JARS v59n1 - Let's Talk Hybridizing: Way to Go, Elsie Watson

Let's Talk Hybridizing: Way to Go, Elsie Watson
Gwen Bell
Seattle, Washington

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to be a rhododendron hybridizer? Is it fun? Yes. Is it hard work? No. The most difficult part of the experience is growing numbers of seedlings (the more the better), evaluation, selection and culling.
Is it addictive? Well, yes. Ask Elsie Watson. This slender, attractive woman has been hybridizing rhododendrons for forty-four years. Elsie is celebrating her 91st year of Northwest living. Today she is leaning back in her cushioned chair, her mind busily scanning possibilities for 2005's new matings - perhaps thirty or so. Oh, these American born, Seattle raised Scandinavians are a hardy bunch! In the Pacific Northwest, one might think of her as a bridge from the generation of the "RumDum Club" to the "gung-ho" current group of hybridizers. She is a founding member of the American Rhododendron Society and of the Seattle Hybridizers Study Group. Elsie offers her comfortable home as a meeting place, not to mention the inspiration of her beautiful rhododendron garden.
Meticulous records, written down only after harvesting the seed, list over 600 crosses, and she did raise seedlings from most of them. Elsie smiles as she remembers an article from an old ARS Yearbook in which Guy Nearing suggested that one must raise thousands of seedlings from a single cross to create that one superior, unique rhododendron. Her smile says, "That's a lot of seedlings!" Elsie admits that the first cross she attempted was out of curiosity..."Can I make a legitimate cross, can I induce a big fat seed pod?" When that fat seed pod did appear, it was a triumph. Subsequently, she learned to set goals for herself. Now she suggests finding a niche in the rhododendron world and then to concentrate on studying rhododendrons that might accomplish this goal. Elsie indicated that she would not waste her time using some of the early hybrids that she once thought were wonderful, for now in the Northwest's benign climate there is a much wider range of colors, foliage types and plant habits to explore. The new hybrids are a very complex and disparate group. What surprises they may hold for us!
It is fun reviewing her records and the changes over the years. Elsie comments that in the beginning one of her rhododendrons used was the hardy 'Gomer Waterer' - but little or no seed was produced, ('Edna McCarty' x 'Mrs Donald Graham') - no pollen, ('Mrs A.T. de la Mare' x 'Gold Mohur') - just nothing special. Too many of the seedlings promised to be leggy, poor quality or unsuitable for the smaller gardens belonging to most of us. Even then she was looking for something beyond what was being marketed at the time.
In 1965, Elsie's husband, George, became an invalid. Her care of him and a broadening of her rhododendron hybridizing activities gave her a focus that helped her fill her time and her life with purpose. She speaks with feeling when she observes that growing things can give one a sense of constantly renewing life and an anticipation of the future. She becomes very serious when she questions, "Whatever would I have done without rhododendrons? I don't know."
On a happier note, Elsie views 1965 as a breakthrough year, for she departed from hybridizing the usual pale pink and white-flowered rhododendrons. Though she had little success with the yellows, she jumped into using the near-blues, violets and the purples. Perhaps these hues were not in favor at the time, but it did seem that they might bring dramatic color to the garden. These crosses frequently produced some lovely blotches (hate the word "blotch" applied to rhododendron flowers...does "flare" sound better?). ('Blue Ensign' x 'Purple Splendour') gave her 'Blue Boy' and 'Blue Hawaii', each with a prominent flare drawing the eye to the interior of the flower. Bruce Briggs pointed out to Elsie that when her 'Katrina' ('Anna' x 'Purple Splendour') bloomed in his nursery, its unusual and highly conspicuous black flare drew visitors' attention from across the many rows. She worries that the plant might be more leggy than she had expected. Time will tell.

('Maui' x 'Pink Prelude') x 
'Fragrant Red'
('Maui' x 'Pink Prelude') x 'Fragrant Red'
Photo by William Heller

Elsie made a rhododendron pilgrimage to Britain about 1970 and was impressed by the magnificence of Bodnant and the Cox garden. When she returned home, her daughter called her attention to a bedraggled rhododendron drowning in weeds under tall trees. The plant was rescued and recognized as a seedling out of the ('Anna' x 'Purple Splendour') cross. Imagine her glee when the orphaned-one opened trusses of twenty-four flowers, picotees of magenta-rose and white with vivid flares extending from throat to margin. 'Marley Hedges', as it was dubbed, captured the attention of all the Seattle Rhododendron Society judges and visitors and was awarded the Best Truss in Show in 1983. It is on the Eligibility List of the ARS Plant Awards. Looking back, Elsie observes that Halfdan Lem's Anna Group was the best parent that she had used in earlier hybridizing and still considers it a fine and useful plant for breeding. 'Violetta's Song' ('Mrs. Davies Evans' x 'Purple Splendour'), another of the so-called "blues," opened a beautiful bi-colored truss of soft violet and cream. The newest of the "blues," unregistered as yet is 'Princess Angelina'* ('Purple Splendour' x 'Chevalier Felix de Sauvage'), a low growing early March bloomer, of deep purple color with an even deeper colored flare. It was named honoring a local legend, the daughter of Chief Sealth. Elsie has set herself a difficult, if not impossible, goal for the future, that of creating a fine rhododendron with purple flowers encircled by a huge calyx.

Elsie Watson with R. 'Richard Cree'
Elsie Watson with 'Richard Cree'
Photo by William Heller

Since Elsie has a rather large wooded property, it gave her pleasure to dabble a bit in crosses that were obviously going to produce large plants. In 1970, she pollenized a Lem hybrid, ( R. calophytum x 'Sarita Loder'), with pollen from the 'Earl of Stair' form of R. macabeanum . Eighty healthy seedlings germinated; seventy-five grew to maturity. The first seedling bloomed at age 12. It now bears the registered name 'Pink Prelude'. A few years later, Clone #4 flowered and she considers it slightly better than 'Pink Prelude'; it has stronger pink color, larger leaves and a larger, more shapely truss. This one has been named and registered 'Chief Sealth'. Both have beautiful foliage and nice habit. She gave away many of the seedlings from this cross and now wonders what good sibling rhododendrons might have flowered in other gardens. She likes all of her seedlings to develop vigor. These graceful rhododendrons fill the bill. They are elegant specimens.

R. 'Pink Prelude'
'Pink Prelude'
Photo by William Heller

A surprise captured her attention while on the daily patrol of her garden. A fragrance drifted across her path. It couldn't be coming from that red-flowered rhododendron, could it? Her cross of ('Loderi Venus' x 'The Honourable Jean Marie de Montague') was lit up like a Christmas tree. Elsie's perception was that red-flowered rhododendrons rarely had scent. Here was an exception! Now her 'Fragrant Red' will be enhancing Northwest gardens with its scent, as well as its colorful flowers.
Early bloomers became a challenge. Elsie experimented with the species Rhododendron strigillosum and an old-time Lem hybrid ('Unknown Warrior' x 'Ole Olson'). Difficulties appeared even in her moderately warm garden. Flowers sometimes frosted, although plants were hardy. Finally, a rhododendron early bloomer proved reliably hardy in her garden. It warmed the gray days with bright red flowers and was an instant success with visitors. Elsie registered 'Tabitha' in 1994. She suggests that the time of bloom of her red-flowered hybrids is their main value, for they open bright blossoms in the Northwest when late winter has become dismal and we are longing for spring. Chuckles are heard when it is learned that the plant, 'Tabitha', is named for her unruly cat, Tabitha (meaning witch). She finds 'Tabitha' (['Unknown Warrior' x 'Ole Olson'] x R. strigillosum ), with its tight, ball-shaped trusses "a true harbinger of spring." Now two more early bloomers remind her of her neighbor's playful cats, and she has appropriated their names, Sashi and Karibean. Elsie's neat sense of humor triggers a twinkle in her eyes as she refers to these three rhododendrons as her "three cats."

R. 'Tabitha' R. 'Sashi'
Photo by Elsie Watson
Photo by Elsie Watson

It is amazing how a small greenhouse for propagation and one hoop house can provide something to do year round. Elsie culls out relentlessly as much as one half the seedlings of each cross in their first year. She likes to grow her selected plants in containers for the first three years. To enter her hoop house is like entering a small-scale conservatory - small pots, big pots - all of them thrusting out beautiful foliage, the fragrance of thriving green plants and, sometimes, of flowers. Always, there are rhododendrons set aside to be sent to the Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens, a test garden for hybrids, or to be given to clubs or friends. Sharing is one of Elsie's strong points. Enthusiasm is another. Pollen is collected to be given or traded to other hybridizers. Now, this erect, modest lady does admit to having strong feelings when it comes to exterminating the weevils and the slugs that choose to attack her "babies." Her comment, "Life would be wonderful without weevils!"
The Japanese Rhododendron degronianum ssp. yakushimanum has been used almost to the point of overuse by hybridizers. Elsie admired this plant, too. On a late afternoon preceding a hybridizers' meeting, Frank Fujioka excitedly waved the arriving members to an area behind a circle of blooming hybrid rhododendrons. There, somewhat hidden, was a low-growing, sturdy, well-clothed plant supporting big, full, round trusses of a lovely soft pink. It was beautiful in plant and flower. The Study Group urged Elsie to register ( R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum 'Exbury' x 'Chevalier Felix de Sauvage'). This treasure was named 'Anne Cree', a gift to her daughter, Anne, who lives in Texas and is unlikely to ever hybridize a rhododendron.

R. 'Anne Cree'
'Anne Cree'
Photo by Elsie Watson

Two years ago, Elsie selected a seedling of ('Anna Group x 'Lem's Cameo') and named it 'Sue Conn' for a friend who gave her help. This clone opened a new door, for it is not blue, purple, red or blue-pink, but a sunnier shade of pink, almost flame colored with a paler edge to the flower. Elsie noted that the time seems to have arrived when yellow and orange-trussed rhododendrons have become increasingly important in the work of our hybridizers. Warm, more tropical colors and bi-colors, "feel-good" colors, are the challenge now. Further breeding produced {[('Sue Conn' x 'Karen Triplett') x ('Marinus Koster' x 'Lem's Goal')] x 'Klondyke (Tyson)'*} 'Klondyke (Tyson)'* is an unregistered hybrid from Ray Tyson. What complex sets of genes are in this cross! And what a big truss - her first sight of its "orangey" hue and its multitude of spotted rays covering four lobes of the flower spoke "tiger." She is proposing to register it as 'Jaguar'.

R. 'Jaguar'
Photo by Elsie Watson

In January 2003, Elsie and Karen Swenson were potting up Elsie's rooted cuttings. Her vision very poor, Elsie remarked in her matter-of-fact way, "Now I can no longer see the cambium layers on my cuttings, so I just slash at their stems, dip them in a liquid hormone and 'stick' them." Sometimes the wounding goes astray, but that year's crop of mixed cuttings with their roughly wounded stems rooted better, percentage-wise, than any she has had. Even the big-leafed cuttings rooted better than usual. She laughs when she tells us that she can hardly wait to hit Frank Fujioka with this bit of news...they debate some, you see! Mentally sharp, she considers whether we are more fussy than we need to be. Do we complicate our propagation procedures too much trying always to find some new trick to propagate rhododendrons?
For years Elsie did all the work in her garden except to mow the grass. Now it is more difficult. However, she is reaping some small rewards for her years of generosity, of good advice and friendliness. Some of her many friends find a way to give her garden a day of work. Fellow hybridizers raised the hoop house. She no longer drives her car, but friends willingly pick her up on their way to meetings. Her labor, as well as the donation of plants to the Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens, added a satisfying bit of interest to her life. More new friends were made. Certainly, she has been a welcome factor in the development of that expanding garden.

R. 'John Winberg'
'John Winberg'
Photo by William Heller

In Elsie Watson's box of memories lie some golden moments, always to be remembered. One is the vision of her happy, beautifully-gowned daughter and her wedding party strolling out onto Elsie's gently sloping grassy lawn, there to exchange promises amid the tall trees and the handsome many-colored rhododendrons. Other memories Elsie can hold in her hands are one small round Bronze Medal and a Double Bronze medal, plus certificates, signifying the appreciation of the Seattle Rhododendron Society for her years of dedication. An outstanding memory occurred in 1995 at the American Rhododendron Society's Annual Convention in Portland, Oregon. This quiet and poised woman was presented an impressive citation marking her fifty years as a still-active Founding Member of the ARS - a most richly deserved and highly appreciated honor.

* Name not registered.