JARS v36n3 - Rhododendrons by Raustein

Rhododendrons by Raustein
John Scarbeck, Oakdale, N.Y.

Fate plays a role in all of our lives as it did for a young painter-designer on a nice spring day in the mid-1930's. The painter, one Alfred Raustein, was returning home after a day's work in Ridgewood, New Jersey. A shrub with large red flowers caught his eye as he drove down the road. This shrub happened to be one of many rhododendrons belonging to a nurseryman by the name of Guy Nearing. This was the beginning of an association between these two men which has lasted for more than 40 years. It was also the beginning of Al Raustein's almost fanatical dedication to the growth, culture, and hybridization of plants in the genus Rhododendron.

After this initial meeting, Al returned several more times that year to buy some of Mr. Nearing's plants and to begin learning as much as possible about them. Mr. Nearing was more than willing to spend the time to teach one who was obviously a very eager student. Al still remembers some of the plants he bought that very first year. They include: 'Edward S. Rand', 'Kettledrum', 'Dr. V. H. Rutgers', R. catawbiense var. album , and R. decorum x R. discolor (a Joe Gable cross).

In subsequent years, Al returned to Guy Nearing's nursery many times to buy plants, but more importantly to visit and learn with a man he greatly admired. It was during these many visits that the first germ of an idea came to Al: someday he would like to start up his own rhododendron nursery.

The next chapter in this story occurred in the mid-1950's when Al met Mr. Peter Avocardro, who was head nurseryman at the Oakfield Nurseries in Bellemore, New York. This nursery specialized in rare and exotic conifers. Al became friendly with Mr. Avocardro, who like Guy Nearing noticed that he had a great desire to learn. Al succeeded in convincing Peter to let him work part-time at the nursery (unpaid at Al's request). For the next 12 years, he spent as much time as possible at the nursery learning about conifers, grafting techniques, and plant culture. Concurrent with his work at the nursery, Al undertook five years of night study in horticulture at the Farmingdale Agricultural Institute.

In 1962, Al retired from a highly successful career as a painter-decorator. He was able enough in this career to work in the homes of such notables as Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter. However, this was not a retirement, but a rebirth in order to realize his dream of being a nurseryman.

Al and his wife Clara built a new home in Holbrook, New York, on 3 acres of pine-forested, sandy land. For five years Al and Clara worked untold hours to turn these 3 acres of pine barrens into something that has to be seen to be believed. A description of their handiwork follows.

The lower portion of the property is dedicated to a "mini arboretum" approximately half an acre in size. This was left in a natural wooded setting through which paths wander. Hundreds of rhododendrons and azaleas, as well as dwarf conifers and ferns, are contained in this area. Some of the original plants Al obtained from Guy Nearing flourish here.

Behind the arboretum is a handsome ranch-style home surrounded by a small lawn and many more rhododendrons, azaleas, and other shrubs. The rear two-thirds of the property is given over to a very handsomely kept nursery. Here can be found over 240 rhododendron hybrids and another 100 species; also a fine selection of dwarf and rare conifers. This is a place where plants are loved and it shows!

In addition to building a new career and a new house, Al had one further goal to pursue. He wanted to continue the work of Gable and Nearing in the pursuit of superior cold hardy rhododendrons. Since 1962, he has made over 80 crosses. Eight plants have been registered to date and several more are under consideration. Most of these crosses were made with several goals in mind: cold hardiness, good plant habit, heat resistance, and earlier bloom to avoid petal blight. Below is a description of some of my favorites among the Raustein crosses.

'Helios' - ( R. decorum x R. discolor ) x [ R. fortunei x ( R. wardii x R. dichroanthum )]. Cross in 1962. This is a mating of Gable and Hardgrove hybrids. The result is a moderate growing shrub of good habit. The flowers are large with a bright yellow throat fading into salmon pink edges. The truss is large and well-shaped. This is a superior hybrid in every respect.

'Clara Raustein' - A sister seedling of 'Helios'. The plant is more vigorous and upright. The leaves are shiny and dark green. The flowers open peach and quickly turn a bright butter yellow. This plant is both an end in itself and a good one for further work in yellows.

R. 'Sasha'
R. 'Sasha'
photo by John Scarbeck

'Sasha' - 'Blue Peter' x [ R. fortunei x ( R. wardii x R. dichroanthum )]. Cross in 1967. A moderate grower with a good plant habit. The leaves are dark and shiny. The ruffled flowers have a pale lavender interior that are edged a bright medium purple. The flowers are very striking and stand out even from a distance.

'Katja' - ( R. catawbiense var. album x R. discolor ) x 'Madame de Bruin'. This is a large and vigorous, but dense shrub with large medium green leaves. The flowers are a bright, clear pink. The truss is tight and ball-shaped.

AR-11 - ( R. decorum x R. discolor x 'Tally Ho'). This has been named Mary O'Leary and has been submitted for registry. The plant is vigorous, but well-mannered. The leaves are large and dark green. The flowers are quite large. They open a light coral pink and fade to a lighter pink with a yellow throat. The truss is large and quite impressive.

These are my five personal favorites, but other observers may feel differently. What is important is that there are many more to come and it will be years before the full impact of Al's crosses can be assessed.

Al has been a member of the American Rhododendron Society since the late 1940's. In addition he is a member of the German Rhododendron Society, the International Propagator's Society, and several other horticultural associations.

I have visited with Al and Clara Raustein many times over the past three years. He is my "Guy Nearing" and Clara's coffee and pastries are matchless. Incidentally, they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 1979. There is one thing even nicer than these rhododendrons we love — the people who grow them.