JARS v62n3 - Fifty Years Growing Rhododendrons in Ohio

Fifty Years Growing Rhododendrons in Ohio
Gordon G. Emerson
Rock Creek, Ohio

I began collecting rhododendrons fifty years ago and am still at it. The collection is spread over four acres in natural settings, about half in thinned woodland comprising mostly high-branched 70-80-year-old hemlocks, oaks, tulip trees, beeches and maples.

The groundcover of native and collected wildflowers has mostly vanished with the years, the ever-increasing amount of leaf-fall smothering them out species by species. Meanwhile the rhododendrons and deciduous azaleas have thrived as have the magnolias, stewartias and other exotics.

A green graft of Joseph Gable's 'County of York' made circa 1970 is now a thicket 10 feet high and 12-15 feet across at head level. Rhododendron bureavioides acquired as a very small plant twenty-five years ago is a lushly clad obese 8-footer—never blooms fully, but the plant itself has never been harmed by winter cold.

When the interest in rhododendrons first took hold of me there was little available locally other than some of the old so-called Ironclad group. Even varieties that have long been standards in the trade such as 'Nova Zembla' were difficult to come by. And I suffered a terrible complication. I had no money in which to indulge a hobby. Never really have had.

But luckily I had become good friends with the late Peter Girard, Sr., and had joined the Great Lakes Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society and had become acquainted with David Leach, Orlando Pride, Paul Bosley, Tony Shammarello and nurserymen such as Geid Stroombeek who became a life-long friend. And I had learned the technique of green grafting. After the show at the old Garden Center of Cleveland in 1956 or '57, I asked David Leach for the truss of 'Janet Blair' which was not yet commercially available. I grafted it onto a seedling of R. maximum and in a few years I had a blooming-size plant.

Vacation trips were always rhododendron-related. I collected R. maximum in five states, and there's a dwarfish R. catawbiense "rescued" from a shallow pocket in a boulder atop one of the North Carolina mountains thirty years ago. I estimated it to be more than 20 years old at the time though it was less than a foot tall. Now it is about 4 feet tall with a slightly lesser spread.

One vacation took us to Dolly Sods, West Virginia, where I found several R. maximum that would pass for yellow from a short distance - cream-colored flowers with very bold yellow blotches. I managed to dig out a piece of likely root. I must have waited ten years before I got a flower, with buds twice taken by deer. And when it flowered it proved to be just another nice white.

In the early years I collected many nice forms of the native deciduous azaleas in West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and southern Ohio. My first R. canadense came from a roadside at the base of Mt. Washington. I collected a tiny plant of R. lapponicum from the top of the mountain the same day. It persisted in the garden here for several years and bloomed once sparsely.

I came away from a visit to David Leach in Brookville, Pennsylvania, with three big plants filling the back seat of the car. Two were numbered Dexters; the third was one of his selections of R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum . The Dexters survive, but I promptly lost the yak through mismanagement.

R. 'Betty Hume'
'Betty Hume', a gift from David Leach when it was still a
numbered Dexter selecton; rock-hardy plant, occasional
partial bud loss.
Photo by Gordon G. Emerson

There is a half dozen or more R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum clones represented in the gardens, including a huge one obtained from Wayside Gardens when the nursery was located in Mentor, Ohio. It has large heavily indumented leaves and a nice flower but is very bud tender. The plant is about 5 feet tall and about 8 or 9 feet across. Then there's the high mountain form from Dr. Serbin's collection which was a pretty little thing with small convex leaves, tight growing for a couple decades before becoming an ultra-leggy curiosity.

Early on I learned that if I hung around the nursery long enough Peter Girard would give me something just to get rid of me. One of the early gifts was a nice little 'Blue Peter'. Another was the old deciduous hybrid azalea 'Aida'. He also allowed me to take cuttings for rooting or grafting of named clones and his own hybrids.

The same year Peter made the cross that resulted in his very successful 'Crimson Tide' he allowed me to use his plants to make a special cross. The seed parent was 'Aida'. The pollen was from one of the early Knaphill whites; I forget which. Scattered about the gardens today are a couple dozen big old plants from that cross in various shades of pink, about half with various degrees of doubling. Without even the most rudimentary facilities for germinating seed, growing seedlings on, etc., my successes in hybridizing were very random. Generally I was lucky to bring more than a plant or two to blooming age.

R. Lavender Mule
Seedling referred to as "Lavender Mule," a selection (and sole
known survivor) from a group of hundreds grown by Peter
Girard from open pollinated seed from the Dexter Estate in
the 1960s; blooms generally well on a leggy plant,
9 feet tall and spreading. A curiosity.
Photo by Gordon G. Emerson

One of the successes came early on. I asked Bob Bovee to make a cross of the white form of R. smirnowii with 'Letty Edwards'. I managed to bring about twenty-five of these to flowering age, and after thirty-five to forty years they continue to give me joy each spring, most being hardy enough to bloom consistently. Among them is one good yellow which rarely suffers bud damage and is a shapely grower. The color range is from deep pink to pure white, with a number of pastels of exceptional beauty. These, however, are the most bud tender and rank growing.

Later I was able to obtain a plant of the white form of R. smirnowii from Bovees Nursery thinking I would use it extensively in hybridizing. I never have. By the time I obtained it I no longer had the fever. It is one of those plants that want to grow the way they want even if it's not a nice way. Last year I dug it and faced it two-thirds around. Quite a job since it had developed into a heavily branched double-trunker 7 and 8 feet tall.

Early on, too, Tony Consolini sent me seed of 'America' crossed with his “1A” which resulted in a number of large-growing first-rate reds and a couple of very nice rich pinks. One of the pinks took best in show at one of the Great Lakes Chapter shows quite a number of years ago. Two favorite reds stand upwards of 12 feet tall and generally flower lushly.

Early on I had a couple of small articles in the ARS Journal. The late Barbara Adler of San Francisco undertook an acquaintance via the telephone and letters after reading one of the articles. She had a box of plants shipped to me from Van Veen Nursery. Included was the 'Nova Zembla' which I had not been able to locate locally, 'Blue Ensign' and 'Lavender Princess', all of which have flourished here. The others proved too tender.

Barbara also sent seed of crosses she had made and collected and also pollen I used in hybridizing. One of the outstanding plants in my collection is a deciduous azalea resulting from a cross she made of two of the old R. occidentale hybrids. It alone out of a couple dozen plants that progressed to planting out size survived. At 40-some years old it stands about 8 feet tall with a 5-foot spread and never loses a pip. The flowers are a rich gold. David Leach pronounced it the best he had seen in its color class.

cross between two of the old R. occidentale 
The sole survivor of a dozen or more plants grown to blooming age from a cross between
two of the old R. occidentale hybrids, made by Barbara Adler of California in the 1960s;
now 8 feet tall, 4-5 feet wide, strong growing and as hardy as the native azaleas.
David Leach said the color was better than anything he had seen anywhere in its class.
Photo by Gordon G. Emerson

Among the seed she sent was a lot she had collected in one of the great private gardens in San Francisco which she said was labeled as a yellow form of R. carolinianum (now R. minus var. minus Carolinianum Group). Since the seed was open-pollinated I imagined I might be tapping into a treasure-store. With one exception the plants all appear to be a white form of the Carolinianum Group, having the distinctive leaf form of the species. Several have pale yellow flowers but most are typically white. All are 100 percent cold hardy for this climate. The exception is a super dwarf, growing only about 4-5 inches tall and spreading, with full-size typical leaves and pale yellow flowers. Unfortunately it rarely buds and then very sparsely. At age 40, or thereabouts, it is only about 30 inches across.

I have had an abiding interest in rhododendron species and have in my collection examples of all the species native to the eastern United States as well as many other locales - R. luteum from seed, R. caucasicum from the Cox collection, for example. Last year I lost a R. micranthum I obtained from Joseph Gable during a visit to his place in the 1960s. It had to be moved and it didn't like the new site one bit.

R. 'Katherine Dalton'
'Katherine Dalton', a Gable hybrid obtained from a commercial source in
the 1970s; now 10 feet tall, nearly as wide, rarely loses any buds.
Photo by Gordon G. Emerson

It was extremely difficult to obtain reliable seed back a few decades ago. In the 1960s I sent to a nationally advertising seed house for what they were offering as R. smirnowii . The resultant plants were hybrids with other parentage predominating. Two big plants remain, both very nice in an unspectacular way, one a pale lavender, the other deep lavender, nicely foliaged, reliable bloomers.

R. prinophyllum
R. prinophyllum . Collected in a pasture in central West Virginia in the 1970s;
4 feet tall, 3 feet wide, twiggy, bushy, never fails to bloom.
Photo by Gordon G. Emerson

Along about the same time I purchased seed listed as R. ungernii in the catalog of a seed house attached to a prominent West Coast nursery. The species is among the very late bloomers. The resultant plants bloom early mid-season, possibly R. smirnowii hybrids - a bit of indumentum under the leaves, lovely flowers that open a pleasant shade of light pink from nearly red buds. One of this group is among my favorites in the gardens.

I obtained seed labeled R. macrophyllum from the ARS Seed Exchange about 30 years ago. The survivor of the seedlings is a sprawler about 5 feet tall and 8 feet across with dark blood-red flowers, good enough to have been entered in truss shows and awarded ribbons. The siblings, all of which died young, may have been the species. The survivor, I suspect, is from a stray seed from another lot.

I could go on and on and on. Perhaps another time. Only this to add now:

Inland Northeastern Ohio is not what would be considered ideal rhododendron country. The soil is clay. A wheelbarrow or more of soil must be dug out and replaced with woods soil for each planting. The winters are harsh, with at least a few days with 0°F temperatures and an occasional tip to -10°F or lower. But on the plus side, lots and lots of snow - 40 to 60 and even 100 inches, and at this particular location the ground rarely freezes to any appreciable depth.

Mr. Emerson enjoyed a 38-year career in journalism - reporter, editor, and ad salesman. On his retirement seventeen years ago he entered the ministry and currently is pastor of Second Congregational Church in Ashtabula, Ohio. His wife Ernestine is a full partner in what has been at times a consuming hobby.