QBARS - v20n1 Edgar Greer, Rhododendron Breeder

Edgar Greer, Rhododendron Breeder
Merle Saunders, Eugene, Oregon

The membership of the American Rhododendron Society is continually losing prominent members by poor health or death. I personally bought my first rhododendron in 1943 over 20 years ago and during this time I have been fortunate in becoming acquainted with men and women who are really outstanding in their contributions to hybridization and culture of rhododendrons. Among those who have passed on in Oregon and have left much behind are James Barto, Dr. Royal Gick, Del James and Rudolph Henny. The passing of these prominent men from our membership has left voids that cannot be easily filled. It seems that their wonderful work and gardens pass into oblivion in such a short time.
For instance, the famous Barto Gardens are no more, with only a few dying plants left on the hillside without water. Dr. Gick's wonderful collection, and he had three greenhouses full, plus his lath house and yard, are all gone except a few plants that his wife Virginia Gick has kept in the planting around her home. The famous collection of Del James is no more. Practically all the plants have been moved out to the four corners of the Pacific Coast. Many of Del's large collection of Maddenii's were transferred to the cool house in the rhododendron test garden in Portland and also some to Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco. Bob Comerford of Marion, Oregon, is propagating many of Del's famous crosses and in time these will be available to interested people. Of course, everyone is familiar with Rudolph Henny's wonderful collection of species and hybrids at Brooks, Oregon. Rudolph was one of the American Rhododendron Society's top hybridizers and had the knack of predicting or selecting crosses that have turned out some famous hybrids. Mrs. Henny is continuing to operate the garden but as everybody knows this is quite a chore for a woman to carry on.

We Should Know About Hybridizers While They Are Living
I was much interested in reading the article about Bill Whitney of Brinnon, Washington, another man who is famous for his collection of species and his work in hybridization. I think articles of this type are very interesting and enlightening to our members. All dyed in the wool rhododendron "Buffs" are continually looking for something new, interesting and something better than what has been originated before.
Perhaps you are wondering why I have mentioned these men. For this reason: I think that we should be made aware of the hybridizers and growers while they are still alive and contributing to better varieties and selected forms of species for the enjoyment of all. We have such a man who belongs to the Eugene Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society. His name is Edgar L. Greer who now resides at 1280 Good Pasture Island Road and owns and operates the Greer Gardens with the help of his wife and son Harold.

Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Greer
Fig. 4.  Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Greer in a Rhododendron nursery
Merle Saunders photo

Edgar is a reticent sort of a man who will not go out of his way to brag about his accomplishments in raising and propagating rhododendrons. He has had an interesting life; born in Missouri, and upon graduation from college made his living as an agent for New York Life Insurance Company. He was with that Company for 40 years, spending 32 years in Greely, Colorado, where he operated his life insurance business both in Greely and Denver which are near each other.

The Move to the Pacific Northwest
In 1951 Edgar retired from the New York Life Insurance Company and made a trip to the Pacific Coast where he traveled throughout the Northwest looking for a place in which to make his future home. After some time the Greers selected Eugene as their new home and a place in which to educate their daughter and son. They bought a home in the Santa Clara area North of Eugene and also acquired a vacant lot next door. The Greers' new home needed some more plant material and they happened to stop by the Joe Steinmetz home where there was a large selection of Barto plants. After touring the Steinmetz home they ended up buying two Barto plants which they took home and put in the planting around their house.
Edgar evidently was smitten quite hard by rhododendronitis. Soon after, he met Ernest Allen who worked for the Eugene Park Department and who was also interested in rhododendrons. Ernie told Edgar about a large, and good, form of R. ponticum that was near the railroad station in Eugene and was covered with seed pods. Edgar helped himself to a few seed pods, took them home and planted them. Shortly thereafter he was in the rhododendron business. He had enough grafting stock to supply everyone in Lane County. Also about this time the Greers got acquainted with Del and Ray James. It wasn't long before Edgar was taking cuttings and making grafts of many varieties of rhododendrons from his fast growing circle of rhododendron friends.
Soon after he bought his first rhododendrons he joined the Eugene Camellia and Rhododendron Society which was a group of men in Eugene who originally organized under that name. Amongst the members of this group were such men as Dr. Gick, Del James, Dr. Phetteplace, Marshall Lyons, and others who also grew rhododendrons and it wasn't long before the Camellia began taking a side seat and rhododendrons forged to the front. During these early years no women belonged to this group. However, in time several women in the Eugene area began to hold their own with the men at the shows which were held each year, and in the early 50's the bars were let down and all interested women were allowed to join, and from that time the group, now the Eugene Chapter of A.R.S., began to forge ahead rapidly.

A Family Enterprise
In just a few years the vacant lot next door to the Greer home was no longer vacant; it was filled solid with rhododendrons. Like other rhododendron "Buffs," Edgar was always on the lookout for something different and it seems that when one runs out of space one's interest turns to dwarfs. So Edgar began putting special emphasis on his collection of species dwarfs, and started in hybridizing the dwarfs seriously. Edgar is fortunate in having a wife, Esther, who is sympathetic to his hobby and most willing to pitch in and help when needed. But, Edgar's ace in the hole was his son, Harold, who took to rhododendrons like a duck takes to water and having a good memory it wasn't long before he could tell you the parentage of most any rhododendron hybrid in their planting.
Of course, being retired, it wasn't long before Edgar and his family began looking for more acreage in order to spread out. They looked over on the coast. They looked up and down the Willamette Valley and finally picked out a spot which contains three or four acres, and within two or three miles from where they lived. Now came the planning stage. Plans had to be drawn for a new home and for improving a rather gravelly soil which had good drainage but needed to have humus added to the soil in order to better retain moisture. About a year ago their new home was ready for occupancy and the big move began. It is no small task when you have to move hundreds, yes even thousands of plants. I know, for I made the move once myself. However, fortunately rhododendrons are one of the easiest plants to be moved, especially if the soil is prepared ahead of time. The roots are near the surface and hold the soil in a compact ball when dug.

Greer home and Nursery Nursery block with propagating structures
Fig. 6.  Rhododendrons among orchard trees
with Greer residence in the background.
Merle Saunders photo
Fig. 7.  Nursery block with propagating
structures in the background.
Merle Saunders photo

Many Crosses Made
Edgar has been growing his own crosses for 13 years. Some years he will make between 80 and 100 crosses; last year he made about 60. He is constantly looking for a hardier plant with better quality, with emphasis toward yellow flower color. Out of thousands of seedlings grown have come some Preliminary Award plants. One is called 'Kimberly' P.A. which is a cross between a Barto R. fortunei and R. williamsianum . 'Kimberly' was awarded "best plant in show" at the Eugene Rhododendron show, a few years back. And, of course, everybody is pestering Edgar for a start. 'Kimberly' will grow to 4 feet in 10 years and is very compact. It is a light pink fading to white and the trusses entirely cover the whole plant. Even the buds and stems are colorful.
Another of his crosses is called 'Trude Webster' P.A. which is from 'Countess of Derby' selfed. In ten years it will make a plant of 6 feet with good foliage, somewhat similar to the better Dutch hybrids. It has won the best pink in two shows. It has a large high truss of clear pink color with no lavender.

Young plants in the lath house at Greer Nursery
Fig. 5.  Young plants in the lath house at Greer Nursery.
Merle Saunders photo

Pedigrees of All Hybrids Compiled
Edgar and his son Harold had given considerable study to the lineage of all hybrid crosses and about 1961 they started the momentous task of tracing the parentage of all known hybrids. All hybrids whose parentage was recorded were traced back to their origin from one or more species. The Greers were able to obtain the major part of this information on over 4,000 hybrids.
Originally, Edgar had planned to publish this information on all hybrids for which it was known. However, he soon found that the book would be a rather large one and probably not too many people would be interested in buying it. Personally, I would be much interested in having a copy of this work if it were published and I am sure that there are many other rhododendron "Buffs," similar to myself, who would like this information also. Perhaps in time the Greers will find some way of publishing this monumental lineage on all known hybrids. Following is an example of how some hybrids were traced through several steps before coming to the species:

Parentage of R. 'Mohur'

Yellow, spotted green; (Lester E. Brandt exhibited 1955); previously "Dream Girl
variety Mohur."

Harold was six years old when the Greers arrived in Oregon and literally has grown up with rhododendrons. In fact, he was the one who, some years, made the majority of the crosses. Of course, being green in the early days, they attempted anything and everything with a great variety of results, many naturally, being discarded.
Son Harold is now a junior at the University of Oregon where he is majoring in landscape architecture and plant material. It seems that, over the years, the landscape department has accumulated several collections of slides which had been donated to the University by various people. Among these was the Bocher collection, of slides of many different kinds of plant material of which many were rhododendrons. The University was in a dilemma. Many slides were not labeled and some that were, were labeled incorrectly. One of the professors was showing some of these slides to Harold one day and Harold happened to mention that he thought he could identify many of them. So this year, in addition to his school work, Harold has accepted the part time job of identifying these various slide collections. Of course, he is remunerated for his time and efforts, which is quite helpful when a young lad is going to college.
The majority of the people that I know, who are interested in rhododendrons, started rather late in life. But when a person, such as Harold Greer, starts at such an early age, he is indeed fortunate, as he should have many years in which to carry out breeding experiments with rhododendrons. Too many members, the late starters, just get nicely started in hybridizing, and then pass on, and much of their work is lost for lack of someone to carry it forward.