QBARS - v19n1 The Rhododendron Species Foundation - Development Of The Idea

The Rhododendron Species Foundation - Development Of The Idea

About three years ago the American Rhododendron Society, because of the rapidly increasing interest in species rhododendrons, and because of the scarcity of good true-to-name species plants, started the "Species Project." The purpose was to first locate and label individual plants which appeared to be typical of the species as far as could be determined, and later to mark plants considered by the committee to be superior forms of the species. This project, under the chairmanship of Milton V. Walker, M.D., was active in some of the western Chapters of the Society, many species clones were studied and some were discussed in the A.R.S. Bulletin.

Breeding Material Needed
Interest in rhododendrons is at an all time high, not only in this country but in Germany, the Netherlands, the British Isles, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and possibly other countries. Most of this popular interest so far has centered around the hybrid varieties, many of which are quite old: some which have been around 50 to 100 years are still being planted. They were quite valuable in their time but have their limitations. Many people are now becoming interested in the breeding of rhododendrons in order to produce varieties which are of better color and more beautiful but particularly, varieties which are hardier, more resistant to heat, to alkaline soil conditions, and to attacks by insects and disease pests. There is also an awakening interest in rhododendron varieties which will force readily for the florist trade. The background of hybrid rhododendrons, of course, is the list of species which have been used in breeding and the hope of the future lies in the genetic makeup of these and other so far unused species.

Species Highly Regarded
It has been true in the British Isles and is becoming quite evident in this country that many rhododendron fanciers who may first have been interested in the available hybrid varieties soon desire to grow the species plants from which the varieties were originally developed. Some become collectors of species in general or in one particular series. In any group of advanced rhododendron enthusiasts the conversation will usually turn to the species which are valued so highly for their intrinsic charm, their natural but restrained beauty and the ease with which they can be worked into the landscape in very satisfying ways.

Superior Forms Important
The fact that plants of a given species may show a considerable amount of variation has been both a curse and a blessing. It provides the excitement and the promise of superior individuals to be earnestly sought and treasured. On the other hand the number of really superior forms in a species is likely to be very limited, and the average quite below the quality of such superior forms. The problem is to find available plants or propagating material of the superior forms. Of course the problem of finding any true to name plants of a given species is not always easy. It has been stated that probably not more than 30%, if we include the azaleas, of the listed species are available for purchase in the United States or Canada. Many Rhododendron enthusiasts have purchased plants of species only to find that they are inferior forms and fit only for the discard. Many others have found that the plants they purchased were incorrectly named, most frequently because the plants from open pollinated seed, were actually hybrids, and unselected hybrids at that.
It is generally known in the Rhododendron world that a very large number of species have come from Asia, and particularly from western China, southeast Asia and Japan. Most of the species now available were sent to British financial backers of the plant expeditions which located them. There was no particular urge to propagate and make available to the general public the superior forms which a few of these original sponsors were keen enough to select. Usually a certain amount of the seed of these importations went to the Botanic gardens at Edinburgh, Kew, or other such institutions. The species plants of the Asiatic types being grown in North America have mostly come from open pollinated seed, collected in these Botanic gardens from the plants originally grown there from seed furnished by the collectors.

What Happens To Superior Forms
It is not necessarily the responsibility of a Botanic garden to do a great deal of selecting in order to obtain a very good form o£ a particular species. Such an institution may be interested in maintaining a plant or two of a species although possibly concerned less about the superiority of the form than its conformity to the type specimen. Furthermore, Botanic gardens are under many pressures. As administrations change interest in certain groups of plants may wax or wane. A Botanic garden becomes famous for its rhododendrons because someone in charge was particularly interested in that genus. The next administrator may be interested in an entirely different group of plants, the emphasis changes, and over a period of years the collection gradually dwindles both in number and in excellence.
There have been many good forms, and some quite superior, selected by individual fanciers on the larger estates in the British Isles. As time goes on, however, the identity of many of the outstanding plants will be lost. In many cases the clone itself will disappear as large estates are broken up, for housing developments, or to permit payment of inheritance taxes.
The tendency in the nursery trade has been to propagate species Rhododendrons by seed and of course there are economic reasons for that. As this goes on, however, the true identity of the original species will be lost in a swarm of open pollinated and hence possibly cross pollinated seedlings. The breeder, wishing to introduce certain characters into his progeny then cannot rely on a particular parent plant transmitting characters which he desires. The parent may be a complex hybrid rather than the true species which the breeder wants.

The Collection At Windsor Great Park
The very fine collection of species at Windsor Great Park in Great Britain not only constitutes the largest and most comprehensive collection of species Rhododendrons in the world but as a part of the Crown Estate may also have the greatest prospect of permanence. The gardens were laid out under the sponsorship of King George V and Queen Mary and were brought to their present state by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The real contribution to the gardens, from the Rhododendron standpoint, came with the acquisition of the famous Stevenson Collection in 1950, including over 2000 plants of about 460 species. The Species garden, and the Savill Garden, named after Sir Eric Savill who laid it out, will probably be able to maintain this collection snore or less indefinitely. Many of the famous private collections, like the Stevenson Collection, will eventually be dispersed or lost as economic pressures develop.
In the summer of 1963 Dr. Walker visited Windsor Great Park in England and was impressed by the fact that a very large number of fine forms of species Rhododendrons were growing there, mostly from the Stevenson collection, were well arranged and displayed, and the idea immediately occurred that a similar collection in this country would be very desirable.
Contact was made with Sir Eric Savill, who was largely responsible for the development of the gardens, and Sir Eric most generously promised that any desired propagating material would he made available. He stated, however, that there were many other desirable species clones in private gardens in the British Isles, and Dr. Walker was urged to return the next spring and examine them.
In 1964, l, therefore, Dr. and Mrs. Walker spent several weeks in England. Scotland. and Ireland, visited many gardens both public and private where fine species Rhododendrons were being grown, and received very friendly cooperation with respect to arrangements to secure propagating material.

Where Might A Similar Collection Be Established?
Much thought is being given to the location and maintenance in this country of a somewhat similar collection where one to several superior forms of each available species might be seen, and studied by those who are interested, and from which propagating material might be furnished to various institutions, and to the nursery trade so that these superior forms would be available for purchase by individuals. A number of different alternatives were considered.
At first it seemed that some public place, such as a city, or state park, or a university grounds, might be desirable, because of the possibility the site might be made available at no cost and because public funds might he used to provide maintenance. However, there are definite objections to such a location. Arrangements made with one set of administrators may not be looked upon favorably by their successors. The administration of such a collection in a public place would have to be shared with those responsible for the public interest in the institution or park. It would be difficult to prevent the collection area from being used by people who come solely for relaxation, and are likely to give their children free rein to play among the plants. Somewhat the same may be said of universities and Botanic gardens. There would be pressure against expanding to additional areas and in time it probably would be difficult to hold areas already planted if some new and very worthy project were to develop.

Site Should Be Owned By Rhododendron Minded Group
After considerable study it seemed that the acquiring of suitable acreage under the complete supervision of a Rhododendron minded group of directors was the only solution. Development on this basis would be very expensive as money would be needed not only for acquisition of the property but for maintenance over an indefinite period. It would be possible, however, for those who are deeply interested in Rhododendrons to control the establishment and development of such a collection, and to propagate and distribute to various institutions, and to the public through the nursery trade, without the limitations often imposed by already established procedures in public or semi-public institutions.

Why The Foundation Was Needed
Although the American Rhododendron Society had set up the Species Project it was not in a financial position to support the project beyond its original concept of volunteer work within certain Chapter areas.
It is obvious that to bring a large number of rhododendron species clones (mostly as cuttings) to this continent, propagate them, secure a suitable site and establish them in a permanent planting, provide continuous maintenance, and eventually make propagating wood available, would be quite expensive. It seemed, however, a very desirable objective and, as the only possible means of achieving it, on a stable and permanent basis, a nonprofit "Rhododendron Species Foundation" has been incorporated in the state of Oregon. The Foundation has been set up as a separate and distinct entity from the American Rhododendron Society, and the Society has not been obligated in any way. The Foundation, in turn, is in no way responsible to the Society.

Purposes Of The Foundation
The purposes of the Foundation, as set forth in the Articles of Incorporation, are to conduct scientific research and educational activities in the field of horticulture, primarily with species rhododendrons, to include the study, analysis, and classification of species rhododendrons, and the location, selection and propagation of the very best forms, and to make such knowledge and the selected forms available to all persons interested in the culture of species rhododendrons. The activities of the corporation shall be broad in scope, and may include the establishment, maintenance, and operation of a garden, or gardens, and other facilities for the testing, growing and propagation of species rhododendrons and other allied or companion shrubs, trees, or other plants.

Foundation Goals
To acquire land and to establish plantings, and then to maintain them in satisfactory condition would involve an endowment in the neighborhood of $1,000,000. The Rhododendron gardens at Windsor Great Park cover over 35 acres. To accomplish its purposes it would be necessary for the Rhododendron Foundation to have at least that much and preferably a larger area. There should be space for the plants to be grown without crowding so that plant characters as well as flower characters could be easily studied. There would need to be not only labor for maintenance but technical supervision so that the plants could be under continuous observation by trained personnel. It is hoped that acquisition of superior forms would be more or less continuous after the more readily available forms in Great Britain are brought to this country. New species are still being found and described, and if western China emerges from the Communist cloud additional explorations there will undoubtedly provide additional new species.

Plant Material Is Available
The ground work has already been laid with permission for the obtaining of propagating material from Windsor Great Park, and with similar whole hearted cooperation from many other institutions and private gardens in the British Isles. Such an opportunity may not come again. The plant material is available if we can provide a place to establish the main collection and provide maintenance so that it will be a continuing inspiration to Rhododendron enthusiasts and a source from which breeders and fanciers can actually obtain the material they need and desire.

Generous Gifts Needed
It is realized that a project such as this cannot be achieved just by small contributions. A membership arrangement would involve an annual membership campaign which would be costly in terms of money and of the time of personnel who would he diverted from the broader objectives of the Foundation. An annual campaign for a nationwide Foundation by volunteer help would probably fluctuate greatly in overall effort and effectiveness.
It was decided, therefore, that the Foundation would have no members. Instead there will be a Board of Directors, of approximately 25 carefully selected individuals, representatives of the various parts of the country where rhododendrons can be grown. The Directors will guide the development of the Foundation and the raising of an Endowment Fund which, it is hoped, will enable the Foundation to accomplish those objectives for which it was established.
Generous gifts will be necessary if the Foundation is to meet the challenge of the situation and become a vital factor in the finding, preservation, study and dissemination of rhododendron species. The Foundation is set up in such a way that money, securities or real estate may be received by donation, by bequest, or other arrangement. Arrangements are being made with the Trust Department of one of the larger banks to serve as Trustee of endowment funds.

Directors And Officers
Obviously the success of a project such as this, and the attitude and confidence of possible donors, will depend upon the men and women who serve as officers and directors. A small preliminary task force has been working on the general organization of the Foundation. Various influential people are being approached to serve as members of the Founding Board, charter members of the Foundation's Board. A complete list of the Officers and Board members will be published in the very near future, as soon as the makeup of the organizing board has been completed.

If there are questions about the Foundation the Editor would be glad to refer inquiries to some member of the organizing group.