Rhododendrons - Here and Now
Geoffrey Wakefield, Jefferson Island, La.
May I first be allowed to take a little of the valuable space of the A.R.S. Journal and, a little of the equally valuable time of its readers, to offer my sincere apologies for failing to keep my commitments at the meeting at Callaway Gardens. Special apologies go to Arthur Coyle whose load was already that of the camel's, before the application of the "Last Straw"; to Fred Galle, who could well have done without the reorganization problems, and lastly to "Scottie" Cox who, God bless him, tried his darnedest to persuade me. Those of you who are gardeners will appreciate that circumstances frequently demand that duty comes before pleasure, and no-one regrets more than I that, on this occasion, so many circumstances conspired to prevent me spending time with such wonderful company.
The purpose of this article is to condense the notes of my lecture, "Rhododendrons Here and There" into readable form. The basis of the notes is to refute a statement, made to me several times before I came to the U.S., and many times since my arrival that "You can forget rhodos, they won't grow." We all know that in many parts of the North, they DO grow, and very well too. However. many of us know equally well, that, here in the South, we do have our problems. So Northern gardeners, please bear with me, these no's are mainly for us in the South.
What started me along my train of thought was a combination of dogged British determination, not to be beaten, a lot of experience with rhodos under many varying circumstances and the discovery of a natural layer. Whilst cleaning round a planting of Formosa type azaleas which had been heavily mulched with leaves, leaf mould and other humus material, after the manner followed in England, I found several low branches had rooted down into the compost strongly enough to be independent of the mother plant. This is a quite common occurrence in England, especially among certain Series and their hybrids but it suggested to me that this must be a highly suitable rooting and growing medium, a veritable, 'Azalea demi-paradise'.
To return to, "Rhododendrons Here and There", if we examine the species-and after all, we simply MUST always consider the species first, for all hybrids and cultivars have sprung from them originally; we will find that apart from permafrost, swamp and desert, rhodos are found in just about every other soil and climatic condition the world has to offer. Tundra, high alpine, plains, woodlands, mountains and tropical rain forests. Surely then, there are species suitable for the unique conditions of the Gulf Coast.
Before getting carried away on a wave of enthusiasm, let us not forget the sterling work done by such stalwarts as Arthur Coyle in experimentation with the control of Rhizoctonia, Phytophthora - and probably even, the famous Bandersnatch. Together, with the development of improved control materials and improved methods of culture, we MUST also develop improved cultivars which will not only endure, but enjoy Gulf coast conditions. In this way, we, as near founder members of the Society in this area, will popularize the rhododendron into its proper position as 'King', to the Camellia's 'Queen' of the shrubs in the South. This to the greater beauty of our gardens, to the greater profit of the nurseryman, and to the greater pleasure of us all.
Where do we begin on such a work? First of course, we need test gardens where plants may be tried out. Already the Southern Chapter has its own test garden in Jackson, Mississippi, thanks to the efforts of Arthur Coyle and Bill Basham where a start has been made on such work. But we need several more locations where a wide variety of plants can be grown and tested under garden conditions and evaluations made of their beauty. their landscape worth and their constitution. Species and their geographic forms must be introduced and raised and from them, selections made, and from these, hybrids made to further improve strains for the South.
Some work is going ahead and in other areas, bigger and better things are being planned.
Hitherto, rhododendrons (apart from azaleas), in the South, have centered rather conservatively around what we know as The Old Hardy Hybrids. The foundation of this strong line was laid 150 year ago when Michael Waterer crossed two American species, R. maximum and R. catawbiense . In general, the line continues to maintain a predominantly Ponticum Series blood, which has not proved an unqualified success in the South.
While serving in the British army in the Far East, I had the great good fortune to get posted to Darjeeling where I was able, during off duty times, to explore some of the most beautiful country in the world, clothed with one of the world's richest flora. We went right up to the border country, where, to quote Kingdon Ward, R. lapponicum flowers and "it is possible to march, ankle deep through a surf of ruffled color," also down into the deep valleys between the rolling Himalayan foothills. Here, the humidity is far above that which we endure on the "Coast." Later, fate took me into the Burma theatre of activity. If we thought the valleys of the Himalayas had humidity, we were sadly wrong. Here, even a nice 'dry' day brought a mere 85% humidity and the monsoons needed no rainfall to keep us perpetually drenched. Yet, in both of these unlikely locations, rhododendrons grew with profusion.
The latitude is roughly, equal to that of the Gulf of Mexico. The light density, the climate and rainfall are also sufficiently similar as to be immaterial. The only real difference is the soil. Whereas over large areas of the 'Coast' we have a fine, water laden soil, composed largely of silt, irreverently yet accurately, nicknamed 'Blackjack' or 'Gumbo', the soils in those areas of India and Burma already mentioned were, without exception, well drained.
The alteration of temperature may be expensive; but it is not impossible. The alteration of climate, is much more difficult. But, the soil CAN be changed to suit any given plant and here, I feel, is the final link in the chain of research, which will, I am quite sure, give us a whole new race of beautiful plants for our gardens and an interest which will bring a wealth of friends and new members to our society. Then we in the South may truly claim to have, not 'Rhododendrons Here and There' but 'Rhododendrons Here And Now'.