QBARS - v13n4 Dexter Lives Again

Dexter Lives Again

Rhododendrons in the Dexter Garden
Fig. 50.  A mass planting of rhododendrons in the Dexter Garden
Dexter Estate photo

Forty-two years ago, Mr. Charles O. Dexter purchased extensive acreage in the town of Sandwich on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. For thirty years he developed the property to a magnificence that gave the Dexter Estate an international reputation. His work with rhododendrons soon took on such proportions that his horticultural endeavors could no longer be regarded as an avocation. His hybridizing brought us some truly wonderful plantings. Dexter hybrids attracted the attention of some of the leading horticulturists in the country and a group of them formed an evaluation committee - Dr. Donald Wyman of Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum, Dr. Clement Grey Bowers of Cornell, Dr. John C. Wister of Swarthmore, Mr. David Leach, Mr. Vossberg of Westbury Rose, and others.

Rhododendrons in the Dexter Garden
Fig. 51.  Rhododendrons in the Dexter Garden
Dexter Estate photo

Dexter species grace with dignity and beauty, dozens of our most famous arboretums, estates and garden landmarks. We trust that it does not surprise the unaware reader too greatly to learn that today there are probably more Dexter rhododendrons under cultivation at the Dexter Estate in Sandwich, Mass., than ever before. When Mr. Dexter died in 1947, the property changed hands three times until the present owners (Stanley and Robert Berns Company-Marvel Industries, Inc.) took possession, in 1957. It is true that in the interim years between '47 and '57 many thousands of nursery-size plants were sold from the nursery areas. However, the mother plants, the thousands of specimens that became the foundation stock for the Dexter hybrid were not touched. There were untold groves of Dexter hybrids overgrown with forest and bramble which have been cleared to expose the beauty of the specimens which lay hiding. The large parent stock plants number in the many thousands and the propagation efforts of Mr. Jack Cowles has added many tens of thousands of cuttings and seedlings. The recent undertaking is so vast that it must be mentioned in stages.

Dexter hybrid
Fig. 52.  One of the fine plants in the
Dexter collection.
Dexter Estate photo

Stage One starts when Marvel Industries purchased the property and an early appraisal was made by Mr. Roger Coggeshall, Chief Propagator of the Arnold Arboretum. He was amazed at the quantity and quality of the stock. This encouraged the Berns Brothers to search out the possibilities of bringing Dexter back. The Berns family (Mr. and Mrs. Stanley and Robert Berns) took propagation courses at the Arnold Arboretum. Such visitors as Dr. Bowers, Dr. Wyman, Mr. Leach and others, added conversationally the investigation that was underway. Bulldozers were brought in to open the overgrown roads and to add new ones - five miles in all. Woodsmen were brought in to clear the many over grown areas. This task continues to this date and will continue until every grove and planted area is brought back to culture.

Stage Two proved a happy coincidence for Mr. and Mrs. Jack Cowles and the Bernses. Mr. and Mrs. Cowles are both graduates of the University of Massachusetts, in horticulture and Mrs. Cowles studied previously at Smith. Mr. Cowles' father is a professor of horticulture, retired.

Stage Three should be called the Cowles management period. There was always a sizeable cranberry bog on the property. It's sandy peaty soil seemed perfect for rhododendron growing and the spring-fed canals were in excellent shape. The measurement of the water table in regards to the adjacent pond was perfect. As the growing area was too soft to support the weight of equipment, Jack Cowles rolled up his sleeves and cleared an acre the hard way, by hand. Two years of cuttings are now growing in this area and more acreage is in the process of being cleared. Hundreds of seedlings that Mr. Cowles had started several years ago were also added to the growing area. Eight seedling beds sprung up with countless seedlings coming along beautifully. The greenhouse is full of cuttings of Dexter rhododendrons, holly, Dexter's deep pink mountain laurel, prize azaleas, enkianthus, and other species that have high evaluation on the Dexter Estate. But the Dexter rhododendron remains the main labor of love.

Recently, a movement was initiated to bring the finest of Dexters back home. Several recipients of Dexters direct from Mr. Dexter plan to send cuttings of their plants as soon as the time is ripe. Some cuttings are arriving daily. An area has been set aside on the Dexter Estate and will be known as the Charles O. Dexter Memorial Garden. Those who participate with contributions of cuttings will have their names listed on the commemoration plaque. We sincerely hope that any one reading this article who has a Dexter or many Dexters will take several cuttings from each of their Dexters properly identify them, and airmail them to the Dexter Estate, Sandwich, Mass. We can think of no finer tribute to pay the layman who made rhododendron history and who gave so unstintingly of himself to the pleasure of future generations. It will be a happy day indeed, when in several years hence, the first of these cuttings bloom again in the Dexter Memorial Garden. As one recent donor, who requests anonymity, but whose name you would all recognize, said "I can't see how anyone with a Dexter collection could fail to respond to this wonderful plan. It will commemorate for all time the name of Dexter at the birthplace of the Dexter hybrid."