JARS v47n4 - Rhododendrons of the Carolinas

Rhododendrons of the Carolinas
Van Landingham Glen, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Lawrence Mellichamp
Charlotte, North Carolina

In 1961 the young campus of Charlotte College moved to its present thousand-acre site 10 miles northeast of downtown. In 1964 it became a full-fledged university, the fourth campus in the 16-member University of North Carolina system. In 1966 biology professor Dr. Herbert Hechenbleikner started a rhododendron garden on a heavily wooded slope at the edge of the property. The garden, like the rest of the history of this soon-to-be outstanding educational institution, is a story of growth.

Rhododendrons were not widely grown in the South back then. Dr. Ernest Yelton, a physician in Rutherfordton (60 miles west of Charlotte) was one of the very first to do so in the hot, humid Piedmont region. Charles A. Dewey, an electrical engineer, was a pioneer hobbyist in the Charlotte area, who in turn inspired the late Donald S. Kellam, Jr. to begin growing rhododendrons. By the mid '60s, the late Ralph Van Landingham, a successful businessman in Charlotte, had become interested in planting rhododendrons in his stately home garden and regularly ordered numerous budded plants from the West Coast. These flowered magnificently, were truly enjoyed, and often ended up as dead sticks by summer's end. However, the beauty of rhododendrons outweighed the difficulties of learning which ones to grow and how to cultivate them properly. Encouragement and financial backing provided by Mr. Van Landingham lead Herbert Hechenbleikner to begin planting them in the seemingly perfect wooded slopes on the college campus. (See The Quarterly Bulletin of the American Rhododendron Society , Vol. 23, No. 4, 1969, for the first photos of the site.) These early enthusiasts, Dewey, Kellam and Hechenbleikner, were charter members, in 1970, of the Piedmont Chapter of the ARS.

I was among the first students to help Dr. Heck (as we called him; nobody could ever spell "H-e-c-h-e-n-b-l-e-i-k-n-e-r'' anyway) plant rhododendrons in the young Van Landingham Glen. Many of these initial plants were unnamed hybrid seedlings donated by Dr. Yelton. They had R. fortunei involved in their parentage. A small handful of them have come through the years deserving recognition due to form, color and/or fragrance; the vast majority were average to poor. They all had to survive hot summers (up into the high 90s) with usually ineffective rainfall from thunderstorms. We did little watering in the early years. Winters were a blessing, with mild temperatures (rarely below 20°F) and adequate moisture. We were fortunate to have suitable loamy soil in the Glen. Much of the substrate (I hesitate to degrade the concept of the term "soil") in Charlotte is red clay - heavy and sticky when wet, hard as a brick when dry. After digging planting holes, the main job of student helpers back then was to untangle the choking twining vines of the relentless Japanese honeysuckle from the rhododendrons as we constantly fought the onslaught of the "wilderness of the woods" in keeping the Glen open for plantings.

R. 'Anah Kruschke'
'Anah Kruschke'
Photo by Lawrence Mellichamp

Dr. Heck also obtained numerous well-known varieties available in the East, and we had hundreds of plants arranged in four acres of high shade by 1970. Among the most commonly planted were: 'A. Bedford' 1 , 'Anah Kruschke', 'Anna Rose Whitney', 'Belle Heller', 'Blue Ensign', 'Caroline' (Gable), 'Catawbiense Album', 'County of York' 2 , 'Cunningham's White', 'Cynthia', 'Doncaster', 'English Roseum', 'Gomer Waterer', 'Grierosplendour', 'Janet Blair', 'Lee's Dark Purple', 'Madame Masson', 'Maxecat',* 'Mrs. C. S. Sargent', 'Mrs. Tom H. Lowinsky', 'Nova Zembla', 'Roseum Elegans', 'Ruby Bowman', 'Sappho', 'Scintillation' SPA NE, 'The Hon. Jean Marie de Montague', 'Trilby', 'Van Nes Sensation' and 'Vulcan', plus probably another 50 or so less common varieties. Of all these, 'Anah Kruschke', 'Caroline', 'Catawbiense Album', 'Cynthia', 'English Roseum', 'Grierosplendour', 'Sappho', 'Scintillation', and 'Van Nes Sensation' have been the consistently best performers for producing flowers through the years of heat, drought, die-back and cold. Of course, the record -6°F in January 1985 killed practically every flower bud in the Glen, but hurt very few plants (most notably killed back was 'Anna Rose Whitney'). I would have to say that our most successful planting is a grouping of tall plants of 'Caroline' that still look great after tolerating the above hardships while growing in the full shade for 25 years. Some of our other varieties now tower 15 feet high and form complete forests of rhododendrons along the trails through the woods.

By 1972 the Glen had reached its maximum area of 7½ acres, and today has become a veritable oasis of green in a landscape of parking lots, dormitories and academic buildings. I like to think of it as a haven to find solace from the hustle of everyday life; a place to observe nature, listen to the birds, feel the textures of the plants and experience the smells of the woods.

I returned to UNC Charlotte to teach in 1976, and ultimately to oversee all aspects of the gardens. Dr. Heck remained after retirement to work in the gardens every day until 1990. About the time I took charge of managing the Glen in 1986, a decade of dry summers was forcing us to water more consistently using overhead sprinklers. This has generally led to improved quality of all the plants (and weeds!). An introduced Oriental grass call Microstegium vimenium began to spread in the cultivated areas in the mid 1970s; it has since become our nemesis. While seeds remain viable for at least three years in the soil, and unchecked plants can attain three feet in length, Roundup easily destroys the delicate growth. In September 1989 the 85 mph winds of Hurricane Hugo knocked down over 125 large trees in the Glen, but almost no desirable understory specimens were destroyed. Staff and volunteers spent over a year cleaning up the mess, and we benefitted from having extra light now in some sectors. We also learned that some rhododendrons definitely can not tolerate full sun in our hot summers. Those that did well, with adequate watering, were 'Anah Kruschke', 'Catawbiense Album', 'English Roseum', 'Grierosplendour', 'Maxecat', 'Mrs. C. S. Sargent', and 'Mrs. Tom H. Lowinsky'. Those that did poorly were 'County of York', 'Cunningham's White', 'The Hon. Jean Marie de Montague' and 'Madame Masson'.

R. austrinum hybrid
R. austrinum hybrid
Photo by Lawrence Mellichamp

Dr. Heck quickly realized that the success of the rhododendrons was not going to be the only thing that satisfied his desire to establish a garden on campus. For years he had been in charge of landscaping the grounds and had been famous for utilizing native plants whenever possible. Not only were magnolias, hollies, silver bells and hemlocks to his liking, but the numerous species of native rhododendrons and deciduous azaleas were a natural to plant in the Glen. He embarked on a campaign to collect the native evergreen rhododendrons - R. catawbiense , R. maximum , and R. minus - and sought to obtain representatives from as many different regions of the Carolinas as possible. He was especially interested in R. minus Carolinianum Group and visited many localities from the high mountains of North Carolina to isolated populations in the coastal plain of South Carolina, gathering seedlings of different flower colors to plant in the Glen. Added to this were numerous specimens of the easy-to-grow R. chapmanii from Florida obtained from growers. Through his friendship with such well-known nurserymen as Tom Dodd in Simms, Ala., Dr. Heck began to receive numerous shipments of native azaleas like R. austrinum , R. canescens and R. viscosum . Today we have over 1,800 blooming-size specimens of rhododendrons (species and cultivars) and almost 1,000 native azaleas (species and wild hybrids). Evergreen azaleas are not allowed.

R. 'Olin O. Dobbs'
'Olin O. Dobbs'
Photo by Lawrence Mellichamp

Dr. Heck's plan was to develop the Glen as a natural garden, primarily devoted to rhododendron hybrids and species of the world, and North American native azaleas, but with an eye toward incorporating numerous companion plants to make the Glen more interesting the year around. During those early years few native plants were grown in cultivation. As a life-long student of the diverse and interesting flora of the Carolinas, he began to accumulate native plants that were not available from nurseries. I believe this is how I became interested in botany, by going with Dr. Heck on his numerous collecting trips all over the two Carolinas. I never knew exactly where we were going, sometimes I'm not sure he even knew where we were (Have you ever been to Bug Hill, N.C.? It's not on the road map); but we never failed to collect specimens for the Glen. To this day, as my wife Audrey will attest, I don't go anywhere on a family outing that I don't bring back at least something for the Glen! (She's threatened to make me go on an ocean cruise so I won't be tempted.) But, really, this is how plants people operate, as you well know. One is always looking for that unusual plant, the unique opportunity to get a specimen, something rare to add to the collection, something to remind you of a time and a place, something beautiful that represents nature, something to show others for them to admire, something that might someday be a worthwhile horticultural subject, and for us teachers, something to show students that they might not otherwise get a chance to experience. It's all wrapped up together in what we call...living. I guess it's part of my natural tendency to collect things.

Over the years Dr. Heck managed the Glen as a one-man show. He would have some part-time hired help, or student volunteers; but he was virtually a jack-of-all-trades when it came to laying out paths, building bridges, burying water lines, repairing fences, removing fallen trees, and arranging rocks. In 1972 he built a rustic log cabin to serve as a tool house out of antique logs salvaged from an old barn. He would take any spare time during a normal day of teaching and administrative duties to "get a few licks in the Glen." The result is a miraculous assemblage of plants, stone, and water within a setting of towering deciduous trees, all with a notion to keep it as natural as possible. Because of his on-going efforts we have almost 1,000 species of native plants of the Carolinas. For example, we have over 400 species of trees and shrubs, including all the native magnolias, hollies, maples, and birches; over 75 species of ferns; and over 400 species of wildflowers and grasses. In recent years we have added over a dozen species of endangered plants. These extensive plantings are available for use by university classes as well as researchers. Numerous visitors come every year, estimated to be around 12,000, especially drawn by the famous spring rhododendron bloom. We continue to assert, as Dr. Heck always said, that the Glen represents the flora of the Carolinas "from the highest mountain peaks down to the edge of the sea." I think it is a delightful way to display a rhododendron collection and make a walk through the woods more enjoyable.

Van Landingham Glen
Van Landingham Glen
Photo by Lawrence Mellichamp

I believe one of the most significant aspects of our collections involves the history of a hybrid made, probably in the 1940s, by Joseph Gable, named 'Maxecat'. The hybrid name is still unregistered. He considered it an inferior hybrid, and apparently had no plans to distribute it. Specimens were acquired by Thomas Wheeldon of Richmond, who found it to be a tough plant that perhaps could be used as a hedge. In the early 1960s, young plants of 'Maxecat' were obtained by Mr. William Rabb, Jr., of Lenoir, N.C., who found them to be among the most disease resistant cultivars he had ever grown. He made plants available to Dr. Hechenbleikner in the late 1960s to try in the new garden on the UNC Charlotte campus. Dr. Heck planted and propagated until they became the most common plant in the Glen. The plants grow to 15 feet tall, have excellent pyramidal form, dark green leaves, distinctly reddish year-old stems, and numerous tight trusses of delightful pink flowers in late May. The plants never fail to bloom, even during droughts and very cold winters, and we have never lost a plant to die-back or root-rot. We consider it an excellent cultivar because of its toughness, beauty of form, and heavy blooming after most other varieties have finished, readily extending the season.

R. 'Maxecat'
Photo by Lawrence Mellichamp
Table 1. Dexter Hybrids from the Kellam Garden
'Acclaim' 'Gigi' AE 'Up Front'*
'Aronimink' 'Governor's Mansion' 'William R. Coe'
'Barnstable' 'Halesite Maiden' 'Winning Ways'
'Boulevard'* 'Josephine Everitt' 'Whittenton'
'Brown Eyes' 'Kelley' 'Zest'*
'C.O.D.' 'Koster's Choice'
'Dexter's Agatha' 'Merley Cream'* Non-Dexter Hybrids
'Dexter's Amethyst'* 'Mrs. W. R. Coe' 'Bellringer' (Consolini hybrid)
'Dexter's Appleblossom' 'Nathan Hale' 'Bright Prospect'
'Dexter's Champagne'* 'Parker's Pink' AE (Swarthmore hybrid)
'Dexter's Favourite' 'Pink Sparkler'* 'Newburyport Beauty'*
'Dexter's Glow' 'Red House'* 'Skyglow' (Veitch hybrid)
'Dexter's Orange' 'Rona Pink' 'Wellfleet'*
'Dexter's Orchid'* 'Scintillation' SPA NE 'Butter-and-Eggs' (Cowles)
'Dexter's Peppermint' 'Shawme Lake'* 'Cape White' (Cowles)
'Dexter's Pink Glory' 'Skerryvore Monarch'
'Dexter's Pink Satin'* 'Tan'
'Dexter's Purple'* 'Teaticket'*
'Dexter's Spice' 'Todmorden'
'Dexter's Vanilla' 'Tom Everett'
'Dexter's Victoria' 'Tripoli'
'Dorothy Russell'* 'True Love' (syn. of
'Elizabeth Poore'* 'Dexter's Honeydew')
'Georgette-of-Quail-Hollow' 'True Treasure'*

Just recently we have completed the latest chapter in the chronicle of the Van Landingham Glen. In May 1992, Dr. Donald S. Kellam passed away after a prolonged illness. During his last two years he made arrangements for the disposition of his life-long collection of rhododendrons, accumulated over 30 years. A selection of his plants were to be auctioned and sold to interested growers in the Southeastern District (with proceeds going to the Glen), and a large collection was to be moved from his estate to the Van Landingham Glen. Among his most prized plants were almost 60 named Dexter selections, which were transplanted in November 1991 by members of the Piedmont Chapter (see Table 1). Perhaps even more interesting because of their future potential are over 35 numbered plants representing selections of Consolini hybrids, Cowles hybrids from the Dexter Estate and Swarthmore hybrids (see Table 2). Don was a charter member of the Sandwich Club, an ARS study group formed just a few years ago to select and name good plants from these three groups of "Dexter grandchildren," as he used to call them. These were moved to the Glen in December 1992 and January 1993. With the help of Don's long-time friend Marshall Stilwell, these hybrids will be further evaluated in future years.

Table 2. Numbered Hybrids from the Kellam Garden
HP refers to Cowles hybrids from the Dexter estate
SW refers to Swarthmore hybrids from the Dexter estate
Consolini 25 SR HP 4-84 HP 508-69
Consolini 282 HP 28-86 HP734-152
Consolini 302 HP113-70 HP 76-67
Consolini 308 SR HP134-80 HP 85-80
Consolini 343 HP152-70 SW 12499-7
Consolini 50 HP238-71 SW 12500-11
Consolini 90 HP 240-67 SW 58 279-C
Consolini P-428 HP253-69 SW 58-281
Consolini P-75 HP255-71 SW58-281-C
Consolini P-85 HP265-71 SW 58-281 II
Consolini S-2 HP425-71 SW 58-281 M

Finally, during the winter of 1993, Jan Truitt, manager of the Glen, and student workers, have moved another 100 large rhododendrons from the Kellam home to prime sites in the Glen. These will be grown in an area that Don himself selected, and they will be identified as having come from him. The Kellam Collection will serve as a public commemoration of his love of plants and people. Their addition greatly increases the value and interest of the Van Landingham Glen as an outstanding public rhododendron garden. In addition to the named varieties and species (see Table 3), there are dozens of choice flowering-size hybrid seedlings in the collection.

Table 3. The Kellam Collection
'Always Admired'* 'Frank Galsworthy' 'Roslyn' AE
'Beinecke Twenty'* 'General Eisenhower' 'Shaazam'
'Beinecke Seven'* 'Ginny Beale' 'Hoxie's Freckles'*
'Brocade' 'Goldsworth'* 'Hunting Hill'
'Brookville'* 'Gosh Darn!' 'Frances Shannon Racoff'* Selected form of R. makinoi
'Captain Jack' 'Haag's Choice'
'Charlene'* 'Hallelujah' AE NW 'Markeeta's Flame'
'Chesterland' 'Heatherwood'* 'Mary Fleming' AE
'Delayed Event'* 'Helen Everitt' 'Maud Corning'
'Delkyn'* 'Holden' 'Misty Morn'
'Dexter's Pink Glory' R. adenopodum 'Mrs. P. D. Williams'
'Don Kellam' R. brachycarpum 'Nestucca'
'Donna Hardgrove' Selected form of 'Snow Shimmer'
'Norman's Freckles'* R. decorum 'Solidarity'
'Olin O. Dobbs' R. degronianum subsp. heptamerum (formerly R. metternichii ) 'Spellbinder'
'Painted Star' 'Spring Frolic'
'Paul R. Bosley'* R. minus Carolinianum Group 'Sunlit Snow'
'Paul Mauney' 'Susan Everitt'*
'Peach Beauty'* R. hyperythrum 'Swansdown'
'Peggy's Freckles' R. makinoi 'Taurus' SPA NW
'Pink Butterflies' R. pseudochrysanthum 'Terrific'*
'Pink Walloper'* R. ungernii 'Trude Webster' SPA
'President Roosevelt' R. yakushimanum 'White Gold'
'Purple Lace' 'Rochelle' 'Winey Pink'*
'Early Accent' 'Rocket' 'Wyanokie'
'Flaming Snow'

In the South, just as in the North and West, it has happened that colleges and universities have developed outstanding gardens and arboretums whenever a member of the faculty has been interested in starting them. I maintain that it is impossible to simply pay someone to create a fine garden; it must be a labor of love. Because of this, you will usually find a dedicated individual behind every successful endeavor, providing labor, organization, inspiration and financial backing. The Botanical Gardens at UNC Charlotte fit well into this tradition. Mr. Van Landingham left a modest endowment to help maintain the Glen; we also receive contributions from members of the community. There is a board of trustees, consisting of Dr. Hechenbleikner, banker Thomas Payne, and Dr. Bonnie Cone, founder of UNC Charlotte. Their job is to see that the Glen is provided for.

The Van Landingham Glen is a significant public garden in the South and an important resource of the university. Dr. Hechenbleikner, in September 1992, received the prestigious Governor's Award of Excellence for his work in establishing the Glen and other gardens at UNC Charlotte. We hope to continue to maintain what we have and to expand our plantings, making them available for viewing, teaching and performance testing. Having just celebrated our 25th anniversary in 1991, we are looking forward into the 21st century with all the anticipation and satisfaction that rhododendron breeders must have as they make crosses and nurture seedlings, realizing that their full glory will not always be seen during the lifetime of the creator. We invite you to visit and share in this treasure.

Dr. Lawrence Mellichamp is an associate professor of biology at the University of North Carolina Charlotte and oversees the University's Botanical Gardens.

Editor's Notes:
* Unregistered but not in conflict with a registered name.
1 'A. Bedford' is a synonym of 'Arthur Bedford'.
2 'County of York' is a synonym of 'Catalode'.