JARS v59n3 - Species and The Species Look: A Preview of the Northeast Regional Conference

Species and The Species Look: A Preview of the Northeast Regional Conference
East Windsor, New Jersey, November 4-6, 2005
Peg Van Patton
Skillman, New Jersey

Most of us avid growers of rhododendrons have at least a few of the better-known species in our gardens: Rhododendron degronianum ssp. yakushimanum ; R. bureavii ; R. keiskei ; R. degronianum ssp. heptamerum ; R. mucronulatum ; R. minus Carolinianum Group; R. hyperythrum ; R. pachysanthum ; R. dauricum ; R. makinoi ; or R. smirnowii . Then, of course, there are the many cultivars and natural hybrids resulting from crosses that have found a valued place in the landscape among our plantings. Each one is more unique than the other.
Undoubtedly, one of the most striking things about species is their beauty - both in and out of bloom: leaves that range from diminutive thumb-nail size to awesome giant-like fans. They vary in size, shape, and texture that invites our touch: dark woodland greens; narrow or wide, bullate or quilted; softly furred with indumentum in shades of pale milk-white, buttery tan, tawny cinnamon, and even deep brick red. There is something irresistible about the look. The flowers, too, range in color and size, as does their height: from mounded ground hugging gems to imposing trees. And, of course, there are the native azalea species whose spicy fragrance rivals that of the finest couturier perfume.
Having said this, the question arises: Is it time to take a new look at species, used in the past only sparingly, or overlooked altogether, and to consider ways in which they might be used to improve and influence our existing hardy eastern hybrids? While the base of our hardy rhododendrons has served us well, can species be used to infuse and inject existing hybrids with a wider color range, improved foliage effects, extended bloom time, overall plant hardiness, resistance to disease, and other unique evaluative dimensions?
We'll hear the answers to these questions and more explored when the Northeast Regional Conference convenes this fall in East Windsor, New Jersey, hosted by the chapters of District 7, Princeton, New York and Tappan Zee, on November 4-6 at the Ramada Inn. The conference promises a stellar lineup of speakers and presentations that will focus on the species theme. Jens Birck, our keynote speaker from Denmark, is imminently qualified to address this subject. His research includes various expeditions to the mountains of NW Yunnan, China, east of Beima Shen and Red Mountain, where he studied, photographed, and collected seed of many of the world's rarest rhododendron species such as R. lacteum , proteoides , roxieanum , aganniphum , balfourianum , alutaceum , and wardii . His own breeding program has been specifically aimed at crossing and producing cold hardy hybrids, able to withstand extremes in temperature and humidity.
Another of the featured Conference speakers is Dr. Stephen Krebs of the David G. Leach Research Station at The Holden Arboretum, who will describe his extensive efforts to create rhododendrons with desirable traits that confer on crosses outstanding characteristics such as superior color, plant form, foliage shape, fragrance, drought tolerance, disease resistance, and hardiness, among other outcomes. Steve, who has written extensively about his research program and the results of this work, will emphasize his methods aimed at developing quality rhododendrons.
Also among the special Conference speakers is Don Hyatt, a prolific writer and researcher of our native azalea species, who brings to any gathering an amazing knowledge and understanding of azaleas and rhododendrons. Having hiked the coves and hollows of the Piedmont and Appalachian mountain ridges, Don speaks eloquently of the richness and diversity of our native rhododendron species, as well as their habitat and the need to preserve and protect the gene pool of this important living treasure.
John Weagle, well known to many rhododendron growers and hybridizers, comes to us from Nova Scotia where climate, rainfall, wind, and humidity necessitate a special set of concerns. John, one of the founding members of the RSC Atlantic Chapter in 1977, will describe for us how breeders in Nova Scotia are using species to create hybrids that survive and thrive in Maritime Zone 6.

R. roxieanum R. lacteum
R. roxieanum .
Photo by Wing Fong
R. lacteum .
Photo by Wing Fong
R. fortunei x 
R. sinogrande R. 'Harold Amateis'
R. fortunei x R. sinogrande .
Photo by Wing Fong
'Harold Amateis'.
Photo by Wing Fong
R. tomentosum 'Milky Way' R. 'Elya'
R. tomentosum 'Milky Way'.
Photo by Wing Fong
Photo by Wing Fong

And, of course, no Northeast Regional Conference would be complete without Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, grower and hybridizer Tom Ahern whose well-thought-out breeding program has long included the use of species to create a special look and a special plant. Tom has long advocated the use of species which have only been sparingly used to achieve hardiness, disease resistance, and adaptability to a wide range of conditions.
This is a rhododendron get-together you won't want to miss! The District 7 chapters welcome fellow growers and others to join us on November 4-6 for what promises to be a very special conference.