QBARS - v22n4 The Case of the Herniated Truss

The Case Of The Herniated Truss - or - What To Do 'Til The Judges Come
David G. Leach - Brookville, Pa.

The baffling delusion that rhododendrons of quality must have a pyramidal truss, firmly filled, continues to mesmerize rhododendron hobbyists, show judges and, especially, commercial nurserymen. Many erroneously believe that this is an official position of the American Rhododendron Society. Actually, this splendidly nutty idea arose in this country solely because our first garden rhododendrons, imported for the great Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, happened to be Waterer's catawbiense hybrids and so, naturally, they had trusses tightly filled to formal outline. They became the standard of excellence at once, and their truss form has stubbornly remained the ideal to many, despite the later introduction in mild climates of myriad rhododendrons, far finer, which have florets in informal array.
There is no rule either of aesthetics or of the Society which requires a full, firm truss. Many famous hybrids would lose their delicate character entirely if their flowers were presented in symmetrical clusters. Unfortunately, there are no non-scaly hybrids suitable for the cold Northeast which exhibit the grace and charm of flowers tumbling informally in cascades of color, nor are there likely to be, unless this senseless prejudice is discarded. On the West Coast, who would claim that the classic 'Bow Bells' would be as beautiful if its pink flowers were regimented in ordered assemblage? Or the famous scarlet 'Elizabeth'? Or 'Fabia's' orange bells? Or the pale yellow saucers of the stunning wardii hybrids? Their ingenuous appeal would be utterly destroyed.
Contrary to there being a requirement for the formal truss, it is held in mild contempt by connoisseurs in England, where its buxom fullness is regarded as portly and somewhat pretentious, compared with trusses of flowers loosely and gracefully held. The former are commonly and disparagingly called "hardy hybrids" relating back to the general characteristics of the hybrids produced by Anthony Waterer a century and more ago. In contrast are the modern hybrids, largely bred by amateurs in the twentieth century, which are thought to be much more refined and distinguished, and which emphatically do not usually have the stolid formality of trusses in geometrical forms.
The preference in our country for full trusses is entirely a matter of conditioning, of endless repetition through the years, of constant references to a "good" truss, meaning a many-flowered, high, upstanding one of regular outline, and the more conical the better. Such an illogical bias unnecessarily limits the enjoyment of the numerous other sorts of inflorescences which the genus generously offered, and enforces a provincial limitation on the qualifications for high ratings of many fine hybrids. Certainly the rhododendrons with trusses in tiered regularity can be splendid garden plants, dramatic in their floral display, and few of us would want to be without them. But we ought not to be so preoccupied with mass and size that we can not equally appreciate the other truss forms.
Other things being equal, with competitors in the same category for quality, it seems to me that a new rhododendron of unique flower color should have a higher rating than one with a full truss, because the former is the more valuable. It would be reasonable to think that one with exceptional clarity or delicacy of color should be preferred for the same reason.
With some exceptions, and without making any attempt to establish fixed aesthetic standards, I believe broad corolla lobes should usually give the conventional hybrid of familiar appearance an appreciable edge over a competitor with narrower lobes, other things being equal. The wide, overlapping lobes lend an opulent, expansive appearance to the floret, usually giving it a crisp, nearly circular outline. Broad lobes are regarded as highly desirable in orchids and in many other flowers.
It is rare to see judges testing the substance of the flowers as they come to make their final decision between two competitors, yet this unseen characteristic which alone determines the duration of bloom in the garden, is one of the most important considerations for a rhododendron of quality.
The American Rhododendron Society has no rule that flower trusses must be fully open for an entry to receive the maximum score. As I see it. the truss with one or two flowers unopened at the top has a perfection of peak condition, a freshness, more appealing than the full blown maturity of the completely opened truss, which must then also necessarily start to deteriorate as the show continues. Judges will surely pass by trusses with just a few florets open, but neither should they demand that every floret be open. The deeper color of one or two buds may be a piquant contrast to the paler shade in the open flower. Nearly everyone agrees that R. yakushimanum for example, is far more beguiling when a couple of apple blossom-pink buds enliven the fresh whiteness of the truss.
I believe that the restricting, imaginary, conditioned "rules" ought to be discarded for an open minded judgment based solely on what is inherently beautiful. Naturally, people will differ in their aesthetic responses, but I urge that they differ without the confining narrowness of assumed standards which simply do not exist.