JARS v60n3 - Let's Talk Hybridizing: Why Our Best Hybrids Tend To Turn Up in Other People's Gardens

Let's Talk Hybridizing: Why Our Best Hybrids Tend To Turn Up in Other People's Gardens
Howard Roberts
Rosemont, Pennsylvania

The principal motivation for the amateur, small-time hybridizer seems to be unwavering optimism that something surprisingly good will spring forth from his/her crosses, either casually made or well planned. There always is such a possibility, but the fewer the number of seedlings that can be grown to flowering size, the less the chance of success. Instead of being able to raise hundreds to maturity from a single cross, space limitations, such as in our case, may allow for only half a dozen or so at best. Therefore, it's even more of a happy surprise when something unexpectedly beautiful turns up in our own back yard. That's where sharing seeds with fellow growers rewards one's vision at the time pollen is introduced to pistil.
As a rank amateur, the first thing I learned from experience is that two yellows don't necessarily produce a yellow. More likely an ivory or a white will result, and sometimes a pink or a lavender will appear to confound the process. Besides a variety of unexpected tones, the same seedpod may give you anything from a vigorous, tall plant to a reluctantly branching semi-dwarf.

(R. fortunei, local selection x 
R. fortunei, pink) x R. 'Big Yellow'*
( R. fortunei , local selection x R. fortunei , pink) x 'Big Yellow'*,
cross made by H.H. Roberts in 1992, grown by Will Smith.
Photo by Howard Roberts

By sharing your seeds with other growers you can get a better perspective on what you actually have produced; and there is also the pleasure of having played a role in the end result. In one instance when I didn't grow any of several crosses that I made in 1992, the seed fortunately found homes elsewhere, one being Will Smith's land in Cochranville, Pennsylvania. Other seeds probably ended up a lot farther away through the ARS Seed Exchange. When Will invited me to look at his results nine years later, I recognized that they were superior to anything raised so far in our yard from our own hybridizing efforts. Two stood out in particular: ( R. fortunei , local selection x R. fortunei , pink) x 'Big Yellow'* (Joe Becales' large yellow hybrid, sister of 'Fashion Plate'*) and 'Desert Gold'* x 'Big Yellow'*. The first has flowers at least 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter (measured by eye, so it may be a bit like the size of the fish that got away) and a splendid shade of yellow with good texture, wavy edges, and a prominent rust-red flare. I had not sown seeds of that cross myself; chalk it up to a bad decision. I can only rejoice in discovering something good that sprang from the seed lot. This year I've sown seeds from a similar cross, substituting 'Fashion Plate'* for its sibling, 'Big Yellow'*. The hybridizer of these sister plants considers 'Fashion Plate'* superior to 'Big Yellow'*, and this time I intend to raise a few seedlings in our own back yard.

R. 'Desert Gold'* x R. 
'Big Yellow'*
'Desert Gold'* x 'Big Yellow'*, cross made by H.H. Roberts in 1992, grown by Will Smith.
Photo by Howard Roberts

The 'Desert Gold'* x 'Big Yellow'* cross has a full truss of smaller flowers in a good shade of yellow with a small, dark rust-brown eye. It is a far cry from the one of the same cross in our back yard with its sparsely filled truss of off-white blooms, a candidate for the compost pile. Fred Winter of the Valley Forge Chapter, on the other hand, has obtained an impressive flower from that same seed lot, cream with a striking yellow-green center. Fred also has several good, strong yellows resulting from my cross of ('Fawn' x 'Dot') x 'Big Yellow'* in contrast to our lone, undistinguished, white from the same cross. One shouldn't be too quick to judge in the first two blooming seasons, but we're clearly off to an inferior start with this one.
I think that enthusiasm for hybridizing derives from the uncertainty of what awaits you at first bloom-time. The goal of creating the "perfect" hardy, heat-tolerant yellow, orange and/or apricot rhododendron seems to be a common effort, especially on the East Coast. And there is no question that progress is being made by hybridizers worldwide.
One of our crosses that combines pink, apricot and yellow is 'Moonwax' x 'Amber Gem'. Though 'Moonwax' did not withstand the Mideast climate for more than three years, and 'Amber Gem' was crushed by a falling oak tree, their progeny have held up through some severe summers and moderate winters here for the past eleven years. The plant appears to be a prolific seed parent and was receptive to pollen from 'Amber Gem' x 'Skipper' and ('Golden Star' x 'Phipps Yellow') x 'Big Yellow'* this spring. I'm sure that in a few years we'll be looking for good results in other members' gardens. Perhaps for a change our own back yard will produce the "star" of the cross.

* Name is not registered.

Howard Roberts is a member of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter.