QBARS - v23n1 A Footnote to the History of Organized Rhododendronarians

A Footnote To The History Of Organized Rhododendronarians
Clement Gray Bowers, Maine, N.Y.

These observations begin in the year 1926 and concern efforts to organize a rhododendron group in the American East. I had come to the New York Botanical Garden to work on rhododendrons under the encouragement of the late Henry Hicks, Dr. A. B. Stout and others. I was looking for information. At that time there were no special groups devoted to the promotion of ericaceous plants, and the most recent American book on rhododendrons and azaleas was then sixty years old. The British Rhododendron Association, which later became the Rhododendron Group of the Royal Horticultural Society was going swimmingly, but we in the Northeastern States couldn't use their stuff because of our climate. A few members of this British group were scattered elsewhere in this country, with no particular focus, and the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, then staffed by Ernest H. Wilson and Alfred Rehder, was generally regarded as American headquarters for these plants.
Aside from a few advanced nurserymen around Boston, New York and Philadelphia, a few collectors of wild species from the Carolina mountains, such as LaBar, Curtis and Robbins, plus the hybridists Gable and Nearing there were only a precious few sources of material or information in the East. Through explorers such as Wilson, Rock and several Britishers, the Arnold Arboretum had been getting seeds from the Asiatic hinterlands for many years, but even under the master care of eminent propagators like Jackson Dawson and William H. Judd, only one obscure species of evergreen rhododendron from Asia managed to survive outdoors in Boston. Eastern nurserymen had tried importing grafted species and hybrids, too, with similarly discouraging results. It is true that a few imports slipped in and were tried elsewhere with some degree of success. But such were few and far between, mostly on the West Coast or in some other congenial climate. The more productive of the efforts in the East were mainly those of Gable and Nearing who raised quantities of seedlings, which often came with wide variation from type. Mr. C. O. Dexter's accidental discovery of a remarkable strain of Rhododendron fortunei at a neighboring Cape Cod nursery was the most rewarding new break of the time.
Up to 1931 there had been no organized attempt to found a rhododendron organization in this country, so far as I am aware. In December of that year a group of nurserymen, scientists and sophisticated amateurs gathered for a conference at Cornell University. Papers were read on rhododendrons and azaleas. It was discovered that many present were well-informed about these plants and someone suggested that "we ought to get together" and form an organization similar to that of the British Rhododendron group for periodic meetings and exchanges. The idea seemed good and a committee was appointed to investigate the possibilities.
Fifty-one were present and the roll resembled a "who's who" of American horticulture in the East. Committee members were such as: Henry Hicks, Harlan P. Kelsey, E. L. D. Seymour, E. A. White, Richard M. Wyman, Russell Harmon, Valleau C. Curtis, Dr. Richard P. White, Dr. Henry T. Skinner and Dr. Donald Wyman. Several others not present were co-opted for membership. I was made temporary secretary and a list of prospectives was drawn up.
It soon became apparent that the members were widely scattered throughout the East, with scarcely a corporal's guard situation near any one location. Moreover, the country was in the throes of a deep financial depression which fell especially hard upon nursery and landscape men. The matter was studied and it was felt not to be an opportune time to launch a new plant society, especially since some existing specialized plant groups were having a hard time. It would be better, some said, to undertake such a venture under the aegis of some strong generalized society, as the Rhododendron group of the Royal Horticultural Society had done in Britain.
The matter at last was resolved temporarily with the help of the late Benjamin Y. Morrison, moving spirit of the American Horticultural Society, a government scientist and eminent azalea breeder. An arrangement was made for a rhododendron committee within the America Horticultural Society, with the periodic publication of rhododendron notes in the National Horticultural Magazine. An advisory committee was formed in the A. H. S. with Mr. Charles O. Dexter as chairman. Because of distance and ill health Mr. Dexter did not accept and Mr. Samuel A. Everitt of Long Island was placed in the chair.
This cooperative arrangement under the A. H. S. continued and I edited the published notes until the commencement of World War II when nearly everything was placed in limbo for the duration. This was the situation in the East at that time.
When I wrote my first book in the early 1930's, they were just beginning to introduce exotic rhododendrons on the West Coast. A few could be found in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, mostly in the hands of collectors and private estates. No formal organizations had appeared and it was quite difficult to locate sources of information. I had to depend upon a former classmate to dig them out for me, and even then there was little to report. But the impact of the new British rhododendron surge evidently hit the West Coast with full force and a mighty wave of enthusiasm sprang up when it was demonstrated that the climate of the Northwest was perfect for these elegant new species and magnificent hybrids.
By the end of June 1944, with the war not yet over, George Grace, as secretary for his cohorts in Portland, Oregon, proposed to launch a new Rhododendron Society (at first not specified whether local or continental) and invited everybody to join.
It appeared to me that this was a proper move and I joined as a charter member. To our Eastern friends I stated that in my personal opinion the West Coast was probably the only place in North America where a broad range of Asiatic species and the newer hybrids could be successfully grown outdoors, compared and tested. It did seem, however, that an Eastern affiliate would be needed if the Society were to function as a broad American group.
The new American Rhododendron Society, headquartered in Oregon, began to pick up members including many from the East as the rhododendron cult on both coasts continued to expand. At that point the American Horticultural Congress entered the picture. This event was going to be held in New York City and several of its sponsors were rhododendron enthusiasts. Acting on a suggestion, a temporary Eastern committee for the American Rhododendron Society was set up with Donald Hardgrove as temporary chairman and myself as temporary secretary. Others on the committee were Harold Epstein, Guy G. Nearing and Dr. A. J. Irving. We sent out a circular letter dated October 20th 1949 inviting the Eastern members of the American Rhododendron Society "and all other interested people" to attend a meeting to be held during the American Horticultural Congress in New York City. A program was arranged and the promise given that "if this initial gathering of Eastern Rhododendronarians proves to be as interesting as the indications warrant, a way may be found at this meeting to repeat it by subsequent gatherings, annually or periodically for the benefit of all."
This seems to have been a beginning for the New York Chapter, and marks the end of the long interlude which began in 1931.