QBARS - v29n2 The Time Has Come

The Time Has Come
By Henry Fuller, Easton, Connecticut

Life is exciting to live because nobody knows what lies just around the corner. I did not know what fate had in store for me when I decided to go with the Connecticut Chapter of the A.R.S. to the Arnold Arboretum in early June of 1973. We went to see Rhododendron, but what I saw were the native azaleas, especially the selected forms of calendulaceum . Of course I had known for years the "flame azalea", usually a bright orange, and I had heard that this variable species was found in the wild in many shades of yellow, pink, or brilliant red, and that some clones had flowers twice as big as the average or differently shaped and arranged. I had heard, but 'here, at Arnold, they were old shrubs, majestic, in glorious color. Considering their size and obvious age, they must have flowered thus spring after spring, while I remained unknowing. Of course I at once wanted some of them for my own garden; and soon my imagination was demanding not only these at Arnold, but the best of all the fine forms that had been found anywhere, for I had no reason to think that Arnold had all the best.
I returned home a changed man, determined to find and grow azaleas like these, for they were so old and of such spectacular beauty that it did not enter my mind that they had not been propagated and I felt sure that I would be able to buy some of them from various sources. So I started asking and writing, 'where could I find them?' And I found myself running into a blank wall.
My love-fever was fanned by articles in old issues of our Bulletin , by Dr. Ernest H. Yelton and by others describing their trips into the southern mountains and the unusual forms and colors of the azaleas found there in this enormous trial seed bed of Mother Nature. Most important and exciting was Dr. Henry Skinner's 1955 publication "In Search of Native Azaleas", still obtainable from the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia. But the few nurseries who offered a few native species offered only plants grown from seed; nobody offered propagations of those rare, lovely, extraordinary genius plants that do exist, that have been found, which are growing in a few public or private gardens or in the mountains, and which must not be allowed to disappear. It was as if all the searching and collecting I read about had never taken place. "No market," said the nurserymen, "Nobody wants them, everybody wants the big-flowered hybrids from England."
Well, I wanted them; and I felt sure other people would too if they could see them. But if the plants were not available, I saw that I would have to find them and learn how to propagate them from cuttings. So I started asking how. "Easy, nothing to it, just like Exbury hybrids, " said some who admitted, however, that they had not been interested in propagating or growing these. "Impossible, tricky, difficult," said some who had tried and failed. "The species like calendulaceum will root easily enough, or some will; but after the first winter dormancy they just sit and wilt and finally die," said some of the frustrated few who had tried.
Well, that was the classic difficulty in propagating all deciduous azaleas from cuttings, long considered very difficult. The professional nurserymen had solved the problem for the commercial hybrids only a decade or so ago, and talented amateurs here and there have found ways of propagating the hybrids, without the elaborate equipment of the professional. But few professionals or amateurs have had much interest in propagating the species except by seed. When they turn their minds to the species, the available evidence indicates that they will find the species variable in difficulty but generally more temperamental than most of the hybrids. So, my immediate problem was to find some refinement or variation of the standard method which would be both reliable and simple enough for the amateur without professional equipment, and adaptable enough to deal with the temperamental wildings.
The essential problem seemed to be to induce soft-wood cuttings taken in early spring not merely to root but to make vigorous new top growth before going into winter dormancy. This meant giving extra heat, light, food until late October. Another problem, after inducing soft growth so late in the season, was to chill without freezing; - unless the answer was to keep them growing all winter with heat and light. In either case, I was warned, the cuttings should be left undisturbed in the original rooting medium until spring.
Of course alternative methods should be explored. The Quarterly Bulletin of July, 1969, had an interesting article by Professor S. L. Solymosy of the University of Southwestern Louisiana. He reported: "The Southern Azaleas are extremely temperamental; the percentage of rooted stem cuttings is so low as to make this method unpractical for amateur gardener and nurserymen alike," and the Louisiana Society of Horticultural Research gave him a grant to seek an alternative method practical for the home gardener and profitable enough for the nurseryman. He reported success with root cuttings with a stoloniferous clone of a pink R. canescens . This left in doubt what to do with non-stoloniferous azaleas. But the same issue of the Bulletin carried an article by Alfred Fordham packed with fruitful ideas, in which he observed: "Mr. Henry Hohman of Kingsville Nurseries has informed me that he has successfully propagated every native azalea from root cuttings." This observation however was accompanied by no detail, and I have been unable to find any report from Mr. Hohman about what he did. Of this I would like to hear more; in the meantime I will work with softwood cuttings.
I wrote everybody, and help finally came from George Ring and Col. and Mrs. R. H. Goodrich, who wrote me, in effect: "Get in touch with Dave Fluharty of Newport News. He is propagating fine forms of calendulaceum and other native azaleas. He goes to the mountains every spring hunting them, and has learned how to take cuttings from blooming plants in the wild and to propagate them. Write him." I did. He answered, with an informative letter which should have been in the Bulletin , and generously invited me to go with him to the mountains in the spring. I did, twice.
First I joined him in Roanoke in late May and spent several days roaming Virginia mountains hunting the perfect azalea, taking, where this is permitted, only softwood cuttings which will not injure the plant but will encourage even more branching and bloom. (In polyethylene bags the cuttings replaced the consumable cheese and wine and sausage in the ice chest and kept fresh and crisp.)
Of course we could visit only a few of the countless ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but the azaleas were to me a revelation. Below 3000 feet we encountered only R. nudiflorum , but at elevations between 3000 and 4000 feet on ridges looking toward the sun but generally forested, first R. roseum and then R. calendulaceum can be looked for and often found, with fascinating intergrades, blends, natural hybrids.
Here, at these elevations, no R. bakeri was encountered and the red shades were rare, but there were many shades of gold, yellow, peach, sunset blends, often large-flowered. Finding beautiful azaleas was no trick at all, but the unceasing search went on for that superlative one. This is a beautiful hunting ground, very different, as I learned three weeks later, from the higher mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina.
Late in June I drove with friends to Gatlinburg to rendezvous with Fluharty and his ten-year-old son, a veteran of many azalea quests in the mountains. The prime objective was Gregory Bald, a 5,000 foot mountain near the southern end of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee but near the border of North Carolina.
This was an azalea quest, but we saw much else on the way down and back. It is still true that our own R. catawbiense is the foundation of the modern rhododendron hybrid and we sought some of the vast stands of them in the Tennessee and North Carolina mountains. The student and breeder of rhododendrons should not ignore famous stands like Roan Mountain or Craggy Gardens simply because they are readily accessible and viewed by thousands of tourists; their study will be found rewarding and humbling. It took a little more searching to find a fine stand of R. carolinianum , growing on the face of rocky cliffs, not the kind of situation we generally give it.
To reach Gregory Bald we drove from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove, and from there packed our sleeping bags and supplies 4½ miles to Moores Spring about half a mile from the summit. It has been much written about, recently by F. C. Galle in the October, 1970 Bulletin , and by Dr. Ernest H. Yelton in the April, 1970 Bulletin .
Before reporting what we saw, let me quote Dr. Henry Skinner describing what he saw July 6, 1955: "The azaleas of Gregory Bald are at first glance bewildering and almost unbelievable. The mountain is a true "bald" having a broad, grassy summit fringed by scrub trees leading quickly into vigorous deciduous forest. The origin of the bald is unknown but is probably man made, resultant from earlier grazing. It is the marginal region between trees and grass sod which supports a peripheral bond of a bizarre collection of azaleas--thousands of plants in every imaginable hue from pure white to pale yellow, salmon yellow, clear pink and orange-red to red. Many of the flowers are yellow blotched, many of the bushes are stoloniferous and foliage varies from the normal to deep glossy green, often glaucous beneath. Obviously it is a complicated hybrid swarm." From In Search of Native Azaleas .)
We saw a different scene in late June, 1974. Now in a national park, the bald is "protected" from grazing and the trees and underbrush are crowding in from all sides. There is still a large area relatively "bald" and crowded with thousands of azaleas in the old grazing ground, but all are threatened.
In late June we found only the earliest azaleas in bloom mostly in shades of red and orange-red with a few startling pinks. The botanists who have studied these azaleas believe that they derive mainly from R. bakeri , arborescens , and a low-growing viscosum var. montanum . It seemed clear that the early-blooming reds we saw were largely R. bakeri in origin, and that we would have to return later to see the many colors reported by other visitors - but what we saw were worth the long trip. In a swarm of hybrids a wide range of flowering time was to be expected, and that was what we found.
Down the wooded slopes along the trail there were many old plants of what we took to be prevailingly calendulaceum , tall and sparse of bloom or bloomless in the dense shade; but where there was more sunlight, as around Moore's Spring, they were blooming in various shades of gold and yellow - quite unlike those blooming at the same time on the bald summit.
In planning our trip we had heard much of two collections of mountain azaleas which we wanted much to see, but we knew they would bloom weeks before the azaleas in the high mountains. So we had to choose between the gardens and the mountains, and the mountains won. Nevertheless, we had to see these two collections. The first was that of Dr. Nicholas Fortescue in Hendersonville, N.C. For many years he has sought out the finest in the mountains and brought them down to his five beautifully wooded acres - in the years when collecting was not hindered by the growth of national parks and forests. On Gregory we had seen only the earliest bloom, showing the strong reddish influence of R. bakeri . In Fortescue's garden we saw the fading blooms of his late azaleas, mostly in pink or yellow shades and blends - notably his big-flowered "Big Boy" which he considered the finest azalea he had ever found on the mountain.
(Generously he gave me a big plant of it.) The flowers were too faded for accurate description, but we guessed it to be an R. arborescens hybrid. "A lot like my arborescens - bakeri hybrids" muttered one of my companions, but it reminded me of large-flowered calendulaceum hybrids of Virginia.
The other garden we had to see was the famous Beadle Collection on the Vanderbilt Estate in Biltmore on the edge of Asheville - which the late Mr. Beadle collected from the mountains years ago. Even the plants out of bloom were of great interest, and busy men very generously took time to show them to us. I hope to live to see and study them in bloom.
The day after we got home, a call from Storrs, Conn. informed us that 400 seedlings of his arborescens - bakeri cross were in their first peak bloom and that we should come at once to see them. We did. We were all much interested in noting how like they were in general character to many we had seen in the mountains and in Dr. Fortescue's garden. They were all different, of course, but similar. The children of a particularly fine white arborescens and a fine red bakeri , they were in many blending shades of pink, rose and white, In my memory of that day I do not remember big flowers, but myriads of flowers full of grace. To my wife they called up visions of a garden filled with little girls all dressed in frilly party dresses of rose pink and white with pink ribbons in their hair, like children's day at the Methodist Church in a little Kentucky town decades ago. "They should be called Children's Day," she declared "and the best of them will become as indispensable as 'Wind Beam'," without which we would not know how to make a garden.
In 1955 Henry Skinner wrote...it seems strange indeed that until very recently no real attempts have been made either to select the better wildings for garden cultivation or to use them as parental breeding stock for the production of finer hybrids than the old Ghents. There are excellent potentials for a new race..." "In Search of Native Azaleas,")
In 1974 it seems stranger still that this statement is still true. Since 1955 much work has been done developing the old Ghents and many more Exbury and other hybrids are grown here, but the "new race" springing directly from our Eastern azaleas has not appeared. I specify our Eastern natives because the beautiful Western species, R. occidentale does not do well in our harsher eastern climate, and may pass its difficulty in growing on to its hybrids.
(Incidentally Dr. Tor Nitzelius of the Goteborg Arboretum in Sweden reports that R. occidentale does well in Goteborg confirming the belief that it suffers from our hot summers, not the cold of our winters.)
This spring I was able to see only a tiny fraction of the wealth of Eastern azaleas living in the wild and in some gardens; but I saw enough to confirm my love and my belief that there is a big future for them in future gardens. Many of the extraordinary forms collected in the wild are obviously natural hybrids. (I suspect now that this is true of some of the beautiful "calendulaceums" that I saw at Arnold, but I will leave judgment on this to my betters.) This should mean that careful selection of parents and careful breeding should produce many like them equally beautiful. The natural hybrids on Gregory Bald are thought to have as parents R. bakeri , arborescens , viscosum var. montanum , possibly others. In Virginia I saw beautiful azaleas that seemed to be natural hybrids of R. calendulaceum and R. roseum . There are many other beautiful species, such as R. prunifolium , austrinum , speciosum , atlanticum , nudiflorum , alabamense , canescens , waiting for the hybridist. In time, if we are patient, beauty can be wedded to ease of propagation and sturdy growth in the lowlands.
It is my belief that time has come around for this "new race" to be developed and accepted in our gardens. Signs appear that this is true. While I was writing this the new Bovees catalog came with a puff for the native azaleas and a first offering of a few from David Leach. It is hard to believe that the enchanting seedlings we admired at Storrs will be the last from there. Fluharty has been hard at work and I await with eager anticipation what he will bring forth. There must be others.
I believe the time has come, but we cannot afford, and it would not be fair, to leave this development to the commercial breeders and nurserymen in spite of their great skill and devotion. They have livings to make in a competitive world. In the April 1, 1972, Bulletin, Richard Bosley wrote: "The plant breeder in the future will be the one responsible for at least a portion of production-cost reduction for the grower. At the present time I screen rhododendron varieties that show potential to see if they will respond to the accelerated growing methods. If they do not meet the growth criteria they will be rejected - no matter how well they may look as an adult. (My emphasis.) This approach is common in the pot mum industry and is coming to the nursery business."
I have no quarrel with this statement. They are doing us all a favor when they learn to produce better plants at lower prices, and plants that grow quickly and easily. As we work with the native species, ease of propagation will eventually be one of the qualities bred for. But, there must be some part of the rhododendron world not dominated by the necessities of the "industry" and the mass market. There must be devoted amateurs (who will take the trouble to become competent as well as enthusiastic) who seek to find, preserve, and develop the rare, the beautiful, the graceful, even in the temperamental wildings that at first resist capture. Eventually we will learn to live together if we persist. Some beautiful things deserve to be preserved and grown even if they never become easy and cheap.
My own cuttings from Virginia and Tennessee are teaching me a lot of things, and no doubt still have a lot to say to me. I am using the simple and popular home method of fruit boxes and wire arches enclosed in big polyethylene bags (see Leach, Rhododendrons of the World , pages 322-3, or ask anybody in the New York Chapter).
The Virginia cuttings were inserted in coarse peat moss in early June, the Tennessee cuttings in late June, under fluorescent lights. I learned the hard way that it does make a difference what kind of tube is used. At first only one of my four four-foot fixtures had the Duralite Natur-Escent lights discussed and recommended in the October, 1970, Bulletin . The cuttings in the boxes under these lights grew off so much better that I have changed completely to them. I can only speculate how much better my other cuttings would have rooted and grown if they had had these lights from the beginning.
I am growing cuttings of 20 named Exbury-Knaphill hybrids with them as control plants, and the hybrids have responded much better than the wild cuttings. Why? Many reasons suggest themselves: The hybrid cuttings were taken from younger and better-fed plants growing in prepared beds in good light, without competition. They were stronger, firmer cuttings taken well after blooming rather than at blooming time. To make matters worse, most of the precious wild cuttings were not under the best lights (I did not know I had two Duralite tubes until the phenomenal growth made me investigate. They were old and I had forgotten; but, as claimed, they seem to last longer than other tubes without loss of efficiency.)
I think it made a difference, too, that the hybrids were the last that I processed, and I was gaining confidence. and There is one other strong consideration. Every named hybrid is the result of a long process of selection, seedlings difficult to propagate would be eliminated during the process and we would never know them, no matter how beautiful they might have been.
Yes, the hybrids so far are doing better. Some were growing so strongly that I made cuttings of cuttings in early October and I will try to keep these growing all winter under light and heat if they root. But many of the wildings rooted, some are growing off, and a few are growing strongly. We will see what I have next summer. I plan to use more than one method to get them through the winter and into spring growth. I am sure they can be grown if we will let them tell us what they like.
When two or three species of azaleas get together in the Southern highlands, interesting things happen. But the time has come not merely to find and propagate these happy chance hybrids, not merely to reproduce them, but to explore the full genetic possibilities of our native azaleas; not to change their character with alien genes, but to bring to fullest development their own peculiar charm and grace. The time has come for Henry Skinner's new race.