JARS v48n4 - Northwesterners Rate Their Rhodies

Northwesterners Rate Their Rhodies
Pat Halligan
Freeland, Washington

About one year ago, I was reminded that one duty of the long dormant ARS Ratings Committee was to recognize older rhodies that have proven their worth. As chairman of the Ratings Committee (and its membership too) I decided that the best way to do this was to snare innocent ARS members into becoming unwitting members of my committee. This I did with a stealthy technique called "the questionnaire." Enthusiasm for this work was greatest in the Northwest, reaffirming that the really best rhody people live in my part of the world. I got over 20 replies from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, many from well-known and knowledgeable members. This article compiles and summarizes the opinions of these rhodoholics. Of course, since I am writing this article, I can give my own opinions. It's a lot like being in your own peanut gallery. In the end, I nominate several highly deserving plants for the prestigious Garden Gem Award.

Keep your eyes peeled for articles on Northeastern hybrids, Southeastern hybrids, and California hybrids, which includes one weird reply from Southern California. Well, not really weird - it's just that you can't grow regular rhodies there.

I am very grateful to these who responded to my questionnaire. Without them, this article would not have been possible. They included persons from the Eugene, Grays Harbor, Nanaimo, Olympia, Olympic Peninsula, Peace Arch, Pilchuck, Southwestern Oregon, Victoria, Whidbey Island and Willamette chapters. Those who signed their responses were Alma Manenica, Ward Porter, Joanne Campbell, June Sinclair, Warren Berg, Gifford Robb, Eddie Newcomb, George Guthrie, Gordon Wylie, Evelyn Weesjes, Norman Todd, Dave Dougan, Joan and Paul Guttormsen, Bill Stipe and Sharon Leopold. Others handed their questionnaires into their coordinators and remain anonymous. My thanks to all of you.

Elepidote Ratings by Color

In the questionnaire, I separated the categories of plants by color: red, yellow/orange, white, pink, blue/purple, and mixed color. This way, I figured that people could more easily pick out the best plants. The only rule was that all nominations had to be well established in the trade.

The contest for best red was won hands down by Dr. Frank Mossman's 'Taurus', which incidentally won more votes overall in the questionnaires than any other hybrid. Of course, we all know and love Taurus'. And not surprisingly, 'Grace Seabrook' which is a 'Taurus' look-alike also got votes. I really can't figure out why Taurus' is so much more popular than 'Grace Seabrook', but I would guess that my experience at the Meerkerk hybrid test garden where Taurus' was more floriferous and had a more organized growth habit might have been shared by others. Other plants mentioned were 'Skookum', a new hybrid with nice foliage and habit, and some old standards. 'The Honourable Jean Marie de Montague' is a kingpin hybrid, and many of our finest hybrids owe their ruffled flowers and tight trusses to this exceptional plant which even now won two nominations as best red.

Now is the time for me to put in my own two bits. After 'Taurus' has finished blooming, soon comes along the equally spectacular 'Markeeta's Prize', and even later in the season, comes 'Red Olympia' with its large red trusses. So what am I saying? 'Taurus' wins the prize for the best red, but if you want to enjoy great reds throughout the season, you'll have to plant some other, later blooming varieties to extend the season.

R. 'Lem's Cameo'
'Lem's Cameo', nominated the most important hybrid
parent in the history of hybridizing in the Northwest.
Photo by Bill Heller

Breeding for yellow and orange has been all the rage here in the Northwest for quite some time, and we have come up with some real doozies. Yes, 'Crest' got one vote, but just a few years ago it would have gotten all the votes. We've made a lot of progress. Dr. Ned Brockenbrough's 'Nancy Evans' won this division easily. Actually, 'Nancy Evans' is really just a "transitional" plant, which traces its ancestry through 'Lem's Cameo' to 'The Honourable Jean Marie de Montague'. Already, it has become an important parent of some stupendous new hybrids. Another nominee, 'Hotei', is another important parent, having resulted in outstanding offspring, such as 'Nancy Evans' itself (herself?) and 'Apricot Fantasy', a plant with a beautiful truss but of borderline hardiness. Also getting votes were 'Top Banana' and 'Odee Wright', a plant with outstanding dark green, shiny foliage.

By the way, did you know that 'Nancy Evans' was named after the wife of Washington governor Dan Evans? You've heard of "political correctness," but you probably didn't know that in Washington, political correctness means growing the right rhodies. We've already discussed the yellow 'Nancy Evans'. The huge pink trussed 'Dixy Lee Ray' named after Washington's woman governor is one of my favorites. Then we have 'Senator Henry Jackson',* a truly fine low growing pure white yak hybrid named after our favorite late senator. As a capper 'Centennial Celebration', a nice low growing plant with incredibly frilled pale orchid flowers, says it all: 100 years of Washington statehood.

But I digress. The ancient lady 'Helen Schiffner' which received the F.C.C. over a hundred years ago in 1893 won the competition for best white. Maybe that says something. In our discussions at the hybridizers' group, we have often discussed the need to come up with really good dwarf white rhodies. This is the top item on the commercial growers' wish list. I've already mentioned one plant, 'Senator Henry Jackson'* which is too new to have received any votes. Other old plants also received votes, including the once highest rated rhody of all, 'Loder's White'. The main problem is that most of the plants nominated in this category were not really white but were pinks and yellows fading to white, or blushed flowers. But wait, O ye faint of heart. Help is on the way, with two brand new white hybrids: the previously mentioned 'Senator Henry Jackson',* which we've been rating at the Meerkerk hybrid test garden, and 'Bit O' Heaven',* which Clint Smith of Benjamin's Nursery says is stunning in its brilliance.

Pink hybrids were also quite a mixed bag, with the old standard 'Lem's Monarch'* leading the pack. Actually, all the Wallopers, an incredible cross of 'Anna' with 'Marinus Koster', could have made this list, including 'Point Defiance', 'Pink Walloper'* and 'Red Walloper'.* The Walloper Group has provided important parents for some of the most exciting new hybrids, combining new colors with huge trusses. Then came a whole bunch of plants, including Harold Greer's 'Trude Webster', 'Hallelujah', and 'Grand Slam'. The eastern favorites 'Scintillation' SPA NW and 'Mrs. Furnival' also made the list. Yaks such as 'Ken Janeck' and 'Vintage Rose'* were also mentioned.

No clear consensus was reached for the best blue and purple rhodies. The old standard 'Frank Galsworthy' gathered two votes, as did 'Muncaster Mist'. In the Northwest this category seems to be all about Elsie Watson, who has bred for purple and blue flowers for many years. In this vein, the third double vote getter was a striking purple and darker purple bicolor bred by Frank Fujioka named, appropriately, 'Elsie Watson'. The truss shows the wonderful fullness, frills, and the strong upper lobe from its parent 'Anna'. Of course, two of Elsie's hybrids, 'Blue Hawaii' and 'Blue Boy', got votes, and her purple and white bicolor 'Marley Hedges' was nominated in the bicolor category.

R. 'Marley Hedges'
'Marley Hedges', an Elsie Watson hybrid,
was nominated in the bicolor category.
Photo by Bill Heller

The politically correct 'Centennial Celebration', with its frilly flowers on a low compact shrub, was nominated, as were a number of old favorites, 'Blue Ensign' and 'Anah Kruschke'. Whatever happened to the old standard, 'Purple Splendour'? I don't care that nobody nominated it...I still like it.

The hottest rhody ever in the Northwest showed its persistence by topping the voting for rhodies of mixed colors. Yes, 'Lem's Cameo', after all these years still topped the list, although I suspect that it will soon be eclipsed by its own progeny. A good example is Loyd and Eddie Newcomb's 'Pridenjoy' which combines the good qualities of 'Lem's Cameo' with those of 'Kubla Khan'. Also mentioned were an almost vireya-like scyphocalyx hybrid, the venerable 'Riplet', a dwarf with oversized flowers, 'George's Delight', a pink and yellow with an impressive truss, and some others that I've already mentioned elsewhere.

Finally, but certainly not last is the hottest new plant around, 'Naselle', which is getting lots of attention for its flowers which are a rainbow of yellows, oranges and rose (see cover photo).

Lepidote Ratings by Color

Red lepidotes? Sure, how about a vireya? Sorry, none of the nominated plants were really red. Try a R. forrestii Repens Group hybrid and imagine that it's a lepidote. Actually, if you use your imagination, its daughter 'Ethel' makes a darn good "lepidote."

A newer Northwest hybrid, Warren Berg's 'Patty Bee', won the most votes in the yellow/orange category. And it's no real surprise, since the flowers are truly elegant. Two garden fixtures by Peter Cox, 'Curlew' and 'Chikor', also garnered multiple votes. Other vote getters included the princesses, 'Golden Princess' and 'Princess Anne' to be specific, and 'Goldstrike' and R. lutescens .

An easterner (dread the thought) sneaked in to capture the crown for white lepidotes. Yes, 'Dora Amateis' shows that it is still the standard in this category. Two fine birds by Cox, 'Eider' and 'Ptarmigan', also received multiple nominations. One of my favorites, 'Snow Lady', with its elegant snow white flowers with contrasting dark stamens and glossy dark green leaves is unfortunately a bit on the tender side.

Pink lepidotes were led by R. davidsonianum 'Ruth Lyons', with its wonderfully clear pink flowers. In second place, but not really, was 'Ginny Gee', which won the mixed category. This plant got more total votes than any other lepidote, and has been placed in the "mixed" category because of its bi-colored flowers. Two birds migrated north, including 'Phalarope' and the unusual 'Razorbill'. One newer plant which I find especially pleasing is 'Bodega Crystal Pink', with its large clear pink flowers. Since I'm the guy writing this article, I get to say what I like: my favorite pink lepidote, which was overlooked, 'Cilpinense', with its tropical flowers, shiny foliage, and colorful bark.

There are so many wonderful blue lepidotes that it's impossible to pick which one is best. It all depends on what your favorite hue is. All you have to do is look at nature and you already have winners...ready-made, such as R. augustinii ( R. augustinii 'Marine' was mentioned), R. concinnum 'Chief Paulina', R. lepidotum 'Reuthe's Purple' and R. calostrotum ssp. keleticum . 'Vibrant Violet' got the most votes of any clone, followed by 'Bob's Blue', 'Blaney's Blue', 'Saint Merryn', and 'Ramapo'.

Warren Berg's hybrids dominated the mixed lepidote category. Hands down winner (when you add the votes for best pink) was 'Ginny Gee'. The Bees were "bizee" and so we have the newer plants 'Wee Bee' and Too Bee', both cute little plants with contrasting inside and outside flower colors. The old eastern standard, 'Mary Fleming', reared her lovely head, and collected the second most nominations. The unusual 'Cinnkeys' was also nominated, but it unfortunately is a bit tender.

All-Round Best Rhodies

Besides being the hands down favorite among red rhodies, 'Taurus' also took the most votes for best rhody. The best species was R. yakushimanum . The best lepidote was 'Ginny Gee', which also got the most votes for any color of lepidote (more or less evenly divided between pink and mixed categories). Other plants included 'Scintillation' AE, the eastern "Wunderpflanze"; 'Ken Janeck'; 'Unique', the architect's dream; 'The Honourable Jean Marie de Montague'; and 'Trude Webster'.


When people think of foliage, they think of species. Thus, the top vote getters were all species: R. pachysanthum , the winner, closely followed by R. bureavii , with some thoughts digressing to R. yakushimanum 'Ken Janeck', R. proteoides , and R. campanulatum ssp. aeruginosum . All are truly worth growing. Of the hybrids, 'Golfer' was most popular, followed by 'Noyo Chief and 'Teddy Bear'. Hybridizers take notice! Certainly the biggest and most spectacular trusses are to be found on hybrids...why not the darkest green, shiniest leaves on the best shrubs? Sounds to me like a project is waiting for you.

Toughest Plants

Rhododendron yakushimanum was deemed the toughest plant for the Northwest, closely followed by the plants that can't be killed: members of the PJM Group. Other tough plants were 'Scintillation' AE, 'The Honourable Jean Marie de Montague', 'Ginny Gee' and 'Ramapo'. Guess what? Most of the really tough plants originated in the East.

Fragrant Plants

This is my favorite area. After all the work I've put into trying to breed half hardy fragrant plants, it should either be my most...or least favorite category. The Loderi Group is without a doubt the group most appreciated for its fragrance in the Northwest. All the popular clones were mentioned, as well as the lesser known 'Loderi Pretty Polly'. Someday when you are in the Seattle area, go to the Washington Park Arboretum in early May and walk down Loderi Valley. You'll get such a nose full it'll almost knock you over. Then when you've thought you're just about past the Loderi's, you'll smell the most fragrant rhody of all, an incredible vanilla scented unnamed tree rhody with virginal white flowers. The only other big vote getters were the other fragrant rhodies, namely R. edgeworthii and its friends 'Fragrantissimum' and 'Else Frye'. These are my favorite fragrant rhodies, along with the R. lindleyi crosses...but then I have a greenhouse.

The favorite trees were R. rex ssp. fictolacteum and R. calophytum . No argument there. The Loderi's also make fine trees. The best bark was judged to be displayed by R. thomsonii and R. barbatum . One of my favorites for bark is 'Cilpinense'. I guess we all like red peeling bark.

Best Unusual Rhody

Rhododendron roxieanum Oreonastes Group took the prize for the best unusual rhody. I would tend to agree. Its leaves are unusually long and thin, making a really striking pattern, with the added plus of also being dark green, glossy, indumented, and really pretty. The trusses are perfect miniatures, nicely proportioned to the foliage.

R. 'Nosuchianum'
'Nosuchianum', a Rhododendron and Kalmia cross,
was nominated for best unusual rhody.
Photo by Gwen Bell

'Nosuchianum',* the bizarre rhody-kalmia hybrid, really does exist, but is it really? I mean, is it really what it says it is? Well, certainly it looks like what you'd expect to see, so I'm just going to have fun and believe. Although I've never seen it listed in catalogues, there are a number of plants alive and well in the Puget Sound area. Actually, anyone who is a real connoisseur and collector of rhodies has this one.

Another really weird one is R. macrosepalum 'Linearifolium'. Yes, I said I wasn't going to include azaleas in this article. But face it, does this plant look like an azalea?

Now we get to my favorite oddball rhody, R. spinuliferum . Yes, I do a lot of breeding with it, and, no, you can't see my plants if you're going to make jokes about them.

Promising New Plants

What's the most promising new plant? Just look in this year's Greer Gardens catalogue and look for the hybrid highlighted in grey with the comment, "EXCEPTIONAL!!!" The name of this tremendous new bicolor orange and yellow is 'Naselle'. It's hot, and it shows just how very important 'Lem's Cameo' has become as a parent. From 'Lem's Cameo' it has gotten not only its bicolor flower pattern but also its maroon new growth. This was the only plant which got votes from more than one chapter. I hereby award this hybrid the unofficial Western Wunderpflanze Award. Take that, 'Scintillation'!

The Garden Gem Awards

Well, here is what you were waiting for. Fanfare, please! Will my assistant please open the envelope. And the first nomination is...

'LEM'S CAMEO' 'Lem's Cameo' is without a doubt the most important hybrid parent in the history of hybridizing in the Northwest. (We're not counting species, which are the raw material of all hybrids.) Look at the important parents and you'll find either ancestors of 'Lem's Cameo' ('Anna', the parent of the Walloper Group*), or its descendants ('Nancy Evans', and many others being pollinated as we speak). And look at 'Horizon Monarch': 'Nancy Evans' x 'Point Defiance' (a Walloper). See! Not only that, but 'Lem's Cameo' is a really nice plant. And although it has since been eclipsed by its children, we have to remember that 'Lem's Cameo' represented the great advance that made so many great new hybrids possible. It is truly an historic hybrid.

'HELENE SCHIFFNER' Here's an ancient (F.C.C. 1893) plant that was nominated as the best white by people from all over the Northwest. So what does this tell us? Two things: 1.) Old plants can be really great, e.g., 'Cynthia', 'Dame Nellie Melba', etc., and 2.) We need to work harder at improving pure white rhodies.

TAURUS' Maybe this isn't as old as the other two hybrids (ca. 1972), but it's been around long enough to prove itself, and it did get more votes in the various categories than any other plant. When we think of a really good red rhody, we think of 'Taurus'. It's as simple as that.

R. 'Taurus'
'Taurus', a hybrid by Frank Mossman, was
nominated for the best red category.
Photo by Bill Heller

As we all know, 'Taurus' is sterile... not! Let me tell you a little story. Bob Ticknor told me that he was able to get seed by tightly tying a wire around the branch an inch or so below the last whorl of leaves below an expanding bud. Apparently this starves the flowers just enough to make them set seed. I tried this trick two years ago, and voila! I got seed of the cross 'Taurus' x R. bureavii , and I now have three seedlings growing. So what's the trick? It isn't the type of wire (Bob used copper wire while I used galvanized steel wire). It appears to be how tightly you wrap it. I really cranked on the wire, enough to partially crush the stem. After you collect the seed, remember to remove the wire. Otherwise you'll kill the stem. It will also take the stem a year or two to recover enough to bloom again.

So there you have it. Things are really cooking up here in the Great Northwest, rhodywise. We've got some really great plants, and we're getting even better ones all the time. Gosh, I think I'll go out in the garden and take a look...

Pat Halligan, a member of the Whidbey Island Chapter, has contributed several articles to the Journal on the hybrid test garden at Meerkerk Gardens located on Whidbey Island, Washington.

Editor's Note: * Name is not registered.