QBARS - v23n1 Reflections on the A.R.S. Seed Exchange

Reflections On The A.R.S. Seed Exchange
Carl Phetteplace, M.D., Eugene, Ore.

A number of our rhododendron friends have expressed curiosity about my sending so many things to the seed exchange, especially seeds from crosses that might have possibilities for producing yellows. Sometimes I wonder myself, so perhaps should make some comments about it.
To begin with we felt that if the Society was going into a seed exchange project at all we should do all we could to contribute to its success, even though there were at that time some misgivings about the whole idea. As time has passed and we have had an opportunity to see it work, however, it has seemed to have a great deal more merit than immediately came to mind.
Although what follows will rather accent the aspect of yellow hybrids, most of it applies to hybridizing or breeding in general and could relate to varieties of any color as well as to such characteristics as plant habit, hardiness, tolerance to heat, and even to improving species which have come to us from the wild. The work which gave us the R. catawbiense , 'Catalgla, Powell Glass', and the R. mucronulatum var. 'Cornell Pink', are examples that give us a strong hint as to the possibilities of up-breeding species.
Probably rhododendron lovers will never be satisfied with what we have, however lovely, because it is human nature to ever search and strive for something better. For a number of years now it seems that above all else in the field of hybrids there is an eagerness for better yellows. Why this is true is an unanswered question. Actually we do not have a real blue elepidote, but rarely do we hear any fretting about that. In fact we have already some rather good yellows, but somehow the ideal of a pure daffodil yellow with a beautiful truss on a handsome plant that is reasonably hardy and will propagate easily and bloom at an early age has escaped us.
Although not a geneticist, it would seem to me that yellow in the elepidote group is recessive and the red blue factors dominant. Only rarely do we see a cross between two yellows that does not result in a paler yellow than either parent, and sometimes it turns out a rather strong pink! This has led some to opine that we shall never succeed in developing what we hope for. It just isn't in the genes, they say, and if we were sensible people we would accept the rather good things we have and be thankful. But there is probably a consensus outside our Society that rhododendron people are not really sensible people at all. In fact, it is quite widely known that a very dear member of my own household regards me very suspiciously at times. If she should happen to catch me looking at the under surface of a leaf some day, she is apt to shake her head rather sadly and ask me if when I am alone in the garden sometimes I do not hear strange voices speaking to me. And regardless of what I say to her, I think she strongly suspects there are times when I answer back and carry on conversations with these voices of people whom no one else can hear or see.
Nonetheless, in the 25 or 30 years I have grown rhododendrons there has been a great improvement in varieties we classify as yellow. Then I was eager to obtain such 3 and 4 star varieties as 'Butterfly,' 'Unique,' 'Souvenir of W. C. Slocock,' 'Lady Primrose' A.M., 'Dairy Maid', and 'Goldfort,' for example. Some still grow in my garden and are nice, but somehow those who visit me rarely pause to look at them but rather are quite attracted to 'Idealist', 'Prelude', 'Crest', and others more recently available. And in the gardens of some of my amateur friends who have tinkered with pollen over a period of years I see some yellow rhododendrons as good or better than these last named, that they have never even exhibited, named or registered. 'Queen Elizabeth 11', from pictures and reports, would seem to be even a greater improvement in plant and flower than any of the yellow garden varieties available commercially in this country at present.
So perhaps the quest is not hopeless. Perhaps success is merely a matter of volume and of effort and persistence on our part. It has been said that it took hybridists 300 years to develop a really satisfactory yellow rose. I reckon that rhododendrons have not been cultivated as garden plants at all over half that length of time. Also it is reported that professional rose hybridists feel their results are satisfactory if they get 4 or 5 fairly good new hybrids out of 100,000 seedlings grown, and quite lucky if just one of these proves commercially successful. Of course due to the nature of rhododendrons, requiring years to bloom, such projects for commercial growers is completely unfeasible. Further, the day of large estates, low taxes and cheap labor are really gone in this country, and are nearly so abroad. So it seems that we must pursue some other means of mass growing and testing.
As members of the A.R.S. we are rather dedicated to the project of developing and distributing better rhododendrons; not only more beautiful, but also varieties that will succeed in a wider and wider range of climatic conditions. It is said that one person alone can do so very little with a genus like this in his lifetime. Conditions as they are, the seed exchange operated as it is under the incredibly competent Esther Berry would seem to afford the only means we as individual members have of accomplishing a volume large enough to be effective. In my own garden I can almost never grow over a dozen or so of any one cross. While with a hundred "buffs" about the country, each growing as many; there is a much greater possibility of really testing the cross.
Admittedly it would be much better in some ways if this could all be done in one location under proper management. Dietrich Hobbie is reported to have over 150 acres on which he is growing and testing rhododendrons. And he once told me he was acquiring more land. At Exbury a few years ago Peter Barber said they had over 30 gardeners, which did not include the ordinary labor force. Our U. S. D. A. and certain other institutions about this country are carrying out some very valuable work, for which of course the are most grateful. But probably most of the growing of rhododendrons here is done by hobbyists, who have only a limited area around their homes and must do all of the work themselves. They are doing it for fun and recreation, and I like to think that they are the people in whom we are most interested. Without such people to support them we would not even have commercial growers. Perhaps this kind of an operation is something like the reported method of producing Scotch whiskey: Many small "pot" stills about the country. The product is gathered together like milk from the dairymen and blended together and bottled. It seems to me their results are rather good.
To me, it is not important who comes up with something really superior, but that over all we do make some progress. In addition to promoting a larger volume of plant,, grown, the seed exchange operation enables us to find out sooner something about climatic tolerances as we go along. A promising new variety would be much less impressive if it would grow only on the West Coast between San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C. than if it also did well in New England.
There are other good things about the seed exchange, some not exactly horticultural. For one, it has done much to develop a desirable esprit de corps in the Society. Other people have pen pals, but we have pollen pals and thus feel well acquainted with some nice people we have never seen.
Of course there is another side to the coin. where we might find reasons for some concern. One is the tendency of many of us to become elated over a new hybrid that looks rather good the first time or two it flowers, and rush to have it named and registered. Many of these are not heard of again. Before being named a plant should be grown long enough to demonstrate that it is in every way as good as, or better than, either parent, and have at least one virtue that represents an improvement. Better if it were grown in some other garden than the hybridizer's also. It always cools my enthusiasm when I look at a new hybrid, in my garden or elsewhere, that is up for appraisal, to ask myself if it is as good, even, as some of the old timers that have been growing almost everywhere for 50 or 75 years. 'Lady Bligh', 'Loder's White' and many others could be cited as examples. Also it seems rather useless, in our enthusiasm, to name and register a dozen or two hybrids all in a batch that originated from the same seed capsule. Of course sister seedlings may be equally good, and enough different, to eventually be worthy of separate names, but before such names are given testing should be exceedingly thorough.
Another matter worries me somewhat, especially with reference to the species. It is well known that even using great care there is always the possibility of contamination and consequently a hybrid might unwittingly be distributed through the seed exchange as a real species. Generally knowledgeable growers will recognize that there has been a mix-up some place when the plants are still small. They should then either be destroyed or labeled as a hybrid of the seed parent, the other parent unknown.
There may be other unfavorable aspects of the seed exchange. One there is no doubt about; the enormous amount of work we are imposing on Mrs. Berry. I hope there will be some solution to this problem without impairing the high quality of operation she has initiated and carried on thus far.
All in all, the virtues of the seed exchange far outweigh the possibilities for harm if the whole program from pollination through propagation is carried out in a circumspect manner. It offers in the present times and conditions the best modus operandi for making progress in the Society's chief objective of helping more people to grow better rhododendrons. Besides, it is lots of fun nursing these little things along, always hopeful for something really great. I will admit to the allegation that I am using the seed exchange in a way to enlarge my own garden, but actually I am only interested in helping some of this ever growing number of eager people - especially the young ones in our membership - in their efforts and desires to do something a little better. I am too old to go on growing seedlings with much hope of observing them long enough to evaluate them, but do have a fair amount of material suitable for making the crosses.
It is a pleasure to provide a few seeds, and it is my hope that all together we may at least learn something in addition to getting much pleasure out of doing it.