JARS v52n3 - In Memoriam: Dr. David Goheen Leach

In Memoriam: Dr. David Goheen Leach
David Goheen

Dr. David Goheen Leach passed away in April 1998 after a long illness. The rhododendron world mourns the loss of a dedicated rhododendron enthusiast. We are grateful for the legacy he leaves us.

In the years following World War II, the study and collection of the many types of rhododendrons have been pursued by gardeners in almost every part of the United States. Interest in this prolific genus has been, and remains, at a very high level. Of these gardeners, one of the most well known was David G. Leach. The preface to his book Rhododendrons of the World begins with the following paragraph:

"Since mankind first sustained his spirit with the beauty of cultivated gardens, the flowering evergreens have been treasured above all other ornamental plants, and no such shrubs and trees have captured the loyal affection more thoroughly than have the magnificent rhododendrons."

This quotation typifies the love and interest David Leach had in this genus of flowering plants. It is my opinion that no single person has done more to promote interest in the genus than David, and thus his passing represents a great loss for all of us who treasure the study and collection of this remarkable assemblage of plants. Although the book he wrote on rhododendrons was published in 1961, the information that he accumulated remains as refreshing today as it was 40 years ago. The book is really a classic.

I was introduced to rhododendrons by Ben Lancaster of Camas, Wash. I will always remember my astonishment when Ben showed me a letter from David with the letterhead, David Goheen Leach! I wrote to him and found that we were cousins several times removed and that we were descended from the same great, great grandfather. Since that time, about 40 years ago, I have kept in touch with him and so his passing is also a great personal loss for me.

David was born just prior to world War I and grew up in north-central Pennsylvania, in and about Clarion County. He was very fond of his mother, Nellie Goheen Leach, and dedicated his monumental book to her memory, stating that she was the one who instilled in him his interest in the natural world. His father, Andrew Leach, owned and ran a glove manufacturing plant in Brookville, Pa., and on leaving for college in Wooster, Ohio, David made an interesting pact with his father. He said that he would take sufficient courses so that he could manage the glove plant after his graduation, but that he would also study genetics and botany. The pact that was agreed to was that, on reaching the age of 40, he would turn the running of the plant to a manager and that he would then devote all of his time to horticulture. I do not know exactly how his interest in rhododendrons started, but I do know that on his fortieth birthday, he turned the running of the plant over to a manager and walked out to pursue his real interest!

Following graduation from college, he returned to Brookville, managed the plant, married and raised a family of several children. Somehow, in about 1945, he began his life-long love affair with the genus Rhododendron . He corresponded widely and visited many of the early rhododendron enthusiasts such as Gable and Nearing in the eastern United States and the Hennys, Lancaster and Larson in the West. He quickly recognized that the climate in central Pennsylvania would accommodate only rhododendrons that were cold resistant and began to hybridize plants using best forms of species like R. catawbiense and R. maximum . He was especially taken with a white form of R. catawbiense . Over the course of years, he achieved considerable success in producing hybrids with pleasing plant habits and flower colors. He registered more than 80 hybrids and many of these are grown today, even in milder climates.

He was a busy man raising his family, running the factory and reveling in his rhododendron hobby. As previously mentioned, on his fortieth birthday, he turned all of his attention to rhododendrons and for four years did an incredible amount of research and study on the genus. He was fortunate that the income he received from the factory allowed him to travel widely. He visited nearly all of the rhododendron centers of the world and became acquainted with most of the well known rhododendron growers of Europe and Asia such as Loder, Stevenson, Russell, Hobbie and Wada as well as many others. He kept detailed notes and in 1961 his famous book was published. With all the frenetic activity as described above, it is interesting that he build a house in Brookville designed by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He surrounded the house with a garden containing thousands of rhododendrons necessary for his study of hardiness.

Somehow, perhaps as a result of his determined horticultural activities, which did not allow time for much of anything else, his personal life suffered. He and his lovely wife, Arlene, separated and David moved himself and his collection from Brookville to North Madison, Ohio, where he established a research station and garden dedicated to continuing his work in the genetics of rhododendrons. Ultimately in 1987 he contributed the research station, including plants, nursery stock and records, to the Holden Arboretum. The David G. Leach station has served as a satellite facility of the Holden Arboretum with Dr. Leach directing the work in progress. He also established an endowment fund to help support work at the research station. Notice the title "Doctor." This was awarded to him as an honorary degree in recognition of his tremendous research and study for his book by his Alma Mater.

Shortly after his move from Brookville, he served a term as president of the American Horticultural Society. He also continued his travels through the world. He met and became friends with so many people. He also continued to write papers and often wrote for the journal of the American Rhododendron Society. He was, indeed, a man of many talents. One characteristic that I found most impressive was his ability to organize his thoughts on almost any subject and express them in concise and entertaining lecture. I really believe that, given a short period to think about it, he could deliver a creditable lecture on just about any given subject! He had this talent but he confessed that he never really got over a certain amount of stage fright!

So, thus passes this man who contributed so much to horticulture in general and rhododendrons in particular. He will be missed and it is difficult to accept the fact that he will be seen no more at rhododendron meetings. Also, we will miss his informative papers on diverse rhododendron topics, ranging from defense of his introduction of R. 'Mist Maiden' as a true representative of the species R. yakushimanum to the effect of constituents of rhododendron honey on the anabasis of Xenephon, the Greek who led his troops on their famous retreat through Asia Minor some 2,400 years ago.

The Journal also received an obituary for Dr. Leach from Timothy C. Brotzman, vice president and general manager of Brotzman's Nursery in Madison, Ohio. Following are excepts from his contribution.

...Guided by a keen eye, scientific mind and no hesitation in discarding plants with inferior traits, Dr. Leach produced hundreds of thousands of seedlings involving as many as 23 different parents over seven generations. As the pedigrees expanded so did the parameters for evaluation to include disease and insect resistance, ease of production, purity of color, growth rate, foliage quality, flower structure, habit, mature size, and time of flowering. All told only 109 named rhododendrons and 23 deciduous azaleas were considered worthy and unique enough to be named and released into commercial production. With flowering dates that range from April to September, they unfold into an artist's palette of colors formerly unavailable to gardeners in cold climates.

...He turned his passion for photography into a 15-year association with Life Magazine , which then stimulated him to travel the globe in a quest to observe rhododendrons in all of their native habitats. As recently as 1996 he was in Irian Jaya and Australia studying the relationships among the epiphytic species growing there. Many of the names of his hybrids lead a tour of his favorite places: 'Cairo', 'Nepal', 'Sumatra', 'Bali', 'Senegal', 'Hong Kong' and 'Capistrano', to mention just a few.

...Devoted to horticulture, he was bestowed with many public honors which included Doctor of Science degrees from Saint Lawrence University and the College of Wooster; Dwight D. Eisenhower Medal; Medal of Honor from the Garden Club of America; Gold Medal Award from the American Rhododendron Society; Jackson Dawson Memorial Medal of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society; Delia White Vail Medal for Horticultural Achievement; Linnaeus Award from the Chicago Horticultural Society as well as others from state trade associations. He felt especially honored to receive the prestigious Loder Cup given by England's Royal Horticultural Society for writing Rhododendrons of the World and "The Creation of Novel Hybrids." As president of the American Horticultural Society, he was instrumental in obtaining the money which enabled the purchase of River Farm, the historic property of George Washington which now serves as that society's headquarters. He also served as a board member for the ARS; Rhododendron Species foundation; U.S. National Arboretum; Cleveland Zoological Society and the Cleveland Contemporary Art Society of the Cleveland Museum of Art. In recent years he was associated with the Garden Conservancy.

... Rhododendrons have been termed "The King of Shrubs." Certainly no plant, of royal bearing or otherwise, could have had a greater champion than David Leach. As long as there are lovers and planters of gardens, his legacies will live on for the world to enjoy.

A. Richard Brooks of the ARS Massachusetts Chapters has noted the part David Leach played in the chapter's history.

David Leach had a good deal of involvement in the founding of the Massachusetts Chapter. In November 1969 he wrote to Elinor Clarke of Ashfield, Mass.: "I have often wondered why no chapter exists in Massachusetts...With the potential of the Boston area, it really should be quite easy to organize a Massachusetts Chapter. But someone has to take the lead and do it. I nominate you."

With further encouragement from David, Elinor and a small steering committee organized an initial meeting of the chapter at Heritage Plantation in Sandwich, at which David was the featured speaker, in October 1970. At the 1990 ARS Annual Convention, hosted by the then flourishing chapter in Hyannis, he was again the featured speaker, generously refusing to accept any honorarium.