JARS v60n2 - Commentary: The Species Look

Commentary: The Species Look
Richard Murcott
East Norwich, New York

I've recently returned from the Northeast Regional Conference held in New Jersey in November 2005. It was a terrific meeting with everything done beautifully. There are, though, some comments I'd like to make.
The theme of the meeting, the "Species Look" in rhododendrons, meaning rhododendrons with splendid foliage and compact plant habit, was different from other meetings and engendered a lot of interest. The idea was, since we look at only the foliage for 50 or 51 weeks a year, we should pay more attention to it and the general appearance of the plant out of bloom.
This theme was great. I actually agree with the idea that foliage and the general look of the plant is important. I did think though that it got a little out of hand with some of the comments about some species plants being so beautiful they didn't need flowers and in fact the flowers in some cases got in the way of the "ornamentality" of the plant. I certainly understand, but let's remember that rhododendron means flowers! If we like foliage plants, why not grow dwarf conifers? They are certainly beautiful and are generally much hardier than rhododendrons and can provide all kinds of different foliage effects - and of course no flowers to get in the way of their ornamentality. The look of a bed, with plant after plant being a tight, globose, pincushion-look, gets boring. I've seen pictures of German nurseries with row after row of different rhododendron cultivars grafted onto 'Cunningham's White' all looking exactly the same in plant character: tight, globose balls. Boring!
Mention was made that we ought to use Rhododendron maximum (the Rosebay rhododendron, native on the East Coast) in our hybrids because of its beautiful foliage and extreme hardiness.
Driving home from the meeting, I began to think about all I had heard at the meeting and I got more and more concerned over some of what I had heard.
First, Rhododendron maximum : In the 1930s Clem Bowers made many crosses using Rhododendron maximum . There was absolutely no interest in them at all even though some of them were quite nice as foliage plants. Many were later planted at Planting Fields on Long Island, where they are to this day, still with no interest. The ordinary colored flowers are too small and bloom in July and wilt quickly because of the heat. They are, though, very hardy. Also, I have found that, much to the horror of rhodoholics, very few people are interested in rhododendrons that bloom in the summer. The idea of extending the blooming season is great in theory but there is very limited interest on the part of gardeners. Don't forget, most casual gardeners are very interested in the garden in the spring, but Memorial Day starts the summer and they lose all interest in gardening until next spring. (One reason that rhododendrons are so desirable is that they bloom in May and June.)
Next, the business of ornamentality of rhododendrons as foliage plants: I have a hybrid of mine in the garden that has "the species look." It is a cross of ( R. adenopodum x R. metternichii 1 ) x R. degronianum AE. I have numbered it TT81. It is a splendid looking plant with indumented, narrow leaves held for four years giving the 5-foot high plant a very dense look. Its flowers are pink, produced in profusion every year with full trusses. But it blooms on May 5th, more or less, exactly at the same time as 'Taurus'. No one will take two looks at it when a 5-foot plant of 'Taurus', not far away, is also in full bloom.
I have taken many, many non-rhodoholics through my garden and never do they spend more than a second looking at spectacular yakushimanum ( R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum ) plants out of bloom, nor any non-blooming plants for that matter. They are interested in flowers!
If the foliage is so important, why is it that nurseries can't sell rhododendrons out of bloom? Can wholesale nurseries sell rhododendrons to retailers without buds? Just ask Mike Stewart of Dover Nursery.
Just look at the plants produced by our most successful hybridizers. In the East, one Charles O. Dexter comes to mind. Sixty years after his death, his plants are still the most important rhododendrons in the East. Did he produce any "species look" hybrids? Hardly. A name some might recognize on the West Coast: Halfdem Lem. Know any "species look" hybrids of his?
If the "species look" is so important, why, why do we still have truss shows which are the antithesis of "the species look"? About twenty years ago I gave a talk to five or six East Coast chapters on why truss shows were killing rhododendrons because the show focuses completely and solely on the truss and not the rest of the plant. Not one chapter, or the American Rhododendron Society Annual Convention, has stopped their annual truss show. An illustration of how much influence I have! The reason these truss shows are so popular is because that is what most people are interested in .
What chance does a "species look" truss have competing for Best New Hybrid in the show? I can tell you story after story of wonderful "species look" plants shunned in the judging for Best New Hybrid at truss shows. People won't even waste their time entering "species look" trusses in the shows. I can remember Julie Dumper telling me that she had a beautiful seedling of R. fortunei x R. makinoi in her garden that was just a beautiful plant with beautiful, insect damage-free foliage, but wouldn't enter the truss in a show because it lacked a top flower in the truss and wouldn't stand a chance in our show. One year, when I was still entering these shows, I entered two sister seedlings in the show. One had perfect truss form but came from the worst looking plant you could imagine and the other, just the opposite, bad truss form but a spectacular plant. Guess which one got a blue ribbon in the New Hybrid class. Truss shows emphasize the truss and nothing else. Nothing else .
Over the years, being awarded the Breeder's Cup or having your plant named the Best New Hybrid at the show, especially the Annual Convention show, has become quite an honor and much coveted by hybridizers. So of course it has forced hybridizers to become truss hybridizers. This focus on the truss only at the show freezes out the "species look" hybridizer. His plants are unexhibitable (a new word?). Over the years, only a very small handful of hybridizers have made "species look" crosses and have received virtually no recognition from local chapters or the ARS for that matter. Have you ever seen a Gold Medal given to a hybridizer creating "species look" plants? I can sure point to many who have received one for creating trussy plants!
Also, since the chapter's truss show is held only on one weekend, usually the second or third weekend in May in the East, only those plants that bloom on that weekend can be shown. That weekend was chosen because it was the height of the Dexter hybrid bloom (trusses again). That forces hybridizes, if they wish to enter their creations in the show, to hybridize for the middle of May. That, by the way, is another reason we never see extended season rhododendrons, once again because of these crazy truss shows.
Are we really serious about the "species look"? If so, I challenge the chapters and the ARS to cease their truss shows for all of the above reasons. Now I know being against truss shows in the American Rhododendron Society is akin to being against apple pie and motherhood and the chance of stopping them is minuscule, so I have some suggestions to improve them. In New Hybrid classes, why not have the exhibitor fill out a questioner for his entry:
How old is the plant?
How many years does it hold its leaves?
What is the height and width of the plant?
What is its annual growth?
What was the lowest temperature in the garden last winter?
How many trusses are on the plant this year?
Are there any pips blasted in any of the trusses on the plant this year?
What percent of the plant has flowers this year?
How about requiring a photo of the entire plant in bloom to be placed with the entry? At least with these questions answered, and perhaps a photo of the plant, visitors and judges have a much better idea of all the characteristics of the new hybrid.
Why not have a foliage only section at our shows in the spring with a separate trophy for the best entry. The fall foliage shows are great, but the general public never sees the entries. Exhibiting them at the spring show will allow them to be seen by the casual gardeners who visit the spring truss show.
We must understand also that many casual gardeners visit these shows and they leave them with cultivar names they have seen at the show and would like to purchase for their own gardens. Thus we should impart information about the cultivars shown so that visitors can select appropriate cultivars for their gardens. Casual gardeners do not understand that rhododendrons vary in their winter hardiness. They think all rhododendrons can grow anywhere. Why don't we require an exhibitor to state the climatic zone in which the plant was grown or list the minimum temperature the plant was exposed to last winter? We used to have a member in the New York Chapter from Staten Island who could grow 'Cotton Candy' in his garden and every year would bring a spectacular truss of it to the show and always win a blue ribbon and in some years get Best In Show. I can barely keep it alive in my garden and I have a very favorable rhododendron climate. I shudder to think how many casual gardeners left the show with 'Cotton Candy' written on a must-get list not realizing that they had virtually no chance of being successful with the plant. Along with the hardiness information, a statement of how large the cultivar will be in 10 years would be nice together with a one word description of its growth habit: dense, open, leggy, etc.
We grow a spectacular genus of plants with ornamentality found in many aspects of the plant, its foliage, growth characteristics and flowers. But by presenting only the flowers at truss shows, we are really not being fair to uninformed casual gardeners and we are certainly not showing them the spectacular foliage effects of some cultivars. Let's find a better way to present the genus and at the same time inform the public. Who knows, we might attract some members!

1 Now R. degronianum ssp. heptamerum var. heptamerum .

Richard Murcott is a member of the New York Chapter .