JARS v40n1 - The Indomitable Fred Minch

The Indomitable Fred Minch
Linda Draper
Puyallup, WA

Fred Minch
Fred Minch
Photo by Heather Bachman

There was a modern business woman who lived in a shoe
With 100,000 rhodys she didn't know what to do.
Then one day she decided and she gave a long, loud shout,
"I'll have to help my husband before these rhodys drive me out".

To learn to do this rhody thing she found there was no class
For digging, weeding, potting, seeding-then planting seeds en masse.
From flat to pot she watched them grow and then she gave a pinch.
Could she be under the auspices of a wise old owl named Minch?

November came, she was so proud; she even thought it fun
Picking, planting, flatting out - but glad her work was done.
A sigh she gave and then collapsed against the empty greenhouse door.
With grin so sly she did declare, "Wow! I have room for more."

When I first met him he thought I was someone else, so he wouldn't sell me those plants because he thought I already had them. Now seven years later he knows who I am but he thinks perhaps I do have some of those special seedling crosses so he still won't sell me any. (Hybridizers are like that I guess.) When I first met him I didn't understand a lot of what he said so I went home and thought about it for a week. Now I still don't comprehend his humor but I laugh wholeheartedly and pretend I do. I think his wit could be considered dry. Why else would a man who idolizes and loves his wife dearly name a favorite deep wine/red/black rhododendron 'Jeannie's Black Heart? Does all of this sound confusing? Well, confusing is the nature of my relationship to Fred Minch.
To say Fred Minch has a green thumb would be like saying there is sand on the beach. I know of no one else with such ability. Though he rants and raves at me for bringing shriveled up cuttings that sat in my refrigerator for three weeks, he usually returns them as healthy rooted cuttings. I can sometimes get him to root oddball cutting material and assorted seedlings (poppies, lewisa or whatever I find). He told me once he never bought a jacket that didn't come with a sharp knife in the pocket. I wonder why? His main claim to fame, however, are the millions of seedlings he has raised, most of which are his own crosses. Beginning in 1967 he expanded his garden until by the mid 1970's he had 150,000 rhododendrons on his three acre yard and in two 10' x 30' lath houses. To get space for those new seedlings he sold and gave them away by the flats. Where was I then?
To begin he purchased seeds from the Royal Horticultural Society and American Rhododendron Society seed exchanges, and flats of seedlings from Dean Wood. His membership in both societies began about the same time. He credits Bill Whitney for valuable informational assistance. He began an extensive program of hybridizing in 1970. Later he also joined the Pacific Rhododendron Society. Unfortunately the neighbor's chickens loved to scratch and throw up his markers. (By the way, the neighborhood chicken population has decreased sharply.) He is occasionally still identifying some of those early species. He still shudders over the R. spinuliferum he threw out thinking they were misformed. Though he lost over 7,000 rhododendrons in 1968-69 when the temperature dropped 55° in two hours, he didn't quit his newfound hobby.
Most of the local rhody nurserymen know Fred and many visit regularly. Bruce Briggs is constantly checking out each season's "bloom crop" and is currently planning to introduce many of Fred's superlative selections through tissue culture. Fred's most famous offering, 'Miss Kitty', named for his daughter, is almost ready for release through tissue culture. Though many who see pictures of it say it resembles 'Cotton Candy' it is much larger and a comparison of size, leaf, etc., shows a big difference. It is most likely a R. fictolacteum cross. Each flower measures from 5" to 7", piling up to an immense tight truss of usually 15 to 17 flowers, majestically arising from large deep green leathery leaves. Add to this a bonus - it's fragrant. I'm sure Fred is going to receive a few letters on this one.

R. 'Kitty' flower
'Kitty' flower
Photo by Jean Minch
R. 'Kitty' bud
'Kitty' bud
Photo by Heather Bachman

He has won the "best" award for everything you can think of - to name a few - for educational display, azalea, new hybrid, azaleodendron, flowering plant never shown before, species, lepidote, plant, etc. In the last five years he has won the Tacoma Chapter Sweepstakes for most points three times. The mantle of his fireplace displays the silver platters, bowls and trophies. The ribbons he has won are too numerous to count.
A favorite interest is R. yakushimanum . He collects forms and crosses as a kid collects marbles. He bought many of Hjalmar Larson's mother plants. At the hybridizers' meeting at the National Convention in Seattle last spring they discussed the need for a red tight truss yak. The next day I saw one at Fred's (from Larson's). He loves indumentum and tomentum. In an article in a local paper he referred to these leaves as "rabbit ears" and he told how he liked to go out and "pet 'em". A word to the wise - the only time he'll get mad at you is if you tromp through his baby yak bed when the sinkable sawdust is soggy. Don't ask how I know.
A goal of Fred's is to develop the calyx in all possible variations. I think he'd like it to be larger than the corolla! Two of my favorite hybrids of his are one with a long tubular pink flower and a hugging white calyx and another with a yellow speckled-red reflexed calyx leaping from a matching corolla. Of course he has 100's of others - striped and spotted - in all sizes and shapes.
He loves the large-leaf family of rhododendrons. I'm sure 1000's have come and gone in 15 years. He only has 3 R. eximium left and he won't part with those. The few hundred that remain ( R. fulvum , R. fictolacteum , etc.) I think he plans to let grow into trees for shade.
How does one keep track of such a quantity? Beginning in 1979 he numbered them as they bloomed, in 1980 he added the letter A plus 1,2, 3, etc., through A463. Now in 1986 H1 begins.
Another love I haven't mentioned yet is for deciduous azaleas. His goal is to increase the flower per truss count to the "uncountable stage". He is nearly there. He is also working toward a red-red Homebush type. He has done numerous Homebush crosses so that now a yellow Homebush with 75 flowers per truss seems normal. A recent favorite azalea has just been named 'Mud' because of its taffy color and orange flare. (Fred refers to the color with another word.)

E109 'Yellow Homebush'
E109 'Yellow Homebush'
Photo by Jean Minch
Photo by Jean Minch
Sister seedling to 'Yellow Homebush'
Sister seedling to 'Yellow Homebush'
Photo by Jean Minch

His vernacular at times is super descriptive, and not often found in a glossary of rhododendron terms. He refers to the alfalfa tea as "super-poop" which results in "Boy, do those suckers grow!" Believe this eye-witness, they do grow! I've often threatened to sell maps diagramming his yard as an income supplement.
When I first met him I couldn't get away without the one hour tour. It didn't matter that I'd said I had to pick up my son in five minutes and left the car running. I took the tour every time regardless if less than 24 hours had passed since the last. Well I still love to tour but there are times I just have to leave sooner. Now Fred introduces me not by name but by "She is only here for 11 minutes". There is always a visitor at the household Minch - always!
If you take Fred a sick plant you're likely to get it back three to four times as large next year. He uses alfalfa from the health food store in a mixture of four tablets per gallon of water. He also adds one tablespoon of Peters 20-20-20 to each pot. Plants are watered one to two times a month with his special tea. In addition he adds a teaspoon of Osmocote per plant. The mist system he uses is on four minutes twice a day in the summer and much less in the winter. Recently he installed a new sprinkling system regulated by computers that covers all three acres with a mist twice a day for 10 to 20 minutes.
Fred grows in sawdust not soil. He uses fir, cedar, apricot, etc. He has an agreement with a local mill to pick up residue. Nitrogen 21-0-0, and 10-20-20 is supplemented since sawdust itself is a tad lacking in nutrients, however, it makes up for it by allowing the roots to grow five times faster than in soil Fred does not believe in "just" doing anything. He puts in 200% to each endeavor - be it watering systems or catching moles. He uses the Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum method on the latter. He uses gloves, unwraps sticks, places one at each end of the tunnel (after removing dirt to expose a portion of the tunnel) and then gently replaces the dirt. He swears it works!
Fred has no idea I'm writing this article. Jean Minch has supplied me with the facts I asked for as well as many of her slides. In addition to running her own business and serving as aide extraordinaire she is also an accomplished photographer having won numerous awards in Tacoma Chapter shows and other shows as far south as Portland.
The ARS Tacoma Chapter awarded Fred the Bronze Medal in May. His generosity in sharing plants, cuttings and seeds is well known in the Pacific Northwest but recently an Easterner, Ed Rothman, wrote to the ARS Journal (Summer 1985) to describe Fred's generosity in sharing his seed.

R. 'Elsa'
Photo by Jean Minch
R. 'Oh My God'
'Oh My God'
Photo by Jean Minch

It seems appropriate to end with a Biblical quote. After all, Fred has named a rhododendron 'Oh My God' because so many visitors used that exclamation upon seeing it. As the saying goes, "To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven...a time to plant..." In the case of Fred Minch, it's a time to plant a rhododendron.

Editor's note: Hybrid rhododendron names mentioned in this article are Mr. Minch's own plant names and are not registered names.