JARS v56n3 - In Memoriam: Nathaniel Eliot Hess

In Memoriam: Nathaniel Eliot Hess
Fred Knapp

Recently, the ARS received sad news from California that told of the passing of a New York Chapter founder, a locally and nationally prominent rhododendron figure who was part of ARS life for well over 50 years.

When Joann and I became active in the New York Chapter - at the beginning of its second decade in the early '60s - we were quickly introduced to Nat Hess' garden (in the Sands Point "banana belt" as other admiring and envious gardeners called it) and to Nat Hess himself and his wife, Marge. Nat was most of a generation ahead of us in his rhododendron life, his progress through family life, and his very successful business life. He was definitely a man to be looked up to, yet totally approachable.

For a few years we saw Nat's rhododendrons two or three times a season, usually once on an arranged chapter tour, plus one or two visits arranged by phone call - I don't believe he ever said no - as a major part of our own growing inspiration to enter the rhododendron world. His mature plants, many of them by definition "ungrowable" on Long Island, his lined out cuttings and seedlings, his greenhouse of rooted and rooting cuttings, and his willingness to talk about them all until at least the third time Marge whistled him up for supper, all were irresistible. He showed us plants we couldn't or shouldn't try, he gave us such plants, he sold us such plants. In so doing, he transferred part of his personal love affair with rhododendrons to us. I am sure he did this to many another rhododendron beginners. We never spent the time together to become personal friends in other life sectors, but to misquote an old saying: the friend of my friend is my friend. This linkage, with the rhododendron at its center, was very powerful when you were with Nat Hess in his garden of rhododendrons.

When Nat helped to found the New York Chapter in 1951, he had already, for some years, been in touch with Halfdan Lem and others of the West Coast rhododendron elite growers and hybridizer/propagators. This led to his formidable array of large flowered classic rhododendrons and (then) new West Coast introductions which he routinely succeeded with against all officially accepted odds. He denied all comments about the banana belt in which he was alleged to live. Instead, he insisted, water was the secret. If your plant died last winter, Nat would deny it. In his estimate, as he would tell you, it died much earlier, last summer, when you didn't water it. When I met Nat and his garden in the '60s, this was indeed sage advice, for the '60s were a decade of notable drought. And it is good advice once again in this dry first decade of the 21st century, with container grown plants to complicate the drought's impact.

For years, truss shows and tours would uncover surprises from Nat's garden. He maintained the flow of new treasures from the West Coast. He also hybridized with such items, and regularly grew open pollinated seed from favorite plants in the garden. He had few pedestrian plants for the bees to cross on their betters, and felt confident that any seed in his garden was of good stock.

On June 9, l989, Nat Hess received the ARS Bronze Medal from the New York Chapter. I should like to quote the citation, a neat encapsulation of his life with our chapter. "We are privileged to honor a man who has been a most enthusiastic rhododendron gardener, propagator and hybridizer. He was one of the founders of the Eastern Division of the ARS in 1949 and the New York Chapter in 1951. He served as chapter secretary/treasurer from 1951 to 1955, vice president from 1955-1957 and president from 1957-1960.

Since then he has favored us with illustrated talks, winning flower show entries and tours of his exceptional garden, which never seems to be in final form. He continues to grow prize-winning rhododendrons, landscaping his grounds with the fine touch of one who knows and loves rhododendrons. It is always a delight to greet Nat and Marge Hess at our meetings and to visit their garden…"

We can all join in a final endorsement of our chapter's pleasure and pride in having had Nathaniel Hess as a founder and a 51-year participant in our chapter.