JARS v38n3 - W.E. (Bill) Whitney

W.E. (Bill) Whitney
The Man, His Garden, His Legacy
Anne and Ellie Sather

William E. Whitney 1894-1973

The Man
The late Bill Whitney started dabbling in rhododendrons as a hobby about 1930 on his 1.3 acre nursery at Washougal, Washington. His original interest was camellias, but time soon found his concentration changing to rhododendrons. He met and befriended Theodore Van Veen, Sr., of Portland, Oregon, and together became pioneers in the field.
In 1955, Bill and his wife, Faye, purchased 6.8 acres, along the shores of Hood Canal in the small community of Brinnon, to expand his nursery and continue his hybridizing efforts. Over the next several years, 10,000 plants were moved to this location, as Bill continued to concentrate his efforts on his eternal search for the Holy Grail in rhododendron hybridizing. Bill made an average of 40 crosses per year, producing up to five consecutive generations of blooming plants.

R. 'Virginia Richards'
'Virginia Richards'
Photo by Ellie Sather

It took Bill 10 years of infinite patience and savvy to produce 'Virginia Richards', a cross of ( R. wardii - Barto clone x 'F.C. Puddle') x 'Mrs. Betty Robertson'. Another 15 years of testing and retesting the plant passed before he was satisfied with what he saw and was ready to release it to the public.
His first major goal as a hybridizer was to produce an offspring superior to both parents, and the plant form and foliage must be judged superior as well as the bloom. In later years, he would also add to his goals a plant that roots readily, one that is hardy, one that does well in full sun, as well as being compact and low.
His hybridizing efforts included a wide spectrum of trials, constant study, keen observations, and continual updating of knowledge. Bill kept a stud book for a number of years, but his record-keeping was somewhat inconsistent and incomplete. Fortunately, some of the information was correctly referenced, as ('Marcia' x 'Crest') or ('Fabia' x 'Mrs. Furnival') or ('Carmen' x R. elliottii K.W. 7725). However, much of his hybridizing knowledge was never written down; it was all kept in his head. He was a walking encyclopedia of information which he was always willing to share. Many of his conversations would last 2 or 3 hours and some longer. Some of the verbal information included the parentage of Whitney Orange - ( R. dichroanthum Sunningdale form x 'Diane'), or his theory of breeding for a green or yellow-green bloom. The information went on and on.
For years Bill was listed as one of the world's top rhododendron hybridizers. In 1964, Bill was honored by the Washington Federation of Garden Clubs as "Man of the Year" in horticulture, for his outstanding achievements in rhododendron and azalea hybridizing. In 1970, he received a Gold Medal while a member of the Portland Chapter of the ARS, which he helped establish as one of the original charter members.
He, along with Hjalmar Larson and Carl Fawcett of Tacoma, was instrumental in organizing the Shelton Chapter of the ARS. Bill also helped to establish the Olympic Peninsula Chapter and became an associate chapter member of that chapter.
In his waning years, with his eye sight failing along with his health, he and his wife, Faye, sold the nursery and garden to George and Anne Sather in 1970. The Whitney's retired to the Coyle Peninsula, where Bill continued to hybridize, until his death in 1973 at the age of 78.
Bill's wife Faye, 93 years young, still resides at their home on the Coyle, and many a tale she can tell about their life together. One such story was how Bill bought his first rhododendron, R. griersonianum , with money that was budgeted for dining room wallpaper. Bill used that plant as a seed parent for a number of his crosses. At that time he had very little experience growing seed, so turned much of it over to Van Veen, Sr., who had the greenhouse and the expertise.
Bill sold many of his seedlings, partly to keep his nursery afloat, partly to make room for more seedlings and partly because he felt all deserved a chance. Many seedlings were named after his good customers. So, even now, many years after his death, old customers repeatedly request his plants by names totally unknown to us.
In a few instances, his superior seedlings were sold; or more often his inferior seedlings, but there was always a customer to claim the best of the seed lot. Some he even registered.
Many people contributed a great deal of time and energy to help Bill with his nursery operation. Some helped build the greenhouse, others brought in supplies, or exhibited his plants and trusses in the various ARS shows, while others shared plants - new hybrids and species, and a constant flow of hybridizing information and knowledge for which we are all truly grateful. Today hybridizers have much better material to work with than years ago and future generations will have even more. Bill Whitney and others like him will be sadly missed but his legacy to all of us is a gift of beauty.

The Garden
In order to continue his hybridizing efforts unencumbered with frequent visitors, the Whitney's chose an area far from the populated cities. They purchased 6.8 acres of the original Brinnon Farm, which is located on Hood Canal on the beautiful and picturesque Olympic Peninsula. The population of the area numbered about 500 people. In 1955 Bill and Faye began to move their collection of rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas from Camas, Washington. It took approximately 3 years to complete. His hybridizing efforts continued and soon most of the 6.8 acres were covered plus another 3-acres adjoining this property. Bill added many varieties of trees and soon garden enthusiasts began to hear about Bill and his beautiful garden. And each year increasing numbers came to see this panorama of color and to learn about rhododendrons.

Whitney Garden entrance
Garden entrance
Photo by Ellie Sather

Presently, over 10,000 people annually visit the garden. They come in private cars or chartered buses, some with cameras in hand, others walking slowly along the pathways, each enjoying this serene and peaceful beauty. The Garden is open from 9 AM to dusk, daily and is free for all to enjoy. Special arrangements can be made for catered luncheons, guided tours, and for tables and chairs for box or sack lunches. The peak blooming season usually occurs around Mother's Day; however, many rhododendrons continue to bloom well into June and a few into early July. Early blooming rhododendrons start showing color in early February. Bill's hybridizing efforts incorporated the use of many fragrant rhododendrons, so parts of the garden are permeated with lovely scents and fragrances. More and more, the consumer realizes the additional bonus and value of deciduous azaleas and/or rhododendrons having this characteristic.
As Bill's health continued to fail, the garden started to show obvious signs of neglect. The Whitney's approached several possible parties that might have the interest in continuing the garden and the Whitney legacy. One such party was George and Anne Sather of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Although lacking a great deal of knowledge in the rhododendron field, much of that would be offset by hard work and quick learning. They had assisted Bill on a number of occasions and were familiar with the nursery operation. The most obvious need was to clean up the garden and sort through the Whitney collection. Many plants had been planted 1 foot apart and had grown 20' tall. All of it had to be identified, tested, retested, propagated and hopefully finally registered, or culled from existence.
Many plants were removed and cuttings taken. We have played musical chairs with much of the plant material. We would cut or sell one plant, and move another into its place. This process has continued for the past 15 years. Many hours are spent caring for and grooming the garden. Every leaf is raked and composted, and recycled back into the soil. We prune the rhododendrons and azaleas extensively, and in a couple of years, the plant is performing beautifully. Not all rhododendrons can be pruned. We suggest you test your plants first.

S675 (a 'Crest' cross); Top Banana right
S675 (a 'Crest' cross) left; Top Banana right
Photo by Ellie Sather

Approximately 2,500 rhododendrons and azaleas are on display. Each year more are added. Most have now been identified; however, every once in a while someone says, "That's Karkov," or "That's Mrs. Donald Graham."
Bill collected a substantial number of deciduous azaleas, and additional varieties are constantly being added along with evergreen azaleas and new American, English and Canadian rhododendron hybrids.
The collection of rhododendron species is somewhat limited in scope, but all are excellent forms. We can't grow sufficient quantities of R. cinnabarinum var. blandfordiaeflorum , or R. chartophyllum to keep up with the demand for the plants.
A recent visitor to the garden wrote, "Man is closer to God in a garden, than any place on earth."

The Legacy
A great deal of time has been spent identifying, testing and retesting, cataloging, propagating and finally registering Bill Whitney's creations. Bill had originally registered only 2 plants - 'Anna Rose Whitney,' named after his mother and 'Fayetta,' named for his wife, Faye and his sister, Etta.
After Bill died in 1973, his wife Faye, and son Bill Jr., brought all of his last crosses back to the Whitney Gardens. There were so many seedlings that we decided to share some with Brigg's Nursery in Olympia. Bruce Briggs has selected several superior progenies from his group of seedlings and we will now do the same with ours. It was, unfortunate, that Bill never saw these last hybrids. He would have been very pleased.
Bill had worked off and on for 40 years to produce a perfect blue or the perfect red-flowered rhododendron. Neither was ever achieved. However, Bill's ambition to create hardier yellows was realized through his new hybrids 'Sunny Day' and 'Anne's Delight'. This past winter (1983-84) was an excellent test. All other yellow hybrids had either some leaf and/or bud damage. These two new hybrids had none. How hardy are they? Additional testing is required. Our coldest temperature was 2 degrees with a 30-50 mile an hour wind.

R. 'Creamy Chiffon'
'Creamy Chiffon'
Photo by Ellie Sather

The following are Whitney hybrids already registered and available in the commercial market. 'Beautiful Day', 'Beautiful Dreamer', 'Blind Date', 'Blue Frost', 'Blue Pacific', 'Blue Rhapsody', 'Chiffon', 'Creamy Chiffon', 'Double Date', 'El Camino', 'Enchanted Evening', 'Honeymoon', 'Hurricane', 'Joyride', 'Love Story', 'Morning Sunshine', 'My Pet', 'Pink Cloud', 'Pleasant Dream', 'Polynesian Sunset', 'Ruby Hart', 'Snow Cap', 'Stephanie', 'Sweet 16', 'Top Hat', 'Virginia Richards', 'Whitney Buff'' and 'Whitney Orange'.
Ten new Whitney hybrids will be registered this coming year. Whitney Purple and Whitney Late Orange are already available through the commercial growing market. Most of the remaining are all new introductions available this coming spring.

Anne's Delight (Parentage Unknown)
Some Shade, Low Grower, Late April, Yellow, 0 degrees
For the past 10 years, we have been testing this hybrid, and it has tested out well in all categories. So many yellows experienced some bud &/or leaf damage as a result of this past winter (1983-84) but this one did not. The bloom is a full-dome truss of 14 flowers, a medium yellow color (same color as 'Morning Sunshine'), with red spotting in the throat. The foliage is a glossy, dark green with a slight wave to each leaf. The plant growth habit is compact and spreading. It blooms as a 3-year old plant and consistently thereafter. It propagates easily.

R. 'Anne's Delight'
Anne's Delight
Photo by Ellie Sather

Cabaret (Parentage Unknown)
Some Shade, Medium Grower, Early May Pink/Red edge, +5 degrees
The bright cerise bud color opens to a cerise-edged flower with a light pink throat with a bright lime-green eye. Each flower has a cerise stripe that runs from the throat to the margin creating a star-effect. The medium-sized foliage is an elliptically rounded green leaf that is retained by the plant for 2 years. The growth habit is rounded and branches well. It blooms as a 4 year old plant and propagates easily.

Fabulous (Parentage Unknown)
Some Shade, Low Grower, Early April, Pink, 0 degrees
This very floriferous plant is one of the earlier pinks to bloom in the garden. The dark pink bud opens to a multi-colored pink high-dome truss. The foliage is smooth-textured with a nice dark matte green leaf that is retained for 2 years. The growth habit is broad, rounded and branches well. It blooms as a 2 to 3 year old plant, and propagates moderately well.

R. 'George's Delight'
George's Delight
Photo by Ellie Sather

George's Delight (New yellow #6002 x 'Crest')
Some Shade, Low Grower, Early May, Pale yellow/Pink edge, 0 degrees
Bill made this cross in 1967 (formerly under number 6738). After testing the plant for the past 10 years, we have decided it should be registered. The bloom is very distinctive as each flower has a dark pink border giving way to a soft yellow plane to a darker yellow throat. The foliage is a nice matte green, forming a plant that branches well and maintains a good shape. It blooms as a very young plant and consistently thereafter. The plant propagates easily.

Heavenly Scent ( fortunei Cross)
Some Shade, Medium Grower, Early May, Fragrant, 0 degrees
One of the comments heard repeatedly is, "I didn't realize that rhododendrons were fragrant." This bonus is one of the added features of this plant. The high lax truss is a large medium-pink bloom with a faint red spotting in the upper lobe. The foliage is a medium sized matte green leaf that is held by the plant for 2 years. The growth habit is rounded, branching well, and with age continues to grow into a nice specimen. It blooms as a 6 to 8 year-old plant and consistently thereafter. It is somewhat difficult to propagate.

Perfume ( fortunei Cross)
Some Shade, Medium Grower, Early May, Pink, Fragrant, 0 degrees
Another delightfully fragrant bloom that may possibly be a sister seedling to Heavenly Scent. The basic difference between the 2 plants is the marvelous spicy fragrance of this plant. The large high-lax truss is a medium pink with a faint red spotting in the upper lobe. The medium-sized foliage is held by the plant for 2 years. The growth habit is rounded and branches well. It blooms as a 6 to 8 year old plant and is difficult to propagate.

Sunny Day (Parentage Unknown)
Some Shade, Low Grower, Late April, Yellow, 0 degrees
This is one of Bill's last crosses. The bud opens to a medium-yellow full-dome truss with red spotting in the upper lobe. The foliage is a lighter matte-green that is retained for 2 years. The growing habit is broad, rounded and branches well. The plant buds young and propagates well. While many other yellows had leaf and/or bud damage from this past winter (1983-84), this one had none.

Top Banana (Parentage Unknown)
Some Shade, Low Grower, Late April, Yellow, +5 degrees
Bill may have used 'Hotei' as one of the parents in this plant as the bloom color is the same, along with leaf size, shape and color. The two major differences are the time of bloom (late April) and the fact that this plant buds as a young plant, whereas 'Hotei' buds as a 6 to 8 year-old. The plant is a little more upright than 'Hotei' and retains 2 years of leaves as does its counterpart. It propagates well, and appears to be much more consistent in blooming year after year. However, it is also prone to root rot, as is 'Hotei'. Hardiness also appears to be the same.

Whitney Late Orange (Parentage Unknown) formerly #5822
Some Shade, Medium Grower, Late May, Salmon Pink, 0 degrees
We are often asked what the differences are between this plant and Whitney Orange; and basically, the Late Orange growth habit is more upright and rounded, whereas Whitney Orange is low, broad and spreading. As nice as the bloom is on the Late Orange, Whitney Orange is still preferred - much more showy. The Late Orange blooms in late May, whereas Whitney Orange blooms in early May. The Late Orange foliage color is a light matte green, so we recommend planting in some shade. It blooms as a 3 to 4 year old plant and consistently thereafter. It propagates easily.

R. 'Whitney Purple'
Whitney Purple
Photo by Ellie Sather

Whitney Purple (Parentage Unknown)
Sun, Medium Grower, Early May, Blue Violet, -5 degrees
For many years, we somehow managed to overlook the potential of this plant. It stands in full sun and never shows any injury from the elements. It consistently blooms year after year, and blooms as a young plant. It propagates easily and grows a bushy well-shaped specimen. The bloom is a full-dome truss of blue-violet flowers with a dark eye in the upper lobe. The medium-sized foliage is somewhat glossy, smooth-textured and a dark green color.

We still continue to test other Whitney hybrids. Bill made many yaku crosses. After comparing many of those to other yaku hybrids, we are impressed with the quality of his progenies. None have ever been registered.
We would like to thank so many of you for your well wishes, encouragement and support during these past many years. They are greatly valued and appreciated. Thank you.