'Tis Better to Have Loved and Lost
Austin C. Kennell, Waynesboro, Virginia
This is the story about a rhododendron. Not just any old rhodo but a very, very special one.
It's also the story of an odyssey spurred by a siren song from Denmark that spanned nearly a decade. And, strangely enough, it's about a plant I've never seen. For this is the saga of R. exbeima !
It begins innocently enough with a talk by Augie Kehr at the 1972 Annual Meeting in San Francisco which was reprinted in the October 1972 Bulletin. In this presentation, Augie named and described 10 interesting plant discoveries under the heading "What's New in New Plants?".
During the winter of 1972-1973, I was going over the 1972 Bulletin and, for some unknown reason, became intrigued by one of the 10 plants listed in the reprint of Augie's talk. He described the plant as follows:
I read and reread those lines. In the days and months that followed, I found my thoughts often going back to the article. As time passed, I knew I had to try to find R. exbeima . In my fantasies I saw her as the most desirable of rhododendrons. It became an obsession I was under the spell of a plant that existed solely in my imagination!
Some time passed before I had a chance to talk to Augie Kehr about the plant. He said that he had heard about the plant several years earlier than his presentation and had written to its owner. He later received cuttings; but, unfortunately, the cuttings did not root and no further word was ever forthcoming despite several letters written by Augie.
Augie, however, did have the name and address of R. exbeima's owner a Mr. Aksel Olsen, Aksel Olsen Planteskole, Kolding, Denmark and suggested I try my luck.
I wrote Aksel Olsen in the fall of 1974 but did not receive a reply. A follow-up letter in March 1975 produced no results. In June of the same year, I wrote to the President of the Danish Chapter A.R.S. explaining my interest in R. exbeima and asked that my letter be read at their next meeting in hopes I could establish contact with someone who might help me. No response! I wrote to a man who was listed on the A.R.S. membership rolls as a resident of Kolding Aksel Olsen's hometown. Alas no answer. R. exbeima was as remote as ever.
One day in October 1975 I received a brown envelope enclosing a folded piece of paper containing seed pods. On the paper were the words "Seeds of Rhodo. Exbeima to AC. Kennell from Aksel Olsen". No other words! I was elated; here was proof that Aksel Olsen and R. exbeima were more than just figments of Augie Kehr's imagination! Some of my elation faded when I realized that the seeds were undoubtedly open-pollinated and that I was unlikely to obtain R. exbeima except by cuttings anyway. I gave the seeds to George Ring, and I believe the seedlings were distributed to some of the Potomac Valley Chapter members.
As soon as I received the seeds, I dashed off a letter to Aksel Olsen, confident the sending of the seed pods heralded the start of communication that would lead me to R. exbeima . Alas, I have never again heard from Aksel Olsen.
This might have ended this tale as I was at a dead end. But on February 8, 1 976, I received a letter from Carl Adam Lehmann, Vedbaek, Denmark. Carl related that my letter to the Danish Chapter had been circularized at their last meeting and since he wasn't sure I would get a reply from the chapter, he was writing me personally. From that initial contact Carl and I have become very close friends, exchanging pictures, cuttings and plants. It is our mutual hope to meet face to face for the first time at the 1982 Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. I await that pleasure eagerly.
But what of R. exbeima ? In October 1976, Carl Lehmann sent me a copy made from a print of a picture of R. exbeima . Since the negative could not be located, the copy had to be reproduced from a print and was not too clear. Carl wrote that the picture had been taken in Aksel Olsen's garden by a neighbor several years earlier. So for the first time I had a glimpse however hazy of R. exbeima . (Author's Note: There is a good chance a better picture of R. exbeima exists. Aksel Olsen, who was apparently an artist, too, sent Augie Kehr a color drawing of R. exbeima prior to Augie's talk in 1972. Since Augie felt the drawing was such a good representation of the plant, he had a color slide made of the drawing. (Unfortunately, he has been unable to find the reproduction in his files.)
Surely I was getting close to R. exbeima but the fates had other ideas. Subsequent correspondence disclosed that only one known plant Aksel Olsen's existed, and due to drought and other factors it was dying. No one had been able to root cuttings and seed from the plant always produced Selense-like seedlings with ordinary white and pinkish flowers.
Fortunately, a group of Danish chapter ARS members made arrangements to have grafts made in the autumn of 1975 and subsequent years. In 1977 I was informed I was to get a plant when an adequate supply was available. Perhaps this was the light at the end of the tunnel! But the years rolled on 1978, 1979, 1980. No R. exbeima ! Then in early 1981, my friend Carl Lehmann wrote that he could send me some scions from some of the grafts in the fall. But now, after years of chasing the plant of my dreams, I became strangely reluctant to meet R. exbeima face to face. So I decided to postpone the meeting by making arrangements with Carl Lehmann and Ken Gambrill of the Rhododendron Species Foundation to have the cuttings sent to the Foundation in September for rooting and some more to be sent in February 1982 for grafting.
My romance received a crushing blow in the summer of 1981 when Carl Lehmann wrote that they had discontinued the R. exbeima propagation program in Denmark because it was decided R. exbeima was a hybrid and, even worse, not a very good one. In September, however, the promised cuttings were received by Ken Gambrill at the Rhododendron Species Foundation and R. exbeima be it the plant of my dreams or an ugly duckling is under propagation in this country.
My tale ends at this point. I have not as yet looked upon R. exbeima and I'm not sure I really want to. Maybe some day! But for now I'd rather think of R. exbeima as I envisioned her instead of what she might actually be for as long as I can.
No matter how the balance of the story unfolds, R. exbeima will forever be special to me. Whether rare species or undistinguished hybrid doesn't really matter. Whether beautiful or ordinary isn't important any more. What R. exbeima has already given me a good friend, a special zest and purpose added to my life, a momentary glimpse of my Golden Fleece are priceless.
So, R. exbeima , whatever you are thanks.
Then there's the story of my efforts to establish contact with plantsmen in the Peoples Republic of China...And the tale of a "yaller" rhodo Augie Kehr and I tracked down in the mountains of western Virginia...But, the telling of these awaits another day!
Author's Addendum: Information received from Carl Lehmann after this article was written provides some interesting additional details. He reported that although about 100 years old, Aksel Olsen is still in good health. Carl also advised that original plant of R. Exbeima is still alive and that one of the grafts from it is budded this year. A comment of Carl's that I found particularly encouraging is: "On second thought, we don't think the plant is all that bad and some people feel that the bi-colour might appeal to Americans. It starts up being a little bit pink but changes toward yellow". He also added that some grafted plants of R. Exbeima were sent to Greer Gardens around 1978 in exchange for other plant material by another member of the Danish Chapter.