QBARS - v18n4 Species Project in General and Seattle in Particular

Species Project in General and Seattle in Particular
Ben F. Nelson, Suquamish, Wash.

Already comments have been written by various observers concerning plants considered worthy of special notice. So when asked to write an interim article while the experts are pursuing the objective in foreign lands and elsewhere, the thought occurred it might be well to bring the reader closer to the modus operandi, to what is entailed and sought to be accomplished, to more fully appreciate the "hopes and fears and joys and tears" in working towards this difficult goal.

When the Species Project was first suggested by Dr. Walker there was great enthusiasm evidenced in some quarters, particularly by those who had most recently caught the "bug." Those who knew a little more, or should know more (none of us know very much) about the species because of years of exposure, thought of the practical difficulties involved and shuddered at the immensity of the problem, for various reasons. Among those considerations were: The great number of species in their apparently endless variety of forms; the abundance of some and the scarcity of others; and, more importantly, the procedure of selecting, propagating and making available to the public the better types.

At the beginning there was some uncertainty as to the purpose and policy to be pursued; some thought we should take a sort of census (God forbid!) ; others, that we should select only outstanding specimens; still others, those considered true to type, etc. Now, what is typical, what is outstanding, has not been defined and perhaps never will be because of personal experience, opinion, taste and prejudice. We are all human. These things have not in many instances been made clear by the taxonomists and cytologists; they are still trying to untangle the skein.

Nevertheless, those whose enthusiasm did not wane when they found they had work to do, were determined to tackle the undertaking as a challenge, and even though the results might not be obvious the attempt to "unscrew the inscrutable" might serve to induce thinking, invite discussion, increase knowledge and arouse interest-an end desirable in itself.

One of the concepts we had to bear in mind at the outset, and always, was that a species could not be judged in the same light as a hybrid. And it might be well to digress here on that point, for the benefit of the new enthusiast and those who have never taken the time to analyze, or have forgotten-in which case it may serve as a refresher. Leaving the technical aspects to the experts and speaking in our own sphere as laymen and dirt gardeners, we attempt to make the distinction: As hybrids were selected by the old English breeders, and as the practice is being reverted to today, a specific hybrid was a clone, which meant an individual even as you and I, and every plant by that name must have originated asexually from that original plant by layering, grafting or cutting. It was not a seminal variety-it could not be reproduced by seed. There were no two forms of that hybrid-it was one and the same always. (It is true that following the vast influx of new species after the turn of the century, man enthusiastically reissued his challenge to the bees, plunged into the cause célèbre, and myriads of hybrids were mongrelized into groups-but that practice is disapproved today.)

A species, as defined by Century or Webster's International, is a discourse in itself. The Twentieth Century Dictionary gives this definition: "A group of plants or animals which generally bear a close resemblance to each other in the more essential features of their organization, which produce fertile progeny, and which may, in the generality of cases, produce individuals varying from the general type of the group, the variation, however, being in all cases of a limited kind." It is a seminal group, that is, it may be reproduced from seed. To over-simplify a bit; a species is not a plant but a tribe of plants, a name, an identification tag on a certain group of plants that come within that definition. To be technically accurate, no one possesses "thomsonii" or "augustinii." One may possess "a thomsonii" or "an augustinii," or, better still, a form of whatever species one is fortunate enough to own. A well-digested understanding of this may eliminate much argument and promote intelligent discussion.

Armed with this basic knowledge, how to proceed? Dr. Walker, two or more years ago, brought forth the idea of ferreting out the choice and typical specimens in this region, received the blessing of the A.R.S., appointed a committee in the Portland-Willamette area, and some time later invaded Seattle to interest us in the project. The writer, somewhat dubious for the reasons mentioned above, was by the learned doctor's enthusiasm "shanghaied" into acquiescence to participate. All doubts have not been eliminated, but a "noble experiment" deserves a worthy effort.

He had come to us with an abundance of mimeographed forms. He and his committee had modestly selected ten species as the initial venture, with blooming periods from R. strigillosum to R. didymum . The first form sought information as to the grower's name, address, collector's number-if known, whether received as a plant, seedling, graft, etc.; the observer was asked to indicate age, size, and comment on the merit of the plant in question. Later, a more detailed form was furnished. The season was quite advanced-some time in April-and we accomplished almost nothing the first year. The following year-1963-Mr. Mark Collarino was appointed chairman of the Seattle group. He called us together in February, and later, in March, at which time we had formulated a document setting forth, as we understood it, the purpose, policy, practice and procedure to be followed.

We then worked out a form on which to note the desired information. This was accompanied by a check-list akin in format to that used by airplane pilots before take-off. This we were to check before "taking off" to the next plant or garden, and was to be used only to remind the observer of things not already noted, to the end that no outstanding feature would be omitted. No special remark would be made to call attention to characteristics common to the species under scrutiny. The local committee was divided into groups, each to cover gardens of a designated area. As many plants as time would permit were to be viewed at one visitation, and since the flowering times varied, it meant several trips to the gardens which contained collections of species. During an eight-week period bi-weekly reports were requested from the observers.

About a fifty per cent response was elicited. Approximately 60 species were seen in bloom, some of which were undoubtedly fine representatives of their kind and about which you will probably hear at a later time. The results were far from optimal, but it was the first assault. During the 1964 season we covered much the same ground, with some additional gardens and plants seen in flower. Lack of time and personnel constricted the range of operations and many fine collections remain to be visited as well as specimens in other gardens.

We have not scratched the surface. The difficulties are many. Each local group, of necessity, has had to go its own way, by and large. Busy men and women do not have much opportunity to get together with those of other areas for the discussion necessary to coordinate their efforts. For instance, locally we have considered only blooming plants. Perhaps that is a mistake. There are plants, some almost trees, 30 years old, which have not flowered. There are species such as R. rubiginosum , the number of which is legion many good forms-an almost impossible task to pick out only one or two, or even limit them to half a dozen of outstanding merit. F.C.C. plants we could omit without further observation, except to note their presence and where. However, undoubtedly many are mislabeled, and inferior. Where the distinctions drawn, species-against species in certain sub-series, are too fine for casual observation, only the denizens of the laboratory can differentiate, and few are qualified or have the time for such work. All we can do is to take the word of the grower and await future substantiation or disapproval. And it is perhaps true that species which can be established unequivocally without microscopic aid are a small percentage of the total genus.

We are merely a small advance guard probing the "enemy" lines, and how far we can go forward we do not know. We need all the help we can get. As we delve into the problem, complexities seem to increase and we realize how little we know except that we cannot be cocksure about anything. Mother Nature is indifferent to all the efforts of man to find the complete answers. Nevertheless, he must do his best to try to assemble all available information in a search for valid distinctions, or be lost in the chaos of numberless variations. We are simply in the first lap of the first phase of this effort. We can readily perceive succeeding phases will present as many difficulties; but obstacles, after all, are but boulders which must be rolled aside if we are to move on.

We do not expect ever to cover the ground. Many good plants will never be revealed. It is our desire and hope many fine forms will be brought to light and made available in as brief a time as practicable. That is not the present task of the local committee, and is another chapter. Just how it will be worked out is a matter to be determined.

It must be remembered there are no paid specialists, that the work is being done by people who donate their time, travel expense, and effort, and it

must be done in spare time which is fraught with the usual personal situations that defy or divert any rigid schedule of operations (grandmother's funeral, fishing trip, poker party, a noted guest, theatre engagement, unforeseen business demands, sickness legitimate reasons which must be anticipated in any voluntary undertaking, but which serve to delay and sometimes temporarily defeat our investigations to await another year), and those who partake in it are, in large measure, laboring for the benefit of posterity.



The aim of the ARS is to encourage the study of the culture, improvement and dissemination of knowledge with respect to rhododendrons generally. Since the species constitute the origin of all varieties, a greater familiarity with them is highly desirable, and, happily, interest in these plants as they grow in the wild is becoming increasingly manifest; but since there appear different forms, good, bad and indifferent, with a common designation, growing in various gardens, as well as those which may be improperly classified, much confusion exists. So there is a need to observe and select the better forms as typical representatives of the species, and to encourage their propagation to the end that all may profit thereby.

To attempt in a small way to do this is the purpose of the Species Project. To further that objective committees have been appointed by the ARS to observe and enumerate the plants of merit in their appropriate classifications, and to report the same to their respective chapters and to the committee of the National Society which, in turn, will evaluate the plants selected by the local committee as worthy of more detailed consideration.

To carry out this purpose the local committee has adopted the following policy.


The policy of the local committee will be to observe noteworthy species mature enough to fairly indicate their true characteristics, in as many gardens as time will permit and, if possible, at the time of flowering; to report the same, and to keep a record thereof.  Information as to noteworthy plants (species only) is invited from any source.

Practice & Procedure

  1. Suggested equipment. A magnifying glass, a metric ruler, a clip-board for writing purposes. A typewritten form will be provided each observer, with added space for pertinent comment on plants observed, which form, when completed and signed, shall be filed with the secretary of the local committee.
  2. In this undertaking two or more members of the committee or, their substitute may be considered as acting for the whole committee for observing and recording.
  3. Two or more observers will be designated to cover a garden for as many times as necessary to see the particular species in growth or bloom. A committee member so designated will be responsible for carrying out such visitation or visitations personally, or substituting some other member of the committee or other qualified observer in lieu thereof. In any event, for the sake of uniformity in record keeping, there should be one member of the local committee on any visitation. Such committee member shall secure permission from the owner of any garden to be visited.
  4. All plants observed by two or more members will be given individual numbers and tagged unless the owner objects.
  5. The purported designation of a plant will be accepted and no attempt will be made to classify a plant where its name is unknown to the owner, unless it is obvious in the judgment of the observers, in which case appropriate notation should be made thereof.
  6. The owner's comment and evaluation should be solicited and noted.
  7. The observers will make note of other species in any given gardens which are of sufficient size and maturity to be fit subjects for observation at a later date in the season, and, also, file with the secretary a notation of those which may qualify the following year.