JARS v39n1 - The Allure of Species

The Allure of Species
Dr. Herb Spady
Salem, OR

Reprinted from Portland Chapter Newsletter

Did you ever wonder what motivates the species enthusiast? I have, and I have read a lot of nonsense about how wonderful species are. In the process there has developed some desire to analyze my motivation and enthusiasm for species rhododendrons in an honest way. Some say that they tire of the sameness of hybrid rhododendrons. Does one then turn to great variety in species? I think not. There must now be about 20,000 named varieties of hybrid rhododendrons. Within that group one can find most any combination of characteristics. Many of those combinations do not exist in species rhododendrons. Even superb plant habit and leaf character, although not always the choice of the hybridizer, can be found. In addition new clones are arriving steadily and are filling the voids.
Are species easier to grow? No way! Some are downright impossible. They require the most exacting ideal climate and artificially manipulated environment. Many that are started never reach maturity and may only bloom a few times before their demise. Others may grow reasonably well but may not bloom for fifteen, twenty or more years. Many seem to resent fertilization, or at least, they can not all be treated equally as far as fertilizer is concerned. Their tolerance to exposure varies greatly. Many are very difficult to propagate. Of course, many of these deficiencies exist in hybrids also. The trouble is that if the faults exist in one clone of a species they very likely will exist in nearly all the clones of a species.
In spite of what some enthusiasts say, some species are not good ornamental plants. They may be ungainly, tall and thin leaved. They may flower only sparingly. The flowers are not infrequently in the rather dull white, pale yellow, pink or pinkish-mauve range. There are species that are more curious than ornamental and are best grown in someone else's garden. Fortunately, there are species which are better than others, and there are clones of species that are better than the average of that particular species. The enthusiast needs skill, advice and knowledge in seeking these out. To a certain extent he or she also needs a certain ruthlessness in discarding the "undesirables".
Did you ever stop to think about the incredible thing that you do when you grow a species rhododendron? Very few of us live in areas where rhododendrons grow naturally. We then take this plant from its natural environment, where it has over millions of years, developed the ability to survive and reproduce. We put it in a foreign situation. There, if left on its own, it will probably die. We nurture it, expect it to thrive and perform for us. We manipulate it in many unnatural ways in our efforts to make it perform as we wish. Just think of it. Some of the plants in the species collection may come from altitudes of 15,000 feet. They are buried under the snow all winter. Under that snow the humidity is 100% and the temperature goes only a few degrees below freezing. The soil is moist but there is no standing or moving water. We are asking that plant to thrive in the drenching rain and soggy soil much of the winter in the Willamette Valley. When it turns cold, we are asking it to endure temperatures much lower than it experiences under its winter snow blanket. Usually humidities are much lower, also. What about summer? The summer in its natural home is probably cool, misty and rather high light intensity. Ours are not too misty and cool. In fact when they are we complain, "What happened to summer?" When we have pleasant summer weather, do we have good rhododendron weather? When we have hot summer weather, we have miserable rhododendron weather. We do not experience much hot and humid weather with hot nights as they do in the Midwest and east. That is especially bad. What a challenge it is to successfully grow species rhododendrons! We must admire those that can do it with skill and success. Herein lies some of the allure in growing them. It is a desire to do something difficult, to manipulate nature successfully, to hear someone say, "Oh, you have such a wonderful flowering plant of Rhododendron difficultii ".
There are some other considerations. In some way one shares the experiences, the romance and the adventure of the plant explorers when one is able to grow these exotics. For indeed, they are all exotics unless they are growing naturally in the wilderness beyond your back fence. Just think how exciting it is that the R. yakushimanum in your garden came from high on the island of Yakushima. It went all the way from there to Mr. Wada in Japan, then to Exbury in England, and finally by various channels to your garden. Or perhaps you have a clone that has been recently introduced from the wild. It has big leaves and bigger flowers. Some "expert" may come along and throw it out of the show competition because it is obviously not R. yakushimanum . "It must be a hybrid," he says. But you know better because you know who collected the seed and where. It was just a short distance down the mountain and was in continuity with the other R. yakushimanum plants. It is equally exciting to be growing a species that survives from only a collection, under precarious conditions and risks to the collector, of a few seed capsules from one or two plants. This species may endure only from a few plants that have survived to this day. It may never be collected again. In fact it may be, or soon become, extinct except in gardens.
Another motivation for the species grower and collector may be an intense interest in the botany of the genus Rhododendron. A full understanding of the genus can not be obtained without the observation of species rhododendrons. Where can that be better done than in one's own garden?
Perhaps there is a snobbishness in growing species. It gives some people satisfaction to have something that the Joneses do not have, something curious, something special, and above all something that is not easy to obtain and keep. To have a large flowering plant of one of the tender, large leaved species in your garden is rather like owning the Hope Diamond. Add to that the fact that your "Hope Diamond" had to be obtained through your skill and effort as a gardener, not simply because you were rich, or at least not rich in the usual sense.
I hope I have hit upon some of the reasons for growing species rhododendrons without the usual platitudes about how much more beautiful they are than hybrids and that they have something that hybrids lack or can never possess.