids that he has grown in his garden.

Part I

Early one morning, several days before Christmas, I looked out of the window and saw some white spots on a large hush of Rhododendron 'Dr. Stocker'. Later in the morning, I looked again and saw some florets open as pretty as you please. A week later they were still showing their lovely faces.

This has been a season of very little noticeable frost. It is now in the month of March, and no severe cold spell has come along. Every season there is considerable variance in the weather in Western Oregon. Some years we have blooms in late January or early February, while in other years few blooms appear until March. All of these things tend to make rhododendron growing so very interesting. Every year also provides a new challenge of interest in this most amazing genus.

There are so many different conditions and variations in climate and soils in the different sections of the United States where rhododendrons are growing. I realize that some of my experiences and results would be more for Pacific Northwest consumption; however, I trust it will be an interesting copy for those other sections where different hybrids and species are grown. After all, one can only discuss the actual experiences he has had.

This paper is not intended as a cold set of figures or statistics, but the pleasant joys and surprises covering over twenty years of being with these amazing plants. The plants I shall describe are not necessarily the best varieties even in our local section. Nor do I expect everyone to agree with my opinions. One can find a lot of difference in soils, in degrees of frost, and winds within a few miles around Portland; these facts alone would cause a lot of different opinions.

One cannot imagine being blessed in a much more suitable location in the growing of rhododendrons than we have in the Pacific Northwest. My own garden is located in the hills of the Southwest section of Portland. It is quite free from blasting East winds, and fairly free from early and late frosts. In just a few minutes I can visit the gardens of Mr. and Mrs. Bovee, with their very fine collection of dwarf rhododendrons and other rare plants. Mr. Bovee's collection of dwarf rhododendrons and rare plants certainly was a much needed project in this vicinity where such varieties can be procured.

Several days ago I picked up some old correspondence from that remarkable grower, the late J. E. Barto of Junction City, Oregon. It was dated the year 1938, and I was just getting started with many new varieties and species. At that time Mr. Barto was a veteran in importing, growing, hybridizing and specializing in rare species rhododendrons. Today his hybrids are gracing the gardens of people all over the Northwest, and every plant is a monument to his memory. His passing certainly was a great loss to the rhododendron growers of America.

Your editor recently asked me to write some of my impressions and experiences for the Bulletin , also my likes and dislikes in various varieties, both in hybrids and species in my hobby of growing rhododendrons.

I have grown perhaps a thousand different hybrids and species on a plot of ground covering parts of two acres. It is doubtful if anyone could have had a more pleasant hobby and a more exhilarating experience in each year watching new plants and new varieties bloom for the first time.

Twenty-five years ago most of the English and Dutch Hybrids were scarce and not available in this area. For many years I imported many new hybrids and species from Canada, England and Holland, and was a frequent visitor to any and every nursery in which I could find new varieties. The nursery of Mr. Endre Ostbo of Bellevue, Washington, who was one of the early growers and importers of the British and Dutch hybrids, was always of great interest. The nurseries of Mr. Bernard Esch and Theodore Van Veen of Portland, and that of Mr. Lem of Edmonds, Washington, also were of much interest. The Layritz nursery in Victoria, British Columbia and the private gardens of the late William Tucker and Mr. Donald Graham of Seattle, Washington were always worth while and enjoyable to see. These are just a few of many nurseries and gardens that should be mentioned.

I had been told that importing plants was impossible and impracticable; but where there is a will there is a way, as the saying goes-the impossible only takes a little longer.

Among the first rhododendrons I received were: 'Earl of Athlone', 'Mars', 'J. G. Millias', 'C. B. Van Ness', 'J. H. Van Ness', 'Loderi', 'Loderi Game Chick', 'Unknown Warrior', 'Yellow Penjerrick', 'Slocock's Unique', 'Mrs. W. C. Slocock', 'Borde Hill', 'Jean Marie Montague', 'Lady Bligh', 'Ascot Brilliant', and 'Mrs. G. W. Leak'. Many of these plants are still doing well and have grown into very large plants in spite of the early November freeze of 1955.

It has been fortunate for me to be close, (perhaps a ten minute drive) to the magnificent test gardens of the American Rhododendron Society at Crystal Lake. This is a source of never-ending delight. Here is perhaps the largest collection of rhododendron hybrids in existence along with many hundreds of species and many different varieties of azaleas. During blooming season it is a mecca for garden clubs and flower lovers.

The garden of Mr. and Mrs. Cecil Smith of Aurora is always a highly interesting sight. It is located on a sloping hillside in a natural setting and is truly one of the interesting sights and gardens around Portland. In about a thirty minute drive one can visit the gardens of Mr. Rudolph Henny at Brooks, Oregon, Editor of the American Rhododendron Society Bulletin. Mr. Henny's work in hybridizing is most remarkable. After visiting many of the great gardens of England, including the Rothschild's at Exbury and the gardens of the late Lord Abercomway, at Bodnant, Wales, one can not but be proud of the spectacular new hybrids coming out of Mr. Henny's gardens.

My favorite rhododendron species: number one is-yes, you guessed it, Rhododendron californicum , which grows from British Columbia to Central California, from the Pacific Coast to the Central valleys of Washington and Oregon, covering perhaps millions of acres. I wonder if there is a rhododendron in the Himalayas that extends over a greater territory. Many times, while driving around Portland, I have been asked the name of particularly nice plants of R. californicum . This is the species that started my interest in rhododendrons.

When I was a youngster on our ranch in Clackamas County, Oregon, at the foot of a hill was a large plant, perhaps ten feet in diameter and at least twelve feet high. Every year it furnished our table with huge bouquets of beautiful flowers for many weeks. Many years ago, while doing construction work at North Bend, Oregon, I used to spend my spare afternoons going to the Coastline where R. californicum grew at its best. There were whites, light pinks and deep rose colors. Some plants were as high as twenty-five feet, some had crinkly blooms; all were proficient bloomers. This area should have been reserved for a State Park, as it had the finest plants that I have ever seen in nature, when thousands of these magnificent plants were in bloom. R. californicum is honored by the State of Washington as its State flower.

My good friend, the late J. E. Barto, had made many crosses from selected plants of R. californicum , because he felt they would be very good hybrids. R. thomsonii was used frequently in these crosses, too. Unfortunately, a disastrous fire burned his home and destroyed many of his plants. His death prevented us from seeing the fruits of much of his work. During my visit in 1949 to many famous British gardens, including the Royal Botanical Gardens at Wisley and Edinburgh, I did not see a single plant of Rhododendron californicum . Since returning, it has been my pleasure to send some of these plants to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh.

Yes, you guessed it again-my number two species favorite is Rhododendron occidentale , commonly called the Southern Oregon azalea. Here is a plant that has little more to be desired, and as a foliage plant, it is hard to beat. The blooms have a delightful fragrance and colors range from many shades of light pink to white, and from apricot to rose. It is native to the Southwestern Oregon Coast and inland to the Cascade mountains and down into Northern California. In the Springtime, on a trip by train on the Shasta Daylight to San Francisco beside the Sacramento River canyon, one can see, along the river banks and the mountain sides, lovely plants blooming in all their glory-like jewels shining on the desert. The British and the Dutch hybridizers rate it very highly, and have used it in making many fine crosses. Among those are the old varieties 'Graciosa', 'Delicatissimum' and 'Exquisita'. These have certainly been a delight in my garden.

Another azalea species I would like to mention that has received much satisfaction and interest from neighbors and visitors, are a number of plants of Rhododendron calendulaceum . These plants were imported from Holland some years ago along with some other azaleas. Their brilliant true orange color along the walks and the garage are certainly among the most showy plants in my collection. It just doesn't seem right not to see them in their profusion of blooms, at the annual rhododendron shows.

The large-leafed varieties of rhododendrons have always been an interesting group and have played an important part in the over-all picture of rhododendrons. Of these, I should like to make a few comments. Unfortunately, I cannot complete this story as I would like to, as the early freeze in 1955 almost wiped out my collection of big leaf varieties. In spite of this, they have given me many years of pleasure. I feel most of the big leafed varieties are not one hundred per cent suitable for the Portland area. I think that they still should be grown by those hobbyists who will give them that extra winter protection, shade and sprinkling during the warm dry summers. The leaves often have quite a tendency to burn. A high overhead shade certainly helps a great deal.

My experience in the large leafed rhododendrons has been with falconeri , arizelum , sinogrande , macabeanum , houlstonii , basilicum , calophytum , rex and several of the Grande series. R. macabeanum is considered to be one of the best yellow rhododendrons, and is a parent of one of the lovely Rothschild hybrids named 'Fortune'. Incidentally, it was one of the most interesting sights to have seen these plants in bloom at Exbury. My plant of macabeanum which was ready to bloom, was a victim of the 1955 freeze.

Practically all the large leaf plants are worth growing, whether they bloom or not, if only to see the magnificent new growth with its shades of silver, fawn and bronze foliage, which is especially lovely when the new growth buds come out. Perhaps one of these days, some gardens will be established on the Oregon Coast where the climate is milder in the winter and more rain falls in the summer. These plants should do extremely well on the coast. There are a couple of species which withstood the early freeze; one is Rhododendron calophytum , the other is rex or fictolacteum . R. calophytum is, without doubt, the finest large leafed rhododendron for this area. The foliage is large, long and out standing. The blossoms come out in late February or early March with tremendous trusses of lovely pink with a dark purple blotch. The trusses are tight and of much solid substance; the form of which came from the Barto estate, and are very superior. R. fictolacteum , which was somewhat damaged by the freeze, is now coming along fine. The blooms of lavender pink are unusually good and, as with most of the large leafed Rhododendrons, has a tight truss and also has a dark blotch. Some fine trusses are usually seen at the Annual Rhododendron Shows in Portland.

Of all the species, I doubt if there are any more outstanding than those of the Thomsonii series and subseries. While I have seen a few plants of R. thomsonii over a long period of time that have bloomed well in certain years, as far as I know, they haven't been too reliable. They certainly do not compare with the many fine plants I saw in the Cornwall gardens, in Wales and Edinburgh. The tendency of two large plants of R. thomsonii in my garden, has been to blast its buds, and the leaf burns if exposed to the sun. One exception was several years ago, when it burst into full bloom in Autumn and was a most lovely sight.

While not having bloomed for me yet, R. caloxanthum was, in my estimation, certainly one of the outstanding individual species seen in the British gardens. Another favorite R. thomsonii species has been the Kingdon Ward form of R. wardii , named after this most famous plant explorer. Certainly this has been one of the best yellows I have seen, with a clear yellow color and with fine foliage. I have had several plants, collected by the Dr. Rock expedition, that had delightful foliage, but the buds tend to blast. This has not been the case of the Wards form, which I would have to place among my list of favorite species. There were many fine plants of this species in the Royal Botanical gardens at Edinburgh.

At this time, when landscaping with low-growing shrubs is so important, I would have to put R. williamsianum , as one of the diamonds among the jewels of the Thomsonii series. Its leaves are small and round, and the flowers are pink bells, very large for the size of the leaves and plants. Any of these plants, set in a rockery or on a rotted log, or rotted fir stump, are a beautiful thing indeed, and should be a must in every collector's garden. The new growth is bronzed, and certainly worth growing, if only for that.

One of the problems in growing rhododendrons is that, as time goes by, they get too large and tall to be effective, especially in a small garden or acreage. Then again, if the garden is large and spacious, the problems of hiring gardeners and upkeep is prohibitive. The smaller bloom hybrids are part of the answer to the problem. The williamsianum hybrids are certainly among those which fill this necessity. Among the very fine williamsianum hybrids, I would like to mention R. 'Moonstone', 'Temple Bells', 'J. E. Barto' P. A., (Fig. 12) and of course, R. 'Bow-Bells'. I remember one person's remark when she saw R. 'Bow-Bells', "I think it is the most exquisite and beautiful rhododendron I have ever seen!"

R. 'J. E. Barto'
Fig. 12   R. 'J. E. Barto' P. A.
R. Henny photo

Several fine species in the Barbatum series have done extremely well with me. First, the R. habrotrichum with its lovely tight truss of lavender pink, dark green leaves and hairy stems has been one of my favorites and usually has been good for a blue ribbon at the rhododendron show. Secondly, R. smithii is a glorious sight in early March, with its brilliant red trusses and its most striking red pedicels. This species has leaves of very dark green and the under side of the leaves and the stems are covered with light green hairs. It is certainly showy and attractive.

In the Fortunei series, R. decorum has been a very consistent bloomer, with the usual fragrance, and has very nice foliage. My first plant of this variety came from the Barto collection. It is about six feet tall and six feet in diameter, and is very fragrant. In his lecture last year before the Portland Rhododendron group, Mr. E. M. Cox, of Edinburgh, told of a clear yellow form grown in Scotland I am sure many of us would love to see it, and to add it to our collection. R. discolor , a large-growing, hardy plant of this series, has done well in my garden, and I have used it on a number of crosses.

I should like to mention one species which I think is certainly among the most attractive of all rhododendrons, and that is the Triflorum group. Among these are Rhododendron augustinii , the best known of the group. There are many types of this species grown around Portland, and are in many shades of blue, both light and dark. I have seen or have grown most of the selected four of R. augustinii , namely: Magor's, Tower Court, Rothschilds, Bartos and some of the local forms which were grown from seeds by that famous gardener and park engineer, the late Emil Mische.

Many years ago the Portland Park Department grew a great many seedlings, and have now spread out thousands of these attractive blue rhododendrons all over the city. If I were to have only five species of rhododendrons, I believe one surely would be Rhododendron augustinii . A close second in this group of rhododendrons is R. davidsonianum . There are some fine pink forms from England that are very good. R. yunnanense is also one of those gems in the rhododendron kingdom. It has narrow leaves of light gray-green, with a flower that is usually white or blush white with red specks.

R. chasmanthum
Fig. 11 R. chasmanthum in the Society Garden at Crystal Springs.
Smith photo

R.chartophyllum is perhaps a fifteen foot tall plant at full growth, which looks like a solid mass of white when it is in bloom-perhaps more like a bush covered with crystallized snow. R. chasmanthum (Fig. 11) is another lovely thing, but the better forms should be selected. Blooming a little later than R. augustinii , it has various shades of marine and blue. While visiting the R.H.S. gardens at Wisley, R. chasmanthum was very beautiful in the Rhododendron dell. The gardens of Mrs. Cason, our present secretary's mother, contains some large bushes of R. augustinii , which are a flower lover's delight when in bloom.

Another charming species in the triflorum group is lutescens , a fine yellow which blooms in March, and should be in every collection. The new growth, with its bronzy red leaves, is very attractive as is the foliage during the Winter season. Certainly of all the outstanding plants that this writer saw during his visit to the English gardens, the triflorums were some of the most outstanding. Some of these days the landscape people will wake up to the fact that they are missing a bet in not using many of these delightful shrubs.

Another species rhododendron that always has intrigued me is R. cinnabarinum . Hybrids produced from this species are many, which I will discuss in a later paper. There are two varieties: roylei , which has rosey red flowers, and the blandfordiaeflorum variety which has yellow flowers, flushed red at the base. This one has been my favorite. The University of Washington Arboretum at Seattle has a great many very fine plants of R. cinnabarinum . The last time I saw them, they were a beautiful sight.

In the Auriculatum series, there are two note-worthy members: R. auriculatum was one of the first plants I received from the Barto estate. This has grown to about ten feet high and wide, and has nice long, large foliage with large tubular lily-like white flowers. The only objection is that it blooms in July or August, and the flower soon wilts or spots in the hot weather. R. griersonianum is a delightful geranium red, with large rich tubular flowers, and blooms in July. Again, the only objection is that it is tender for our climate. It does very well until we get a really bad winter. Many remarkable hybrids come from this species. The two best in my opinion are R. 'Azor' and R. 'Aladdin', both top-notch in my book.

R. carolinianum is a very dainty species about three feet high. It has rosy purple flowers and blooms every year. It is from the mountains of North Carolina, and one of the few native American species.

Two members of the Arboreum series have done very well with me. The R. ririei , which I received from the Barto estate, were started from seeds from E. A. Wilson. R. ririei is a shrub ten feet high, with very blue-green and gray foliage and with trusses of dull purple flowers. These are the first blooms in my garden and usually come between frosts in late January or early February. R. 'Sir Chas. Lemon', a form of arboreum , perhaps a hybrid, is one of the finest foliage plants I have had in my garden. The blooms of blush pink are not spectacular, but the dense foliage is most interesting because of the light fawn foliage underneath which turns deeper as the plants grow older. This variety should be in every collector's garden.

R. ledoides is a delightful shrub in the Cephalanthum series with bunches of small white to rose flowers resembling a Daphne and is quite fragrant. You can't go wrong on this one. R. neriiflorum , another one from the Barto collection is a very striking scarlet red. It is about four feet high, blooms its self to death, and is another collectors must. R. pemakoense is another remarkable small, spreading rhododendron in the Glaucum series. The flowers are mauve pink to mauve, and are immense for the size of the plant. No lover of rhododendron species should be without it.

Of the Racemosum series virgatum , I have two varieties. One is a very early blooming variety, oleifolium , which is my favorite. It is light pink and is one of the top small species rhododendrons. Its only fault is getting rid of the seed pods. The other, R. racemosum is a deeper pink bloom and is a dwarf type plant. R. ciliatum is the only Maddenii hardy enough for me to grow outside. It is about eighteen inches high, light pink and blooms very early. This very charming rhododendron does very well in the Western Oregon area.

R. mucronulatum , Series dauricum, is a deciduous species from Korea, and is so very interesting because it blooms so early. If a frost doesn't catch it, it is a very lovely sight of rose lilac flowers. While visiting the R. H. S. gardens at Wisley in 1949, much interest was taken in a low growing rhododendron called R. yakushimanum . It is very hardy with a rosy-pink tight truss. Mr. Francis Harger, curator of the Wisley gardens, graciously gave me two cuttings which have since developed into nice plants. It has been used considerably in hybridizing and should provide low growing plants needed in modern landscaping.

About twelve years ago, I built a cold green house in which I planted some of the Maddenii species and some of the other tender species. I would like to mention a few: R. kyawii , S. irroratum and Sub Series parishii , which is a magnificent bright red rhododendron with long light green hairy leaves, and is a first class species in every sense of the word. If it only were hardy, it would be spectacular in any garden. Another one of those lily-like, dream-come-true rhododendrons is R. griffithianum , fragrant white, flushed with pink. It is the parent of many fine hybrids, and is most valuable of the tender type species. Also in the Maddenii series, two very fine fragrant plants I've enjoyed very much are R. lindleyi and crassum . These are quite white with lily-like trumpet flowers.

The Arboreum Series contributes two magnificent species: R. arboreum var. kermesinum and var. nigrens , both of which are blood red, blooming early in the Spring. The foliage is also something extra, having large long-pointed leaves with silver underneath.

Some growers and hybridists are favorable to hybrid rhododendrons while others like the species best. As for myself, I like them both, and feel they both have their place. Everybody to their own likes and dislikes. One thing, I'm sure there is no greater sight on earth than to see species Rhododendrons as God made them, blooming in all their glory, in their natural habitat-on the mountainsides, valleys and in the forests.

In the early days of the American Rhododendron Society, Dr. Johnson of Oregon State College gave a lecture to the members. Sent by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to assist the mountain tribes of Western China, he became very interested in Rhododendrons. I quote from Dr. Johnson, "My greatest living picture on earth was when I saw a mountainside a mile high by three miles long, covered with almost a solid mass of rhododendron blooms."