JARS v58n4 - Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens: Test Garden for Contemporary Rhododendron Hybrids

Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens: Test Garden for Contemporary Rhododendron Hybrids
Kristi O'Donnell, Executive Director
Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens
Greenbank, WA

It is the tenth of April, a sunny day abuzz with bees and people pollinating rhododendrons. The Hybrid Test Garden at Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens is a rainbow of blossoms whose pot of gold is gilded anthers. One time only a dream, the circular labyrinth is now alive with color!

Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens 
Hybrid Test Garden
Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens Hybrid Test Garden.
Photo courtesy of Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens

Ann and Max Meerkerk, the Gardens' founders, arrived on Whidbey Island, Washington, over forty years ago, very involved with breeding - of a different sort. Max was the president of the International Weimaraner Association and was responsible for bringing the true bloodline from Germany to the United States. Upon visiting a friend on Whidbey, they became enchanted with the island and purchased the initial thirteen acres of forested land. With eighty-eight canines in tow, they moved to Whidbey Island to engage in the final stage of their life journey.
Inspired by the stands of native Rhododendron macrophyllum and Max's fondness for the Rothschild's Exbury Estate, they began work on their Pacific Northwest woodland style garden.
Soon, the infectious lure of rhododendrons overtook the Meerkerks. They collected plant specimens from England and Asia and became best customers of the RumDum Club of Northwest hybridizers (Halfdan Lem, Endre Ostbow, Lester Brandt, Hjalmer Larson). As an active member of the Washington Park Arboretum, Ann modeled the original Meerkerk "Secret Garden" from those collections. A landscape rich with intermediate deciduous trees and groundcovers emerged to accompany their newly found passion, rhododendrons.
The Meerkerks soon became hybridizers on their own. Halfdan Lem's breakthrough 'Lem's Cameo' led to the Meerkerk hybrid 'Mary's Favorite'. Max's love of the velvety underside of the leaves, or indumentum, inspired the creation of the Rhododendron bureavii cross 'Meerkerk Magic'. The intrigue of tree-form rhododendrons with deeply pigmented blooms, as in R. niveum , resulted in the arboreal hybrid 'Whidbey Island'.

R. 'Mary's Favorite'
'Mary's Favorite'
Photo courtesy of Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens

Before Ann passed away in 1979, she willed that the Gardens become a site for continuing the work she and Max had begun. Bequeathing the Gardens to the Seattle Rhododendron Society she stated:
I have envisioned for the future, a careful and methodical development of a peaceful woodland garden emphasizing rhododendrons and companion plants. In addition to being of great ornamental value, I would anticipate that the garden would be used to test, select and propagate supe    rior plant materials.
Ann Wright Meerkerk, 1979

Organization of the Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens began. Through the dedicated work of volunteers and hybridizers from the far reaches of the globe, a new test garden was conceived. Hybrids from Germany, Finland, Japan, Scotland, Czechoslovakia, New Zealand, France, Canada and the United States arrived for the debut. Hybrid crosses from the gardens of Hans Hachmann, Marjatta Uosukainen, Hideo Suzuki, Jack Lofthouse and Peter Cox represent countries from afar. Warren Berg, Frank Fujioka, Joe Davis, Harold Greer, Roy Thompson, Jim Barlup, Elsie Watson, Eddie and Loyd Newcomb, Bill Stipe, Ted Van Veen, David Leach, Gus Melquist and Ned Brockenbrough are among the U.S. participating hybridizers.        The early work of the RumDum Club influenced the hybridizers of the "middle era," including the Meerkerks. Elsie Watson, the founder of the Northwest Hybridizers Group, actively participates in hybridizing and at Meerkerk's monthly work parties. (Elsie celebrated her 90th birthday in 2003.) Her extensive work, searching for the most azure of the violet rhododendrons, resulted in 'Blue Boy'. Elsie's goals also encompass early blooming plants, such as the winter blooming 'Tabitha', and those with picotee flowers, such as 'Marley Hedges'. Exotic foliage from big leaf parentage has gifted the plant world with 'Pink Prelude' and 'Chief Sealth'.

R. 'Marley Hedges'
'Marley Hedges'
Photo courtesy of Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens

Watson's work is influential with many of the contemporary hybridizers. World respected plantsman Frank Fujioka has named his compact picotee flowering rhododendron 'Elsie Watson' in her honor. Frank visited the Lem nursery for many years, witnessing the transporting of dozens of fine specimens from the mainland to the Gardens on Whidbey Island. Perhaps seeing Lem's work and production of new introductions inspired Fujioka to pursue the world of plant parenthood. Now after thirty-six years into this art and science, his creations are available to the public. Frank registers a plant name only after decades of trials at his rhododendron farm on Whidbey Island, with other growers and at the Meerkerk Hybrid Test Garden. He strives to create a plant that has excellent growth habit, great foliage, clear colors, and a long bloom time. His floral alchemy combines these traits to produce plants which flower at a young age. Frank's current series of rhododendrons exhibit lily-like flowers with a fine-art appeal, incorporating the "negative space" around flowers showcasing the blossoms' unique qualities. 'Starbright Champagne', one of the first of this group of ('Yaku Sunrise' x 'Hansel') x 'Lem's Cameo' crosses, covers itself with a multitude of bouquet-like trusses each April. New foliage emerges in a rich bronze tone and transforms into a shiny emerald canopy on a well mannered shrub. 'Glowing Gold', a plant so floriferous that the foliage is occluded, is not only brilliant but sun-tolerant as well. Frank has been influenced by the "old rush" of rhododendron breeding, not to be eclipsed by many.

R. 'Starbright Champagne'
'Starbright Champagne'.
Photo by Frank Fujioka

Rhododendron hybridizers have been in search for a "pot of gold" since Rothschild's early 'Crest' and 'Fortune' in the early 1900s: a hardy, clear yellow rhododendron. Contemporary results could be viewed in the Meerkerk Hybrid Test Garden this year which showcased mature rhododendrons packed with buds. Glimpsing at the array of yellows from the crosses of dozens of growers, it is evident that they are still panning for the successful nugget. Best hybrids of yellow for the Pacific Northwest include: 'Nancy Evans' and 'Horizon Monarch' from Dr. Ned Brockenbrough, 'Mindy's Love' and 'Invitation' from Jim Barlup, 'Glowing Gold' from Frank Fujioka, and 'Lemon Dream' from Briggs/McCulloch. Leach's 'Capistrano' introduced through Briggs' Nursery, is an H-1 plant hardy to USDA zone 5. This is great news for gardeners in the Midwest and on the East Coast. Those of us in the horticultural Mecca of the Pacific Northwest are fortunate to have a kaleidoscopic palette of rhododendrons to paint with.

R. 'Nancy Evans'
'Nancy Evans'
Photo courtesy of Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens

While many have been in search of the elusive yellow, others are attempting to broaden the color range and hardiness for East Coast landscapes. Introduced to the world of color through photography and to rhododendrons through Wells Medina Nursery, hybridizer Jim Barlup has been working toward obtaining a clear orange rhododendron which is hardy, has great foliage and form. Jim works with growers around the world discussing hardiness and color characteristics and sharing pollen. Last year when visiting his trial garden, I was surprised to see only one flower in bloom: an orange rose! Yes, a rose! Whether he is utilizing creative visualization or a new process of orange through osmosis, his goal of obtaining clear orange blossoms on a shrub with good growing habits, is a good bet. Looking at his successes, you can visually see the progress from yellow to orange: 'Mindy's Love', 'Invitation', 'Honey Butter', 'Recital'. By combining his hybrids with others, such as 'Lem's Tangerine', 'Hill's Low Red' and 'Apricot Fantasy', the goal of obtaining an orange hybrid is in sight. Jim's named and unnamed hybrids are main elements of the Meerkerk Hybrid Test Garden program.

R. 'Honey Butter'
'Honey Butter'
Photo by Jim Barlup

The Next Generation
"Things are only impossible until they're not." Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation
Hybridizers have not only been creating new flora, they are inspiring a new generation of growers! In 1993, Meerkerk Rhododendrons Gardens hired horticulturist Kristi O'Donnell for the Garden Manager position. When garden intern Oriana Simmons-Otness began working at Meerkerk in 1998, opportunities blossomed. The effervescence of youth and enthusiasm for plants intrigued our contemporary hybridizers. The combination of sage wisdom, scientific techniques and whimsy among Fujioka, Barlup, Watson, Gene Pflug, the Newcombs and O'Donnell and Simmons-Otness represents the modern era of Meerkerk hybridizers: the Next Generation.
Current seedlings from crosses made in 2003 have germinated and are being grown on in hopes of transplanting some of the qualities of the parent plants. Combining pollen from yellow, indumented Rhododendron wasonii onto Barlup's 'Invitation' and Fujioka's 'Glowing Gold' may introduce a compact, yellow flowering rhodie with bronze indumentum. Watson's 'Fragrant Red' onto 'Black Prince' may produce a dark maroon, perfumed flower. Plant characteristics in the Meerkerk hybrid program include yellow, deep purple or burgundy flowers with indumentum and striking foliage, disease resistance, good form and fragrance.
Thanks to a generous grant from the American Rhododendron Society for the Hybrid Test Garden, Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens is able to upgrade the Hybrid Test Garden via standardized soil testing, improved labeling and signage, database construction and field research.
In 2003, the Great Plant Picks Team from the Elizabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle invited O'Donnell to chair the Rhododendron Committee. The Rhododendron Team will be selecting plants over the next several years according to flower color, foliage and landscape type, e.g., woodland, arboreal and rock garden. Winners of these categories will be tried and true with a focus on new hybrids and species as they are tested and become available.
With these factors in alignment: mentors and students, plants and pollen, equipment and imagination, we are ushering in the Next Generation.
"I have envisioned for the future...a peaceful woodland garden emphasizing rhododendrons and companion plants."
Ann Wright Meerkerk, 1979