JARS 42n3 - More On The Evergreen Azalea 'Ben Morrison'

More On The Evergreen Azalea 'Ben Morrison'
William C. Miller, III
Bethesda, Maryland

On June 12, 1984, John L. Creech, former Director of the U.S. National Arboretum, met with representatives of the Azalea Society's Glenn Dale Preservation Project for a walkthrough of the "woods planting" at the Glenn Dale Plant Introduction Station in Glenn Dale, Maryland (1). That event lead to an important discovery in the quest for information concerning the evergreen azalea 'Ben Morrison', a particularly popular cultivar in the Washington metropolitan area.

While searching in an old storage facility called "Al's House" (2) for an old ledger - the documentary key to the organization of the "woods planting", a new piece of evidence was uncovered that provides another facet to the puzzle. In the back of the old file cabinet which contained the ledger was found a small mounted poster (Figure 1). The caption beneath the picture states unequivocally that 'Ben Morrison' was developed from a series of crosses between Belgium and Glenn Dale azaleas. The significance of the poster is that it constitutes tangible evidence which contradicts the long held and popular belief that 'Ben Morrison' is a sister seedling to the Glenn Dale 'Surprise' [('Vittata Fortunei' x 'Louise') x 'Adzuma-no-hana'], which it does fairly resemble (3, 4).

Poster showing 'Ben Morrison'
Figure 1 Poster showing 'Ben Morrison'
Photo by William C. Miller, III

Over the years, there has been no shortage of theories concerning the origin of 'Ben Morrison'. There are many hybrid groups to which 'Ben Morrison' could reasonably be attributed. With so little evidence having come to light, one had little choice but to accept the 'Surprise' sister seedling relationship explanation. Further, if one chose not to accept the relationship with 'Surprise', then one was faced with the intellectual obligation of having to come up with a better answer - "if not this, then what?" Without benefit of the poster, one could reason that 'Ben Morrison' might be:

1.  one of more than 70,000 unnamed Glenn Dale hybrids unrelated to 'Surprise',
2.  one of nearly 1,200 un-introduced Belgian-Glenn Dale hybrids,
3.  a sport of 'Luna' ( kaempferi x 'Shinnyo-no-tsuki'),
4.  a derivative of one of the three Chugai crosses which were tangentially associated with Morrison's Belgian-Glenn Dale project,
5.  a selection from another source completely unrelated to any of the above.

The poster has provided an opportunity to refocus - to reconsider the existing body of evidence in a new light. Against this background, the poster must be evaluated for fit.

To some, the poster would seem to provide the final word on the matter. Certainly, 'Ben Morrison' must be a Belgian-Glenn Dale hybrid. Is that really what the poster says? Setting aside the fact that the name Glenn Dale is misspelled (Glen Dale) in the text beneath the picture, I am not entirely comfortable with the poster. I have not been able to discover who prepared it, when it was prepared, or what it was used for. The fact that must not be over-looked is that even if the poster is correct and one parent is a Belgian and the other a Glenn Dale, one must resist the most obvious conclusion. It does not necessarily follow that 'Ben Morrison' is one of the 1200 seedlings from the Belgian-Glenn Dale project (5). It could be totally unrelated to the work that has come to be known as the Belgian-Glenn Dale hybrids and still be consistent with the evidence.

It is likely that the poster was produced circa 1968, the year that 'Ben Morrison' was introduced. I would expect that by 1968, some six years after the Belgian-Glenn Dale hybrids were released, that the term "Belgian-Glenn Dale" would have become established and in common use. In fact, it should be noted that the term does appear in the second edition of Lee's The Azalea Book (1965). While the absence of the words "Belgian-Glenn Dale" under the picture is not a major cause for concern, it does prevent us from dispensing with what remains as the central question. Is it or is it not a Belgian-Glenn Dale? Without knowing more about the poster, we are only slightly better off than before. I would suggest, therefore, that the primary value of the poster is that it helps us narrow the field of possibilities; that is, it tells us what 'Ben Morrison' is not.

The Chugai crosses (5), one of Morrison's lesser known efforts, looked ripe with possibilities prior to the discovery of the poster. They involved crosses which I felt were capable of producing a 'Ben Morrison', and they were a group about which I could discover very little. The crosses involved 'Shinnyo-no-tsuki', 'Jindai', and 'How Raku', acquired from the Chugai Nursery, and the Glenn Dale 'Bravura', which also is of Satsuki extraction ( indicum 'Tamasugata'). I found nothing to indicate that any of the product from these crosses was ever part of an introduction, so the material and its disposition was and remains something of a mystery. Certainly some of this material was around and therefore present in the pool of available candidates (greenhouse odds and ends circa 1968) when the plant that was to become 'Ben Morrison' was selected. The poster would seem to make this possibility a dead end.

While the Glenn Dale hybrid activities were drawing to an end, a number of the later Glenn Dale hybrids ('Grace Freeman', 'Cinderella', and 'Satrap') were selections from a small garden somewhere at the Arboretum. Among the last selections, there is a reference in the Glenn Dale card file to a "V-type" (6) which is described as being better than 'Helen Fox'. Ironically, this specimen, by its circumstances alone, would be a strong candidate for 'Ben Morrison' since its Bell number does not appear as a final Glenn Dale. However, this would make 'Ben Morrison' one of the 70,000 unnamed Glenn Dale hybrids which is not consistent with the information provided by the poster. My conclusion is that this is an attractive coincidence.

As reported before, the Bell number associated with 'Ben Morrison', B42495, according to numerous records, was previously assigned to the Glenn Dale 'Luna' (7). Two plants sharing the same Bell number would seem to suggest either a relationship or an error. Without benefit of the poster, I could have been persuaded that 'Ben Morrison' was a sport of 'Luna' on the strength of the Bell number. As with the other theories, the poster diminishes the attractiveness of that proposition. Unfortunately, 'Luna' is one of the many Glenn Dales that is lost, thus making any physical comparison problematic.

An examination of the card for B42495 in the card file at the Glenn Dale station reveals two distinct forms of handwriting. The dominant one belongs to Morrison and the entry is dated "12-12-50". It contains information about cuttings having been taken, states that the "origin is undetermined", and describes the flower as large to four inches with rose margins and a very fine white center (8). The card states that the Bell number was assigned 12-12-50 and the appellation "B.Y.M.'s Special" appears in Morrison's handwriting. The interesting thing about the 1950 date is that it places the entry three years into Morrison's Belgian-Glenn Dale work, though again the timing could be coincidental.

R. 'Ben Morrison'
Figure 2 'Ben Morrison'
Photo by William C. Miller, III

The other discernable entry on the card, in a finer, more feminine hand, is dated "10/2/68". It is in this hand that the cultivar name 'Ben Morrison' appears.

While I do not believe that 'Ben Morrison' is related to 'Luna', there is evidence to suggest that 'Ben Morrison' is indeed a "sport". It is my understanding that the 'Ben Morrison'/'Surprise' floral pattern (irregular white border; Figure 2.) has never been recorded from seed, and according to Morrison, the 'Vervaeneana' type ("V-type") of floral pattern was recorded "only as a bud sport on striped or flaked varieties" (9). 'Janet Rhea', the Linwood hardy hybrid, also demonstrates the white border and is known to be a sport (10). I conclude, therefore, that 'Ben Morrison' is in fact a sport, and that it is unrelated to 'Luna'.

Recognizing that there was a problem with the Bell number for 'Ben Morrison', I was more excited than surprised when Ron Bare, then Curator of Azaleas and Rhododendron at the National Arboretum, mentioned to me that there was a plant at the Arboretum that he thought looked a lot like 'Ben Morrison'. He thought it was tagged B44824 which I knew placed it with the Belgian-Glenn Dale hybrids.

I had recently completed a study of the Belgian-Glenn Dale hybrids and recognized that this provided a credible answer to the question "if not this, then what." I found plenty of references to B44824 in various lists and documents from the records at the Glenn Dale Station, but no description.

After considerable hunting last December (1986), I located B44824 under a large tupelo tree on the outside edge of the lower path that leads in the direction of the Morrison Garden at the Arboretum. I made a mental note of the location and made plans to return in the spring. This past spring, I returned to discover a smaller pinkish-red flower in which I could discern no similarity to 'Ben Morrison'. The color was not right though it was blooming with 'Ben Morrison', which I discovered in bloom not too far away. It could not be confused with 'B.Y. Morrison' either (3). There was no indication of flower variability, so I concluded that it was not likely that 'Ben Morrison' was a sport of B44824.

On the strength of Morrison's comments, I believe that 'Ben Morrison' is probably a sport. That, however, is about as far as I can take it. I do not believe that the mechanism and action of sporting is sufficiently understood to permit us to rule out or confirm relationships between plants without resorting to highly technical, cytological studies.

Consider plant habit, for example. The habit of 'Surprise' is suggestive of its indicum heritage [('Vittata Fortunei' x 'Louise') x 'Adzuma-no-hana']. Intuitively, I would not expect the Chugai crosses to produce characteristically columnar plants either. 'Luna' would be expected to exhibit an indicum type of habit and, in fact, is described in Monograph 20 as "spreading rather than tall." 'Ben Morrison', in my experience, is very upright.

We are most familiar with the phenomenon of sporting as it relates to flower color, but could it extend to other or potentially all characteristics including plant habit? Could sporting produce tissue of a generally columnar tendency from a plant which is typically spreading and wider than tall? As we learn more about sporting or somatic cell mutations, perhaps our understanding of relationships and the heritability of phenotypic characteristics will improve.

To my knowledge, the poster is the first and only definitive evidence on the origin of 'Ben Morrison'. While it does not fully resolve the controversy to my satisfaction, it does seem rather hard to ignore. I believe it lays to rest the popular belief that 'Ben Morrison' is a sister seedling to 'Surprise'. Pending the discovery of additional clarifying evidence, I believe that 'Ben Morrison' should be considered a sport and referred to as a "Morrison" hybrid.

Notes And References
2.  "Al's House" is a reference to Albert Close, Morrison's chief grower at the Glenn Dale Station. Certain station staff members were provided quarters or housing on the station grounds, a practice which continues today.
3.  Evans, C.H., "Origins of the Evergreen Hybrids 'Ben Morrison' and 'B. Y. Morrison'". THE AZALEAN, 6:11-12 (1984).
4.  Miller, W.C., "The Evergreen Azalea Cultivar 'Ben Morrison'". American Rhododendron Society Quarterly Journal 38:178-179 (1984).
5.  Miller III, W.C., "The Belgian-Glenn Dale Hybrids," THE AZALEAN, 6:33-35 (1984).
6.  "V-type" is a reference to the Belgian azalea cultivar 'Vervaeneana'. It is recorded in Galle's book as a "sport of a seedling named 'Pharailde Mathilde' " and is described as purplish red, RHS 58D, with a white margin.
7.  The Plant Introduction Station at Glenn Dale was often called "Bell Station". A "Bell number" was a working number assigned to crosses and a means of individual plant identification used prior to naming and the assignment of plant introduction accession numbers (P.I. number). All of the 454 Glenn Dale hybrids therefore would be expected to have a cultivar name, a P.I. number, and one or more Bell numbers. There would be one individual Bell number which identified that particular plant and one Bell number which reflected a particular cross from which that plant was derived. It is possible therefore to determine relationships (e.g., sister seedling relationships) between plants by tracing Bell numbers (an "audit trail").
8.  The description for 'Luna' in Monograph 20 (page 52) is "Plant spreading rather than tall, eventually to 5 feet. Leaves dark green. Flowers 3½ inches across, 2 to 3 in head, after the style of 'Alight' and 'Welcome', but with darker rose margins (almost Tynan Rose), with darker blotch and white eye. Mid- to late May."
9.  Morrison, Benjamin Yoe, The Glenn Dale Azaleas, U.S. Department of Agriculture Monograph 20, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (1953). Reprinted by Theophrastus Publishers, Little Compton, RI (1978) pp 12-13.
10.  Stecki, T.S., "The Linwood Hardy Azalea Story," THE AZALEAN, 8:17-20 (1986).

William Miller, life member of the Azalea Society of America and the ARS is currently co-chairman of the Glenn Dale Preservation Project of the ASA. Mr. Miller is active writing, lecturing and pursuing his interest in azalea history, hybridization and behavior.