Azaleas and Rhododendrons at Guelph University, Ontario
Robert A. Fleming
Grimsby, Ontario, Canada
Vineland Station, Ontario, Canada
St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada
The Horticultural Research Institute of Ontario (HRIO)
in Vineland, Ontario, on the shores of Lake Ontario, and 12 miles from Niagara Falls, has been growing deciduous azaleas for at least 50 years. The date of the first planting of Knaphill or Exbury types is faded in history. What is clear, however, is that interest in hybridizing azaleas and rhododendrons started in the late 1950s with Roy Forster and the encouragement of, the then Institute Director, Dr. E. Frank Palmer. Prior to that time, in the early 1950s, Bob Fleming, a newly minted Ontario Agricultural College graduate, established several new beds of broad leaved rhododendrons and attempted to grow plants from seed obtained from this planting. A number of
seedlings were grown and ultimately planted in strategic locations along a creek bank and in front of the administration building. A few are still to be seen. None was named and introduced though one or two had definite merit. This was the beginning of the "Rhododendron Project."
In the late 1950s Roy Forster came on staff to work with Bob Fleming in the ornamental field. A Kew graduate, Roy sparked the project, and an extensive planting was planned along the creek bank and a program of plant breeding was begun using hardy named varieties and selections from outside sources. A group of seedlings from an Oregon nursery formed the nucleus of the Exbury azalea breeding which has resulted in the introduction of several "Vinecourt" selections.
During Roy Forster's time the woodlot garden, the principal test grounds for hybridizing program, was developed from what previously had been the station dump. The soil is a sandy loam, well drained, and the woodlot is composed of a mix of hardwoods but predominantly red oak. Little preparation, apart from clearing underbrush, was needed to establish a good collection of evergreen rhododendrons. From breeding, to the late 1950s, two selections were introduced including 'Vinestar', a deciduous rhododendron, early blooming with pale yellow flowers and hardy to -20°C. A rich, red, evergreen rhododendron named 'Vivacious' was also introduced and, while not as hardy (H3), was exceptional in colour and was offered by several American nurseries.
['Scandinavia' x ('Catalgla' x R. fortunei )],
Photo courtesy of Guelph
Horticultural Institute of Ontario
Ken Begg, a Niagara Parks graduate, succeeded Roy Forster in 1969 and continued the breeding project with, primarily, the evergreen, broadleaf forms. 'Vinecrest', a rich yellow evergreen rhododendron, was discovered among a group of seedlings in the nursery and was subsequently introduced to the trade.
Al Smith succeeded Ken Begg in 1974 and brought an amateur plantsman's perspective with an extensive knowledge of rhododendrons to the project. The project moved ahead in leaps and bounds. A Ministry of Agriculture publication was produced and has been revised to update the information. Propagation received increased attention, and many rooted cuttings were distributed for trial and to further the interest in ericaceous plants. During this time in the early 1970s the Niagara branch of the Rhododendron Society of Canada was founded with the encouragement of Al Smith and the leadership of HRIO. This coalesced interest in rhododendrons in a united group of enthusiasts who started to share their private growing interests and experiences with a wider community.
Al Smith made contacts across the country and in the United States and was significantly influenced in his thinking about hybridizing and growing rhododendrons by David Leach and Weldon Delp. The result was that many new and interesting selections found their place in the Horticultural Research Institute plantings. The woodlot remained primarily a seedling trial area, and in a sunny portion of the woods the deciduous azalea plantings resulted in several of the "Vinecourt" series of azaleas.
R. 'Vineland Gold', deciduous azalea
('Chelsea Reach' x 'Gold Dust'), cross 1982.
Photo courtesy of Guelph
Horticultural Institute of Ontario
The popularity of such an extensive collection attracted much attention locally and internationally and received HRIO's support for its development through to the second half of the 1980s. The Rhododendron Project ended in 1987 with Al Smith's retirement, subsequent untimely death, transfer of the HRIO facilities to the University of Guelph and removal of Ontario government funding for horticultural research and extension services. The woodlot and the azalea plantings are an important site for those interested in the history of development of interest in rhododendrons in Niagara. The gain in popularity of rhododendrons and azaleas can be contributed substantially to the efforts of Forster, Begg and Smith. Examples of their work is shown in the accompanying photographs.
Accompanying photographs are provided courtesy of Dr. Frank C. Eady, Director, University of Guelph Horticultural Institute of Ontario, and Judy Warner, HRIO librarian.
1 At that time, the Horticultural Research Institute of Ontario at Vineland was a unit of the Ministry of Agriculture of Ontario. It offered extension services to local commercial growers of vegetable crops and to horticulturists. At that time, breeding and research projects in commercial fruit and flower production were important elements in the work of the research station. In the decade of the nineties, extension services were removed and the institute was removed from the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture and made a research institute of the University of Guelph. With Al Smith's death in the mid 1980s, the Rhododendron Project was terminated, not for lack of community interest in rhododendrons but for lack of government funds to support the work.