JARS v47n1 - From the President

From the President
Feathers to Flowers
Gordon Wylie
Eugene, Washington

A few years ago the place in our house where I pursued another of my hobbies - fly tying - was usurped by a different undertaking. The hooks, the feathers, the furs, the threads and other materials, and the tools by which one fashions those ingredients to entice fish, became instead a place of seed packets and all the other paraphernalia of the ARS Seed Exchange. The changed scene has proved quite fascinating, and I would like to share with the membership some brief observations and thoughts from this opportunity to see the day to day workings of the Seed Exchange.
Contributions of seed, orders, comments and inquiries come from virtually all comers of the globe, and the postage stamps from the many different countries represented are an interesting study by themselves. They are in many instances truly an art form. The often vivid colors, particularly from countries other than the United States, and unending variety of subjects provide what must be one of the reasons attracting many to stamp collecting. Though not personally a collector, it's not difficult to literally see what surely must be one of the attractions of philately.
The mail also serves as a striking reminder of the extensive impact made possible by the very existence of the American Rhododendron Society. Clientele of the Seed Exchange range across both eastern and western Europe, Asia, the Americas, New Zealand and Australia. In many instances propagation by seed is apparently the primary source for new plants. A wonderful trading alliance!
Most rhododendron gardeners soon realize the seed of their favored genus is very tiny - in many instances little more than dust like. That one of those diminutive specks may some day reach the proportions of a large tree is awesome. But are you aware of other variations that occur in rhododendron seed? Some for example, are quite sticky; other varieties may provoke an allergic sneezing response; or colors, the shades of golden brown or buff are in many instances strikingly beautiful.
The creativity of the pollen daubers among our membership is yet another source of fascinating reflection. Each year's catalog lists hundreds of crosses all made, I'm sure, with the hope of creating a newcomer to the ranks of widely grown hybrids. Tangible evidence that each flowering season engenders thoughts of presiding over a mating of the decade, or perhaps the century. And hybridizers become quite focused in seeking just the right genetic mix for such things as growth habit, heat and cold tolerance, flower color, and so on.
The seed catalog often offers collections from well known gardens. Hybrid crossings from those gardens will sometimes represent the joining of plants not widely grown; or consider the pleasure and pride of germinating and growing plants from hand pollinated examples of the finer forms of species found in a great garden. A grower may thus travel vicariously to many of the renowned gardens through his or her seedlings.
I am further impressed by the splendid generosity of gardeners in sharing their time and expertise. Choosing crosses to make or determining species to self pollinate requires more than casually dabbing a bit of pollen on a stigma. Prior thought and record keeping is essential. Pollination doesn't always take even with repeated tries, and the frustration of no seed from some efforts must be endured. Seed capsules have to be gathered and dried at the proper time after several months wait, the seed extracted and different kinds kept separate, and then forwarded to the Seed Exchange with identifying information. None could afford the resulting seed were this not a labor of love.
And then there is the wild collected seed. We marvel at the conditions faced by Kingdon-Ward and Forest et al., but our modern day collectors find it only marginally easier. Speaking of which, the 1993 catalog promises to contain a wide array of recent collections from native habitats. These are likely to include species not previously in cultivation. Here we will have a wonderful opportunity to be among the first with newly discovered plant material.
Though growing methods are well beyond the scope of this article, they need not be a complex or expensive undertaking. A member of the Birmingham Chapter, Richard Cooper, recently sent pictures to the Seed Exchange of his effective arrangement achieved with an investment of under $200. Its ingredients include a bed of well moistened pine bark over a heat cable. This is enclosed within a tent of plastic suspended on a simple framework of PVC pipe. The resulting growth chamber is lighted with fluorescent shop light controlled by a timer, and utilizes clear plastic boutonniere boxes containing the growing medium on which the seed is sowed. The pictures illustrate many boxes within this relatively small space capable of producing hundreds of plants.
Yet another subject of fascinating contemplation is the positive effect of the rhododendron growing cycle on one's own lifetime. These plants generally require at least four or five years from germination before flowering and years beyond that for proper evaluation. And yet the Seed Exchange numbers among its participants folks in their eighth or even ninth decade. Of course, after the first several years the grower may look forward each year to first flowers and further evidence of other characteristics in new plants. I suspect the on going anticipation of this cycle may add to our own years.
I hope I have captured, by these few comments, something of the spirit embodied in ARS members and their enthusiasm by this one activity. The Seed Exchange exists by and for all of our members, and would not be possible on its present scale without the existence of the American Rhododendron Society. This is, I would argue, a significant contribution to making our world a more interesting and pleasant place.