JARS v59n4 - Let's Talk Hybridizing: Will It Grow in a Pot?

Let's Talk Hybridizing: Will It Grow in a Pot?
George Woodard
Westbury, New York

Twenty years ago, faced with the almost unbearable disappointment of the sight of my first crosses in bloom and being let down, once again, by romance - romance with the dreamy, unscientific notion of putting that creamy yellow on that sort-of-orange - I actually developed a hybridizing goal. Surveying the nursery beds, I saw a large collection of beautiful flowers on gangly, awkward plants and a lot of good foliage on compact plants with little droopy mauve pink flowers. I decided to try to put the plant together with the flowers.
Potential parents were given ratings based on the plant habit and hardiness, the look of the foliage and if leaves were retained more than two years, the pigment saturation in the flower, the flower size, and the number of flowers in the truss. All the crosses I've done for the past twenty years have been trying to put these plants together with each other to try and get all these qualities into one plant. Recently, I have had to add a new characteristic to this list of selection factors for new hybrids. When I first started working on the Phipps Estate, Dick Murcott and I selected six of the plants Mr. Howard Phipps had produced from his fifty years of hybridizing work, based on the extensive records Dick had been keeping for years. It was decided to put these six hybrids into tissue culture and release them to the nursery industry. Briggs Nursery handled the tissue propagation and we took the first 1,000 plants of each and Briggs Nursery was free to sell the rest. Phipps Yellow #32 (now registered as 'Phipps Yellow') was sought after by breeders because it truly was a good deep yellow and it was hardy in the Northeast. The problem was it couldn't be grown in a pot in a modern, nursery production facility, in a bark mix with lots of fertilizer. The nurserymen, being businessmen and farmers at the same time, threw them all away; they grew 24 inches a year straight up and didn't keep their leaves.
Standing between the breeder and the public is a very practical group of businessmen and growers called the nursery industry. If I ever wanted to experience the thrill of driving past a Burger King and seeing one of my hybrids growing there, I had better produce plants that not only were beautiful and had good compact growth, hardiness, leaf retention and thirty flowers in the trusses but also would thrive under modern nursery production practices. Another more important selection factor had been added to the mix.
I feel the work that Dr. Steve Krebs is doing at the Holden Arboretum with David Leach's plants is so important to the big picture in the rhododendron world. Steve inoculates his seedlings with the Phytophthora fungus, killing most them, but what grows and ends up in the test beds has already displayed some resistance to the root rot fungus. Then he breeds out those plants and inoculates the seedlings again. When commercial hybrids emerge from this program, you will know that they will grow in the ground with modern irrigation systems overwatering them for the most part.
Here on the Phipps Estate, when seedlings are transplanted from the germination flats, they are grown in pots, under 18-hour-a-day lights for six months, and then transplanted into one-gallon containers with a pine bark mix and Agriform (a controlled release fertilizer by Scotts) fertilizer and grown out for a year before being put into the ground. It is surprising how many seedlings die under these procedures, eliminating the possibility of developing affection for their flowers later on down the line.
After a year in pots in a cold frame, the seedlings are lined out into the ground, which is, after all, where they are meant to be. Hank Schannnen used to say it was a shame we ever had to plant them into the ground.
Trying to put a lot of good characteristics into one plant has a few drawbacks. It will take many years of intercrossing and growing out to get a hybrid that meets most of the goals. The labels become very long, a complaint I hear all the time from the propagators at Rare Find Nurseries, where I send all my cuttings to be rooted. Someone is always telling me to name some plants, but I have resisted because I haven't got anything I think is finished; there are so many hybrids that get named that don't deserve to be grown. At times, it seems as if I am only producing lots of breeding plants.
Jack Lofthouse sent me pollen of 'Viennese Waltz' over fifteen years ago and I have gotten some beautiful results from it. 'Viennese Waltz' has 30 to 35 flowers in a truss. Frank Fujioka and Jim Barlup have both gotten a lot of good plants using 'One Thousand Butterflies', a sister seedling of 'Viennese Waltz', which also beefs up the trusses.

[(D Yellow x 'Phipps Yellow') x 
'One Thousand Butterflies']
[(D Yellow x 'Phipps Yellow') x 'One Thousand Butterflies']
Photo by George Woodard

Using a plant of 'Whitestone' x R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum (henceforth referred to as "yak"), which has full double flowers, as a seed parent (there is no pollen on it), and crossing with 'Viennese Waltz' itself or some F2 hybrids produced three different spectacular flower types. ('Whitestone' x yak) x 'Viennese Waltz' resulted in two fully double hybrids with almost geometrically perfect flower forms. Unfortunately, the doubling of the flower caused the stigma and style on the flowers to be fasciated and it was impossible to cross on to them, so I thought I had a dead end. This spring, I found three normal style/stigmas on one of them and was able to get a cross to take. The plant habits are still a little out of control, reflecting the influence of 'Pink Petticoats', a parent of 'Viennese Waltz', with 35 flowers in a truss and a wild, uncontrollable plant habit.
('Whitestone' x yak) x ('Hachmann's Brasilia' x 'Viennese Waltz') produced a stunning plant with single, pale yellow fertile flowers, 30 to a truss.

[('Whitestone' x R. degronianum ssp. 
yakushimanum) x ('Hachmann's Brasilia' x 'Viennese Waltz')]
[('Whitestone' x R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum ) x
('Hachmann's Brasilia' x 'Viennese Waltz')]
Photo by George Woodard

'Off-shoot' x ('Phipps Yellow' x 'Viennese Waltz') produced a beautiful hybrid I really like, red buds with 30 yellow flowers in the truss, good shiny foliage and leaf retention, and should have some hardiness. 'Off-shoot' is 'Holden' x 'Mary Garrison'*.

['Off-shoot' x ('Phipps Yellow' 
x 'Viennese Waltz')]
['Off-shoot' x ('Phipps Yellow' x 'Viennese Waltz')]
Photo by George Woodard

'Paprika Spiced' x 'Victoria's Consort' gave a more salmon colored version of 'Paprika Spiced'. I like Weston Nursery's hybrids for breeding with: they are tough, field tested plants. 'Big Deal', 'Arctic Gold', 'Victoria's Consort' and all their lepidote hybrids are a large part of the gene base of my hybrids.
I have also put 'Viennese Waltz' and 'One Thousand Butterflies' onto yak hybrids such as 'Ingrid Mehlquist' and 'Fantastica' and gotten some very promising plants.

('Ingrid Mehlquist' x 'Viennese Waltz') {(R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum x 'Mars') 
x ['Viennese Waltz' x ('Naselle' x 'Janet Blair')]}
('Ingrid Mehlquist' x 'Viennese Waltz')
Photo by George Woodard
{( R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum x 'Mars') x
['Viennese Waltz' x ('Naselle' x 'Janet Blair')]}
Photo by George Woodard

Whenever I give talks the first question from the audience is, How hardy is it? I don't know. I breed for Long Island, where I live, like everyone else does. If it blooms consistently here, I'll use it.
When I ran the ARS Seed Exchange I got Frank Fujioka and Jim Barlup to agree to make crosses on their plants with pollen from hardy East Coast plants. We charged a little more money for this seed and gave the profit to a garden of their choice, usually Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens. The seed did not sell well and it became clear how many people in the Society were interested in species only. Even if one were to become a superstar hybridizer, maybe fifteen people worldwide would know who you are. It takes years and years to develop a commercial hybrid and the propagator gets the money, not the breeder. I love the continuity of the process, of dreaming up the cross, making it, seeing if the seed pod swells, collecting the seed, sowing it. When and if it germinates, the idea in my head has become a reality, a possibility of something new and different. It keeps me going.

* Name is not registered.

George Woodward is a member of the New York Chapter.