QBARS - v17n3 Del James: An Appreciation

Del James: An Appreciation
R. M. Overstreet, M.D.

Del James
Fig. 24.  Del James


This is a short introduction to the work of Delbert W. James. His death on January 9th prompts a short resume undertaken at the request of the late Rudolph Henny, editor of the Bulletin, while the memory of so many events of Del's life is fresh in our minds. More will follow by other writers, as the James, Rae and Del, were recorders of great detail and accuracy. Numerous notebooks filled with observations 'and details of record will supply much worthwhile information for some commentator and editor in future issues. Del was instrumental in forming the Eugene "Men's Committee on Rhododendron Society" some two or three years before the formation of the American Rhododendron Society, of which he became a charter member.

We who have known him are happier for the experience. He gave freely of his knowledge and was a good teacher with firm opinions. His dedication to his interest was stimulating. He served a faithful apprenticeship to a teacher he was not to meet, C. P. Rafill. He lived through the introduction of the genus Rhododendron into the gardens of this country, saw the wonderful thing come of age almost from its inception. The quality of his life will live in the minds of those who know something of the beauty of our gardens and parks and of his devotion to that beauty.

In 1939, Del James and Rae were married and moved into a small house which Rae had previously built on the heights above Eugene. The house faced east overlooking the Willamette River and the City of Springfield. The back of the house faced the tall, second growth, Douglas fir trees of Hendrick's Park. Most of the large lot to the north was protected with Garry's oak trees. In the yard among the many plants were two rhododendrons, 'comer Waterer' and 'Dr. H. C. Dresselhuys.'

Hunting, fishing and gardening were some of Del's outdoor hobbies. His special interest had been dahlias, but the beauty of their rhododendrons excited them both. They wished to learn more about these shrubs. They soon learned of the Barto Gardens from Del's daughter and son-in-law, the Jensens of Junction City. Mr. Barto was hospitalized by his illness which was to prove fatal, but the plants were there to be seen. Some correspondence took place between them, Barto and the James, but unfortunately they were not to meet personally. Barto passed away in December of 1941. His garden had been 'all but unattended for the previous summer. Before that, a fire had destroyed his home, letters and records, and being a sick man, he was unable to catalogue his many specimens.

Even before their experiences with the Barto planting, Mr. James' inquisitive bent sought out others who might give him information regarding the origin of these spectacular shrubs. A birthday gift from Rae Bowers' book "Rhododendrons and Azaleas" opened some new avenues of search. The James learned of Mrs. C. J. Craddock, of Eureka, California, who had some experience in growing rhododendrons, having obtained some plants. She suggested joining the Royal Horticultural Society and further suggested as sponsors Mr. Barto and Mrs. A. C. U. Berry of Portland. In addition, she forwarded a gift, express collect, of a large R. campanulatum with a 75-pound root ball.

Through membership in the Royal Horticultural Society, a lively correspondence was set up with an audience throughout the country.  Many of these letters were unanswered, but others proved to be truly incredible sources of information.

Five large, loose leaf notebooks were filled with copies of the James' letters and the answers from other enthusiasts. Friendships were struck up with many people, including Halfdan Lem and Endre Ostbo; Carl English, Jr., and his wife, Edith, of the Seattle area; Ben Lancaster of Camas, Washington; John and Rudolph Henny of Brooks; Larson and Malovich of Tacoma; Brandt of Puyallup, Washington; and David Leach of Brookville, Pennsylvania, to mention a few.

The explorations of the Barto plantings went on. As an example, Del paid fifty cents for a plant of R. calophytum . Together with the Marshall Lyons, the James visited the farm on the High Pass Road several times and there obtained many species, including R. auriculatum , R. diaprepes , R. rubiginosum , R. triflorum , R. neriiflorum , R. decorum , R. arboreum , R. falconeri , and R. grande .

Something of the difficulties in identification of these species is gathered by his later writings to Raffill, of which more will be mentioned later.

Del was born in 1894 on an Indian reservation near Fallon, Nevada. His parents had homesteaded previously on a site between Kellogg and Oakland, Oregon. When Del was six months old, his uncle was killed in a tragic accident so it became necessary for his family to return home with baby Del. He remained an Oregonian. The feet of the family were well planted in Oregon soil. The grandmother ran the Deardorff Hotel in Oakland, a well known stagecoach stop and southern Oregon gathering place for fifty years. He knew the mountains well as a boy and as a man. He loved the out-of-doors. All his hobbies were concerned with the soil and nature.

The Raffill Affair

The James' desire to know more about rhododendrons brought about an avalanche of correspondence. After joining the Royal Horticultural Society, he and Rae obtained a couple of Year Books and wrote to several people here and abroad just in search of information. They noted the name in the membership lists of C. P. Raffill. This was in 1945. The English gardens had been cut back sharply to make room for food crops. Little time or energy was left in bombed out Britain for floriculture, but Raffill found one with kindred interests. He was ready and anxious to correspond with someone in the northwest. Since C. P. Raffill had a hybrid named after him, the James thought he might be able to give them some information 'and how right they were!

The correspondence in Mrs. James' possession, including copies of letters sent to Raffill and his answers in his own handwriting, often consist of a half dozen pages of very legible script in each letter. After a few interchanges, he identified himself as the assistant curator of Kew Gardens. In time the James introduced themselves as Del and Rae, husband and wife. This cleared up Raffill's understanding of this American couple. (Rae typed the letters and served as secretary for the family.)

Raffill was having an attachment to bearded irises! He wished for some of the American hybrids and suggested that profitable exchanges could be made. He initiated a veritable cascade of rhododendron seeds. Since three famous iris breeders lived within 120 miles of Eugene, Del was able to send many rhizomes. It must be remembered these were the immediate postwar years. England's balance of trade was precarious and money could not be sent out. Import taxes were forbiddingly high on merchandise, so the irises were sent as gifts of no monetary value. Some packages were months in transit. In the later years of their correspondence, letters often made the trip by air mail in a few hours.

Raffill tried to interest the James in irises, but to no avail. They had been interested in dahlias, but were irrevocably wedded to rhododendrons.

The first seeds to arrive were, for the most part, of species rhododendrons, both the hardy and tender. With each letter were vivid descriptions and carefully detailed instructions for caring for the seeds and growing the plants. Magnolias were high on the list of Raffill's favorites. He sent seed from several, including M. campbelli , some of which proved hardy enough for our climate. He listed the names of several nurseries specializing in rhododendrons, then rare and valuable information to an enthusiastic gardener. He also sent to the James a copy of Millais's beautiful book and the color chart of the Royal Horticultural Society.

Del was most generous and gave seedlings to many of his friends. The Men's Camellia and Rhododendron Society had been organized by several men, including Dr. A. F. Barnett. Del and Dr. Barnett were more impressed with the future of rhododendrons than of camellias. Marshall Lyons shared this enthusiasm and soon stimulated the interest of others. Raffill's name became well known to the James' friends and associates. A vast fund of knowledge was assembled and much plant material found its way out of the James' hothouse and garden. Cultural secrets and choice bits of information owe their origin to the correspondence of Rae and Del James with Raffill. He adopted his new friends wholeheartedly and found a willing student and teacher at this end.

Clothing was in short supply in England. Raffill was of the same proportion as one of the James' friends and his suits found their way over. Raffill found many ways to express his gratitude to the benefit of northwest gardens. Plans are in the making for editing these lovely, lucid, well written letters in future issues of the Bulletin. There is an incredibly large amount of fascinating material to be apportioned out from time to time.

Lem of Seattle taught Del something of grafting, particularly summer grafting, as was reported in the Bulletin some few years ago. He also stimulated his interest in making crosses, insisting that the only method which was ilkely to be successful was to start with good things. This was also stressed by Raffill.

The first cross made was 'Fabia' x 'Fusilier'. This was followed by many other crosses. I have a vivid memory of a small plant in the greenhouse with every floret. on the single truss pollinated from a different parent and properly labeled, with more twine and labels visible than flower. There were soon dozens of crosses growing in the greenhouse, lath house, garden, and in friends' greenhouses and gardens. His work as a locomotive engineer gave him time for visiting others. He was a very busy man, often driving hundreds of miles on weekends spreading the gospel. The James' home was the port of call for amateurs and professionals alike. Enthusiasts from all over the world have come to see and learn and have found a considerate and attentive pupil. In the winter of 1950-51, Del and Rae planned a trip to England, Scotland and Wales to see for themselves and to get to know their new found friend, C. P. Raffill. They were presented with a small fund in appreciation of the many gifts of material and information, so that they were able to go in May of 1951. On arriving in New York, they learned of the death of Raffill. This dulled the edge of their expectations somewhat, but they set out with gifts for those who had been so generous. Britain was still in the period of postwar adjustment.

Their itinerary included Edinburgh, Bodnant, Hy Beeches, Sheffield Park, the Chelsea Show, Tower Court, Sunningdale, Wisley, Windsor Great Park, and Kew. At Chelsea they met the explorers, Kingdon Ward and Sheriff. They sent home pollen from R. 'Welkin' to Marshall Lynons who made several successful crosses.

Beginning with an episode of chest pain in the hotel while waiting for the ship to bring them home, Del had two more serious attacks of coronary artery occlusion. The second occurred on board ship and the third at the home of his friend, Edmond Amateis in New York. Amateis had met the ship and taken the James to his home. It was several weeks before Del and Rae were able to travel.

On returning home, Del was able to do very little work, but continued to make crosses every year. In 1954 the late Ernest Allen grew his plants, but in all the other years, Del was able to grow a few and give many to his friends. As his strength returned, he was increasingly active, and since he could not return to his former employment, did more in the garden. Many of his plants were awarded recognition.

R. elliottii never failed to excite the judges where displayed. He gave the clonal name 'War Paint' to this plant. The naming of his more striking plants reflects his interests. A few are recognizably inferences to his travels. They include 'Tumalo', 'Tolo', 'Yellow Creek,' 'Umpqua Chief', 'Tyee', 'Warm Springs' and 'Paulina'. These are local geographic names. David Leach named 'Oasis.' 'Indian Penny', 'Half Penny', 'Golden West' give some local color to the collection. 'Charlie', 'Judie', 'Rae' and perhaps 'Sweetie Pie' honor friends and his wife. 'Esquire', a Barto plant of unknown pedigree, was exhibited 'and named very early in the rhododendron venture.

At the International Rhododendron Conference in Portland, Oregon, on May 13, 1961 Delbert W. James was presented the Gold Medal of the American Rhododendron Society in recognition of his contributions in furthering interest in the breeding and culture of rhododendrons.

In the fall of 1962, Del became less active. He failed rapidly and was hospitalized in November in San Francisco where he passed away on January 9, 1963.