JARS v40n2 - Some Thoughts On Entering a Rhododendron Show

Some Thoughts On Entering a Rhododendron Show
Paula L. Cash
Tigard, Oregon

The emphasis in the American Rhododendron Society is on growing rhododendrons and azaleas for the beauty of the plants and the blooms as well as fitting them into the overall landscape. Many members have established landscapes containing well grown plants that reward them with a spectacular display of beauty each spring. A lovely garden is a joy and something to be proud of creating.
If you have beautiful plants, another pleasure may be waiting for you if you enter trusses and sprays in an ARS chapter show. You and your friends can enjoy the splendid display. I am amazed each year as I enter a few blooms in our local show at the vibrancy of the beautiful display. The most difficult problem for any member may be taking their first entry to the show. Stage fright may be a very real thing for the first time entrant, however, you are among friends who also love this beautiful genus. Showing rhododendrons and azaleas is fun.

Judging at Portland Chapter ARS Show
Judging at Portland Chapter Show, May 1985
Photo by Joe Jones

Much has previously been written on plant selection, planting site and care of rhododendrons, however some thoughts on actual truss selection, preshow care, truss preparation, transportation and staging may be helpful and encourage you to participate in an ARS chapter show. The following are some specific suggestions that may be useful as you seek the perfect bloom.
Prior to the rhododendron show, be aware of potential show entries on your plants. Is there a bud on a straight stem with a good whorl or collar of leaves? Cecil Smith who has shown rhododendrons successfully for many years tells of his method of providing a straight stem. He may simply tie a side branch containing a potential entry to a stick so the truss will grow straight for a good display.
The leaves should be undamaged and a true green, not reflecting chlorosis or other health problems. If there are weaker buds on marginal stems present, you may want to remove them. Other buds that can be removed and will not be missed are the buds on the first twelve inches near the ground. By removing the marginal buds, the plant's energy will go to the stronger buds which may result in a show winner.
If you do not have adequate rainfall before the show, keep your plants well watered. This will allow developing buds to reach their full potential.
At the time of the rhododendron show, what should you look for in a potential show winning entry? As mentioned before, a good whorl of leaves on a straight stem is important. Is the truss in peak condition or is it looking tired? The judges usually expect an entry to be fully open though if the truss is close to fully open, take it anyway. Does the truss have a complete number of flowers and are they of good substance and clear color? Check to see that the truss is not a ball truss (two flower buds on one whorl of leaves) which can not be entered. Do not overlook the smaller and perhaps more subtle species rhododendrons that in their own class may be spectacular. If you are entering a spray, what are the size limitations according to the show schedule?
There is always the question of when to cut the trusses for the show; the night before the show or early morning the day of the show? One year, I left a perfect entry on a plant ('Miss Prim') the night before the show only to have a hail storm occur overnight with resulting damage. One member I know enters such a large quantity of trusses each year, he may begin three days before the show to gather his trusses and sprays. The entries are then kept in a cool basement until the day of the show. To add to the confusion, a lovely entry may be brought to the show that has been sitting on the entrant's dining room table all week.
I have followed the advice of rose exhibitors, cut the truss at 3:00 p.m. the afternoon before the show, placed the truss in hot water and set it in the refrigerator until the show to harden. I found this is a problem due to lack of space in the refrigerator as well as by discovering a frozen, formerly lovely, 'Lem's Cameo' at the back of the refrigerator. This would be fine for a few trusses, however, most of us enter more than two or three trusses.
Many winners are the result of one last pass through the garden to see if anything was forgotten. If you gather trusses the day of the show remember to get up early because this process always takes more time than you expect. There is always one more truss you had not planned on and it is important to be at the show and ready before the cut off time for accepting entries.
What about forcing a truss? It has been suggested that removing the bud cover will hurry the bloom before the show. This will leave the flowers unprotected from damage and could have questionable results. If the truss has not quite opened the night before the show, it can be cut, placed with stem in warm water and located under a light. This may cause the truss to open for the show the next day. I have seen trusses in shows that simply looked as though they needed to be ironed; forcing obviously did not work.
As a side note, Dr. Robert Ticknor has done research to control timing of bloom, particularly for the florist trade with the hope of expanding the use of rhododendrons in pot plant culture. His work has been published in the ARS Journal .
Members that have seen the Chelsea Garden Show in London know spectacular blooms can occur on certain dates. Greenhouse and lath house structures have been used to achieve this marvelous display.
In theory lath grown rhododendrons are grown under the same conditions as a tree canopy, however, the lath grown trusses do not have needles or branches dropping on them. A difference is noted as the entries come across the classification table. It is my opinion, to be fair, they should not be competing with open garden rhododendrons. If there is interest in your chapter, why not have a separate category in the show schedule for lath and greenhouse grown rhododendrons?
Collect your entries in jars in one area and eliminate the marginal trusses and sprays. Prepare your entries by cleaning off the leaves with a damp cloth. Remove extra leaves from the stem and debris from the truss including the remains of the bud case. I have seen lovely entries passed over by the judges because the leaves were dirty, jammed into the container, or the truss had dirt or debris left on the flowers. One beautiful entry was passed over because the entrant had washed the leaves with detergent which left a glossy residue. Adding leaf polish or oil is against most show rules, I suggest at the chapter meeting prior to the show each year, a five minute demonstration be given on grooming entries for the show. This would help the members and raise the standards of the show.
To aid in maximum absorption of water by the truss or spray, crushing the stem has been suggested. This is difficult with the hard, woody rhododendron stem. I suggest a long vertical cut with the hand clippers is more successful or you can carefully use a knife on a cutting board to make the cut. This provides a larger surface through which the truss can absorb water.
A preservative solution to extend the life of a truss can be used in most shows, but most entrants do not bother since it can be too time consuming. For your interest, a study was published in Sunset magazine that concluded that the most effective bloom preservative was a solution of ½ water and ½ lemon-lime soda.
Now that your entries have been assembled, transportation of cut trusses and sprays must be considered. Remember that rhododendron and azalea entries are top heavy and it is discouraging to drop them. It is always fun to see the contraptions entries arrive in at the show. First, pop or beer bottles work well as containers since they provide water to the truss and hold the entry upright, they are, however, very heavy to carry. The bottles can be placed in a commercial wooden or plastic carrier but that can also be heavy.
I have a basket with divisions that will hold the bottles upright and balance the trusses. I happened to find it in a store and have never seen one since. A member of the Siuslaw Chapter in Oregon has designed and built a very clever lightweight carrier of hardboard and wood with large plastic syringe covers as containers for the trusses. As well as being lightweight, water is provided, and trusses are maintained separate and upright. By putting a small plastic syringe holder inside the larger one, small entries do not get lost. The container fits easily inside the trunk of a car and no, you do not have to buy a pickup truck with a canopy to carry the very long container holders that work well for some members.
When placing a truss in the bottle at the show, the truss should sit upright for the best presentation. Some members may use Styrofoam pieces used for shipping at the neck of the bottle to secure this position. If used, the foam should not be noticeable or detract from the truss.
If at all possible, secure entry cards before the show so they can be made out in the quiet of your home with your own reference books and not at the last minute in the confusion that always occurs at every show. Classify your entries if possible. At the show, be sure to place your entries on the classification table in time for them to be checked by the classification committee. Then they will be placed by the committee. Do not place or stage the entries yourself. If you can help, sign up next year to be on the committee; you will learn how to do this correctly so entries will be consistent and can be fairly judged. If you need help at the show do not worry about it, the classification committee is there to help you, just arrive early before the last minute entries overwhelm them.
Now your precious trusses or sprays have been entered, classified, placed, and will be judged. It is an exciting time, no matter how many years you have entered rhododendrons and azaleas in shows, it is a time full of hope that something you care about will be recognized as special. It is possible for anyone to win ribbons or even a trophy. Go have lunch and enjoy the suspense. When you return you may have a nice surprise and the suspense will be replaced with happy pride. At this time you know you will return next year and a delightful dimension has been added to your enjoyment of genus Rhododendron .