JARS v56n2 - The Origins and Roots of Our Rhododendron Hybrids

The Origins and Roots of Our Rhododendron Hybrids
The First Progeny of RR. griffithianum, campylocarpum, fortunei and williamsianum
Clive L. Justice
Vancouver, British Columbia

Almost fifty years ago, writing in the 1947 Royal Horticultural Society Rhododendron Yearbook, John Russell tells us a little bit about the Sunningdale Nurseries. Messrs. Standish and Noble began their famous nursery at Sunningdale in Surrey in 1847. It was just a year before Joseph Dalton Hooker arrived back from Sikkim with seed of his twenty six species of Himalayan rhododendrons that were to play such an important role in hybridizing over the one hundred years to come. Russell quotes from one of their early catalogues on the soil preparation they had to make to ready the ground for rhododendrons; it even including a solution to the day's unemployment problem:

The nursery ground in question is rated in the Poor's Rate book 1 at £8 (an acre). The soil, which is from 10 to 15 inches in depth, is a black sandy peat, resting upon a clayey subsoil very deficient in vegetable matter, and naturally incapable of producing any crop whatever. To get it into condition we drained it from 3½ to 4 feet deep, trenched [double dug] 2ft deep, and dug in 30 to 40 tons of manure to every acre 2 . In their catalogue they recommended to everyone wishing to grow rhododendrons to do the same and , with great complacence, added: As in many districts agricultural workers are in excess, to trench the land once in four years would not only be the means of increasing the productive powers of the land, and thus enriching the producer, but, by giving employment to the poor, would tend to the decrease of crime, save them from the degradation of the Union Workhouse, and be a material savings to the farmers in poor rates. 3 Dr. William Hooker lived near the nursery, so Sunningdale received Sikkim seed in the spring of 1850 and in their 1853 catalogue described these species as surpassing the size by one third larger than those pictured in Rhododendrons of the Sikkim Himalayas. How they got them to bloom in three years from seed is hard to explain, so perhaps they were doing some pre-release speculative advertising. Or maybe it was all that manure that did it! It wasn't until 1858 that they offered the species Rhododendron griffithianum (son Joseph Hooker's R. auklandii ) in their catalogue.

The next year Standish and Noble parted company with Standish, starting a separate nursery at Ascot some 3 miles west of Sunningdale. In 1860 they both introduced a hybrid with griffithianum blood, one calling the new hybrid 'Cynthia', the other 'Lord Palmerston'. We all know which name made it. While Standish was much the better grower and propagator, Noble, it seems, was the better name caller.

Harry White, Mr. Noble's manager, took over Sunningdale in 1898, continuing to grow species from seed along with the Ghent and Mollis azaleas from the nursery's large stool ground and, of course, some hybrids between species. It is from his backcrossing of many of the species that we get some of the best colour forms of these species. In 1947, one hundred years after the founding, Russell reports that in the large wood by the house there were two 18-foot high Rhododendron thomsonii from Hooker's original seed along with a R. cinnabarinum ssp. cinnabarinum Royeli Group, also from his 1850 Sikkim seed.

Three decades earlier, in 1917, Gerald W. E. Loder published in Vol. I of the Rhododendron Society Notes a series of articles by J. H. Mangles 4 (pronounced Meng-lass) that had appeared in the Gardeners' Chronicle and The Garden through the years from 1879 to 1882. These articles by Mangles are almost exclusively descriptions, with comments on the species and hybrids - when they bloomed, how hardy, flowering times, flower sizes, colour descriptions, etcetera. Rhododendron griffithianum , then called auklandii , was a favourite of Mangles, both as a species itself and as a parent for use in hybridizing. He wrote that from Hooker's seed it took nine years before griffithianum first bloomed. 5 When it did it created quite a sensation. Mangles wrote:

I think that our plant [ Rhododendron griffithianum ] in its various forms is one of the greatest ever introduced to cultivation. When it is stated that a single flower in a truss of six, seven, eight or nine flowers is sometimes 6½ inches in diameter, the difficulty of conveying an adequate notion of its beauty in a plate of limited size will be understood. That the leaves are sometimes nearly a foot long and copious does not lessen the difficulty…From Cornwall and Yorkshire from Scotland to Germany, and elsewhere, men have written to say how the magnificent flowers have astonished and delighted them. 6 Mangles created the hybrid 'Alice Mangles', crossing griffithianum and ponticum, and in 1882 it received a First Class Certificate (FCC) from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). Writing in the Gardeners' Chronicle, a biweekly publication, for June 18th, 1881, Joseph Hooker wrote: In a house [glasshouse] in the garden of Lawson Company 7 the beautiful primrose bells of R. campylocarpum were opening. When loaded with its inflorescence of surpassing delicacy and grace it claims precedence over its more gaudy congeners, and it has always been regarded by me as the most charming of the Sikkim Rhododendrons. (Italics mine.) Mangles made a cross of his favourite species, griffithianum , and the most charming in 1884, the year he died, which he named 'Mrs. Randall Davidson', which subsequently became 'Maiden's Blush'.* However, it wasn't until some fifty years later that the first crosses with this most charming of Sikkim rhododendrons were introduced. Rhododendron 'Unique' - a campylocarpum cross by W. C. Slocock Ltd. that earned a FCC in 1935 - was probably a back cross of the species. While R. 'Moonstone'** - campylocarpum x williamsianum by J. C. Williams two years earlier, in 1933 - exhibited a stronger influence of the latter parent in leaf, flower and form with only the flower colour of Hooker's most charming. Both 'Unique' and 'Moonstone'** have become among the very best of the non-red flowering garden and landscape rhododendrons in the Pacific Northwest. The foliage, flower and compact form of both are perfectly suited to the small suburban garden.

It seems that there were two forms of Rhododendron campylocarpum floating around at the end of the nineteenth century: a tall upright form 9 to 12 feet (2.7-3.6 m) in height with pale spotless primrose flowers and a smaller bush form with sulphur-yellow flowers. J. G. Millais writing in Rhododendron Society Notes for 1921 states:

Some years ago when inspecting 8 the beautiful garden at South Lodge I was struck by a dwarf rounded bush of R. campylocarpum in flower. Instead of the tall somewhat leggy variety it was low (not more than 3 feet 6 inches), had very bristly petioles, and beautiful sulphur yellow flowers. It was a plant in every way distinct from the common variety usually seen in gardens and, on enquiry from F.D. Godman, he told me that it came, 20 years previously, from Reuthe, and that it had been raised direct from seed sent there by Sir J. Hooker. This I found to be correct…for purposes of distinction I propose to name the tall growing plant, R. campylocarpum var. pallidum .

One day in the early 1880s South Lodge's owner, Mr. F. D. Godman, received a shipment of rhododendrons from Mr. Mangles. Not knowing anything about the hardiness of these plants, he planted them all in his greenhouse. When one of these rhodos grew very vigorously and soon became too large for the greenhouse, he cut it back and offered the stems as grafts to his neighbour who lived across the road at Leonardslee. Sir Edmund Loder grafted these stems on Rhododendron ponticum understock and planted them out in various places in his garden, including along the driveway at Leonardslee. It proved to be perfectly hardy, and with its pure white flowers and large shiny leaves 'Loder's White' entered the garden as one the greatest of rhododendron hybrids. Fredrick Street's guess was that it was another 'Alice Mangles' cross of R. griffithianum with an old catawbiense hybrid 'Album Elegans' 9 . However, 'Loder's White' didn't receive the RHS's Award of Garden Merit (AGM) until 1933; it had taken over fifty years for a white flowered plant to gain that great honour.

Back at South Lodge at the turn of the century, neighbour Godman had a particularly good form of Rhododendron griffithianum also growing in his greenhouse that had come from Mangles. Sir Edmund obtained pollen from this fine plant, placing it on a particularly good form of R. fortunei . From this cross came what has become to be acknowledged as one of the best if not the best hybrid rhododendron ever produced. The name 'Loderi' that was prefixed to the first and subsequent crosses and the suffix Loderi Group, the group name, is attached to over thirty varieties that were made by Sir Edmund. There is 'Loderi King George', 'Loderi Pink Diamond', 'Loderi Game Chick', 'Loderi Sir Joseph Hooker', 'Loderi Sir Edmund' (see photo), 'Loderi Superlative', and 'Loderi Venus'. These names are some of the most familiar of this griffithianum pollen on selected fortunei plants. 'Loderi King George' is perhaps the most well known, and it is the age and quality marker for the Loderi Group. Named for King George V of England and the British Empire who reigned from 1912-1936, it is aptly named for the period it was introduced into and lives up to its quality and stature as a monarch among plants. Sadly, somehow 'Loderi King George' the rhododendron did not fit the gardens of this period, the twenties and thirties; the aesthetic was wrong, the size was wrong the colour was wrong, a shame.

R. 'Loderi Sir Edmund'
'Loderi Sir Edmund' at Leonardslee.
Photo by Peter Kendall

Robert Fortune, after whom Rhododendron fortunei was named, was an industrial spy sent by the East India Company to China to check out the tea business: varieties, manufacture, curing and scenting, etc. Although at the time it was only the Chinese who recognized this and tried to keep him away from their tea growing areas, it came to no avail, as Fortune was able to pass himself off successfully as a Chinese gentleman (at least he thought so) with the simple use of costume and makeup. He also moonlighted for the RHS, collecting among other plants the yellow jasmine Jasminum nudiflorum and Forsythia viridissima . John Lindley was RHS Secretary. He gave instructions to Fortune and these were extensive: what to collect, where to go, how to ship his plant collection and with whom, on and on ad infinitum. 10 These rules by Lindley, although not quite as extensive as those that the first RHS secretary, Joseph Sabine, gave to David Douglas when he came to collect in the Pacific Northwest, were however, quite detailed. They began:

You will embark on board the Emu in which a berth has been secured for you and where you will mess with the Captain. Your salary will be £100 a year…. Near the end of the long document, he wrote: You are supplied with various tools…and with firearms, which before your embarkation for England you may have an opportunity of selling to advantage, in which case you will do so and credit the Society with the amount received; otherwise you will restore your firearms to the Society on your return. 11 In China and deathly ill with fever and propped up against the mast whilst returning to the coast by boat down the river Yangtze, Fortune used a great many rounds of bird shot fending off several boarding attempts by river pirates. While he was successful in saving himself from being captured, robbed and held for ransom by the fusillade he had set off from the four barrels of his two guns, he was never able to collect for the cost of all the ammunition he expended defending himself. The excuse given by the parsimonious RHS Secretary Lindley was that as it was an excessive amount, over 100 rounds, and as it had not been used in pursuit of the Society's business, only for personal defense, the Society was not obligated to reimburse him for this extravagance.

During one of his several trips along the coastal areas of China, particularly the tea growing districts of Chekiang Province, south of Shanghai, Fortune writes:

In a romantic glen through which we passed I came upon a remarkably fine-looking rhododendron…I therefore look upon the present discovery as a great acquisition, and as the plants were covered with ripe seeds, I was able to obtain a good supply to send home… Mr. Glendinning, of the Chiswick nursery, to whom I sent [in 1859] the seeds, has been fortunate to raise a good stock of young plants, which are now growing vigorously, and which will soon determine the value of the species. 12

By the 1860s, the species that were to lead the way in producing the hybrids for the large estate, collector and landscape gardens of late Victorian England, Ireland and Scotland along with Germany were all in place. Rhododendron griffithianum , R. camplyocarpum and now R. fortunei served for the next fifty years to bring size and quality that was to set the style and elitist standard for what a garden hybrid rhododendron should look like. However, for the newly emerging twentieth century smaller suburban garden, most of these rhododendron hybrids were too large a plant and too difficult to grow successfully by the ordinary non-professional backyard gardener. But these and other cultural "difficulties" were all largely myths, propagated to cultivate an aura of mystery and upper-class snobbery about these great rhododendrons.

More than fifty years after Joseph Hooker's Himalayan adventures and Robert Fortune's Chinese escapades, plant collector Ernest Henry Wilson discovered Rhododendron williamsianum on a mountain in western China. He found a hillside of it growing like heather on Wa-shan 13 in Sichuan Province in 1908 and introduced it to Britain that same year through the Veitch Nursery. This rhododendron was quite unlike what everyone thought a rhododendron should look like. It is a thicket-growing plant with small, very distinctive pigeon-egg sized, heart shaped leathery leaves with blooms that are in a loose group of pink bells. Initially, because of its diminutive size in comparison with most of the others in the genus that had captured the interest of the "Rhododendron Old Boys" (ROBs), it had largely gone unnoticed, at least it seems in the very early days after its introduction. While writing about, growing and hybridizing extensively the larger leaved rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias, even J. C. Williams of Caerhays, one of the greatest of the ROBs for whom R. williamsianum was named, didn't give his namesake much attention. Probably the delay was in part due to the 1914-18 war. It put a crimp in everything including hybridizing so it was not until the 1930s that J. C. produced and introduced one of the best of his namesake williamsianum hybrids. It was a cross with Hooker's most charming and aptly named 'Moonstone'** for the creamy yellow bells.

This marvelous species seemed almost beneath many of the ROBs' attention. Many of the members in the Rhododendron Society, as they called their exclusive club, had titles, were gentlemen, employed gardeners, had very large gardens and went for large flowers on large plants. Even "Chinese" Wilson who had discovered and introduced R. williamsianum never had much to say about it, even in all his extensive writings about the many fine plant discoveries and their adaptations to garden use that earned him his respected nickname. Most gardeners assigned R. williamsianum to the rock garden. It wasn't until the 1930s that some of Rhododendron Society members like Lionel de Rothschild of Exbury across from Southampton in Hampshire, another of the great old boys, and Lord Aberconway of Bodnant in North Wales, another old boy, saw it as a challenge to produce a true red flower on a small leaved dwarf plant. They produced some fine garden hybrids using R. williamsianum as a parent, but a plant with true deep red flowers proved elusive.

Rothschild produced the most favoured of all williamsianum hybrids in 1934, the pink flowering 'Bowbells'***, which became a Pacific Northwest garden treasure, along with 'Jock'****. Bodnant gave us 'Cowslip' and 'Bodnant Thomwilliams'. In the Hummingbird Group, another of J. C. Williams' crosses using haematodes , he almost did get a red-red, but the pink of williamsianum seemed too strong, so a true red flowering hybrid didn't really come along until Dietrich Hobbie, nurseryman of Oldenburg in Northwest Germany, produced the Ammerlandense Group. It is a cross of 'Britannia' and williamsianum . The Dutch produced 'April Glow', williamsianum crossed with 'Wilgens Ruby'. These two perhaps come closest to pure red. However, the latter is a 1940s hybrid; the former is a 1960s development. As far as can be determined no United Kingdom rhododendron nursery growers ever took on williamsianum hybridizing like those in Germany and the Netherlands. 14

In 1946, only a year after the formation of the American Rhododendron Society (ARS) in Portland, the Rhododendron Group of the Royal Horticultural Society with a membership of 230, had 31 members from the states of Washington, Oregon and California in the Pacific Northwest. There were only two RHS Rhodo Group members from British Columbia, the husband and wife team of Mary and Ted Greig. The Greigs operated the Royston Alpine Nursery at Royston on Vancouver Island. In their 1941 catalogue they listed 127 species and 10 hybrid rhododendrons. None of the latter, however, were hybrids of williamsianum . Of the species there was Hooker's most charming R. campylocarpum , but R. griffithianum was not listed nor was the rhododendron from the "romantic glen," fortunei . 15 However, williamsianum was, and while there were no sizes given, you could get one for as little as $1.50 and on up.

The Greigs are commemorated in the Ted and Mary Greig Memorial Garden in Vancouver's Ceperley Park, now a part of Stanley Park. It contains many specimens of the species rhododendrons they raised from seed thirty-five years ago, along with several hybrids using the late blooming (July/August) plant with large lanceolate foliage, Rhododendron auriculatum , as a parent. Among several in the garden that have been named are 'Royston Rose' and 'Royston Radiance'. This latter hybrid has flowers the size of the Loderi Group. In the cool coastal Pacific Northwest the Loderis and their progeny and R. fortunei and its progeny all do fine. The very best of all, however, in the opinion of the writer are the hybrids of most charming and R. williamsianum . They are some of the very best small garden plants; their early bloom coincides with April, our month of finest spring display, with flowers and foliage in keeping with their floriferousness, with the fine detail and texture that the smaller garden, with fewer plants, requires.


  1. Cox, E. H. M. 1945. Plant Hunting in China, A History of Botanical Exploration in China and the Tibetan Marches, 1st ed. London: Collins.
  2. Fortune, Robert. 1857. A Residence Among the Chinese: Inland, on the Coast, and at Sea. Being a Narrative of Scenes and Adventures During a Third Visit to China, From 1853-1856, With Suggestions on the Present War, 1st ed. London: John Murray.
  3. Gould, N. K, and P. M. Synge, eds. 1947. The Rhododendron Year Book 1947, 1st ed. , Vol. 2, London: Royal Horticultural Society.
  4. Millais, J. G. 1917. Rhododendrons and the Various Hybrids. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
  5. Millais, J. G. 1924. Rhododendrons and the Various Hybrids, Second Series. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
  6. Pacific Rhododendron Society, The Rhododendron Society Notes Vol I, 1916-19; Vol II, 1920-24; Vol III, 1925-31
  7. Street, Fredrick. 1965. Rhododendrons . London: Cassell & Company Ltd.

Author's Footnotes
1 Poor's Rate Book is still in use and is often consulted by landscape architects and quantity surveyors. Want to know the quantities and costs of different materials - gravel base and sub-base, asphalt surfacing, etc., in a 100 feet of 12-foot wide roadway? You will find it all in Poor's.
2 My Poor's tells me that when spread on an acre at that rate it would be close to 1 foot deep. That's a hell of a lot of manure!
3 Gould, N. K., and P. M. Synge, eds. The Rhododendron Yearbook 1947 . Edited by RHS Editorial Committee. Vol. 2, The Rhododendron Yearbook, London: Royal Horticultural Society, 1947.
4 James Henry Mangles, 1832-1884, the eldest son of C. E. Mangles, chairman of the London & South Western Railway. He studied for the bar but did not practice. He settled at Valewood near Haslemere in Surrey and became an ardent gardener devoting himself chiefly to rhododendrons, getting started early on in 1859 when Sir William Hooker gave him pollen from R. arboreum which he put on R. ponticum .
5 R. ciliatum and R. dalhousiae were the only two to bloom after three years from seed.
6 Mangles writing in The Garden , September 24th, 1881, as quoted in: The Pacific Rhododendron Society, The Rhododendron Society Notes Vol I, 1916-19, page 101.
7 Lawson Company was an Edinburgh Nursery that was the first to raise hybrids of R. griffithianum in 1869. One of these according to Fredrick Street was 'John Waterer', one of many griffithianum crosses with the old hardy Waterer hybrids. Lawson's was also the first nursery to raise Chamaecyparis lawsoniana from seed that was sent to the nursery by David Douglas. He had collected it on the Pacific Coast near the Oregon/California border. Over 250 named varieties of Lawson "cypress" have since been produced from the seed Douglas sent in 1827, many of them at the Lawson nursery.
8 J. G. Millais was used to inspecting; he was a Lieutenant-Commander. He also assembled in two elephant folio size volumes, one written just prior to the First World War. The Second Series volume came out six years after the war. These two volumes recounted the hybridizing history of the Victorian and Edwardian Nurseries and rhododendron enthusiasts and collectors; he was one himself. There are many black and white photographs of species (photos in China are by George Forrest) and hybrids along with colour full page plates of hybrids and species flowers by botanical illustrators E. F. Brennand & Beatrice Walker with artists Beatrice Parsons and Archibald Thorburn watercolours of gardens. Each has a painting of Leonardslee. There is a page of two 8"x 6"superb b&w photos at Leonardslee. One is Rhododendron griffithianum the other 'Loder's White', both of the plants in full flower, plus a 9"x 11" portrait of a truss of 'Loder's White'. There is an alphabetical listing with descriptions of the species (Millais, 1917 #1052; Millais, 1924 #1051).
9 Street, Fredrick. Rhododendrons . London: Cassell & Company Ltd, 1965, page 119.
10 Cox, E. H. M. Plant Hunting in China, A History of Botanical Exploration in China and the Tibetan Marches . 1st ed. London: Collins, 1945.
11 Ibid.
12 Fortune, Robert. A Residence Among the Chinese: Inland, on the Coast, and at Sea. Being a Narrative of Scenes and Adventures During a Third Visit to China, From 1853-1856…With Suggestions on the Present War. 1st ed. London: John Murray, 1857.
13 Wa-shan has a distinct plateau on its top. This mountain, some 50 miles distant, can be seen looking slightly to the southwest from the TV tower compound on the summit of Emei-shan. See: (Justice, 1984 #1513), page 127.
14 In the RHS Rhododendron Yearbook for 1946 there is a listing of awards given to rhododendrons during the WW2 years 1939 to 1946. Of the 105 hybrids listed only one had used williamsianum in its makeup. The hybrid with another species, R. houlstonii , was 'Arthur J. Ivens', by Hillier & Son, Nurserymen of Winchester. It received an AM. Rhododendron griersonianum , the great hope for a "true red with no hint of blue," figured in at least a dozen of the 105, with 'Elizabeth' being one of the few to reach any measure of garden popularity.
15 The Greig's Royston Nursery List No. 14 for 1956 did list Rhododendron fortune i, and Loderi hybrid seedlings but no griffithianum .

Editor's Notes
* The International Rhododendron Register lists 'Mrs Randall Davidson' as a selection from the Mrs Randall Davidson Group. North American Registrar Jay Murray reports that since 'Maiden's Blush' is listed in the Register as raised by "Unknown", Mr. Justice may have solved the mystery of its origin.
** Now Moonstone Group.
*** 'Bow Bells' is a selection from the Bow Bells Group.
**** Now Jock Group.

Clive Justice, a member of the Vancouver Chapter and a landscape architect, is a frequent contributor to the Journal on the history of rhododendrons.