JARS v46n1 - Rhododendrons: Legacy and Challenge

Rhododendrons: Legacy and Challenge
American Rhododendron Society Annual Convention
Melville, Long Island, New York, May 13-17, 1992
Martha Prince
Locust Valley, New York

Long Island is a surprising place. The clustered towers of Manhattan loom to the west, yet on the East End a lone white lighthouse watches over the fishing boats, from high atop Montauk Point. Long years ago, many Indian tribes (the Shinnecocks, the Montauks, the Matinecocks, the Setaukets, and others of the Algonkian Nation) grew maize and pumpkins here and raked in clams on the sandy beaches. Dutch settlers came next, then the English. Although it may not be listed in most history books, the very first commercial nursery in America, called the Linnaean Botanic Garden, was founded in Flushing in 1737 by a man named Prince. In 1776, George Washington retreated after the brief Battle of Long Island, and there are several inns which can honestly advertise "Washington slept here". Another landmark, the family homestead of the poet Walt Whitman, still stands just north of our convention inn. Whitman celebrated Long Island as "Fish shaped Paumanok". Today fishing and farming still dominate much of the East End (with the addition of newer vineyards). A more recent era was one of great wealth, of lavish and glamorous estates, which brought to the North Shore a new title, "The Gold Coast". Some of this gilded glory remains. The headquarters of the New York Chapter is Planting Fields Arboretum, in Oyster Bay, once the spectacular estate of W.R. Coe, a tycoon in marine insurance. Happily for us, Mr. Coe loved rhododendrons, and we have here a very beautiful legacy. Other great estates are now public gardens, nature preserves, state and county parks, universities, an art museum, a planetarium, golf courses, and even corporate headquarters. Relatively few are still privately owned, but one of these, the Phipps estate, is another rhododendron mecca. It will be on one of the convention tours.

Boats in Huntington Harbor Lighthouse, Montauk Point
Boats in Huntington Harbor
Photo by Martha Prince
Lighthouse, Montauk Point
Photo courtesy of
L. I. Convention & Visitors Bureau

The New York Chapter has a long history, too. It was the first separate chapter of the society, founded in 1949, and soon boasted 21 members! The early meetings were in New York City, for that was before Planting Fields became a public garden. This year the Chapter will again be host to the ARS Annual Convention (our third), and we look forward to welcoming you to five days of interesting talks, beautiful gardens, and good fellowship.

The convention headquarters we have selected, the new very modern Radisson Plaza, is centrally located just off the Long Island Expressway, in Melville. The facilities for meetings, dinners, flower shows, et cetera, are well planned, well lit, and spacious. The hotel is also an excellent base for the garden tours we have planned for you.

Gardens on Tour

A special tour for early arrivals interested in nurseries (and those not! This one has some really great plants) is the Wednesday afternoon visit to Roslyn Nursery , Dix Hills, very near the Radisson Plaza. Phil Waldman, a practicing dentist in his other life, operates the best rhododendron nursery in our area, with the help of his computer-wise wife, Harriet. The nursery has grown to six acres and 26 greenhouses from the one quarter acre and one greenhouse with which it began in 1984. Phil grows about 1,000 different rhododendron and azalea varieties; of course he also has many interesting companion plants - from hardy camellias to ferns. A shuttle van will leave the hotel every half hour from 1 to 4 p.m., and you may explore the nursery at your own pace.

Planting Fields, across East Lawn
Planting Fields, across East Lawn
Photo by Martha Prince

On Thursday, we have several choices of All Day Tours from which you may select. All include a sit down buffet luncheon at Planting Fields Arboretum . This lovely place, more than 400 acres of gardens, lawns, woods and fields, was laid out by the famous Olmsted Brothers of Boston. Mr. W.R. Coe bequeathed his glorious "English" garden to the State of New York, and since 1955 it has been open to the public every day of the year except for Christmas. (A detailed account of Planting Fields appeared in the spring and summer issues of the Journal ARS for 1989.) The rhododendron species which can thrive on Long Island are all here, plus a comprehensive collection of hybrids. There is a lovely holly ( Ilex ) collection and a Synoptic Garden of shrubs suitable to this climate. You will enjoy the feeling of spaciousness amid the grand old trees - sweeping lawns are dotted with huge beech trees, lindens and oaks. A dwarf conifer collection inhabits a pretty dell; there is a heather garden, a fine collection of magnolias, even a collection of maples. In May, a colorful pink and white haze of flowering cherries and crabapples creates an exquisite effect. Rhododendrons and azaleas should be at the height of bloom - especially lovely will be the massed kaempferi azaleas and R. carolinianum along the Main Drive. Planting Fields is a very special place, and you are sure to enjoy and remember your visit. Director Gordon Jones and Assistant Director David Barnett will be our guides.

Planting Fields, Synoptic Garden
Planting Fields, Synoptic Garden
Photo by Martha Prince

The first of the private gardens is that of Richard Cohen , very near Planting Fields. This is a five acre showplace, meticulously designed and planted with the very choicest in dwarf conifers and Japanese maples. Broad lawns are inset with islands of taller conifers and ground covers; one spectacular island is centered by a venerable Sargeant's Hemlock ( Tsuga canadensis 'Sargeantii'), surprisingly trimmed up as though it were a huge bonsai. Smaller treasures include Pinus strobus 'Oliver Dwarf', Picea glauca 'Sander's Blue', Chamaecyparis thyoides 'Andelyensis', Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Intermedia', and literally hundreds of others. As the hilltop lawn slopes downward it melds into a terraced garden, with stone walls and steps. Far below lies a large and placid pond, complete with an island; this is surrounded by the Japanese Garden. A waterfall tumbles from the wooded hillside and keeps the clear water both moving and cold enough for the resident fish. These aren't the goldfish or carp you might expect to find, but salmon and trout! You will enjoy watching them glide and dart about. This is not a rhododendron garden (most of the plants are R. yakushimanum and its hybrids), but will appeal to everyone, not just conifer connoisseurs. The tours will be led by the owner and by gardener Edward Kinney. If you prefer to amble more slowly, you will find all the plants well labeled.

Murcott garden
Murcott garden, 'Gigi' on right
Photo by Martha Prince

The Murcott garden, in East Norwich, has three level and pleasantly shaded acres planted with thousands of rhododendrons. Dick began the garden in 1974,so many of the plants are mature; note the large and luscious 'Gigi' (AE) near a corner of the house. Dick calls himself an "eclectic" hybridizer, with a special interest in red and yellow elepidotes. The hybrid for which he is probably best known, however, is the gently pink lepidote 'Gertrude Saxe', which many of us grow. He expresses special fondness for the Nat Hess hybrid 'Margalit', for 'Mrs. Howard Phipps', for 'Sam Everitt, and for 'Mars' x 'Gill's Crimson'. Fine plants of these are ranged out beneath the trees, alongside many of his own crosses. The visitor will certainly notice the sunny yellow hybrids Dick is working on at present.

R. 'Mrs. Howard Phipps'
'Mrs. Howard Phipps'
Photo by Martha Prince

The Waldman garden, home grounds for nurseryman Phil, is in Roslyn. There are 3.5 acres altogether, with one of them in rhododendron and azalea seedlings; appropriately, most of these will bloom for the first time this spring, just in time to welcome convention visitors. The garden was begun in 1981, so there are a number of larger plants set in the pretty woodland. Companions include unusual conifers, rare perennials, lacy ferns, and groundcovers. Plants are thoughtfully grouped by color and blooming time, to give continued interest from early spring onward. Of course Phil and Harriet use their home as a "test garden" for the nursery, and many of his original hybrids are here. His introductions include the rhododendrons 'Floda', 'Fairy Mary', and 'Anita Gehnrich', and azaleas 'Green Glow', 'Florence Waldman', and 'Janice Lynn'. This latter, named for his daughter, is a lovely, rosy, semi-double, which is much admired.

Waldman garden, entrance planting
Waldman garden, entrance planting
Photo by Martha Prince

The last of the four private gardens on Thursday's tours is the charming Hess garden, in Sands Point. In the October 1991 issue of the Journal ARS , you will find a full description of a happy visit there last spring. It has only three acres, but seems far larger; Nat Hess designed it to hold varied surprises, linked by woodland paths. The visitor is beckoned from the entrance planting of azaleas, to the pool and rock garden, then on to an informal woodland setting and a Japanese garden. More meandering paths lead to the perennial garden, around a shaded lawn. The whole setting is lovely, with a glimpse of sailboats on Long Island Sound to be had from the deck of the house.

Old Westbury Garden
Old Westbury Garden
Photo by Martha Prince

On Friday, there is a half day garden tour offered for those who do not wish to spend all day at the smorgasbord of talks. Old Westbury Gardens is one of the grand estates of the Gold Coast era, now open to the public and maintained by a foundation. For more than 50 years it was the home of Mr. and Mrs. John S. Phipps, a marriage which combined the fabulous wealth of Carnegie Steel and the Grace Shipping Lines. One enters the estate through a double file of linden trees and emerges from the drive into an area of spacious lawns and specimen trees. The splendid red brick house, which is the centerpiece, was designed at the beginning of the century in the style of a Charles II manor house. Most tours of the gardens begin on the west terrace, under the shade of a magnificent American beech ( Fagus grandifolia ). The stone steps leading down to the pond garden descend through the main group of rhododendrons - most are the old standards, though very handsome. There are such things as 'Boule de Neige', 'Roseum Elegans', 'Van Nes Sensation', and 'Dr. H.C. Dresselhuys'. A wandering tour then proceeds via a boxwood garden - these plants were a hundred years old when brought from Virginia. A lilac walk, or alternatively a rose arbor walk, leads to the finest horticultural feature, the Walled Garden. This is a lovely perennial garden in the summer, but will be bright with tulips and other bulbs in May, when ARS members come.

There are small demonstration gardens - everything from a vegetable garden to the test garden for the All American Rose Selections (not in bloom in May), but the nicest thing to do is just to wander the estate. A woodland path goes round a pretty lake, home to some inquisitive Canada geese.

Just across the road is the garden of another Phipps, John S. Phipps' brother Howard. This large and lovely garden is still in private hands, that of Mr. and Mrs. Howard Phipps, Jr. The Phipps Estate is about 100 acres, the land having been a potato farm before World War I. This estate, like that of Old Westbury Gardens, is modeled after the grand estates of England. Mr. Phipps was first interested in peonies, then magnolias, but at last found a permanent love - rhododendrons. One enters the garden through a pine wood, planted expressly to give the high shade liked by rhododendrons. The greenhouses were built for the sole purpose of growing rhododendrons from seed.

The Phipps hybrids utilized seedlings from Dexter and pollen from Exbury. The plants introduced in earlier years (through Paul Vossberg) included the popular 'Westbury', 'Wheatley', and 'Brookville'; more recent introductions are the deep rose 'Mrs. Howard Phipps' and 'Martha Phipps' in palest yellow tinged with pink, both of which will be available at the Plant Sale. The estate is the setting for the test garden being established by the New York Chapter; although this is still in an embryonic state, it might be of interest to ARS people. The tour of the garden will be led by George Woodard, head gardener. George is continuing the hybridization program, and has some 10,000 seedlings growing on. For Saturday, there is an all day tour planned. The lovely hillside garden of the New York Chapter president, Werner Brack , and his wife Patricia, will be one stop. There are two acres, richly planted. Although the garden was begun in 1971, there was a heritage of ericaceous material already there; the native flora includes mountain laurel ( Kalmia latifolia ) in profusion, R. periclymenoides , trailing arbutus ( Epigaea repens ), pipsissewa ( Chimaphila maculate ), blueberries, and others, under a canopy of hardwood trees. Most of these are oak, but there are some beech and maple trees, too. The setting is perfect for the rhododendron and azalea garden the Bracks have built.

Werner has amassed a collection of more than 200 named rhododendron cultivars, plus a large collection of azaleas. His own hybridization program currently features over 1,000 seedlings, growing under field conditions. Many of Werner's crosses are with 'Janet Blair'; one of these is whimsically called 'Janet's Flair'. Another of Werner's hybrids is 'Voluptuous' ('Scintillation' x 'Mary Belle'), a luscious pink to be introduced at the Plant Sale.

The "Out East" destination of the Saturday tour is Environmentals , the specialists' nursery belonging to Jim Cross. Jim began the nursery 25 years ago on the site of an old vegetable farm. The concentration is on woody ornamentals for the wholesale trade. There are 10 acres, and Jim produces about 100,000 plants a year. The emphasis is on slow growing and dwarf plants, and ericaceous plants (principally rhododendrons, azaleas, Calluna and Erica ) make up the bulk of his production. Over the years, he has been looked to for the rare treasures no one else grows. His rhododendrons are all lepidotes, except for R. yakushimanum and a few of its hybrids. Evergreen azaleas are the late blooming dwarfs, such as Robin Hills and North Tisburys; the deciduous azaleas are our eastern natives, plus R. schlippenbachii . As you wander through the greenhouse areas you will be constantly delighted by choice forms of our native American plants; you will find Leiophyllum buxifolium prostratum and Caylussacia bracycera , with many others. There are dwarf conifers, Cytisus and Genistra , Daphne , dwarf Buxus , and Japanese maples.

Jim calls Environmentals a "fun nursery" and stresses that the goals are qualitative, not quantitative. Many of the plants are displayed to excellent advantage in the Cross' private garden, around their home within the nursery. This will be open for our exploration.

Adjacent to Environmentals is a large perennial nursery, The Plantage , belonging to Lois Woodhull. Visitors interested in rare perennials will find these 28 acres an interesting "browsing place". Lois' plants are large size ones, mainly grown for the landscaping trade. It is hard to believe that this 28 acres nursery was begun in 1973 as a hobby! Those who wish to visit may just walk over from Environmentals.

One brief but pleasant intermission from gardens is planned during this final tour a visit to the Pindar Vineyard, not far from Environmentals. A winery tour will be followed by a wine When planning a garden, it's a good idea to keep in mind planting associations. When one plant is in flower plan to have another plant nearby to either contrast or compliment it. This will help to show the best attributes of each.

To carpet the ground with the small early flowering Narcissus cyclamineus ; the size difference would be striking. Light conditions might be a problem, but with some could be overcome.

Just as we place rhododendrons in the garden to try to capture the late afternoon sunlight striking the back of the florets, we can create pleasant sights with planting combinations.