A Letter from Halfdan Lem
Reprinted from the California Chapter newsletter Spring 1992.
Dear Mrs. Laib,
It was very kind of you to write to me and give me such a good explanation about the young rhododendrons you got from me a few years ago. Also, about your life in Germany, England and now at last in Berkeley, U.S. Well, that is the way it ends up with so many of us.
I left Norway for Alaska in 1911. Was there for 20 years in the fishing industry and then moved to Seattle in 1933 to start the nursery. I guess I was the first on this coast to start with rhododendrons. I should know something about them by now.
The rhododendrons you mention in your garden should be quite nice varieties and I should almost expect some of them to start blooming by spring. But what can be wrong with 'King of Shrubs' x 'Golden Yellow'* is quite strange also to me. Most possible you have been too good-hearted to it. I notice you fertilize with both fish oil and iron - this is dangerous stuff! Most so in a long run. We have found barn manure to be the safest. Put on as a solution early spring. A plant not doing well shouldn't have any more fertilizers - as it may already be stunted by too much.
Whenever any of our customers have rhododendrons which stop blooming and growing, we have found over-fertilizing to be the cause. But in many cases they have saved their plants by digging them and then shaking most or all soil from the roots. They will then again plant it in plain moist peat moss without any soil or even sand in it. If so the roots are still alive, they will usually sprout from the roots and grow to strong plants in a year or two...Fish oil is very good for all plants if you are very careful with and never use it any stronger than the prescription. And only once each month - very most so.
Of course, I know your water there is not as soft as it should be for rhododendrons. Otherwise R. pemakoense is one of the most easy growers and bloomers we have here. So try to take off on the fertilizers and use more water when the weather is dry...Among so many new hybrids I will once in a while find a few very rare rhododendrons among them. Last year I spotted one with the new leaves as red as any red flower - lasting for a month or more. I found another with variegated leaves similar to an aucuba. Then I have some with bright, light-green leaves like they are varnished. Others have heavy brown or white indumentum (wool) underneath the leaves. The leaves count a lot on rhododendrons. It is here the interest comes in. Well, I hope you understand my Norwegian-U.S. writing. Sometimes you must let me hear from you again.
Editor's Note: * designates an unregistered hybrid. The name does not conflict with that of a registered clone.