JARS v42n2 - Backyard Hybridizing

Backyard Hybridizing
How An Eastern Couple Succeeded Beyond Expectations
Richard H. Gustafson, Ph.D.
Lawrenceville, New Jersey

The production of new and interesting rhododendron hybrids is in large measure in the hands of amateur plant breeders. "Amateur" in this sense means "not for profit" and also "on a small scale with limited resources". An examination of the hundreds of new crosses offered every year through the ARS Seed Exchange, although a fraction of the total activity, provides insight into the role of the amateur. Large numbers of hybrids presented for registration are from hobbyists.

Of the many people engaged in amateur hybridizing, rarely does one see a husband-and-wife team, each bringing the same enthusiasm to their endeavors. Ben and Marion Shapiro have been collaborating in equal measure for more than 30 years, each has shared in a mutual sense of accomplishment. They started collecting rhododendrons in the early forties, mostly ironclads, reliable but without distinctive colors or flower size.

Their property, in the suburbs of East Brunswick, New Jersey, originally consisted of a too-dense wooded area of oaks, dogwoods and beeches growing on about an acre of well drained but poor soil. Very little light, a thin layer of topsoil and a thinner covering of leaf mold presented immediate problems. Original efforts with perennials and flowering shrubs were predictably a failure.

Marion, from New York City, and Ben, from across the Hudson in Linden, came from a background devoid of gardening or horticultural experience. Neither had pursued this latent interest in college. Their failure with plant species demanding more light impelled them to consider ericaceous plants. They began their rhododendron collection with 'Old Port', followed by 'Catawbiense Album', 'Mrs. C.S. Sargent', 'Caractacus', 'Charles Bagley', 'Ignatius Sargent', 'Dr. H.C. Dresselhuys' and other hardy hybrids available at the time.

In the 1950's an article in the Saturday Evening Post described the efforts of Joseph Gable of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. He was trying to produce improved rhododendron varieties suitable for the relatively inhospitable Northeast, but with the highly sought after features seen in plants from more favorable climates. This laudable aim intrigued the Shapiros so they promptly decided to travel the 180 miles to Stewartstown to see first hand what Mr. Gable was doing.

Shapiro Garden
Shapiro Garden
Photo by Richard H. Gustafson

Several hours spent in their first visit were enough to put them firmly on the path to collecting and hybridizing. They absorbed a small portion of his knowledge and a large supply of his enthusiasm. The Shapiros returned to East Brunswick with new aspirations as well as new plants.

From the beginning they hybridized for themselves, to fill their own property with beautiful plants and to enjoy the creative process. In addition to the plants from Joe Gable, breeding stock was acquired from Russ and Velma Haag, Ted Kordus, Roland de Wilde and a few West Coast nurseries. Kordus' plants were primarily from the nursery of Hardgrove on Long Island, many of these had unusual and beautiful colors. Two fine plants of obvious English origin but unknown heritage were acquired from de Wilde. These were 'Slocock 24' and 'Slocock's Late White'. Other cultivars spending varying lengths of time in the Shapiro garden included 'Naomi', 'Essex Scarlet', 'Mrs. Furnival', 'Jean Marie de Montague', 'Souvenir of W.C. Slocock', 'Bonfire', 'Pygmalion', 'Van Nes Sensation', 'Goldsworth Yellow', 'Graf Zeppelin', 'Purple Splendour' and the species acquired from Gable, R. fortunei and R. brachycarpum 'Nikko Montanum'. Some of these plants did not make it for the long haul, but lingered long enough to leave their genes behind in their offspring.

Together Ben and Marion decided which crosses would be made, but when the time came, Marion prepared the flower and placed pollen on the stigma, collected the seeds and planted them. Of the many seedlings produced from their 107 crosses, most were discarded for a wide variety of reasons. Frequently the Shapiros were not in agreement as to which young blooming seedlings to keep for a while and which to discard. Marion tended to be the defender of questionable seedlings while Ben tried to follow the maxim, "When in doubt, throw it out". Of course, it was necessary to discard the majority. Some plants on the borderline of good quality were presented to grateful friends and neighbors, casual gardeners with unsophisticated tastes in rhododendrons when compared to the high ideals that the Shapiros had set for themselves.

When pressed, Ben admits to a couple of mistakes. The first has to do with the amount of light reaching their garden. The original property was heavily shaded. The dogwood and beech trees, with their shallow antagonistic roots, were gradually removed. Ben believes that many of the oaks should also have been eliminated, allowing more light and fewer years to blooming. This might have permitted earlier and perhaps wiser decisions. He also feels that some of the plants selected for breeding stock were used prematurely, before their growth characteristics had been sufficiently evaluated. However, it was usually not possible to see mature specimens of many of the cultivars they had chosen and impractical to wait long enough to justify their use.

Seed was usually sown in January on a top layer of moist milled sphagnum spread on a mixture of peat moss and sand. Fixtures with fluorescent bulbs in the basement provided light until the arrival of warm weather. Seedlings were transplanted to flats when they reached manageable size. There they stayed until they could survive in the ground over winter, usually 15 to 16 months after sowing.

Each plant was given plenty of room to grow. Indeed most surviving seedlings continue to exist today as large solitary plants. Both Shapiros approve of the aesthetics provided by this manner of landscaping, with each plant presented as an individual specimen rather than part of a wall of tightly packed foliage. The beds have been outlined with logs and stones in order to retain the mulch of fallen leaves, which over the years has decomposed into a layer of rich, organic soil. Tree branches have been removed to a height of about 30 feet. This has provided increased light and a clear vista of rhododendrons and azaleas.

The Shapiros' hobby has been reinforced by membership in the American Rhododendron Society and close association with fellow members of the Princeton and New Jersey Chapters, including the remarkable Guy Nearing. They maintained their association with Joe Gable, with only rare visits, but many years of correspondence. A batch of three inch seedlings from Gable yielded a superior plant of apparent R. catawbiense heritage which has been given the name 'Passing Fancy'.

R. 'Starbright'
Photo by Richard H. Gustafson

Both Shapiros agree that the greatest number of worthwhile plants of their breeding was from seed produced by 'Essex Scarlet' when mated to a hardy R. fortunei provided by Gable. One hundred and twenty seedlings of this cross were evaluated as blooming plants and twenty three have been named. None of these have the open growth habit characteristic of their red parent. Three of them are listed by the Shapiros among their dozen best hybrids. Another source of hardiness provided by Gable was R. brachycarpum 'Mikko Montanum', which he predicted would not bloom for 20 years. It proved Gable a prophet by blooming exactly 20 years later. Fortunately, the offspring of this plant have taken far less time to present their floral display, many are quite good, with excellent foliage and hardiness.

One of their select hybrids is 'Eileen Driscoll', offspring of the American and English superstars, 'Scintillation' and 'Naomi', although the Shapiros emphasize that handsome rhododendron parents often have large numbers of homely children. Another fine plant from 'Naomi' is 'Bellwether', but this has proven somewhat difficult to propagate.

R. 'Bellwether'
Photo by Richard H. Gustafson

All of the Shapiro crosses were numbered and when the individual plants were placed in the ground, they were further identified in notes by bed-location. Ben and Marion have been very careful to keep accurate records of every seedling. After several blooming seasons, those that were considered deserving were named. Ben cautions against judging a plant after seeing it bloom only once, as the second blooming is very likely to be an improvement. On a few rare occasions, plants have not lived up to their initial promise and were discarded after being named.

One fine purple has been named for the Shapiros' daughter Janet, and a white has recently been named for Marion. Ben is still waiting. One appealing semi-dwarf honors a neighborhood child who died at the age of three. It is called 'Kristen Marie'. Many of the Shapiro hybrids bear more exotic labels, such as 'Odalisk', 'Carte Blanche', 'Cynosure', 'Accolade', 'Cum Laude', 'Summa', 'Magnificat', 'Lissome', 'Largesse', 'Sonatina' and 'Angelus'. These imaginative designations suggest correctly that they were provided by a cultivated couple having broad interests.

R. 'Kristen Marie'
'Kristen Marie'
Photo by Richard H. Gustafson

The Shapiros have pursued their avocation diligently for several decades, with only recent awareness that their accomplishments might provoke wider interest than they expected. Their garden has drawn increasing attention from rhododendron fanciers at blooming time. Cuttings of their hybrids have been distributed through the Princeton Chapter, and recently nurseries in Pennsylvania and Long Island have taken steps to propagate them.

Ben and Marion are popular speakers, yet even this is a collaboration. Ben usually describes their work with wit and good humor. He shows slides of their hybrids, and Marion always sits in the front row ready to add her "two cents worth" or to come to the rescue when the heritage of a particular plant eludes Ben's memory.

R. 'Hardy Splendour'
'Hardy Splendour'
Photo by Richard H. Gustafson

The many beds, paths, and wooden identifying labels need maintenance work, but the hard labor is not quite as intense these days. Marion still feels the need to exercise her green thumb, so every year she plants and tends a large vegetable garden a mile away at a friend's home. Dinner guests at the Shapiros' home can count on wonderful, unusual vegetables. Ben is an avid reader who indulges a long standing passion for classical music. He still enjoys adding to their collection of rhododendrons and azaleas and is delighted when he acquires a new plant of particular merit. Their own seedlings continue to be rigorously evaluated even though the youngest are more than ten years old. Shyness of bloom, deficiencies of habit or hardiness are sufficient causes to relegate them to the category of "tested and found wanting". Ben rarely walks through the garden with visitors without carrying his long-handled weeding tool, just in case an unwanted competitor has appeared.

The Shapiros have spent a large part of their 50 year marriage collecting, hybridizing and evaluating with the sole intention of bringing beauty to their immediate environment. Nevertheless, it is beginning to appear that many of us will be beneficiaries of their extensive labors and dedication.

The Shapiros' Favorite Hybrids
'Accolade' 'Essex Scarlet' x R. fortunei Pink and white with dark eye
'Cynosure' 'Essex Scarlet' x R. fortunei Pink and white, large truss
'Fortune Cookie' 'Essex Scarlet' x R. fortunei Pink with markings in throat
'Carte Blanche' R. brachycarpum 'Nikko Montanum' x 'Bonfire' Pink blush fading to white, exceptionally good foliage
'Starbright' 'Vulcan' x 'Slocock 24' White with red edge
'Hardy Splendour' 'Purple Splendour' x 'Purpureum Grandiflorum' Dark purple, ruffled, dark flare
'Janet Shapiro' 'Purple Splendour' x 'Purpureum Grandiflorum' Purple with dark blotch
'Eileen Driscoll' 'Scintillation' x 'Naomi' Pale pink, early, large truss, good foliage
'Bellwether' 'Red Yard' x 'Naomi' White flowers with heavy substance
'Kristen Marie' 'Chionoides' x 'Graf Zeppelin' White, rose edge, holds foliage, semi-dwarf
'Marion Shapiro' 'Slocock's Late White' x 'Mrs. P. D. Williams' White, brownish blotch, large formal truss

Dick Gustafson, an active member of the Princeton Chapter, has long been an admirer of the Shapiros and their hybridizing efforts.