Hardiness and Beauty in Rhododendrons
Carl Phetteplace, M.D., Eugene, Oregon
Since coming to Long Island for the meeting several people have asked me how I thought the rhododendrons here compare with those grown on the west coast. To me this betrays a great eagerness on your part to fill your gardens with rhododendrons of great beauty and I have a feeling that despite the handicap of much more severe winters that you are determined to do just that. Perhaps it is good that you must contend with generally more adverse climatic conditions because, as has often been said, a handicap can be one's greatest blessing. It can be stimulating to the greatest achievement.
From the beginning you have had to be concerned primarily with hardiness and after that with trying to develop beauty. This is a very sound foundation. Twenty-five years or more ago during my earliest experience with these plants the only comprehensive treatise on the subject was Clement Bowers first edition of "Rhododendrons and Azaleas." Of those he recommended there were not many you would consider choice today. But they were hardy even in New England. Starting with this good tough material you have come a long way since then.
On the other hand, in our generally more favorable environment on the west coast we have been able to grow from the start some of the more beautiful things that have been developed in Great Britain. Our hybridizers, consequently, have been thinking mainly about beauty-a better yellow, a larger flowered red, a better, fuller truss and so on. But every 5 or 10 years we get a winter that brings us back to reality.
And so after the past unusually severe winter we hear a great deal about breeding for more hardiness. And the first thought always is that we must try to use in our breeding the hardy but at the same time beautiful things you have been developing on the east coast. Here is the only place I know where this program of breeding beauty into hardiness is going on. Generally hardiness and beauty do not come together. The more exotic varieties as a rule are the most tender. You have refused to accept this rule as inviolate and have made great progress.
So I might say that no doubt we have a greater variety of choice sorts on the west coast, but as Pres. Ed Dunn and I remarked in walking through the exhibits at the show in front of the building today we don't see anything more beautiful at our shows on the west coast than you have here today. I also must say that I have been tremendously impressed on our garden tours not only with the great number of rhododendrons seen, but also with the size and beauty of the gardens. These clearly surpass anything we have on the west coast to my knowledge, unless it be the Washington Arboretum at Seattle or the Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park.
There seems to me to be a good deal of mystery about the subject of hardiness. Just what is the difference in the chemistry or physiology or structure of a plant that will tolerate a temperature of 20° below zero and one that is seriously damaged at 20° above? Another question, does hybridizing itself increase hardiness? There are many examples to suggest that it does. I have never been able to grow either R. griersonianum or R. elliottii more than a few years without losing them from cold. Yet I have grown and regularly flowered profusely 'Fusileer,' a cross of the two, for 15 years in my garden.
Once in my early enthusiasm I obtained with considerable difficulty a four foot plant of R. griffithianum . It froze to death before Christmas the first year. Yet a striking number of our most beautiful and reasonably hardy hybrids are of griffithianum parentage, some of which I have seen growing here. Quickly such names as 'Lamplighter,' 'Jean Marie de Montague', 'J. H. Van Nes', 'Britannia', 'Mrs. Furnival', 'Norman Gill', 'Mrs. Lindsay Smith' come to mind. There are many others, all good and useful rhododendrons.
And of course out our way no garden of any size is without at least one of the exotic Loderis and 'Loder's White'. Although I have lost quite a number of rhododendrons from cold over the years I have yet to see even bud damage on one of the Loderis. Also, I am told that the delightful 'Dora Amateis' will go through subzero weather here. Yet I have lost R. ciliatum in our milder climates 2 or 3 times. Blood-red R. arboreum is considered to be a greenhouse subject out our way, yet I understand it is the principal source of red color in your hardiest varieties. Can it be that since there is a strong tendency in all nature to survive and somehow adjust to adverse environmental conditions that wherever the quality of hardiness is given the least chance that it will dominate and carry on? Parallel to this I seem to get the impression that everything in nature unspoiled by the hand of man tends to be beautiful and in using some of these very tender things in breeding that in addition to losing much of the tenderness a great deal of the beauty is passed on to the new hybrid with really significant frequency.
Perhaps these are only philosophical considerations and may even represent wishful thinking. But I believe some faith in this sort of theory, if you will call it that gives us hope and encouragement for the future.
In closing I would say that with the rapid progress you are making in the colder climates, of developing beautiful rhododendrons that are first hardy you are making a great contribution even to us in climates that are sometimes not so mild as generally considered. I have a number of your choice hybrids in my garden now and expect to get more of them. It is a pleasure to see them looking so happy this spring, with perfect trusses, when some of our plants have been hurt by our past winter's cold.
By the same token I hope that those of us in the milder climates can make some contribution to you. We are able to grow many things of fine quality, especially among the species, that I believe you might have difficulty with even in Long Island. I am sure any of us will be glad to send you pollen from such things if you will make your wishes known. Over the long term I expect some great things from the species project headed by Dr. Walker and his distinguished Board of Directors. I hope they will not be deterred from obtaining all the choice sorts even though some may be so tender they must be grown under glass. I often think what a loss it would have been if Sir Edmund Loder would have had no interest in R. griffithianum because it was too tender. It is at once the most exotic, and tender of all elepidote species and yet perhaps the most potent parent of all. I believe anything choice, no matter how tender, should be seriously worked with.
Despite the great distance between these two rhododendron growing areas of this continent, I think we should do our best to combine our respective capabilities to further the aims of the A.R.S., which as you know is to increase the interest and knowledge and greater use of the genus rhododendron as ornamentals, and to search for and distribute better and better forms. I believe we are just beginning to develop the possibilities of this amazing genus of plants and I hope some day everyone, regardless of his climate or geographic location, can grow and enjoy rhododendrons as much as I have.