JARS v50n1 - Northeasterners Pick Their Favorite 'Gems'

Northeasterners Pick Their Favorite 'Gems'
Pat Halligan
Freeland, Washington

(This is the third in a series of four articles on the Garden Gem Awards. The first two articles appeared in the Fall 1994 and Summer 1995 issues.)

What do you think of when you go to the Northeast? Garden wise, that is. I don't know about you, but what I think of is fall color. Tons of it. Yellow, red, orange, bright, shining, sometimes even glowing. That's okay for October, but what do you do in the spring? You guessed it! You think of rhodies!

We people here in the Northwest tend to get a little smug about our rhodies. We do grow the best rhodies, but we can't really take credit for it. It's our climate. What Northeasterners lack in climate, they more than make up in enthusiasm and hard work. That's why many of the most important advances in rhody breeding have come in the Northeast.

Sometimes, when I think of growing and breeding rhodies in the Northeast, I pause. "How brave a person must be to try breeding rhodies in such a climate." Well, actually I pause and think, "How brave a rhody must be to live in the Northeast!"

Six chapters responded to a questionnaire from the ARS Ratings Committee asking for their favorite rhodies in each of a number of categories. I would like to thank Patrick Tatum of the Great Rivers Chapter, Carolyn Dana Lewis of the Ann Arbor Chapter, Howard Roberts of the Philadelphia Chapter, Howard Kline of the Valley Forge Chapter, Floyd Moore of the Pittsburgh Chapter, and Dick Brooks of the Massachusetts Chapter for taking time to participate in this project. Unwittingly, they became ad hoc members of the Ratings Committee.

The Northeast takes in a lot of territory and climate, from the relatively mild Philadelphia area to the great icebox of the old Northwest Territories. Understandably, the top rated plants varied quite a bit among the chapters. I'll try to negotiate these differences, using my binoculars from out here in the Northwest to try to figure out why some plants were nominated in some areas and not in others.

Best Elepidotes

The best red elepidote was 'Nova Zembla', nominated by icebox chapters. The Northwest favorite, 'Taurus', was nominated in Philadelphia, an area some consider almost tropical. Other nominees included 'Vulcan' (actually I like the name better than the plant), 'Burma' (David Leach's name may remind growers of warmer climes), and Edmund Mezitt's 'Henry's Red' (an up and coming dark red ironclad).

Joseph Gable's 'Mary Belle' was nominated best yellow in the milder districts, along with the shiny leafed 'Odee Wright'. In the icebox Leach's 'Hindustan' and 'Hong Kong' won the nod. These last two plants are not really very yellow. This means there's still lots of opportunity for enterprising rhodoholics to come up with better yellows for cold climes. And who can do the best job of breeding plants for this area? People living right in the icebox!

Nobody could come to any agreement on the best white. I guess that means that a number of plants are pretty good whites, but nothing stands out as exceptional. In the icebox the ancient 'Boule de Neige' was nominated, along with one of these countries, 'Nepal' (illegitimate name of a Leach elepidote), covered by snow capped mountains. In the milder districts 'Wynterset White', Mezitt's 'Pauline Bralit' and Gable's 'Henry R. Yates' were nominated. In the pink category, 'Janet Blair' was the best liked in the milder areas. In the cold spots the old favorite 'Scintillation' and the newer 'Normandy' were nominated.

Blue and purple apparently came under the Peter principle...'Blue Peter' in the milder areas and 'Peter Alan'* in the icebox. 'Blue Ensign' got the other icebox nod and Jonathan Leonard's 'Jonathan Shaw' the other mild area vote. In the mixed color category, 'Mary Belle' took kudos from both areas, showing its versatility. 'Yaku Sunrise' took an icebox nod while another yak hybrid, 'Percy Wiseman', won a coastal vote.

R. 'Mary Belle'
'Mary Belle' was among those nominated for Best
Mixed Color Elepidote Garden Gem.
Photo by Harold Greer

Best Lepidotes
Mezitt's purple red 'Milestone' was nominated as the best red. Since nothing really red has yet been hybridized, we won't be picky. Yellow was dominated by the old standby, Guy Nearing's 'Mary Fleming', which got votes from both the icebox and the "tropics." Sneaking in edgewise were some up and coming hybrids, 'Golden Princess' (which rated well at Meerkerk, here in the Northwest), 'Senegal' (I think it's one of the yellow countries on the map), and that most wonderful of lepidote parents, R. keiskei 'Yaku Fairy'.

Funny thing. 'Dora Amateis', the Eastern "masher" that won the nod for best white here in the Northwest, got nary a vote in her very homeland. Instead it ended in a tie, with 'Wyanokie' taking the icebox trophy and Mezitt's 'Molly Fordham'* doing likewise in warmer climes. Actually, I grow 'Wyanokie' myself, and I find it a charming woodland plant with its contrasting white flowers against dark green foliage...and I've found it amazingly drought resistant, having killed several other rhodies around it just to prove the point.

Best pink was won hands down by 'Olga Mezitt', which seems to show its best colors in the North country; in the spring with its clear bright flowers, and again in the fall with its colored foliage. Also mentioned were Leon Yavorsky's 'Alice Swift', Charles Herbert's 'Pikeland', 'Windbeam' and 'Ginny Gee'. In the blue category, 'Russautinii' won where the magnolia grows, while the PJM Group won in tamarack country. Mezitt's Thunder' was also nominated in the frosty hollow. I suspect that the really bright blue stuff we grow out here in the West just sulks or dies back East. Finally, in the mixed color category, 'Mary Fleming' again showed her dominance. Two newer plants, Weldon Delp's 'Microtomes' and Gus Mehlquist's 'April Reign' were also mentioned.

R. 'Windbeam'
'Windbeam' was among those nominated
Best Pink Lepidote Garden Gem.
Photo by Harold Greer

All-Around Best Rhodies
'Scintillation' SPA (NE), the official Eastern "Wunderpflanze," showed that it is still the plant to beat back East. No longer considered to have the biggest, fluffiest or brightest flowers, this plant still captures the hearts of rhodoholics, probably because it's just a darn good plant. Other rhodies receiving multiple all-around nominations were the indestructible PJM Group, and the large flowered 'Janet Blair'. All three of these plants are tough cookies. Other nominees included the Southeastern favorite, 'Roseum Elegans', Gable's 'Caroline', 'Normandy', and M. Michener's 'Calsap'.

Our nominators left no question as to the identity of the best foliage plant. In the icebox, 'Scintillation' took all of the votes. After that came the crowd, including 'Maxecat'*, 'Thunder', John Wister's 'Judy Spillane', and the exquisite 'Blewbury'.

Nobody could come to any consensus of which plants were toughest, but familiar names kept popping up. The PJM Group got the most votes (any surprise?), followed by 'Pearce's American Beauty', while the oft nominated 'Scintillation', 'Janet Blair', 'Olga Mezitt', 'Wyandanch Pink', 'Calsap', 'Maxecat'* and 'Merley Cream' all got nods.

The most fragrant plants were R. fortunei and two similar hybrids, the cranky but wonderfully scented 'Dexter's Spice' and Gable's all-around nice plant, 'Cadis'. Also mentioned were Dexter's 'Betty Hume' and Sam Everitt's very fragrant 'Helen Everitt'. Most of the raters didn't think there was a best tree, so if you want a tree in the Northeast, my recommendation is to go plant an oak.

One nomination for most unusual rhody was R. micranthum . This plant really doesn't look like a rhody, with its sprays of tiny flowers and willowy habit. In fact, Guy Nearing once remarked that "a nurseryman could probably make a fortune selling R. micranthum as an evergreen spiraea." I've rarely seen it in private collections, which is too bad, since it shows just how far rhodies can go trying to look like something else.

R. 'Casanova'
'Casanova' was among those nominated for the
Best Promising New Rhododendron Garden Gem.
Photo by Harold Greer

Promising New Rhodies
A whole bunch of new plants were nominated, including Hans Hackmann's 'Goldkrone', 'Hachmann's Feuerschein' and 'Morgenrot', and Leach's 'Casanova', 'Cyprus' and 'Madrid'. Two PJM types, Yavorsky's 'Alice Swift' and Gus Mehlquist's 'April White', made it on the list, as did two yak hybrids, 'Skookum' and 'Percy Wiseman'. Rounding out the list were the pastel colored 'Marjie Kay Hinerman' and Ken Begg's 'Vinecrest'.

Garden Gems
Finally I've gotten to what you were waiting for all along. It's kind of like the local news: they keep telling you, "Yes, there will be weather," all through the program, but they won't tell you if it's going to snow until after the last commercial. Well, we've had the last commercial, so here goes!

R. 'Scintillation'
'Scintillation' was nominated All Around Best Elepidote Garden Gem.
Photo by Harold Greer

What other plant could it be? Charles Dexter's 'Scintillation' garnered the most votes of any plant and certainly deserves to be nominated for the prestigious Garden Gem Award...if for no other reason than for pure cussedness. This plant refuses to give up, no matter what Mother Nature throws at it, and manages to look good to boot!

R. 'Mary Fleming'
'Mary Fleming' won the nomination for
Best All Around Lepidote Garden Gem.
Photo by Harold Greer


Guy Nearing made all types of rhody crosses, but it is his lepidote hybrids that we have come to love, including 'Ramapo', 'Windbeam', 'Wyanokie', and of course 'Mary Fleming'. I've used 'Mary Fleming' in my own breeding, and it has insinuated its parentage into a great many of my hybrids. I have no idea if it has helped any of my plants to be better, but what the heck, I still enjoy going out and looking at its uniquely colored flowers each spring. And so do countless other rhodoholics who appreciate its perky bisque colored flowers at the start of rhody season. This plant would be a garden gem even without this nomination.

Several other newer hybrids also deserved to be nominated, including 'Olga Mezitt', which has caught on like wildfire back East. Sorry, Olga, you're too young. You'll have to wait your turn.

R. 'Olga Mezitt'
'Olga Mezitt', a newer hybrid, won the nomination
for Best Pink Lepidote Garden Gem.
Photo by Harold Greer

Pat Halligan is chairman of the ARS Ratings Committee.

* Name not registered.