JARS v44n3 - A Unique Garden in the Susquehanna Valley

A Unique Garden in the Susquehanna Valley
Glenn E. Wise
Carlisle, Pennsylvania

Travelling down Saw Mill Road in northern York County. Pennsylvania, is perhaps like traversing any country byway in the eastern United States. Until late summer of 1989, Saw Mill Road was an earthen road. The most rewarding time of the year to visit this area is in the spring when the hardwood forests display their full beauty. About halfway along the wooded, rolling expanse of the road a break occurs in a large stand of these hardwoods. This offers a most spectacular view as you turn north and move unto a stone driveway. Looking through the clearing you have a sense of entering paradise. This is where you catch your first glimpse of the blooming azaleas and rhododendrons on the property belonging to Dr. William (Bill) and Mrs. Wilma (Willi) Rhein.

The Rhein's property embraces some fifteen acres, from the wooded southern entrance to the beautiful fields north of the sprawling ranch style home. On either side of the driveway leading to the home you see Gable, Dexter, Hardgrove, Shammarello, and other notable rhododendrons and thousands of daffodils as well as evergreen and deciduous azaleas.

As you move through the original garden, the paths lead to micro-gardens where thousands of rhododendron seedlings catch your eye. These seedlings are a result of Bill's hybridizing efforts, an ongoing project for nearly a quarter of a century. The plants range from small seedlings transplanted several years ago to mature plants which have been in place for over twenty years.

As you gaze over the garden, your senses are aroused by the magnificent colors including pinks, reds, whites, purples, and blends to several shades of yellow. The latter is the major focus of Bill's hybridizing efforts. The garden is also complimented by companion plantings of dwarf conifers. Native wild orchids, dogwoods, and Rhododendron carolinianum flow in drifts from one section of the garden to another. Your eye is in a constant state of fascination as you are drawn into a deeper appreciation of Bill's knowledge, ability, and efforts.

The garden as it unfolds before you demonstrates Bill Rhein's success. This success is, however, a result of many failures. Bill has made over 150 crosses using hybrid stock and some species. He reports that most of these failed miserably, but suggests that the successes far outweigh the failures.

R. 'Wills-Willi'
([( R. catawbiense x R. fortunei ) x R. campylocarpum ]
x 'Golden Star')
Photo by Dr. William Rhein
R. 'Late Ensign'
'Late Ensign' ('Blue Ensign' x 'Purple Splendour')
Photo by Dr. William Rhein
R. 'Bird Wing' R. 'Dauphin 1'
'Bird Wing'
('Scintillation' x 'Mary Garrison')
Photo by Dr. William Rhein
'Dauphin 1'
('Golden Star' x 'Mary Garrison')
Photo by Dr. William Rhein
R. 'Carolines Find' R. 'Rhein's Picotee'
'Carolines Find'
('Scintillation' x 'Golden Star')
Photo by Dr. William Rhein
'Rhein's Picotee'
('Sappho' x 'Janet Blair')
Photo by Dr. William Rhein
R. 'Dark Throat' R. 'Linnaeus'
'Dark Throat'
('Lady Longman' x R. fortunei )
Photo by Dr. William Rhein
('Lady Longman' x R. fortunei )
Photo by Dr. William Rhein

In addition to beauty, Bill's concern in his hybridizing is hardiness. This is a necessity because temperatures in the garden can range from a severe cold of -15°F during the winter to a plant wilting 100°F during the summer. However, one real advantage for Bill is the fact that his garden area is blessed with some shade and exceptional fine sandstone soil which affords great drainage. In addition the typography has a northern sloping exposure.

As a young boy looking out over the banks of the Susquehanna River as it flows past Pennsylvania's capital city, Bill marveled at the myriad wildlife along its shoreline and islands. This view nurtured his love of all wildlife and eventually led to his interest in genetics. Each year Bill would witness the spring Warbler migration, and he spent many hours at his grandfather's farm watching this phenomenon.

It is because of this interest in natural history that Bill was able to buy the land for his present home. In the early 1960's while bird watching, Bill spotted native orchids growing along Saw Mill Road. He observed the pristine beauty of this secluded wooded area, and decided that this would provide a perfect location for a home and retirement. Bill purchased the property in a hasty transaction which required only three days to complete, and within two years the house as it now stands became his home. This new land gave Bill the opportunity to utilize his gardening skills. He had been involved in a successful dental practice for over 40 years, and was now able to implement concepts that could only be theory in a downtown Harrisburg apartment.

Indigenous to the site were R. nudiflorum ( R. periclymenoides ) and Kalmia latifolia , so Bill reasoned that rhododendrons would do well. He began to plant rhododendrons to amplify the beauty of the existing landscape.

One day the late Dr. Sam Curry was walking along Saw Mill Road looking for "Whipperwill Farm", a farm that he wished to purchase. He noticed Bill planting rhododendrons and stopped. Both men discussed their mutual interest in nature and the culture of rhododendrons, and a lasting friendship developed. Inviting his new friend to accompany him, Dr. Curry suggested that Bill might be interested in meeting Joseph Gable of Stewartstown, York County. This meeting provided the flame that would kindle Bill's passion for the next twenty-five years. Both men spent many hours together discussing various concepts. After numerous visits Bill reasoned that the time had come to begin a program to hybridize, to make crosses, to collect seed, and to grow young seedlings under heat and light in a basement turned greenhouse.

I too am a recipient of Bill's expertise. Many afternoons when I arrive home from work I know that Bill has paid a visit to my garden. There in front of my garage I find a generous supply of young plants identified by cross, accompanied by a note saying, "put them out back - somewhere - try them for a few years, and see what happens." Over the years I have followed this advice and many of these have become a permanent part of my garden.

Those of us in the Susquehanna Valley Chapter are proud of the accomplishments of Bill Rhein, proud to know him as a friend, and happy for all his well deserved success. His willingness to share his knowledge and materials, his time devoted to his craft, and his encouragement to all of us to improve our gardens is most appreciated. The genus Rhododendron have been much improved - thanks Bill!

Glenn Wise, an active member of the Susquehanna Valley Chapter, has been a friend of the Rheins for many years.