JARS v51n3 - American Hybrids at Washington Park Arboretum

American Hybrids at Washington Park Arboretum
Old Collection Gives Way to New
Sonja Nelson, Journal Editor
Mount Vernon, Washington

Last spring the bright rose trusses of Joseph Gable's 'Atroflo' bloomed for the last time in the American Rhododendron Hybrid Garden at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle. The spring of 1996 was also the last season in the garden for the striking white blooms of Tony Shammarello's 'Belle Heller', the blooms of Charles Dexter's 'Janet Blair', Theodore Van Veen, Sr.'s 'Old Copper' and Robert Bovee's 'Kristin'. These stalwart American rhododendron hybrids are being removed, roots and all, from the one-acre hillside that since 1979 was the home of creations by some of the best American hybridizers from the East Coast to the West Coast.

Although cuttings will be made of the plants not available in the nursery trade and grown on at the Arboretum and other locations for safe keeping, the dream of former Arboretum curator Joe Witthas come to an end. In its place is a new dream - a garden devoted exclusively to Puget Sound rhododendron hybrids.

Anyone visiting the Arboretum's American Rhododendron Hybrid Garden in recent years could see the problems. Deep shade from the tree canopy fostered lanky growth. Native sword ferns and other underbrush thrived at the expense of the exotic imports. Budget restrictions at the Arboretum curtailed care of the plants to weeding and watering; the niceties of deadheading and grooming, not to mention feeding, went by the board. Visitors who had seen the hybrids growing under good conditions in all their glory were aghast. In truth, the Arboretum plants were giving American hybrids a bad name.

A plan for care of the new hybrid garden to insure healthy growth and be a true showplace for the rich and growing tradition of Puget Sound rhododendron hybridizing is now being formulated. But before Joe Witt's dream and enthusiasm for creating an American hybrid garden is forgotten, a look at the history of his endeavor is a fitting tribute to him and the hybridizers who furthered the development of this great genus. In March 1979 the Washington Park Arboretum Foundation contributed a gift of $8,178.78 to the Arboretum Memorial Fund for the purchase and care of plantings at the discretion of the Arboretum director, who at that time was Brian O. Mulligan. Since 1948 it had been the policy of the Arboretum Memorial Fund Committee to accept gifts with no strings attached, i.e., the choice of plants and use of the funds would be up to the Arboretum director, not the donors. The word "rhododendron" was not even mentioned in the official transaction. And so it was that in 1979 the gift from the Arboretum Foundation could be used as the director and his staff saw fit.

Brian O. Mulligan's Curator of Plant Collections, Joseph A. Witt, however, must have been busy dreaming of how the Arboretum might spend the Foundation's generous gift. In February 1979, a month before the Arboretum officially received the gift, he wrote a letter to Col. Leroy P. "Rip" Collins, Jr., the president of the Foundation, telling him how the Arboretum might use the funds. He noted the area of the Arboretum that would be developed (east of Azalea Way and south of Loderi Valley), he wrote that shrubby plants and weed trees would be removed, and he stipulated that the Foundation would be responsible for a maintenance fund of $1,000 to $2,000 a year for maintenance. And, yes, he stated that the planting was to consist of rhododendrons, magnolias and other related plants. Then came what must really have been on his mind: "May I suggest that the rhododendrons selected be hybrids raised by American rhododendron breeders," he wrote.

In the archives of the Washington Park Arboretum is a "wish list" written by Joe Witt with the names of American hybridizers in one column and the names of their plants in another column. East Coast hybridizers include Edmond Amateis and Warren Baldsiefen of New York, Charles Dexter and P.J. Mezitt of Massachusetts, Joseph Gable of Pennsylvania, Guy Nearing of New Jersey, and Anthony Shammarello of Ohio. West Coast hybridizers include John Bacher, Robert Bovee, Edgar Greer, John and Rudolph Henny, Carl Phetteplace, and Theodore VanVeen, Sr., of Oregon and Lester Brandt, James Caperci, R.W. Clark, John Eichelser, Endre Ostbo, Halfdan Lem and William Whitney of Washington. Witt listed 126 American hybrids he wanted for the garden.

The new rhododendron garden, however, was not to be a collection only; dwarf, medium and tall rhododendrons were to be placed aesthetically on the sloping plot, and magnolias and other plants were to be placed to enhance the rhododendron plantings.

Witt lost no time in ordering his American hybrids. Arboretum archives show that in the same year the Arboretum received the gift, Witt began ordering: 38 cultivars of three plants each were ordered from the Bovee Nursery in Portland, Oregon, and 19 cultivars were ordered from Briggs Nursery in Olympia, Washington. The bulk of the rest of the American hybrids for the new garden was received in 1980.

One of the persons who remembers the excitement - and labor - involved in planting the new garden is Dean Powell, head gardener at the time and still a member of the Arboretum gardeners staff. He recalls the heavy woods on that west-facing slope and the hazelnut and big leaf maple trees and ferns that had to be removed. Though the soil was good, it was filled with stones of varying sizes, presumably deposited as a glacial backwash. Powell, together with the volunteer help from his son Shawn Powell, planted the rhododendrons among the stones.

"We were more shorthanded then, and it was time consuming and back-breaking work digging holes among those rocks," Powell said. "They did really well. It did look good, with a lot of yellows."

But the new hybrids were on their own, Powell said. The Arboretum had not yet installed a sprinkler system, and the characteristic summer drought was hard on the plants. Also, mulching to conserve moisture was not a routine practice as it is today. Then when a sprinkling system was installed, the moisture against the native trees, which liked the summer dryness, killed many of the trees.

"It sort of went downhill," Powell said of the garden. Nevertheless, at Joe Witt's memorial, Arboretum Director Brian Mulligan recalled the glory days of the American Rhododendron Hybrid Garden and called the garden Witt's climatic piece of work at the Arboretum and praised the vision it took to create it.

The overgrown American Hybrid
Garden at the Washington Park Rhododendron Arboretum in summer 1996.
The overgrown American Hybrid Garden at the
Washington Park Rhododendron Arboretum
in summer 1996.
Photo by Sonja Nelson

The total number of named American hybrids surviving until 1996 was approximately 35 - a far cry from the 126 Witt hoped to grow and display in his American hybrid garden, although along with these surviving plants were numerous unnamed crosses, species and azaleas that also lived.

At the Arboretum, archives plant assessions are listed in ledgers, giving the date and source of the plant received. Also, a separate card catalog on each plant is kept, giving a brief history of a plant's performance. Some of the comments on the cards for these hybrids tell of the problems. In 1994 'Anna Rose Whitney', a cross by W. Whitney, was described as "very open, lateral form with spreading branches." Joseph Gable's 'Atroflo' had a "very open habit." Lester Brandt's introduction 'Thor' was growing similarly - "lateral, spreading habit." 'Gable's Pioneer' had a worse fate - one plant dead in 1988. 'Gertrude Bovee' was described as "not particularly attractive," and John Henny's introduction 'Golden Belle' had about 20 leaves, all chewed on. Endre Ostbo's introduction 'Lily' had "limited green growth." Fifteen hybrids that were recorded in the assession book no longer exist in the garden at all and presumably died. By 1994, the deep shade and minimal care was taking its toll.

A bright spot in the history of the garden occurred in 1990 when a memorial planting was undertaken to honor Dr. Herschel Roman, a plant geneticist at the University of Washington. The planting, in fact, was a precursor to the new concept of displaying only Puget Sound hybrids. In an effort to display plant genetics at work, a section of the garden was devoted to showing the parentage of one of the most well known of Puget Sound hybrids, 'Lem's Cameo', a cross by Halfdan Lem of Seattle introduced in 1962. Alongside 'Lem's Cameo' are planted its parents, a selection from the Dido Group and 'Anna', and a plaque explaining the parentage. The new Puget Sound Rhododendron Hybrid Garden will also emphasize plant genealogy and genetics and attempt to interest the public in such matters through signs in the garden. The Roman Memorial section of the garden is also in reasonably good condition, and the plants and displays will probably remain intact.

The Roman Memorial evolved naturally from Witt's original idea of making an American rhododendron hybrid garden. As the number of American hybrids grew, and especially as Puget Sound hybridizers increased in number, feeding off each other's enthusiasm, the focus of the garden naturally became more local. Although the American hybrid collection itself as planted under the supervision of Witt and Mulligan sadly gave way to native brush, shade of overpowering conifers and the avaricious root weevil, it most surely serves as a seed for the new garden that will take its place.

Joe Witt's dream also contributed a unique record of American rhododendron hybrids. Tucked away in metal file cabinets at the Arboretum are lists of the hybrids acquired, the date of acquisition, the size of the plant when acquired, where it is planted and the source of the plant. In addition, the performance record of the plant, though sometimes scanty, is written on file cards. Although Brian Mulligan was notorious for his memory of where plants were located, in 1989 the Arboretum received a grant to map the grounds. Metal markers were placed every 100 feet in a grid and can be located with metal detectors. The Arboretum collection of plants was mapped according to the grid so that virtually every plant can be located, including, of course, the rhododendrons in the American Rhododendron Hybrid Garden. Although this section had deteriorated, the record of plants was safe. Also in 1989, the Arboretum began entering the rhododendron plant records into a computer database, thus preserving their history electronically.

Under supervision of former Arboretum curator Tracy Omar, the history of the garden and its plants, by means of cuttings, are being preserved.

Last year the Arboretum and Botanic Garden Committee adopted a mission statement for the Washington Park Arboretum that not only encompasses the Arboretum generally but the new Puget Sound Rhododendron Hybrid Garden specifically. It reads: "The Washington Park Arboretum is a living plant museum emphasizing trees and shrubs hardy in the maritime Pacific Northwest. Plant collections are selected and arranged to display their beauty and function in urban landscapes, to demonstrate their natural ecology and diversity, and to conserve important species and cultivated varieties for the future. The Arboretum serves the public, students at all levels, naturalists, gardeners, and nursery and landscape professionals with its collections, educational programs, interpretation, and recreational opportunities."

The Arboretum has given the new Puget Sound Rhododendron Hybrid Garden a prominent place next to the popular Azalea Way, showing the commitment by the Arboretum to the project, John Wott, Washington Park Arboretum director, pointed out. "We made a decision to move ahead and highlight this bed as a showcase," Wott said. "A lot of people come trekking through here and we want to show it off." Wott also said that he has been pleased by the involvement of local hybridizers - a group whose help he needs for advice and plant material.

The collection and display of Puget Sound hybrids - old and new - will fill a niche in the area since its focus is unlike that of the Rhododendron Species Foundation or Meerkerk Gardens, Wott said.

The new Puget Sound Rhododendron Hybrid Garden will be one of the first sections developed under the new mission statement. Today's Arboretum leaders have the chance to carry Joe Witt's dream into the 1990s with a sharp, new focus on hybrids developed at its doorstep.