QBARS - v5n1 Experiences of an Amateur Rhododendron Gardener

Experiences of an Amateur Rhododendron Gardener
Dr. K. E. Livingston

The following humorous article by Dr. Livingstone on the problems faced by the gardener is also a most penetrating view into our general unawareness of botanical terms and nomenclature. His keen analysis of human nature in, regards both gardener and nurseryman should arouse many a smile amongst the members of the Society.- EDITOR

We all must be aware that rhododendron culture is a complex affair so that whatever one of us may know about it is relative, at best. In telling you of some of my personal experiences and giving you the key to the identification of hybrids I suspect that the discrepancies between your knowledge and mine will be shown to be more apparent than real.
Some years ago I was unfortunate enough to receive, as a Christmas gift, a lovely little rhododendron. It was a nice enough little plant in its way, in fact, a very good representative of its species. But I say "unfortunate" advisedly because this little plant had on it or in it, concealed from me at the moment, a most virulent organism or parasite which promptly bit me. This bite served to inoculate me with what might be called "horticulturalitis" or perhaps better "slipping disease." It is an insidious affliction with no known remedy. My first slip, and I am speaking literally, was taken from that first rhododendron and put in a cold-frame. To fill the thing I added azalea cuttings, little realizing what I was letting myself in for. I shall not trouble you with the transitions from cold-frame to heated cables and finally to a green-house, nor recite the problems of soil mixtures, damping off, parasites, the havoc of bitter winters or the mixing of labels. Instead I would emphasize the pleasure I derived from digging the things up to see how they were progressing. It gave me much delight to find a callus forming and to observe the stages in the formation of rootlets. If I found a cutting that was beginning to form roots, it was great fun to dig it up again to see how badly I had set it back by digging it up last week. And so on. I don't suppose I need tell you these things, or to describe the sinking feeling or the things that were said, when I felt the little rootlets tear away when I tugged on the things in a purely experimental fashion. To make a long story short, I can say that enough of my seedlings and cuttings survived their various vicissitudes so that now my principal problem is where to put the things.
Speaking of labels, I have always had trouble in mixing labels. Perhaps it would be more accurate if I said that I have always had trouble in not mixing labels, because the mixing is absurdly easy. In my experience there are four main types of labels-(1) the paper label, made of very tough material that almost lasts out the winter. This type usually is found completely disintegrated at about the time you are ready to affix a permanent label-(2) the wooden label that is thrust in the ground near the plant. It continues to look sturdy until transplanting time and then is found to have rotted beneath the surface at about the point where the writing begins-(3) the so-called "permanent" labels of wood or metal which fall off the plant and become lost in the mulch -and (4) the wooden label that remains affixed to the plant but on which the writing becomes completely illegible. There is, of course, a fifth type, more rare and hence more valuable that does not disintegrate, rot, fade or fall off. But the trick here naturally is to be certain that it is affixed to the proper plant.
There are many ways in which labeling can become confused and I shall mention but three of them. The first one occurs in the green-house. Being a methodical sort of person, I always put identical cuttings in a neat little row in the cutting bench and am careful to put a label with the writing facing the row so that there will be no possibility of confusion. However, and here is the rub, these cuttings do not all root simultaneously. When I discover that one of them has rooted, I pot it triumphantly and then look about for a place to bury the pot. There is no room for it in the row, so I put it in a corner of the bench. I firmly intend to label it later but for the moment I have more exciting excavations to conduct. Some time later I note with pleasure that this cutting is beginning to "break" so that I can be sure its roots are progressing nicely. I clearly remember potting this cutting and putting it in the corner of the bench but I seem to have forgotten which row I took it from. Right at that moment, what I would call my "identification percentage loss" begins to rise.
This percentage is further increased during the phase of transplanting to the lath-house. Unless I have labeled every pot, no mean task as you know, individual pots have a strange tendency to stray from their fellows. I have found this to be a dangerous phase indeed, and the percentage may rise sharply. A friend of mine who is a commercial dealer tells me a charming little story to illustrate this danger. He hired a neighbor boy to transplant a bench full of rhododendron hybrids to his lath-house. He was most explicit as to the importance of carefully preserving their labels. When the task was completed and he was called to inspect it, he noted with alarm that there were no labels with the transplants. Were the labels lost? No, indeed, there they were in the green-house in a neat pile.
But the commonest source of confusion in labeling by the amateur arises from the fact that the parent plant has not been identified when the cutting was taken. When I began taking cuttings I let it be known among my friends, particularly those who had gardens, and in a quiet and unobtrusive fashion, that I was anxious to get cuttings from particularly rare rhododendrons. Frequently I would be told by such a friend that indeed he had such a plant and would be happy if I took a cutting or two from it. Subsequently, it would happen that I would pay a call at his home, the time of the call being determined roughly by the period at which the wood should be about right for, cutting. Adroitly leading the conversation to rhododendrons and after letting my host tell me about his possessions, would inquire where this particularly rare one might be. It would be pointed out to me in the garden with the proud comment that it came from some famous garden. I would then admit that I chanced to have a pair of pruning clippers in my car and a few loose paper labels in my pocket and would my host mind if I just snipped a little cutting? Having made the cutting and affixed the label I would ask the name of this rare hybrid. This would be the answer, "Name? Why I don't know its exact name. but it is a rare and particularly beautiful red one."
Now such a reply strikes me as being most unscientific. What is the point of possessing a rare hybrid if you don't know its name. The attitude strikes me as highly reprehensible because I am standing there with a priceless cutting in my hand and no way to identify it. You can be sure that no commercial dealer would ever be guilty of such gross negligence. He would know not only its name and source, but would give you its full pedigree. He would assure you further that this was a clone from one and only perfect specimen in some padlocked experimental garden. He would tell you that the owner had consistently refused to sell this plant or permit anyone to take cuttings, collect seeds or get the pollen from the blooms. The dealer might go further in explaining to the amateur that there were other dealers who might offer a plant under the same name, since all seedlings of a given cross are entitled to use that name. But he would insist that this was the "one and only clone" from the prized hybrid to which none other could compare as to size of flower or brilliance of coloring. Assured on these vital points the amateur appreciates that differences in price must be reduced by their proper perspective after which the extraction becomes relatively painless.
At this point in my discussion I must go back to my early beginnings in rhododendron culture. It was then called to my attention that different plants varied from one another not only in their blooms, but also in their leaves and growth characteristics. In fact, I became quite adept at identifying a number of them at this phase of my experience. Therefore I was not particularly disturbed when I collected cuttings from friends who did not know the name of the particular variety from which the cutting was made. I had the idea that I could identify the cutting at a later date from the numerous excellent texts which I knew existed on these subjects. I had the impression that eventually I would know a great deal more about my plants from having studied the plant as a whole rather than merely its blooms, and felt that it would be great fun in running them down as to identity. Indeed, I felt that since many of my seedlings and cuttings never reached maturity I might be saving myself a lot of unnecessary labelling by waiting until they grew up to properly label them. Hence I began to look about for books on rhododendron culture. I found that the best ones were long since out of print and inaccessible to me. One of those which I did get was Species Of Rhododendron published by the Rhododendron Society of England. This is a most impressive tome and I will read one of its more simple descriptions of a well-known rhododendron. Leaves: evergreen or sub-evergreen, oblanceolate. or obovate-oblanceolate, rounded or triangular to a distinct mucro at the apex, acute at the base, 11/2-2 in. long, ½-1 in. broad, setose-pilose above and on the margin especially when young, scaly above and below, the scales being 2-4 times their own diameter apart, rather fleshy. Inflorescence: terminal or terminal and lateral, each bud 3-5 flowered, very slightly racemose; flower stalks laxly scaly. Flowers: pinkish or nearly white, spotted with red. Calyx: very short, hardly lobed, scaly outside. Corolla: 5-lobed, about 11/2 in. long, slightly irregular, tube not scaly outside. Stamens: 10, long-exserted, shortly pubescent in the lower part. Ovary: 5-celled, densely scaly, with a prominent hairy disk at the base; style glabrous. Capsule: 1/4 in. long, laxly scaly glandular. Habitat: Yunnan, about 9,000 feet.
I have no doubt that most of you have recognized this well-known lepidote as I read its description since it should be readily recognized by its setose-pilose indumentum and the scale relationships as a R. yunnanense with which you are all familiar. These are magnificent descriptive summaries and I have no doubt that you will find it most useful, particularly when there is a picture to help you. All you need to complete an identification is to have a complete plant before you, in full bloom and simultaneously in fruit. The minimum requirement for a final identification seems to be a plant leaf, its flower, stamens, pistil, fruit, a large magnifying glass and two or three botanical texts.
The Species book has an impressive list of names in its index. I have counted them and can tell you that there are 1,092 different species listed there. There is something a bit frightening about learning all of these names since there are few of them which suggest anything you may have seen or heard in the English language. Whatever you may have retained from your study of Latin and Greek does you little good here for there are few names in which Greek and Latin roots give you any clue as to their derivation. There are however, two attractive features about these names which will intrigue you. It will be noted that many of them are derived from proper names, either geographical names or the names of explorers, collectors, missionaries, botanists and the like who have had rhododendrons named after them. If you happen to know that Mount Kiyosumi is near the town of Awa in Japan, it will be easy for you to recognize that "kiyosumense" must grow in that region. Or if you remember that Mrs. Young Fang, who died in 1936, was the mother of Professor Wen-Pei-Fang, you will instantly see the R. youngae must have been named after her. Once you have mastered the fact that this belongs to the series Arboreum, subseries Argyrophyllum and is a "shrub of 12 feet with flowers purple, spotted rose within near the back these interesting facts will be inextricably implicated with Mrs. Young Fang, the mother of Professor Wen-Pei-Fang.
The principal difficulty you will encounter in using the Species text in identifying your hybrids is the fact that it deals exclusively with species and has nothing whatever to do with hybrids. I must take that statement back. It is possible that by knowing each parent of a given cross, one might be able to guess some of the characteristics that would show up in their progeny. However before you could seek out such information in the text, it would be necessary for you to have the name of the hybrid and of both parents. And, since, what you and I want to know is how to identify the unknown hybrid, this book, although it certainly should be on your library shelf might as well stay on the shelf for all the good it will do us in our present quest.
A book that you will find much more useful in a practical way is the 1947 Rhododendron Handbook , often referred to as the "stud-book." Here is a book well suited to your needs, compact, explicit and easy to read. In the first place, there are only some 700 different species listed here instead of the 1100 found in the Species text. This is indeed a welcome reduction when one is trying to learn strange names. Once you have mastered these 700 names it might be well to learn the additional 304 synonyms that are listed there. It may be a bit confusing at first to learn that Hymenanthes means the same thing as degronianum and metternichii , each in part, nor does it help much to find that degronianum is synonymous with pentamerum . However, once you have mastered these relationships, the dealer will find it difficult to mislead you and you will be the possessor of information which might some time be useful. Such facts are a bit difficult to inject into a table conversation, but if it is done adroitly, quite interesting reactions are elicited.
Before we get to the nubbin of my discourse, "the naming of the unknown hybrid" it might be well to say a few words about crosses. In the studbook you will find listings of the best-known crosses. You will notice that griersonianum has been crossed with more than a hundred other species, since it seems to carry its coloration as a dominant character. arboreum has been crossed with only half this many, and campylocarpum with less than a third that number. Yet you must bear in mind that, while two members of the same species will breed true to type, a cross with another species may bring out all sorts of unsuspected variants in its germ plasm. The number of potential variants from a single cross raises the number of hybrids by geometrical progression. And when one comes to consider the crossing of hybrid with hybrid the calculations assume astronomical proportions, so that the learning of 1000 species becomes mere child's play.
If you will bear with me I would like to digress for a moment before I come to the real meat of my presentation. I want to say a few words about the variants derived from a single cross. Suppose we take a fact from the studbook, as for example, that crossing griersonianum with a zeylanicum results in a 'Gwillt King'. What an interesting name, 'Gwillt King' and how exciting it is to recognize the similarity between zeylanicum and Ceylon and then to look it up in the book and find that our guess was correct. This sort of thing is fun once you get the hang of it. Well, to return to the 'Gwillt King'. I am not sure where this name came from, certainly there is nothing about it which would suggest the cross from which is was derived. It may well be that the "King" in this instance is not a person's name after all, but may represent "Rex," "Ruler," or "Supreme one." But the name "Gwillt" is unquestionably a proper name, no one but a true Gwillt being willing to accept it or even imagine it. We can be reasonably sure that Mr. Gwillt, or possibly one of the Gwillt girls, was the most prominent member of this distinguished family. It is barely possible that Gwillt was a missionary, or even one of the collectors working for Mr. Forrest or Mr. Rock in one of their expeditions. Be that as it may, the point is that there may be a considerable number of quite different Gwillt Kings derived from this particular cross. Instead of saying. "I have a Gwillt King" you should really specify "whose" Gwillt King you are talking about, or even better, "which one of whose" Gwillt Kings. And this of course brings us right back to the dictum of the commercial grower which states, "Do not buy hybrids by name, but by clones, preferably mine."
I would not wish that this be interpreted as in any way derogatory to a name on a map of India, or the name of a neighbor, your grocer, any name, and simply add "ense" to it. There you have it! the thing has a name! I have found that such names as "Perkinsense" or "Brahmaputraense" do very well in a crisis of this kind. Enunciate the name clearly and confidently. The quicker you produce it and the louder you say it the more likely it is that the name will be accepted without question. You have the comfort of knowing that this particular guest is not likely to be visiting you again when the thing is in bloom. And what if he were? Be sure that all his books won't do him any good. The thing simply can't be run down, so you are on perfectly safe ground.
As a matter of fact, there is no good reason why this particular plant should not be a "Brahmaputraense" from now on.
On the other hand, there may be a few unscientific persons who may not hold this method in the same high regard that I do. There may be a few whose conscience would prick them, who might find it difficult to look at themselves in the mirror the next day when shaving. These people then must choose the alternate path to follow. They will smile at the guest as brightly as the circumstances permit and say, "Name? Why I don't know its exact name, but it is a very rare red one. At least, I think it is red."