JARS v55n2 - The Story of Rhododendron 'Bonnie Bee'

The Story of Rhododendron 'Bonnie Bee'
William Tolstead
Elkins, West Virginia

During my sabbatical leave in the spring of 1963, I visited my mother who lived on the west side of the Willamette River near Newburg, Oregon. About a half mile south and across the river lived Cecil Smith, a noted rhody man who had a prize collection of rhododendrons. Among this collection was the recently introduced plant Rhododendron degronianum ssp. yakushimanum from the southernmost island of Japan, Yaku. In 1964, Cecil Smith sent me an envelope containing pollen of R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum to my farm, Rhody Run, near Elkins, West Virginia. I crossed this with a selected R. fortunei x R. catawbiense hybrid from which an abundance of seed was collected in the fall of 1964. This seed was planted in eight large flats and produced about 800 plants, which were grown under lights from the winter of 1964 thru the spring of 1965. After the last frost (usually around May 15) the flats were placed outside where they remained thru the summer and received their first cold treatment during the winters of 1965-66. At the conclusion of this severe cold treatment, only three plants remained. Two of these were tall and lanky and were discarded. The one survivor was dwarfish and bushy and would later become our prize R. 'Bonnie Bee'.

Dr. William Tolstead and R. 'Bonnie Bee'
Dr. William Tolstead and 'Bonnie Bee'
Photo by Don R. Yeltman

At the present time we have eleven thriving plants of 'Bonnie Bee'. The plants are about 3½ feet (1 m) tall after thirty-six years and have a wonderfully shrubby growth, with dark green leaves. They endured the drastically frigid winters of the mid 1980s when temperatures plummeted to –30°F (-34°C) and survived to flower in the spring. The plants are very floriferous with each truss containing approximately fifteen flowers. Here in northern Appalachia, 'Bonnie Bee' flowers around May 15. The accompanying photograph taken in the spring of 2000 has me, at 90 years old, standing by 'Bonnie Bee'.

Dr. Tolstead passed away Nov. 3, 2000, not long after he wrote this article with the assistance of Leo A. Konchesky.