QBARS - v20n3 Typical Buyers

Typical Buyers
Francis W. Mosher Jr., Woodacre, California

Why do we have so many tried-and-true old line varieties of rhododendrons being sold at retail instead of the many new types which have been developed in recent years by hybridists in the United States and overseas? This question continues to puzzle amateur gardeners in the California rhododendron belt which extends from Carmel (adjacent to Monterey Bay) northward 500 miles to the Oregon state line.
The writer inquired of Northern California propagators as well as wholesale and retail nurserymen. The answer was nearly always the same. "We can only sell what the consumer will buy." As a result, commercial varieties offer only a very narrow field of selection.
One North Coast veteran wholesaler blames "Mr. and Mrs. Hammerhead," members of a composite True-to-life fictional family of rhododendron buyers. "The only time Mr. and Mrs. Hammerhead are in a buying mood is between Washington's birthday (February 22) and Memorial Day (May 30). After that you can hardly give the plants away.
"Mr. Hammerhead only wants big red blossoms while Mrs. Hammerhead settles only for big pink ones," he continued. "Mr. Hammerhead's mother-in-law, being more conservative in taste, will ask for purple or lavender varieties.
"They don't care what name you give them or whether or not the plants come in cans, tubs or wrapped in burlap. The more flower buds the better and you must guarantee that the bloom will be big enough to knock your eyes out."
Because young rhododendron plants have been forced to develop a large crop of flower buds, they rarely produce more than one or two flower trusses the following year and the "Hammerheads" are disappointed. But if they wait another year, a good flower crop generally arrives. By that time the paper identification label is either lost or illegible.

Another Type of Buyer
One nurseryman explained that a week or two after high school classes resume in September he does observe an increase in sales. This comes from the father or mother of teenagers, who are considerably more sophisticated than "Mr. and Mrs. Hammerhead." Termed "Mr. and Mrs. Middle Class" they also do not ask for plants by variety but instead rely on the opinion of the nurseryman or retail store clerk.
"Can you find me a good red, white, pink or purple one?" is the stock question with a color preference always given. No enormous size flower guarantee is asked for or given. "Mr. and Mrs. Middle Class" must have a rhododendron in their garden. If pressed for a reason, it usually comes out that either a neighbor or business acquaintance, or both, have rhododendrons so the proper thing to do is to follow suit and "keep modern."
For several years the writer thought it was immoral to sell R. ponticum and R. fortunei root stock at dime store bargain prices and tell the purchaser spending less than one dollar that they produce purple, or white, and pink blossoms, depending upon the species. But nurserymen do sell these for "wild rhododendrons," to customers asking for them, knowing that Rhododendron macrophyllum would most likely be killed by regular garden watering during the summer months. The only R. macrophyllum the writer has been able to keep alive is grafted on R. ponticum roots. Four others, growing on their own roots, did not last three months.

Some Recommendations
When asked for the names of "fool proof' commercial varieties which under ordinary garden care would grow and bloom successfully in eight Northern California counties, one nurseryman with more than 20 years sales experience gave his Top Ten choices as:

  • White - 'Mrs. A. T. de la Mare'
  • Pink - 'Mrs. E. C. Stirling', 'Betty Wormald', 'Mrs. G. W. Leak', 'Antoon Van Welie'
  • Blue - 'A. Bedford'
  • Red - 'Hon. Jean Marie de Montague', 'Cynthia'
  • Purple - 'Purple Splendour'
  • Lavender - 'Fastuosum Flore Pleno'

Another successful nurseryman with more than 15 years experience in the propagation and wholesaling of rhododendrons recommended the following basic varieties:

  • White - 'White Swan', 'Loder's White'
  • Pink - 'Jan Dekens'
  • Rose - 'Ruby Bowman'
  • Red - 'Radium', 'Vulcan'
  • Blue - 'A. Bedford'
  • Lavender - 'Fastuosum Flore Pleno'
  • Purple - 'Mobur'

No effort was made to determine individual likes and dislikes of the nurserymen contacted, particularly as to the newer hybrids originating in the United States, England or Holland. However, one Northern California propagator indicated his preferences for new "Commercial Type" varieties as:

  • 'Crest' (Hawk), yellow
  • 'Anna Rose Whitney', pink
  • 'Jade', gold and red
  • 'CIS', cream yellow with crimson center
  • 'Captain Jack', deep red