JARS v50n3 - Southeasterners Pick Their Garden Gems

Southeasterners Pick Their Garden Gems
Pat Halligan
Freeland, Washington

Being a Southerner by ancestry (apparently the family mansion still stands on the old plantation in Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, columns and all) and descended from a Mississippi river boat gambler, judge and Southern colonel, certainly I am well qualified to write an article about Southern rhodies. Well, it sounds good, and through the help of representatives from nine Southeastern chapters, here goes.

The response from chapters from the old Confederacy (Maryland wanted to secede, but couldn't) was tremendous, and so I have plenty of material to work with. My thanks go to Dr. Joe Coleman of the Azalea Chapter, Jack Andrews of the Birmingham Chapter, Dr. R.D. Rouse of the Chattahoochee Chapter, Edward Reiley of the Mason Dixon Chapter, William Bedwell of the Middle Atlantic Chapter, Len Miller of the Ozark Chapter, Mrs. J.G. O'Hara of the Potomac Valley Chapter, Robert Bowman of the Southeastern Chapter, and John Kendall of the William Bartram Chapter. To all of you, my sincere thanks. Without your expert advice, the Ratings Committee and the Garden Gem Award Program would be up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Thanks for paddling.

Each area of the country has its own favorite rhodies, because the growing conditions are different in each area. The Northwest, of course, is perfect. California is unique. The Northeast gets cold. And the Southeast has long, hot, humid summers. Each region is treated separately. John C. Calhoun would be proud to know that the Southeast rates its own article.

Best Elepidotes
The old favorite 'Nova Zembla' shares the most votes for best red with the Northwest import, Taurus' SPA NW. It goes to show that persistence pays. Even though most Northwest hybrids fail when tried back east, some turn out to be happy surprises, exceeding all possible expectations. Said another way, sometimes it pays to be lucky. 'Grace Seabrook', the 'Taurus' look-alike, took another vote, so I guess between the two of them 'Taurus' won the nod for best red. Other plants mentioned were the old standbys, 'Vulcan' and 'The Hon. Jean Marie de Montague', and Charles Dexter's 'Gigi' AE.

Yellow was won by 'Dexter's Champagne'*, followed by the Northeast favorite 'Mary Belle', the Northwest choice 'Nancy Evans' and four others: the salmony 'Autumn Gold', the creamy 'Goldfort', the ivory 'Golden Gala' and the apricoty 'Percy Wiseman'. I believe in individuality, but in the vote for best white, individuality went wild. This resulted in total chaos, with no plant nominated more than once. Nominees ranged from an ancient lady like 'Chionoides', old stalwarts like 'Catawbiense Album' and 'Gomer Waterer', through the diminutive 'Nestucca' to the rambunctious 'County of York' (synonym of 'Catalode'). Diversity reigns supreme.

Pink was won hands down by 'Scintillation' SPA (NE). Others winning multiple votes were the old war horse 'Cynthia' and the large trussed 'Janet Blair'. Actually, I think 'Cynthia' is a pretty darn good plant, even out here in the Northwest. Also mentioned were Joseph Gable's 'Robert Allison', Howard Phipps and Paul Vossberg's 'Wheatley' AE and from out west 'Anna Rose Whitney'.

Blue was taken by 'Blue Peter'. This plant is especially appreciated by weevils, but a lot of blues share this problem. 'Dexter's Purple'* also received a couple of nods. Also receiving votes were the antique 'Lee's Dark Purple', the ever popular (even where I live) 'Anah Kruschke', the deep purple 'Dorothy Amateis', the permanent fixture 'Blue Ensign' and finally a plant with a really intriguing name, 'Governor's Mansion'. It was discovered in front of the Western Governor's Mansion in North Carolina growing in a group of Dexter seedlings.

Todmorden' was leaps and bounds the most popular mixed color. This Dexter hybrid is remarkable for the intensity of its two-tone effect.

Best Lepidotes
Now we come to my favorite category - red lepidotes. If you see one, give me a call. This is my area of breeding...and if I see one, I'll give you a call.

I'll combine the best yellow with best bicolor, since the same plant won both categories. Sorry, it's a secret. Actually, I'll let you guess which plant won. Clue: look for the tiny upside down print at the end of this article. The rest of the yellow category was dominated by Rhododendron keiskei 'Yaku Fairy' and her babies. 'Wren', a darling little miniature, and 'Patty Bee' SPA NW, a truly beautiful Maddenia hybrid, point to more such hybrids yet to come. And, oh yes, the winner was 'Mary Fleming' AE. Could it have been anybody else? 'Tiffany', an apricot colored dwarf by Warren Baldsiefen was a mixed color choice.

The winner in the white category was 'Dora Amateis' AE. This plant got good reviews at the Meerkerk Test Garden and won the nod for best white in the Northwest, attesting to its adaptability to different climates. Pink was a tossup between 'Windbeam' AE and 'Olga Mezitt'. Since these two plants are quite different, I think there's enough room for both of them in any garden. Also mentioned in the pink category was 'Warren Baldsiefen'*.

The PJM Group, the old cast iron plant, won kudos for the best blue/ purple lepidote. Did the voters mean the purple flowers or the purple leaves? I guess there's something to be said for being really tough. In the plant world, the PJM Group would be a Marine drill sergeant. Two other rhodies, 'Gable's Early Bird' and Weldon Delp's 'Faisa'* also won kudos in this division.

Around Best Rhodies
Could there be any doubt which plant won the most votes for best rhody? 'Scintillation' SPA NE scores again, followed by the bold trussed 'Anna Rose Whitney' and 'Janet Blair'. 'Cynthia' and 'Taurus' got a pair each. The ancient 'Roseum Elegans' and its apparent sport, 'Roseum Pink'*, each garnered a vote. This unregistered variety is held in esteem by Southerners who say it is identical to the other Roseums except for its pinker flowers. These two plants didn't even get a passing mention for the best flowers but made it on all the lists for best plants. I guess it goes to show that wearing a huge garish truss in the newest color isn't everything. Sometimes just being a good plant is enough. We can lose track of this in shows when we rate hybrids as disembodied trusses from pampered plants. Other best rhodies included 'Professor Hugo de Vries', Westerners' 'Trude Webster' SPA and 'Lem's Monarch', and Guy Nearing's 'Rochelle'.

Voters selected 'Scintillation' SPA NE as the plant with the best foliage, followed by 'Ken Janeck' AE. One interesting plant, 'Daphnoides', also made this list on the basis of its unusual leaves, which remind me of the genus Pittosporum . Another plant, 'Hallelujah' AE, got rave reviews from Meerkerk Test Garden, not because its leaves were unusual, but because its leaves were so uniformly unusual. And what's a best foliage category without its share of yaks, including 'Anna H. Hall', 'Yaku Frills' and 'Yaku Angel'. Other nominees included David Leach's 'Bravo!' and 'Spellbinder', Anthony Shammarello's 'Vernus' and Dexter's 'Tom Everett'.

In the Southeast, rhodies face two perils. Of course there's the winter cold, which we all face to some degree. But in the Southeast, plants must also face summer heat, warm soils, and root rot. This means that tough plants in this part of the world are doing double duty. Many of the rock hardy plants of the Northeast drop out as you go south, to be replaced by others which can take the microbial onslaught. The toughest plant was 'Roseum Elegans', followed by its sport, 'Roseum Pink'*. Also garnering multiple votes were the old war horses 'Cynthia', 'Caroline' and 'Janet Blair'.

Rhododendron fortunei took the prize for most fragrant rhody, sharing the most votes with 'Caroline'. The daughter of 'Caroline', 'Cadis' AE, also gathered multiple votes. Also getting votes were R. fortunei ssp. discolor and fortunei hybrids. I guess you could say that it's all in the family.

Best tree? 'Cynthia'. Okay, so we'll add the species fortunei and its subspecies discolor to the list. 'Cynthia' makes up an impressively large plant, and it's tough enough to stand by itself against the elements. We have some wonderful large-leafed tree rhododendrons up here in the Northwest, but to a plant they're all prima donnas. Not 'Cynthia'. This is one tough cookie.

'Hallelujah' was acclaimed the best unusual rhody. What's really unusual about 'Hallelujah' is that it makes unusual seem normal. Each leaf is uniquely shaped, and if half of the leaves on the plant had that odd shape, 'Hallelujah' would be an ugly duckling. But on this plant every last leaf is exactly the same shape, and it is this uniformity on a perfectly rounded plant that gives 'Hallelujah' its charm. Breeders take note. Uniformity in plant shape, leaf shape and leaf placement is an important goal.

R. 'Solidarity'
'Solidarity', promising new plant by Hank Schannen.
Photo by Harold Greer

Promising New Plants
Of the plants offered as especially promising, perhaps the most successful is 'Olga Mezitt'. This plant was introduced only a decade or so ago and has taken the country by storm. Hans Hachmann hybrids were mentioned thrice, including 'Fantastica' twice. Leach's sister seedlings 'Normandy' and 'Rio' were both nominated by different chapters. Hank Schannen's 'Solidarity' and the parade of yak hybrids, including Augie Kehr's 'Mountain Marriage', Murcott/Brack's 'Tiana' and Russell and Velma Haags' 'Whitewater North Carolina'. Also mentioned were Anthony Consolini's 'Bellringer' and Donald Hardgrove's dark purple 'Royal Star'*.

R. 'Fantastica'
'Fantastica', promising new plant by Hans Hachmann.
Photo by Harold Greer

Garden Gem Awards
Now that I've warmed you up with a rainbow of possibilities for your garden, let's get to the real meat (wood?) of this article. Yes, it's time for the Garden Gem Award nominations. As you might have guessed, 'Scintillation' scooped up the most votes from the Southeast, just as it did further north. But since it's already gotten its trophy, I'm letting some other plants share the limelight.

'ROSEUM ELEGANS' Now here's a plant that has withstood the test of time. Bred in England in the mid 1800s, this plant still can claim to be a child of the Southeast, since it is descended from R. catawbiense . So why would a plant with smallish pink trusses get so many votes against today's enormously trussed, brightly colored hybrids? Because it just performs.

R. 'Roseum Elegans'
'Roseum Elegans', Garden Gem Nomination.
Photo by Harold Greer

'CYNTHIA' We tend to scoff at the old hybrids. And 'Cynthia', with its magenta colored trusses, gets scoffed at more than most. But let's face it, you'd be hard pressed to find a better truss on a stronger plant than 'Cynthia'. And wait, there's more: 'Cynthia' is a closet Southerner. Just like 'Roseum Elegans', its mom is R. catawbiense .

R. 'Cynthia'
'Cynthia', Garden Gem Nomination.
Photo by Harold Greer

'JANET BLAIR' This Dexter hybrid, or so we think (I love a bit of mystery), is well loved by rhodoholics all up and down the East Coast. It was hard to decide whether to make it a Northeast or a Southeast Garden Gem nominee. But who cares? It makes people happy in both places. So go to the garden shop, grab a plant and sniff the large frilly flowers - and tell 'em Pat sent you.

* Name is unregistered.

Pat Halligan, a member of the Whidbey Island Chapter, authored articles on Garden Gem nominees for the Northwest (Vol. 48, No. 4), Northeast (Vol. 50, No. 1) and California (Vol. 49, No. 3).