JARS 43n3 - Member's Forum Try, Try Again

Member's Forum Try, Try Again
Geoffrey Wakefield
Conroe, Texas

Just a year ago, full of the highest expectation and with the possibility of retirement to allow me more time, I embarked on a project to find a way to grow rhododendrons here in east Texas and therefore, throughout 'The South". Then disaster struck. Returning with me from a garden designing trip into Mexico, my darling wife Molly developed symptoms demanding the immediate attention of a doctor. The diagnosis, five brain tumors secondary to a small but inoperable lung cancer. She left me on July 14th - heartbroken. This and sundry other problems totally distracted me from my project. The result, total failure.
The loss of my Molly convinced me that whilst one can never forget, complete physical and mental occupation at least ease the pain. So here I go again, trying once more to grow rhododendrons. The work will proceed along five main channels:
1. To find rhododendrons that will grow under our conditions.
2. To investigate what modifications should be made to our existing conditions to improve the chances of success.
3. To attempt to perfect grafting of "real" rhododendrons on to southern azalea understocks.
4. To attempt to raise hybrids between "real" rhododendrons and southern azaleas.
5. To investigate chemical controls for some of the problems.
Item 1.Rhododendron in one form or another grow naturally in the widest range of conditions over a large proportion of the northern hemisphere, almost on the equator and in northern Australia. R. oblongifolium , the 'Texas Azalea" is native to the Big Thicket of east Texas. R. canescens is native to east Texas to Florida and north to North Carolina. R. serrulatum grows in sandy swamps from eastern Louisiana to Florida. True, they do vary somewhat from say R. sinogrande , R. thomsonii or R. arboreum . But they are rhododendrons and it proves that the genus, in some forms, can be grown here and therefore, leaves the door, ajar, if not wide open.
My work will be to test as wide a range of bloodlines as time and money will allow to establish which type, series or species may accept our conditions and those which will definitely not. In this way, we may be able to judge which hybrids may or may not succeed.
Item 2. Since comparable temperatures on similar latitudes do not preclude rhododendrons in other lands, we must investigate what conditions preclude them here and how to rectify or modify those conditions to make them more acceptable. The conditions I shall be looking at are:
A. Irrigation/Drainage. In Darjeeling, northern India, the monsoon breaks on April 1st and for three months, it rains every day, from showers to heavy and/or continuous downpours. But, the drainage is close to perfect. Drainage over much of the Gulf Coast is far from perfect. On land that is almost flat with soil that varies from fine sand to sandy silt to impervious clay and with a water table which may be merely a few inches below the surface, drainage IS a problem. My thinking is that since we have devised an excellent media for growing our nursery azaleas, to proceed on from it and find a media at least acceptable to rhododendrons.
B. Light. To investigate what type or depth of shade is best at what time of day for rhododendrons here.
Item 3. Reputedly, many of the problems with growing rhododendrons here on the Gulf Coast are root borne. Southern azaleas thrive throughout the area and I have seen them growing in some really awful soils and conditions. Therefore, if I can establish grafted regular rhododendrons on to Southern Indica understocks, at least we shall be that one small step further forward.
Item 4. Once again, working with the Gulf Coast hardy, southern azaleas, perhaps we can breed that Gulf Coast hardiness into regular rhododendrons in time to provide hybrids we can use here. The big problem is, we do not see many seed pods on southern azaleas. Nevertheless, we must try working with what regular rhododendron pollen we can get. We must also try to establish some rhododendrons here to act as seed parents to our southern azalea pollen.
Item 5. To experiment with various chemical controls for the many problems we foresee. Chemical control of diseases, of insects, soil adjustment, what have you. I am reluctant to embark on this type of work, partly from an environmental standpoint - there are more than enough poisons in the world already but also, I do not want to make rhododendron growing so difficult and expensive that few will join me in it. But, it has to be done.
All this will take time, patience, care, records and money. If any ARS member would care to donate ideas, experience, pollen, scions, perhaps even the odd plant, it would be most helpful. Maybe some would care to accept Southern Indica pollen to work on to their blooms. In this way, we shall be working as a team for a fine end result. If so, please let me know and I will send the pollen.
Paula Cash has already offered scions for which I am most truly grateful and an order has already gone in to Ted Van Veen for plants. Harold Greer will be hearing from me in due course.
Is this the dream of an old English gardener? Probably. Does it stand a chance? Fifty years ago, who would have forecast space travel, microwave ovens or personal computers? Yes! I believe it stands a chance. A good chance. At least it is worth trying.

P.S. Just today, I received my copy of the ARS Journal and there was an advertisement from C & T Nursery of Franklinton, Louisiana. I called at once and had a wonderful conversation with John Thornton. He has been working with R. hyperythrum and will be sending me some of his seedlings. So, you see, it CAN be done.