JARS v51n3 - 'My September Song' Lost But Not Forgotten

'My September Song' Lost But Not Forgotten
Joseph E. Schild, Jr.
Hixson, Tennessee

When I looked over a number of excellent red flowering Schild hybrids today, I was taken back to a time when I was much younger and had a fire in the belly for collecting native azaleas. The time was 1967 and I had recently met a man by the name of Clifton Gann in Hixson, Tennessee. He was a greenhouse owner and nurseryman who probably grew off the best bedding plants in the area, but most of all he was to become a close friend and mentor through chasing native azaleas together in the region.

It was Scotty Perry of Signal Mountain, Tennessee, who introduced me to Clifton after I asked Scotty about an elusive yellow azalea. My wife and I had bought a new home in November 1966 and I was interested in planting azaleas in our landscape. A friend at work told me about yellow azaleas but forgot to mention they would be deciduous. It was mid May when I pulled my VW beetle into Clifton's driveway and met him for the first time; it was an encounter that I would be forever blessed with and I would not forget.

Why Clifton took me under his wing and befriended me is still a mystery to me. Perhaps it was because of my young age of 29 or he may have felt a kinship because of my surname. He was of German extraction and I was of Swiss and German. It was at this first meeting that I was introduced to native azaleas, and when I drove away some three hours later, I had a gift plant in full yellow bloom. It was a fine flame azalea, Rhododendron calendulaceum .

Through the next 12 years Clifton and I made many a journey and hike to the mountains of east Tennessee, western North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia as we chased the flowering native azaleas. Through him I found a love for the exquisite shrubs which has lasted to this day.

In June of 1969 we made a trip to the escarpment of the Cumberland Mountains above Dunlap, Tennessee, for a look at R. cumberlandense , the Cumberland azalea (previously known as R. bakeri ). We discovered two outstanding flowering azaleas clinging tenaciously to the very edge of the bluff and I took a number of cuttings from both. One, a beautiful deep rose pink would become 'Gann's Delight',* and the second is a bright orange-red that seems to burst into bloom and is named 'Cumberland Fire'*. What is important to note is that in 1970 I went back to the same area and both mother plants had been lost to a rock slide, but I discovered a low growing, late flowering, bright red R. cumberlandense and dug it for my gardens.

Around the 18th of June, 1969, Clifton and I drove to Wayah Bald, North Carolina, and that visit cemented my love for native azaleas. The size and colors of the shrubs astounded me, and this fact has pushed me to make the same pilgrimage each year since that day.

Clifton introduced me to many other species and gave me instruction on the methods of collecting and storing pollen, making crosses, collecting and storing seed, and methods of propagating and growing off the plants. I showed him the red R. cumberlandense I had collected from the mountain, and he suggested that I use it as a seed parent with a late flowering plumleaf azalea as the pollen parent.

He had a number of 10-foot R. prunifolium growing in his gardens, so in mid August of 1970 I collected a gel-cap of pollen from a nice red shrub. With this pollen labeled, dried, and stored in the freezer I waited for the next June. Little did I know this was the beginning of a strange and unusual story that would span 24 years and would be about an unusual shrub found, lost, found again, and lost again.

From my journal:

• June 20, 1971, I made a hand pollinated cross on the collected cumberlandense and labeled the five flowers R. cumberlandense x R. prunifolium .

• Nov. 1, 1971, I collected four seed capsules.

• Nov. 28, 1971, I sowed two trays of seed.

• Jan. 10, 1972, I transplanted 325 small seedlings into 2¼ inch peat pots in the greenhouse.

• Apr 20, 1972, I deep tilled the planting beds and fumigated them.

• May 15, 1972, I transplanted 301 seedlings to a prepared bed. The long wait starts for the first blooms. "Love is patient and kind." Hmm, never met me.

• Jun 10, 1975, I see orange and red flowers on the seedlings. Thirty plants have bloomed and only pitiful looking at best.

• Sep 20, 1975, one seedling is in bloom with bright red flowers. What's going on? Is it flowering out of season? Clifton said perhaps, but watch it next year. Another long year.

• Jun 15,1976, I lost 20 plants, but nearly all of the survivors are in flower. Still the blooms are nothing to look at and the shrubs are leggy. Plumleaf influence?

• Sep 22, 1976, I spot the bright red flowers from the kitchen window. Two years in a row plant number SH296 has flowered late...very late.

• Oct 1, 1976, an early killing frost has bitten the last blooms of SH296. Wait for next year to see if it's a repeat performance. Clifton said to see a plant bloom at least three times before digging and burning it or choosing to keep it.

• Jun 9, 1977, so much for ho-hum azaleas. None of the flowers or the shrub habit or the leaves look worthwhile. Perhaps I will keep a dozen of the best to evaluate further along with SH296.

• Aug 10, 1977, I dug and burned 120 plants.

• Sep 23, 1977, bright red flowers grace my planting beds. SH296 has bloomed very late again. Clifton says it must be true to habit and I must protect this valuable plant. This is the only bright spot in my life now, for my working job has gone to the pits. The once filled greenhouse is now an empty shell gathering spiders and dust. My once beautiful gardens have deteriorated from lack of attention and neglect.

• Nov 10, 1977, I dug SH296 and took it to Clifton for him to use in some breeding. I no longer have the fire for it. This is damned depressing.

From time to time when I visited Clifton, he would tell me about a cross or two he made with my late flowering plant. Some of those plants he grew off and were sold to Opry Land Theme Park in Nashville, Tennessee. On more than one occasion in a late September month, I would see bright blooms on a shrub placed in a cold frame.

Clifton retired from the nursery business and in a few years I lost my good friend and mentor to cancer. A few years later his loving wife and helpmate Vivian also died. Dorthy, Vivian's sister, took over the property and started the long process of cleaning it up. At that point, SH296 may have well been lost.

In 1982, my career situation and job became much more tolerable. I again found interest in growing and propagating azaleas and rhododendrons. I remembered that little late flowering azalea, so I stopped by to see Dorthy and ask about it. She remembered it well and pointed the shrub out to me planted in her yard. She told me she had found it in a 5-gallon bucket sitting in a cold frame and noticed a tag with my name on it.

Dorthy graciously allowed me to dig the plant and take it home Over a period of several years my gardens were taking on a new healthy look. SH296 responded well to the care and bloomed faithfully each September. My greenhouse was cleaned out from the years of neglect and using it as storage for loads of junk. I still wonder why I'm such a pack rat. Benches laden with trays of azalea and rhododendron seedlings soon inspired me to again try my hand at breeding.

It still amazes me at how much space a small tray of small seedlings will eventually take once transplanted to pots. Clifton once said it was total and complete proliferation at an exponential rate. My hobby was running amuck. Days off, weekends, vacations, and late into the night I worked. My poor wife was again a nursery widow.

In 1984 we decided on a 10-year plan for me to take an early retirement from the paper company I worked for. At that point the course was set and potted shrubs grew in numbers. In 1988 we formed our business, Schild Azalea Gardens & Nursery.

From my journal:

• Jun 15, 1989, I collected pollen from a late flowering, red cumberlandense in my gardens to use on SH296 in September.

• Sep 18, 1989, I pollinated five blooms on SH296 and tagged the flowers. [( R. cumberlandense x R. prunifolium ) x R. cumberlandense ]. (That's [SH296 x R. cumberlandense ].) Collected and stored pollen from several blooms.

• Dec 10, 1989, after watching the seed capsules carefully to prevent seed loss, I collected four seed capsules. Some had already split open.

• Dec. 26, 1989, I sowed one tray of seed. Note, few seed per capsule.

• Feb 1990, transplanted 75 small seedlings to 2-inch pre-loaded peat pots in #1020 trays. Seedlings go into new greenhouse. It's so nice to get out of the old rickety structure. The danged thing leaked heat so bad I might as well have left the doors open.

• May 19, 1990, SH296 is not looking well. Pruned out three dead limbs and the leafing out is not on normal schedule. I wonder if I got too close with herbicide. Nawh, I learned that lesson years ago.

• Jun 29, 1990, SH296 is going to die in spite of everything I do for her. More dead limbs to prune out. Fungicides are not having any noticeable effect. The leaves that emerged wilted and browned.

• Jul 5, 1990, transplant seedlings to 4" x 4" x 6" square pots and place in poly-hut under shade and with irrigation. They are looking so good. 3 to 4 inches tall.

• Aug 25, 1990, I stand over SH296 and mourn the loss. I have pruned back limbs looking for any green wood and there is none. She has died and never more will I see her bright, cheerful, red blooms in a cool September. Not even my tears nor my self flagellation to my posterior will bring her back. I never gave her a proper name which is no fitting epitaph. As I light the pile of dried limbs and brush with the remains of SH296 resting on the top, I say good-by to 'My September Song'*. It is such a fitting name for a wonderful shrub as her funeral pyre consumes the last. What about her children?

On Feb. 28, 1994, I was officially retired after five weeks of vacation time. After years of rising early to go to work, I rolled over instead of rolling out. I slept in this one morning. Spring was on the way. My early wild flowers were blooming and I could feel it in my spirit. My fingers itched to start planting in the good earth.

Our nursery was keeping me more busy than ever. I often wondered how I got anything done while I was working a six-day week job. Plant shipments had to be made. Shrubs had to be moved up to larger containers. All of the things that go part and parcel with a nursery operation had to be attended.

My dear wife LaShon decided to go to work outside the nursery. She said she did it because she wanted to, but I have a nagging feeling she couldn't take me being home all day long.

In June of 1994 I saw the first flowers of 'My September Song's' children. I was not impressed with the few plants that bloomed, but remembered Clifton's words from long ago: "See them bloom at least three times." I transplanted the 70 seedlings into 2-gallon containers and gave them a good dose of slow release fertilizer.

That September I looked for any blooms, but was disappointed. Not a single plant bloomed to carry on the line. Now I had to wait for the next year and see what would happen. Clifton had often told me that patience would be a virtue in plant breeding.

Seedling of (SH296 x R.
Seedling of (SH296 x R. cumberlandense ), June 26, 1996.
Photo by Joseph E. Schild, Jr.

From my journal:

• 1994 was not a total loss, for I did have a large group of excellent pink hybrids bloom. These hybrids between R. arborescens and R. cumberlandense were beautiful with rich colors and sweet fragrance. The foliage was a good dark green and had luster.

• June 28, 1995, came and went with a few more reds in flower, but again there was nothing exceptional about them.

• Sep 1995, there were no flowers in September. Where was the break I was looking for?

• June 15, 1996, I saw a number of good looking, bright to dark reds in flower. My cumberlandense in the gardens are past bloom and my sweet azaleas are just starting to flower good. My plumleaf azaleas are still almost a month away from breaking bud.

'My September Song's' children are sitting out in full sun exposure, so as each one flowers I move the best bright or darkest reds under shade to prevent sun scald. They are thriving and blooming in fantastic shades of red with a few reddish oranges. A few of the shrubs have flowers so dark red I can see black in them.

• Each day I look at the new flowers closely and select out those shrubs to move into shade. On June 23rd a thought comes to me about these seedlings. In spite of all my hopes not one plant bloomed out of season. Perhaps, these plants were meant to fill in a color gap between R. cumberlandense and R. prunifolium . Was that to be 'My September Song's' legacy?

• Today is June 26, 1996, and I see the last seedling in flower that had set bud from the previous year. There are still about 20 plants that have not yet set bud, so just perhaps there will be one to surprise me on a cool September morning. But if not, I have a collection of shrubs that will make any gardener's mouth water and SH296 will live on through her children in beautiful red bloom...in the hot days of June. I've got to stick cuttings. Hmm. I wonder what I might get if I cross this dark red with my late flowering plumleaf azalea? 'My September Song' revisited?

Joseph Schild is past president and program chairman of the Tennessee Valley Chapter in Chattanooga. He is also serving on the board of directors of Reflection Riding, a 300-acre arboretum and botanical garden. He has owned and operated Schild Azalea Gardens & Nursery in Hixson, Tennessee, since 1988, and from 1969 until the present he has had the thrill of azalea hunting, hybridizing the native species, and propagating these jewels of nature.

* Name is not registered.