The Past, Today Or Is It Tomorrow?
Reprint from Seattle Rhododendronland, Bob Badger, Editor
After our recent move to Kent while sorting out my rhododendron papers , Marge chanced across a reprint of an Arboretum Bulletin article written by Mr. Herb Ihrig of Seattle and Bainbridge Island.
Herb was one of the Northwest's Rhododendron Pioneers and one time editor of The Bulletin. He was born in Dayton, Washington in 1884 and died at age 88 in 1973.
I first met him about 1968. I visited his garden which had become overgrown somewhat as he now lived away from it. What a collection it was. He gave me five of his volumes of correspondence to read. He had maintained a collection of both letters which he wrote and received (personal as well as those pertaining to rhododendrons) and articles which he wrote for several papers and magazines. Marge and I had the privilege of cataloging the correspondence, etc. for him as several people, ourselves included had encouraged him to donate them to the Washington Park Arboretum. Many of the letters concerned the founding of the Arboretum, where he headed the original rhododendron plantings. How illuminating those letters were! The letter and papers have since been donated to the University of Washington Archives.
The article that follows is the reprint of a lecture given to the Seattle Rhododendron Society in March of 1954. It could have been written just yesterday - how timeless it is - though it was given twenty-three years ago.
AN APPRAISAL OF RHODODENDRONS
Herbert G. Ihrig
I am somewhat disturbed over the title given my talk as I have always considered an appraisal presupposed an expert knowledge of the subject appraised. There was a time when I felt I could qualify, but I was younger then and the passing years have brought a realization of the fact that there is still much I have to learn.
I do feel, however, that I can qualify as an observer for I have grown rhododendrons for over twenty-five years. I started my importing some of the fine English hybrids and continued for several years adding to my collection, in conjunction with Mr. Endre Ostbo.
I then became interested in species and communicated with botanical gardens, seed sources and individuals in England, India, China and elsewhere. I subscribed to several botanical expeditions, including the Rock Expedition for the University of California. I carried on extensive correspondence with prominent growers and scientists in Great Britain and America such as Lionel de Rothschild, Mr. F. R. S. Balfour, Sir William Wright Smith, Mr. Clement Bowers, Dr. Donald Wyman of Arnold Arboretum, and many others.
I have grown several hundred different species from seed and have continued to import hybrids until a few years ago. Whether this experience qualifies me to speak on their garden value is a moot question. Some may agree, others disagree. But I have formed some definite opinions based on these observations.
Before expressing my opinions let me state that my remarks are directed to the gardener, not the collector or the experimenter. I realize these classifications often overlap, but let us think primarily of the individual who wants an attractive garden.
First, species. I am a great admirer of species rhododendrons and there are a number which I would not be without. But I am likewise firmly convinced that most of you would be far better off if you never heard of species rhododendrons. Certainly nothing will clutter up a garden more than trying to grow every three and four-star species you hear about.
Let us consider a few illustrations. Take the Lapponicum series. Here are plants which are very useful and attractive in many gardens. The handbook lists 52 different species and 17 of these are credited with garden value. But how many could you use? Four? Maybe six? But for the others you would need a botanist to identify them and I am sure they would depreciate the beauty of your garden rather than enhance it.
Next take the tree rhododendrons. Nothing I know of is more thrilling to contemplate than a 40-foot rhododendron tree - one like R. barbatum - with its tight trusses of brilliant red. But few people realize the length of time it takes to mature such a plant. Kingdon-Ward, in discussing tree rhododendrons, said something to the effect that in twenty years you would know something of their growth, in forty years something of their beauty, and in sixty years something of their grandeur. When my R. barbatum was twenty-three years old I had a very creditable showing but had few flowers before or since. The same is true of many so-called tree rhododendrons, some of which grow as much in width as in height.
I am often shown small plants of such species by some charming grey haired lady who beams with pleasure of acquiring them. She asks how soon they will bloom. Now it is impolite to ask a lady how old she is, so I frequently compromise and ask if she has any grandchildren.
Next the Triflorum series which is among my favorites, and there are many fine species in this series. The beautiful white R. cerulean , a good colored R. yunnanense or augustinii will add beauty and interest to a garden, IF YOU HAVE THE PROPER PLACE for them. But they cannot be planted promiscuously. Their delicate colors and lace-like filaments will be overpowered by heavy broadleaf varieties and brilliant colors.
I could go on at length through the different series. I could point out many beautiful things but that would only confuse the issue. You might catch some of my enthusiasm to the detriment of your garden.
If you wish to try out some species I would suggest you begin with the smaller-growing ones such as R. williamsianum , leucaspis , pemakoense , callimorphum , etc.
Hybrids. Some people feel that there is greater beauty in hybrids than in species. I do not share this opinion but firmly believe the average gardener would be far better off to start with hybrids of known merit than with species. In many cases hybrids have improved form, color and hardiness and they will certainly adjust themselves better to general garden conditions.
But here you require the greatest restraint. You had better start by firmly fixing your objective. Do you want to be a collector, an experimenter or a builder of a beautiful garden?
Collecting is a disease and once you get the bug you are sunk. I know, for I am a collector. An experimenter is just an ornery guy who likes to find out for himself. I know, for I am also one. Both groups contribute much to knowledge of the genus and the individuals derive much pleasure from the pastime, but they seldom' if ever build a beautiful garden. If you are in the third group and want to build a garden you must lean your three "R's" - restraint, restraint, restraint.
Don't try to buy blindly all the three and four-star hybrids or all those which have received awards of Merit or First Class Certificates. Get a dependable nurseryman - talk with him, take his advice, discriminate.
Begin by learning what these awards and stars mean. A star means that in the opinion of competent growers a plant has definite garden value according to the number of stars given it. These ratings represent experience and mature judgment. You may disagree with some, but they merit consideration.
Awards of Merit and First Class Certificates have no such background. They are, in most cases, new plants of interesting bloom and characteristics but comparatively untried. Their habit of growth, hardiness, and many other factors are largely unknown. Some will undoubtedly take a leading role in future gardens, but they rightfully belong to the experimenter.
Next, don't get fouled up with the forms of named varieties. For instance, we have 'Fabia' var. 'Tangerine', var. 'Roman Pottery', etc., etc. This is true of many others. These differences are sometimes very real but often minor. Give them consideration when buying, don't try to acquire all of them.
This problem of varieties has troubled me for years. I am even suspicious of star ratings until they have stood the test of years. Every year I have seen a new array of debutantes flash like stars on the horizon, only to pass into oblivion in a short time. I have a number of these debs of yesteryears. Some, like 'Mrs. Henry Agnew', had three stars in 1934 and yet are not listed today. Yet there are old dowagers like 'Cynthia' and 'Loder's White' that have withstood competition year after year and still rank with the best. 'Cynthia' was introduced nearly a hundred years ago.
Don't belittle these newcomers, but don't go overboard in acquiring them.
In addition to selecting proven plants, get those suitable for your location, especially as to wind, sun, and general hardiness. Take for instance the fact that I, or someone else, can grow 'Cornubia'. This doesn't mean that you can. It is a magnificent plant, but many nurseries have discarded it because they had so many complaints on its hardiness. In whites nothing can be finer than 'Loderi King George' provided it has a suitable location. But in a poor location exposed to wind it can be a deplorable sight even when in flower. 'Beauty of Littleworth' is another fine white, but has a truss so heavy that in the rain it invariably droops and spoils the beauty of the entire bush.
It is easy to criticize individual plants but don't lose sight of the fact that there are hundreds of others to meet your requirements, and that Rhododendrons are among the loveliest of all garden plants. I know of nothing comparable in all-year beauty and interest.
In the past few decades there has been a revolution in garden design and this has been greatly influenced by the influx of species Rhododendrons and their hybridization. Prior to that time this beauty had flowered for ages behind the mountain bastions of Asia unseen and unknown to the world at large. Now this wealth has suddenly come into our hands. We, you and I, - your organization - are the heirs and custodians. It is a responsibility much greater than would appear at first sight, for in no place in America and few places in the world can they be so successfully grown as here. It is a challenge for you to accept or reject.
What are you doing about it - garden wise, I mean? There are splendid nurserymen who have spent time, effort and money to bring you the best in hybrids and species. But what about their proper use in the garden? I have seen many beautiful spots or small plantings, but few really beautiful Rhododendron gardens. Most of them look like mine - a lot of plants crowded together like an overstuffed museum. I am particularly conscious of our failure to take advantage of our opportunities since my trip to Japan where I was able to observe how truly beautiful and functional a garden can be when it is developed around the cultural background and living habits of the people. I am frequently asked about those gardens and about new Japanese plant material. I saw many gardens but little in the way of new material because I was not there during the flowering season, and Tokyo, my headquarters, is perhaps the poorest place in Japan for flowers and gardens. The Japanese people have not had the time or the money to do much in the way of new developments. Their efforts have necessarily been confined to food crops and such horticultural products as can be readily put into the streams of commerce. Even the Arboretum of the University of Tokyo, while continuing their botanical studies, have no funds for maintenance and the grounds are in a deplorable condition. The water garden, often mentioned as one of the best in Japan, was completely bombed out during the war and is now only a large muddy pond with fallen stone bridges and a few plants struggling through the debris.
There are beautiful gardens all over Japan for every temple and shrine is, in a sense, a garden, but it is in Kyoto that one finds the most beautiful of Japanese gardens. I would like to pass over the large gardens such as the Imperial Gardens and those of the Detached Palaces and Imperial villas. These have many beautiful and interesting spots, but are usually too "parklike" for my theme. There is no intimacy about them such as we desire in a garden. The exception is the Emperor's private garden which is something very special and highly personal. This garden could easily be accommodated on many Northwest properties if one had the talent, money and time which have gone into its making and material.
It is in the smaller private gardens where I received my greatest thrill for they have an elusive charm which is difficult to capture or define. It is not entirely a love of beauty nor the cultural and religious background yet undoubtedly each of these contributes something. They can best be described as a beautiful mosaic in which every tree, shrub and stone is placed with the studied artistry of a master painting.
There are things which make you green-eyed with envy such as a century-old pine, but the style and design of a Japanese garden is as far from a Northwest garden as a Greek temple is from a modernistic home. They do not fit our background or living habits. They cannot be copied but can furnish many an inspiration.
I wish someone would offer an annual prize for the three best Northwest rhododendron gardens. Yes, the ribbon awards for the best small groupings open to the smallest garden. Think of the publicity you would receive. Think of the help this would be to new gardeners. Think of the new beauty you would create.
Again I wonder if you realize the wealth at your disposal. I wonder if you realize the responsibility that goes with it. It is nice to get together in our various organizations and pat each other on the back. But does our responsibility end here? You have the climate to grow them. You are in the forefront of the greatest movement ever known in garden history. You are dealing in jewels which only await the proper settings to awake America to new beauty.