QBARS - v28n1 Impressions of the American Rhododendron Scene

Ralph and Lillian Sangster, Melbourne, Australia

Our first visit to the American rhododendron scene was a brief one of five days, six years ago. This year our second visit was to be one of five weeks, yet these weeks have been of insufficient time to get a full appreciation of the American scene, except to say that we have a real appreciation of your wonderful hospitality, your unbounded enthusiasm to breed new hybrid rhododendrons and to cope with growing these exotic plants under adverse conditions.
After being in Europe for eighteen months, one is immediately impressed by the vastness of your country, your large variation in climatic conditions which gives such a wide range from good to adverse conditions for growing your rhododendrons. Maybe we had been softened by the good conditions for growing a wide range of species in England. However as Australians, we shouldn't have been surprised by the great distances that separate your centers of rhododendron interest, nor how plane travel shortens the time traveling between these centers, but it does not smooth out the large differences in geographic and climatic conditions in the two-thousand-odd miles between the coast lines.
Returning to your growing conditions, we do not in Australia have to cope with low frost temperatures, and, in fact, it is doubtful if we would have your enthusiasm to start to plant again after a severe frost has killed off plants. One geographic condition you have over us is the high mountain ranges on both sides of your country, which gives you a much higher average rainfall than we have in Australia, and which provides you with the microclimatic conditions for growing rhododendrons over an area which is at least twenty times as great as we have in Australia.
For all our vastness, Australia has only one native rhododendron, R. lochiae , growing in a very small mountain area in North Queensland, so how affluent you appear to us with your own dozen or so native American species. It was a great thrill for us to see growing in the wild on the N. W. Coast the dome-shaped, rosy purple truss of R. macrophyllum and to see R. occidentale , the red tips of its cones coming out into creamy pink flowers in the thirty-acre reserve at Eureka. How could we but admire the blaze of bloom of this rhododendron and what a picture this reserve must look in autumn when the leaves turn yellow and scarlet.
Your native rhododendrons give you a great advantage for stock parents to breed hardiness in your hybrids and the opportunity for the plant hunter to search close at hand in their native habitat for the more colorful forms of natural hybrids of the native azaleas. We saw thousands of seedlings of locally made crosses being raised effectively in brightly lit home basements and many small plants being growing on in slat houses. Our eyebrows were raised figuratively wondering where they would all go and how many winners would turn up. With so large a number of professional and amateur hybridists the chances of getting a goodly number of first class garden plants must be very high!
The challenge by your landscape gardeners in their requirements for the small garden of medium size, compact, free flowering plants have produced some excellent hybrids with R. yakushimanum as one of the parents and we saw good examples of crosses from this parent both on the East and West coasts, also in the Great Lakes Chapter area. I have no doubt when the craze to use this rhododendron as a parent has faded, and I might add it has been world wide over the past decade, more emphasis will be given to using your R. catawbiense and R. carolinianum as one of the parents for hardy, compact plants.
One of the strengths of the American Rhododendron Society is the number of chapters spread throughout the breadth of your land. We were fortunate in being guests at shows and annual banquets on both sides of America and we were impressed by the quality and quantity of blooms displayed and the bonhomie amongst the local chapter members. We attended one branch study group and here we found an intense interest with the ability to study in depth the subject under discussion. The encouragement of such groups, by your central body would be sound policy to ensure the continuity of interest in the rhododendron genus.
The annual meeting of your Society at Pittsburgh imposed some travel problem for us, but we found it well worth the effort. The organizers are to be congratulated on a program of top lecturers with interesting subjects. We found it a very good forum where East meets West on common ground. The innovation of the Sunday Workshop sessions was a great idea and a very successful one, both from the number of delegates that stopped over to attend it and the lively discussion that continued throughout the day and into the evening. It was a wonderful experience to visit the Hunt Institute for botanical documentation of old books on horticulture and what a pleasure to retire to the ladies with its gold taps and magnificent decor!
Of interest to us was the involvement of garden clubs and associations with the local authorities in your city and university gardens. To us, the two Washington gardens on opposite coasts are good examples of this cooperation. What a colorful sight are the massed Glenn Dale azaleas and native dogwoods flowering on the slopes of the National Arboretum, Washington, D.C. Here, too, in the Morrison Azalea Memorial garden we were impressed by the work which he had done in the breeding of azaleas and wondered why we did not make more of promoting azaleas amongst our rhododendron groups. From the East Coast to the West and that other great garden, the Washington Arboretum, where we found members of the Seattle Chapter having a picnic tea and busily engaged in dead-heading rhododendrons of this wonderful garden full of well-grown species and hybrid rhododendrons.
My pen is inadequate to write of the broad spectrum of activity amongst the members of your Society, from ensuring the preservation of the best forms of the rhododendron species to new methods to induce hybridization of difficult crosses within the species, and perhaps the most important activity, the transmitting and passing on of knowledge on rhododendron lore. Finally, my words are but poor expression of our appreciation for the wonderful hospitality given to us, and of the friendliness and comradeship we received, whether it was in the large garden or the homely crammed back yard, we found the keenness of members about their rhododendrons was staggering.
Whilst this spirit continues, so must the American Rhododendron Society flourish!