Halfdan Lem, Hybridizer
Gwen Bell, Seattle, Washington
"Colorful" is an accurate description of Halfdan Lem's personality and "expert" is indicative of his vast rhododendron knowledge. Dr. Clement Bowers described him as the "Aberconway of America". Mrs. Lem told me that he "surprised her until the day he died"!
Halfdan Lem was born in Nordfjord, Norway, and raised as a gentleman. He was one of twelve children, all educated by a private tutor. Halfdan Lem established a home in Ketchikan, Alaska, where he was a partner in three fish processing plants until 1954. His love for flowers stemmed from his mother. She spent many hours in her garden, raising unusual and little known plants. Visitors came from miles away to see this garden.
Perhaps, without realizing it, he began a quest for beauty and challenge in the plant world when, fascinated, he brought two suitcases full of cacti home to Ketchikan from San Diego, California. However, limited light and an average yearly rainfall of 156 inches made failures of his efforts to grow cacti, peonies or roses. He did succeed in raising beautiful nine-foot delphiniums.
About 1925, a friend gave Lem a book about rhododendrons. Here was adventure with the plant hunters, gorgeous flowers, interesting foliage and plants introduced from exotic places. The search was ended. Halfdan Lem had found his challenge. Incidentally, he loaned that book to a friend and, inadvertently, the friend took the book back to Norway. Lem talked about and mourned that book for years.
He joined the British Rhododendron Society and began a correspondence with rhododendron enthusiasts there. From these letters, he built a firm friendship with Fred J. Rose of Stonehill Gardens in Southhampton. Later, Lem was able to visit Mr. Rose in England and to be his guest for several days. This friendship and mutual interest proved important to Lem's future.
In 1934, Halfdan and Anna Lem moved to Seattle, Washington, from Ketchikan for the purpose of developing a rhododendron nursery. Strangely enough, the first winter in Seattle killed many of the small rhododendrons which they had brought with them from Alaska. The climate was not so benign as expected. Halfdan questioned whether to remain, but after a scouting trip to Monterey, California, he announced to Anna that here, near Seattle, they would stay.
One of the first local rhododendron growers that the Lems met was Endre Ostbo. Mr. Ostbo wrote a letter suggesting that he would like to visit them. The two men became friends. Many a lively discussion was shared between them over how to make existing crosses better. Halfdan Lem shared Fred Rose's rhododendron seed with Mr. Ostbo, Del James, Ben Lancaster and many others. It is believed by some that Ostbo's 'King of Shrubs' grew from that seed.
By the early 1940s, Lem had acquired enough good blooming-size rhododendrons to begin hybridizing. Impatience to launch a substantial hybridizing program had been building within him for some time. He made about thirty crosses that first year. At this time, Britain was involved in World War II. Seeking to preserve his best rhododendrons from possible destruction, Fred Rose sent scions and seeds to Halfdan Lem. Soon, this gave Lem a tremendous gene pool with which to improve his breeding possibilities. From that time, it could be said that hybridizing rhododendrons had become his life's study. Mrs. Carl English remarked that Lem "crossed everything with rhododendrons except the chickens". We know that he crossed R. williamsianum with kalmia successfully. Exaggerated tales picture Lem rushing down the paths with pollen on all fingers pollinating every bloom in sight. One can be forgiven this myth when one learns that his record book registers over two thousand crosses and in any one year, he might have 50,000 small seedlings lined out. It is interesting that he did make many of the better English crosses over again and, sometimes, did achieve even better clones.
Perhaps, a bit of description might be helpful. Halfdan Lem was a big man, tall and husky. He spoke with a strong Scandinavian accent. To hear him say Yingle Bells was a pleasure. I remember how he used to draw his breath inward, his mouth an O, when he was excited or speaking in wonder about a flower.
Impatience pushed Lem again, nudging him into developing a new propagation technique called top-grafting, or green-grafting. He had received some very green azalea cuttings from Holland which he placed in wet sand over cable. Though barely firm, they rooted 100% in twelve days. Some time later, a shipment of fancy azalea plants arrived from England. Fretting because he had to wait so long for bloom and pollen, he reasoned, "If the very green azalea cuttings rooted so well, why not try grafting very green scions." It worked. Soon, he was grafting the tops of his one and two year old new rhododendrons to older rhododendrons which were two to four feet high, out-of-doors, in June or July. It was a fantastic sight to see a four foot tall rhododendron supporting as many as thirty different flowered trusses. He could evaluate the results of those crosses and make selections for future hybridizing. Several generations of plants could be raised in a shorter period of time. His account of top-grafting appeared in the American Rhododendron Society Yearbook of 1946.
Lem made many of his grafts high, nearly a foot above ground level. This created an awkward looking plant when young, but in scale as it matured. Mr. H. L. Larson of Tacoma, Washington, informed me that Lem grafted high because some rhododendrons bloom according to height, rather than age, and Lem was doing his best to give them a boost toward flowering. Mr. Larson stated that he "would select Lem's 'Seattle Gold' as having the most beautiful flowers of any rhododendron and therefore, a first-class yellow for future hybriding". 1
1 Also quoted in the Arboretum Foundation Bulletin, Spring 1971.
One story concerns Lem's grafted plants. A wealthy customer ordered a large number of selected rhododendrons from Lem for his Beverly Hills estate. He requested that Lem accompany the shrubs to supervise their planting. After Lem had "found" rhododendrons, he did not like to be away from his plants for more than a week at a time, so he refused the request. He felt that the job would take too much time away from the nursery even with the help of the nine gardeners. The two men corresponded sporadically. Two years later, the Lems traveled to California on a short vacation. Halfdan decided to visit the gentleman from Beverly Hills. He was gone about two hours and immediately upon his return, Anna knew that something was wrong. It seems that as Mr. Lem walked along the drive toward the big house, he saw spacious lawns ringed by fair-sized rhododendrons - all blooming bluish ponticum colors! He was dismayed. He told the owner how he had grafted, meticulously, his finest clones to those R. ponticums. He offered to stay and prune the shrubs back to the desired hybrids. The offer was rejected with the explanation that the owner and his wife thought those ponticums the finest, most beautiful flowers on their extensive property.
Many of you will remember that Halfdan Lem possessed a fine sense of humor. His humor was reflected, sometimes, in the names that he gave his new hybrids; names like 'Potato Peeler', 'Witchdoctor', 'Wizard', 'Jingle Bells', 'Miniskirt' and the one about which they received considerable criticism, 'Holy Moses'. He had, also, a 'Gorgeous', a 'Roughrider' and a 'Buffalo Bill'. Mrs. Lem named one of the rhododendrons in her garden 'Mrs. Calabash' after the mysterious personality mentioned by the radio comedian, Jimmy Durante, in his weekly farewell, "Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are."
A gentleman used to visit the Lem nursery each year to buy a number of rhododendrons. When the bill was totaled, he would say, "I will have to peel lots of potatoes to pay for this." So when a light yellow caucasicum hybrid bloomed for the first time, the Lems named it 'Potato Peeler.'
One of Halfdan's favorite tunes was "Hello Dolly". He told Anna that one day he would name a new rhododendron 'Hello Dolly'. To her intimation that the name might be too long or unsuitable for a plant, he paid no mind. One day, he did, indeed, walk into the house and declare that 'Hello Dolly' was blooming. It is a cross between 'Fabia' and smirnowii.
The name given to 'Anna' came as a complete surprise to Anna Lem. She does not know to this day whether Halfdan was planning to name that rhododendron for her or if it just "came off the top of his head". A visitor was extolling the merits of 'Diana'. Lem recognized quickly that she was referring to 'Diane'. After her continued praise began to wear on him, he said, " 'Diana' is nice but you should see my "Anna'!" He led her to the rhododendron which we know now as 'Anna'. This hybrid had been grown from seed sent by his old friend, Fred Rose, and became parent to many of Lem's finest, including 'Lem's Cameo' and the 'Walloper' group.
Some of Lem's crosses waved large recurved calyces above corollas as on the red and spotted 'Witchdoctor' and on 'Go-Getter'. These he called "tudelus" in his own inimitable accent and style. (too-da-loo)
Occasionally, Halfdan played tricks on his friends. He would substitute a different rhododendron for the one requested. Lem would chuckle over the joke for a week, picturing his friend's surprised face when the plant bloomed. Anna confirmed that he always substituted a rhododendron which, in his opinion, was better than the one the friend thought he had obtained.
If Lem could not recall the name of a favored customer or visitor immediately, he liked to call the men "Ole" and the ladies became "Suzanna" - favorite names of his.
Halfdan Lem imported the finest rhododendrons possible from Britain. When they had been in Seattle a short time and were attending one of their first AIRS meetings, a slide was shown of R. lacteum. The late Donald Graham explained that the beautiful R. lacteum was not in cultivation in the United States. Following the program, Anna Lem was introduced to Donald Graham. She told him that they had a R. lacteum in their nursery - budded. He indicated, oh so politely, that he felt she was mistaken. Next year in blooming season, he was one of the first to be invited to see R. lacteum in flower - a good form!
Halfdan Lem was not without his troubles and set-backs. A new sign was observed at the entrance to the nursery. A woman and her two children had arrived to purchase a plant and as she and Mr. Lem searched out a suitable one, the two children stripped every label off every plant in a long cold frame near the potting house. A year's work ruined. Greatly angered, he nailed up the sign "NO CHILDREN ALLOWED IN NURSERY.''
The same observer walked into the planting area one day to hear a loud voice shouting, "Anna, get the trops! Get the trops!" (traps) Mountain Beavers had chewed the tops to ground level off rows of his precious new 'Anna' crosses.
Halfdan loved big, opulent flowers, but seemed to change his preferences from time to time. During one visit, he might be exceedingly excited about the opening of an intense blood-red truss and the next visit be equally elated by the blossoming of a rich cream,colored flower. 'Lem"s Cameo' S.P.A. (See cover of Quar. Bul. Amer. Rhodo. Soc. 29 (1), Jan. '75.) named by Anna Lem, was his favorite. An incredible number of excellent clones bloomed out of the Walloper group, ('Anna' x 'Marinus Koster'). It will be difficult to select the very best of them for the Rhododendron Registry. Already in the trade are 'Pt. Defiance', 'Lem"s Monarch', 'Red Walloper' and 'Pink Walloper'. He sounded it "Wholloper".
A gregarious person like Halfdan Lem made many friends. One of his greatest pleasures stemmed from the "get-togethers" of the RumDum Club, an informal group of comrades who had a mutual interest in hybridizing rhododendrons. Can you imagine such giants in the rhododendron field in the Northwest as Ben Nelson, Bill Whitney, Hjalmer Larson, Ernest Anderson, Don McClure, Karl Sifferman, Harry Madison and Halfdan Lem seated around a table, plied with good food by their assembled wives, debating vigorously and vividly the merits of certain crosses, rhododendron parents to be used and the rewards which might result.
A proud moment came for Halfdan Lem when one of his hybrids, ('Goldfort' x ( lacteum x 'Mary Swaythling') was presented to the touring King of Norway. The rhododendron was named 'King Olav V' and as far as we know, stands in the Royal Gardens today.
Fortunately, Halfdan Lem received honor and recognition from the American Rhododendron Society in 1963. Mrs. Lem said that he deeply appreciated the Gold Medal, the highest award that the ARS bestows. Six years later, in 1969, he died at age eighty-three.
The last two years of Lem's life he was ill, but still attempted to go out into the nursery. He could be seen wearing his carpet slippers and his shabby old tie. That tie, you see, kept him so warm that he did not need a jacket!