QBARS - v14n1 My Experiences in Showing Rhododendrons and Notes on Special Shows

My Experiences in Showing Rhododendrons and Notes on Special Shows
By George D. Grace

A number of months ago, I discussed in the American Rhododendron Society Bulletin some of the problems of growing rhododendrons along with some notes on species and hybrid rhododendrons. Today I should like to discuss some of the problems, experiences and highlights of certain shows and the showing of rhododendrons.

Will Rogers used to say, "All that I know is what I read in the papers." Well, all that I know about showing rhododendrons is from growing them and from showing them in the fourteen American Rhododendron Shows at Portland, Oregon, and also for a number of years in the Seattle and Tacoma shows.

Being on many show committees, managing the last Portland Chapter Show including the setting of the Rhododendron exhibit at the large Gresham Flower show the last two years have added to what knowledge I might have of showing rhododendrons. Some years ago, along with John Henny, Dr. and Mrs. J. Harold Clarke, Dr. Clement Bowers, Harold Epstein and Guy Nearing, it was my good pleasure to visit the Rhododendron Conference and Show in London and later the Chelsea Show. The conference included visits to famous gardens in Cornwall and Wales. A trip to Scotland and Holland were something extra. Some of the gardens visited were the Royal Horticultural Society Gardens at Wisley, the Kew Gardens, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Edinburgh, Scotland, the Exbury Gardens of the de Rothschilds, the Gardens of Lord Aberconway at Bodnant, Wales. Other famous Gardens were Leonardslee, where the Rhododendron 'Loderi' was originated, Wakehurst, Penjerrick and Carhaeys Castle. The gardens at Tower Court of Stevensons, Lord Digby's, Colonel Bolitho's and Johnstone's were also very interesting and important. It would take quite a book to do justice to these very interesting places, including the Great Chelsea Show in London the latter part of May. This show is perhaps the largest flower show in the world.

It doesn't seem possible, but it will soon be fifteen years since the officers of the then newly formed American Rhododendron Society made plans for the first rhododendron show. The discussions began in June 1944; however, the actual plans were made in February of 1945. The first show was held on Mothers Day weekend of May 12th and 13th of that year. The show itself was set up outdoors in the park blocks near the downtown sections of Portland. The park space was about one hundred by four hundred feet with a wide walkway in the center. Tables were set up along this walk for the cut trusses. The nursery exhibits and balled plants were spaced at intervals on the lawn underneath high elm trees. There were flats of rose plantings and other annual flowers making a most attractive setting.

My appointment for the first show was to contact growers, nurserymen, collectors and in fact, anyone who could be interested in supplying plants and trusses. The interest was great and the response was gratifying, but a few of the nurseries who would profit most just did not wish to be bothered. A plywood booth was set up to give out information and obtain memberships. A special booklet was printed, "Rhododendrons for Amateurs." These proved to be very popular, hundreds of them were sold at twenty-five cents apiece, the money being very welcome for the treasury of the new society.

On Saturday, the first day, the weather was showery; the crowds were good, but on Sunday the weather was perfect. The crowds started coming and continued until nightfall. It was estimated that between twenty and twenty-five thousand people viewed the exhibition.

The cut trusses on the tables were excellent and caused great admiration. Two hundred trusses of Rh. 'Pink Pearl' were sent from Eureka, California, by the Cottage Gardens, and these were a fine addition to the local displays. Ralph De Clements of Bremerton, Washington, brought a fine group of trusses to add to the interest. The balled plants in bloom brought in by collectors, nurserymen were very fine. The writer exhibited a plant of Rhododendron venator, its brilliant red blooms in perfect condition, were in great admiration. Hundreds of people with pencil and notebook in hand were taking names of varieties that were in prime bloom. Nurseries for many weeks later, were besieged for plants seen at the show. Most of the hybrids and species were entirely new to the public. Many had never seen yellow or orange rhododendron before. The first American Rhododendron Society Show was a huge success, perhaps unequalled in romance and interest of any show since in the Portland area.

The first annual Rhododendron Show in Seattle, Washington, was held on May 4th and 5th, 1946, on the grounds of the University of Washington Arboretum. This show was accredited by the American Rhododendron Society. The late Dr. John H. Handley had charge of exhibits and arrangements. The report of Dr. Handley's passing recently was received with sadness as he had been a fine friend of the American Society. He had appeared a number of times before the Portland Chapter, as well as being chairman of several of the Society meetings held at Seattle.

For a number of years along with other Portland area members, an invitation was extended to participate in the Seattle and Tacoma shows. A day before the show, trusses of everything that was suitable for exhibition was packed into boxes, loaded into automobiles; and then we were off to Tacoma and Seattle, some 200 miles away. The roads at that time were not the smooth highways of today. The cut trusses took a lot of punishment bouncing over the rough roads. It was indeed a handicap in competing with local exhibitors on the morning of the show.

Fortunately, by good luck and good blooms, a number of blue ribbons were won. If the Tacoma show was on the same day as Seattle, a stop would be made at Tacoma, and half of the trusses were left there, and the balance went to Seattle.

The Tacoma shows were non-competitive, and were held in the spacious foyer of one of the large downtown banks. The officers and the show committee were always gracious and friendly. The background of evergreens and the exhibits by the nurserymen were always inspiring and interesting.

The Seattle Show's personnel were always friendly, and the memories will stay with me for a long time. The nursery and landscape exhibits have always been outstanding, each trying for the very best prize. The late Endre Ostbo and Clarence Prentice, with their lovely hybrids and species in superb arrangement were a splendid part of every show. I am sure that Seattle misses them greatly.

R. 'Beauty of Littleworth'
Fig. 1.  R. 'Beauty of Littleworth'. Awarded Best Truss of the Show
at one of the early Society Exhibitions.
Monner photo
Portland ARS Show
Fig. 2.  A portion of the cut truss section at one of the early show
in the Information Center at Portland, Oregon

Moving Rhododendron Trusses

It has always been a problem to move trusses any distance to prevent the bruising of the tender flowers, which would disqualify them in competition. First I packed them in cardboard boxes in soft paper, but this was not too satisfactory. Packing them in boxes so that they do not touch would take too many boxes and too much space to carry any amount of them.

My next method was to get fairly large cardboard boxes about fourteen deep, place about four inches of sawdust or bark-dust or even peat, and make it quite moist. Place newspaper, one or two sheets, over the sawdust to prevent contact with the flowers and leaves. By placing them stem down, they will hold securely in place. Put in as many as space will permit, the less they touch one another the better. This method, while a lot of bother, has been very successful.

Another method, that has worked quite well on special trusses, like the large R. 'Loderi', is to place a stick or pole across the top of the box, and tie the stems upside down so that they do not touch each other on the bottom of the box. This worked especially well on a trip to Seattle. For a short trip to local shows, I usually place them in an open box to save time; but, of course, there are some casualties at best.

Cutting And Showing Trusses

I like to cut trusses the morning of the show if enough time is available to properly label, classify and set them in their proper place on the stand or table. Of course, if one has many trusses, it is necessary to cut them the afternoon or evening before, and get them in their showplace in the evening, as there is usually a big rush to get them ready for the judges by ten o'clock in the morning. I believe that most shows try to have them set up the day before. They should be placed in water with the lower part of the stem bruised or split, so that the flowers may absorb as much moisture as possible.

Pick out the very best truss with soft grown stems just coming into full flower. To bring a truss with a hard stem, which will not easily absorb water, is a mistake and should be avoided. Trusses are usually best on younger, fast-growing plants. Of course, there are exceptions to the rules. Several years ago, I took a truss of Rh. 'Loderi Pink Diamond' from the top of a 12-foot plant. It was a very large truss just in the right condition, with perfect foliage. One of the judges remarked that it was a perfect truss; and it must have been, as it received the "Best truss of the show" award.

I asked Mr. Peter Barbour, manager of the Rothschild estate at Exbury, England, about showing rhododendrons. His reply was, "Keep young plants of each variety coming on at the necessary intervals to assure healthy young plants for show purposes. Pick trusses with good foliage, with good shape and the best color.

Leaves that are chewed by insects or that are poorly shaped, will not pass the keen eyes of the judges. Trusses that are lopsided or that are past the peak in any way, do not make good show material. It may be necessary to use them sometimes, by propping them up so that one can show them fairly well.

It is always a problem to find, on a certain show date, the maximum varieties that are in peak bloom. It is often necessary to hold back the earlier ones, or to force the later varieties into just the right condition for the show. Plants in bloom, with trusses or sprays that are dropping the florets, should not be shown, as a rule.

The American Rhododendron Society participated in the Oakland, California Spring Show, April 27 through May 2, 1947. It happened to be my job to gather plants from several nurseries and also from my own garden, and to put them in cool storage. The plants were kept very moist and cool, and were taken out a day or two before trucking them to Oakland. Other plants, which were late-blooming varieties, were placed in warm greenhouses, given a lot of moisture to force them. I did not see the show, but it must have been about first class, as our Society won the grand prize of some two thousand dollars. I also believe that the British have had much more experience in preparing plants for showing, by storage or by forcing.


Containers have been quite a problem for the Portland Chapter Show Committee. We have used bottles and round papery milk containers with tapered necks. When you have a couple of thousand trusses and sprays, you have quite a task. None of the containers that we have tried have been too satisfactory, in my estimation. This year, the Portland group used large plastic cups, by placing sand and water in them. If we used enough water for the trusses, the stems would work loose; and if we used only a little water to make the stems more solid in the sand, the truss would not have enough moisture to sustain itself.

The only near perfect containers were used some years ago in Seattle. A block of Styrofoam was placed in shallow pans. By putting the stems in the Styrofoam, you could place the flowers at exactly the right angle to show them to the best advantage. The later absorption in the stems seemed to be just right, too. However, this method was rather expensive, and required a great deal of space.

Varieties To Show

The above is a hard question to answer, as it all depends on the judge. What one set of judges will like, another might not. After showing for some time, one becomes aware what the judges are quite likely to prefer, but sometimes one gets badly crossed up. Some varieties rarely ever get a ribbon, even if the truss is twice as good as the one chosen. Reds, for example, with the tinge of blue in the blood, will be passed over for a clear red like R. 'Britannia', even when the truss is much inferior.

Quite a few years ago, one of our high schools in Portland, namely Cleveland High School, adopted the rhododendron as its school flower. Each year a Rhododendron Show is held the day before the Portland Show. It has been my privilege to assist them for a number of years in advising, identification, and sometimes judging, as a representative of the American Rhododendron Society. These high school youngsters do a remarkable job in the making of corsages, too. Each member of the faculty wears a corsage or a boutonniere.

Many of the trusses are of the older varieties. It has been interesting at times to see the judges select a good truss of an older variety for the quality of the truss itself.

The Awards Committee

As a member of the Portland area Awards Committee, checking on new varieties for awards, I feel that the committee is doing a painstaking job. There is no promiscuous granting of awards. When an award is given a plant you may rest assured that it has been through a very careful examination.

At the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Show in London, the Awards committee met to vote on a dozen or more trusses and plants which were up for awards. I was honored by the chairman, the late J. B. Stevenson, of Tower Court, to sit at the head table and assist in giving the awards. Among those plants which received awards were R. 'Coronation', R. 'Hawk', R. 'Lady Berry' and R. 'Jack the Ripper'.


It has been the practice of choosing judges from other states or other chapters. Usually, the judges at the Portland Chapter show, are chosen from the neighboring Washington or other more distant chapters, and the local judges are chosen for other chapter shows. Visiting dignitaries are used for judging whenever possible.

What does it take to make a good judge? I would say that, first, it is knowing rhododendrons, and the more experience the better qualified the judge. Second, it would be in following the rules, coupled with a lot of common sense. A well-rounded, unprejudiced knowledge of both species and hybrids, whether large or small varieties.

The judges decision is final, as an umpire in a baseball game. Are mistakes made? Of course, there are. We all are guilty at times of misjudgment. It is rather like the judges at a horse show where some will see the head as the most important part, while others see the fine body and legs, and some like them large and others like them small. Some people who only cater to the dwarf rhododendrons or species might not be a good judge of hybrids.

All in all, the judging has been very satisfactory, even if occasionally, some strange choices are made. One northwest breeder and grower would not give a ribbon to any red that had any bluish blood in the flower, regardless of how excellent the truss or other qualities.

Two years ago, a tremendous truss of R. 'Albatross', in perfect foliage, and in perfect condition, was taken to the show. I fully expected it to compete as the best truss in the show. To my surprise, it did not win a ribbon. I later asked one of the judges why such inferior trusses placed in the ribbons. He replied, "One of the judges insisted that, because a couple of the top florets were not one hundred per cent open, it could not be placed. The judge, rather than be arbitrary, did not raise an objection. The choice of the best truss at the recent Portland show, did not compare with a truss passed up by the judges. Such oversight was corrected for the past year by the board. One could go on and mention a number of cases where the judges made strange selections, but it would sound rather like a Monday morning quarterback.

Garden Club Arrangements

Each year the Portland Chapter invites the surrounding garden clubs to participate in arrangements featuring rhododendrons. The club arrangements have been a most interesting part of the show. A cup, and rhododendron plants, are given for the best displays. A team of three experts is chosen to do the judging.

In the field of flower arrangement, featuring rhododendrons, it would be well for one of the experts to present a story for the American Rhododendron Society Bulletin, the home of the late J. B. Stevenson, Mrs. Rosa Stevenson had some lovely vases featuring the R. trifiorums of various shades. The sprays were perhaps three or more feet tall, and it was the nicest bouquet I had ever seen. I am sure that Mrs. Stevenson would qualify as one of the best in making arrangements.

Mrs. Grace and myself have been asked to furnish flowers occasionally for churches during the blooming season, and sometimes for a wedding. No professional job, you understand, but you may be assured that the rhododendrons can be very effectively arranged.

At the beginning of this article, it was my plan to write some of the details of the 1959 Portland Chapter Show, and to mention some of the interesting things about the Royal Horticultural show in London, as well as the great Chelsea show in London, England. However, time and space are too limited to include it all, and that should be another story. Apologies are made for so many references to my personal experiences, but it seems the best method of writing to you.

In conclusion: the old year is fast drawing to a close. Winter is knocking at the door. The rhododendrons seem to be saying, "Be patient, we will soon be showing forth in all our glory."