JARS v51n3 - Vireya Aficionados Meet in Hawaii

Vireya Aficionados Meet in Hawaii
Clarice Clark
Puyallup, Washington

One memorable part of last year's ARS Annual Convention in Oban was an informal get-together of vireya rhododendron aficionados - or vireya nuts, as some would call us. At this meeting, a member of the Rhododendron Species Foundation, "Mitch" Mitchell, showed a video of his garden in Hawaii where he grew vireyas and explained how easy it was to grow and propagate them. He just sticks cuttings in the ground - no chemicals, no bottom heat - and they root. He can grow massive amounts of seedlings in discarded plastic Cool-Whip tubs, stapled in plastic bags that hang from his potting bench, shaded from the sun, and has blooming plants in as little as two years.

He stirred in us a mixture of awe and envy. Afterwards, he graciously invited anyone visiting the Big Island to come visit. E. White Smith, editor of our newsletter, the Vireya Vine , posted a notice that we take Mitch up on his offer and proceeded to organize a three-day event. He had little difficulty convincing about 16 other "nuts" from the mainland, plus Dr. George Argent, reigning world expert on the tropical section of the genus, from the RBG in Edinburgh, Scotland, to attend a meeting on a tropical island in January.

The meeting was centered around the town of Volcano, just outside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the famous Kilauea crater, which has been actively flowing since 1983, right up until the night we arrived. Attendees gathered for an informal evening meal at the cafeteria in the park and then scattered to their nearby bed and breakfast accommodations. The next day, the 1st of February, found most participants exploring the park and experiencing closed trails and roads as the parks service tried to predict the volcano's next move. I especially enjoyed the native Vaccinium reticulatum and Styphelia tameiameiae encountered on a hike my husband and I took with E. White Smith, his daughter, Julie Feste, and his wife, Lucy Sorenson-Smith, proprietor of Bovee's Nursery. We walked up a good appetite for our dinner at the home of Mitch and his wife, Sandy. We investigated their acre garden, filled with tree ferns, native trees, and of course, Rhododendron . As we sipped wine and renewed acquaintances from other meetings, we met new vireya enthusiasts, from as far away as Massachusetts, and right next door. Mitch had also invited some of his Island neighbors, and Sandy ended up feeding about 30 people.

The periodic earthquakes did not seem to faze the locals, who carried on with life as usual, and some 40 people turned out for the meeting on Friday. White Smith chaired the meeting and, after introductions, instinctively moved to everyone's favorite part of any rhododendron meeting - FREE PLANTS! Lucky numbers were drawn for rooted cuttings donated by Mitch and by Greg Adams of Jungle Jewels, Hawaii: mostly hybrids and mostly grown in sterile media, suitable for transport back to the mainland. Several commercial growers were present, interested in this "new" market, and eager to learn how to propagate and grow potted plants for garden center sales. Expert growers and propagators, Dick Cavender of Red's Rhodies and Peter Schick of the Mendocino Botanical Garden, gave demonstrations and slide presentations. To get things moving after lunch, White made sure that everyone in the room got at least one plant, encouraged participants to buy lots of raffle tickets and kept the room hopping with frequent drawings. Almost $200 was raised to offset costs of the meeting, and perhaps provide a "seed" treasury for what we hope will become a study club devoted to vireya rhododendrons.

The featured speaker was Dr. George Argent, who was a big hit with excellent slides of his trips into the wilds of "vireyaland." Some of his most recent research has been in the Philippines, collecting just ahead of rampant development. Dr. Argent teased us with a preview of some research into a puzzling group of non-Malesian species: R. kawakamii , R. rushforthii , R. santapaui and perhaps R. vaccinioides . Anyone growing these species is urged to closely witness the flowering sequence. Do the florets unfurl from the outside in, or the inside out? And what, if anything, does this mean about any possible relationship between these species? I always learn so much from his presentations - a balanced mix of the scientific information, the spectacular scenery, and beautiful flowers.

The next day was perfect for local garden tours - the weather cooperated with clear skies the entire four days. Volcano usually gets at least 100 inches (2.5 meters) of rain a year, and the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden near Hilo, our first stop, looks forward to 160 inches of rain (over 4 meters) in 12 months! Scott Lucas, garden curator, gave us a private tour of the garden, pointing out the suitability for the site for orchids and vireya rhododendrons. Although they have abundant water, including streams and waterfalls, and a frost-free climate, they are quite warm year-round. The elevation of Volcano, about 4,000 feet (1,200 meters), plus the spectacular ocean-side setting of the tropical gardens overlooking Onomea Bay would make the perfect combination to grow our favorite rhododendron. Many of the other local gardens we visited tried growing the vireyas as epiphytes, or in raised mounds of highly amended soils. Mitch grinds up tree fern fronds and sheet mulches with newspaper. Other gardeners we visited make "soil" with compost and fine cinders from the lava fields. Glen Sahara, the local agriculture inspector, invited us to inspect his acre in Paradise Park, and introduced us to his exotic birds and reptiles. All our Big Island garden hosts were friendly and enthusiastic, and our thanks go out to Charles Trommer, Charles Martin and Helen Carlson. Perhaps they are among the 10 new subscribers to the Vireya Vine newsletter, and we invite them to visit the Rhododendron Species Foundation on their next trip to the mainland to see our vireya collection here in Federal Way.

Clarice Clark, a member of the Tacoma Chapter, has authored articles for the Journal on her trips to Borneo and Yunnan, China.