The Search For Gold -
A Lifetime of Organic Artistry
To craft something "better" has always been man's aim. Horticulturalists have, throughout time, taken this to heart as the attempt to combine beauty and form, sculpting nature to create the previously impossible. Around 1968, rhododendron hybridizers were faced with a challenge to not simply combine species, but to give life to something that had never before existed in nature: the golden rhododendron.
"There was a breakthrough in yellows…" says Frank Fujioka to me as we sit in the warm light of his kitchen, sun setting on the beautiful view of Puget Sound out his bay windows. “…Everyone had to work for yellows, and we didn’t think much about what the plant looks like. Some…were really sprawled ugly things, but if you had yellow, wow! That was what was really important."
Fujioka continues on to explain that the closer a rhododendron was to deep, pure daffodil yellow, the better. Many hybridizers simply combined white flowers with cream in hopes of drawing out the elusive shade, a system which Fujioka himself employed in the beginning days. "You get tired of getting poor results!" he confided in me, "so you think, there must be a better way". Thus, a more scientific approach was discussed. "You achieve your goals faster, I think, if you studied the genetics." You can't just combine this with that and hope for a miracle. "Sometimes you get pink!"
When asked if he recorded all of the genetic data by hand, Fujioka laughed. "No… just the names of the parents," he told me, flipping through page after page of meticulously typed and hand written records in a binder. You first consider that "this parent used this species" and then you follow through many generations, studying it. "That became the fun part," he quipped with a revealing grin. The binder Fujioka shared with me listed hundreds of "nicknames" for crosses that he had created and were still in the testing stage. These nicknames were not to become the final registered titles of plants, but instead held a personal flair, ranging from Hawaiian Islands to family members. "Waikiki" and "Clarice" served only to keep complicated multi-generational hybrids straight. When I questioned Fujioka as to what percent of his experiments had become registered hybrids, his answer was a astonishing “not many.” I listened, impressed, as he explained to me his demanding process for testing all of his hybrids before submitting them to the registry. “[I] feel that if there is going to be a plant floating around… then the homeowner who buys that plant should be able to succeed…if this spring I come out with a plant I really like, I’ll …grow them out in the field. There it is exposed to full sun and minimal care, and I’ll evaluate how well they do. I’ll also dig them up to see what kind of root structure they have because that’s the key to a good plant.” This time-consuming method was not just for Fujioka’s benefit however; he also implied that it was in the best interest of the society. If a new grower attempts “to grow [a rhodie] and it dies…pretty soon you’re saying ‘oh, rhodos are no good.’ So it’s not good for our reputation.”
Beyond the complicated genetic tracing, growing new varieties of rhododendrons is no easy task, and certainly not one for those interested in instant gratification. “It’s a long process,” said Fujioka about hybridizing. Often he spends up to six years growing a plant that is simply one more step in the direction of his end goal. More often than not however, he has a strategic plan. “Sometimes you’re thinking three generations ahead,” he tells me. This was certainly the case in his work towards the ground-breaking discovery of a golden rhododendron. For Fujioka, resounding success came after many years in the form of a stunning bloom called ‘Seaview Sunset’ who’s beautiful coloring seems to “glow” in certain lighting. The popularity of this hybrid, registered in 1988, has increased exponentially, and has become a favorite in the Northwest and beyond.
But Fujioka shared with me that he hadn’t always been so scientific in his approach. As a child his only gardening experience had been pulling out his mother’s carrot plants and shoving back any that were too small, in fruitless hope they might continue growing. Later as a high school psychologist in Edmonds, Washington, he found his interest in gardening blossomed from practicality after purchasing his first home. “It was a small little old house, but it just didn’t have anything. Just green grass, that’s all it was.” So off he went to the nearest nursery, and asked for some plants to fill the empty space. What caught his eye, of course, were the laden blooms of the brightly colored rhododendrons. Disappointed by the fact that there were no, in particular, red rhodies for sale, Fujioka asked the nurseryman for recommendations and went off on a quest. He described in detail his impressions after entering one specific nursery; “I went in there and (this was in the spring) it was like magic. There were acres and acres of these big plants full of flowers…and then the old man came out.” This ‘old man’ he would later discover to be Halfdan Lem, one of the premiere pioneer rhododendron hybridizers in the Northwest, and a true friend. Back in his kitchen, Fujioka’s smile widened as he told of asking Lem for ‘The Honourable Jean Marie De Montague’, the most generic red rhododendron, and being refused. “He said to me…‘I have finer things.’”
Halfdan Lem was only the first of many inspirational and lasting friendships Fujioka made through his love of horticulture, many of which took root through his association with the American Rhododendron Society. Fujioka shared with me that although he had originally joined the Society to learn (there was a dearth of accurate rhododendron information at the time), he instantly found that that ‘plants people’ were some of the nicest you’d meet. I could barely keep from crying from laughter as he animatedly described an experience that illustrated a community as unique and wonderful as the plants they propagated… “One of the most fascinating things to me was how uninhibited everyone was in terms of enjoying what we were enjoying. I wish I had a camera at that time! There were three hefty guys, kind of fat, you know? And there were two of them talking, and a third one appears…with a rose! He said, “look at this! Smell this!” So here are three hefty guys sniffing a rose. That’s the kind of people I like, just comfortable with themselves. That made a big impression on me. I thought, “ok, that’s it. These are the kind of people I want to hang around with.”
Although Fujioka’s race to hybridize a golden rhododendron is now long over, the excitement of producing an original creation is still very much alive. This excitement is what he longs to share with the next generation. “I keep looking for young people to recruit so we can pass on our information, but there aren’t many...I think they’re too busy doing other things. So horticulture in general is suffering because we’re not able to get young people interested in horticulture. Maybe they’ll get tired of whatever they prefer doing and decide that working with dirt is more fun, more fulfilling.” Fujioka suggests what we must tap into is the part of ourselves that loves to create. He tells me of the artistry of gardening and relates it to classic painters and sculptors. While strolling slowly through his garden later, he points out the importance of the variation of greenery in a garden layout, relating it to the artistic movement monochromatism. “We have within us this innate creativity, but many of us were never allowed or encouraged to explore it…so I try to look for that in young people and if I sense that they have that, then I go from there…You know, you don’t need a magic wand!”
Despite being a true artist, friend to many, innovator, and one of the most influential hybridizers of his time, Fujioka has a surprising answer when I ask him what he would most like to be remembered for. “That I was a nice guy. You know, to me, that’s the bottom line.”
Those Pesky Labels!
When I first started growing Rhododendrons, I just had a few plants so it was easy to remember their names, but as my collection has grown, I find myself trying to remember which plant is which, and this has started my love/hate relationship with labels.
I think all gardeners want labels that are inexpensive, that last forever, stay in place and do not harm our plants. And, since we don't want to see little white stakes all over the garden, which is just too reminiscent of a cemetery, we want something that is unobtrusive as well. Finding something that fulfills all these wishes is hard and I don't think anyone has designed the perfect label yet.
The plastic, ribbon-like tags that come with most garden centre plants these days last a long time, but the print fades fairly fast and they can girdle the plant stem they're attached to if you happen to forget to loosen them periodically Anyway, they don't look very nice in a garden setting
There are several problems in using plastic, stick-type labels. First, you have to find something to mark them with that doesn't fade over time. Permanent marking pens like the Sharpie pens school children use are o.k., but the ink eventually fades. I find a lead pencil works just as well as a marking pen and usually outlasts the "permanent ink" writing. In addition to looking a bit like grave markers, the stick-type tags don't work very well for long-term use because they become brittle and snap after a couple of years. I've had to piece together old broken tags to decipher plant names on several occasions. And, finally, tags just stuck in the ground are tempting targets for pranksters to pick up and move around. This is a problem in one of our local public gardens. Pranksters don't have to be human either - one Spring, I used stick tags to label a new collection of daylilies. The crows just loved the tags and pulled them out of the ground. I found tags all over the place - repeatedly! Fortunately, I'd made a map of where various daylilies were planted so I was able to re-tag the plants correctly. Wooden tags (some gardeners use popsicle sticks) have all the same problems as plastic ones, plus the wood rots or splits, so this isn't a good permanent solution to the tag problem
My own favourite labels are the soft aluminum tags where an old ball point pen is used to "engrave" the plant name into the metal. These are attached to plants with a twisting wire. They aren't too bad, except the wires can girdle plant stems if not loosened periodically. If you use these, make sure you press hard when writing on the plant name because in time, it can be hard to read the "engraving".
One couple in our local ARS chapter have beautiful tags made of cut up aluminum gutters. They use a Brothers P Touch machine to create labels that have a glue-backing that sticks well to the aluminum. The tags are long lasting and easy to read, but I don't have a supply of aluminum gutters around, nor do I have the right kind of saw to do the cutting, and even if I had both, I think I'd be too lazy to make them. I do like getting plants from them though because in addition to growing lovely plants, their labels last for years.
Some people advocate putting a label underneath any plant that is going in the ground at planting time. Either plastic or metal would be o.k. for this. The idea is that if the above ground tag is lost and you can't remember what the plant is, you could, at least in theory, dig up the plant and check the label. I do know people who "plant labels", but to me, this is one of those suggestions that sounds o.k. in theory, but is impractical in the real world. Can you see yourself trying to dig up some big Rhodendron Loderi to find the label? However, I do slide an extra label down the side of all of my potted plants as these tags are fairly accessible in a pinch
As a failsafe method, I try to keep a map of my garden beds showing roughly where I’ve planted things. This is useful as long as I take the time to update the map periodically. For some reason, I find it easier to move a plant than to change the map record. A couple of friends who are rock garden enthusiasts showed me their most recent method of keeping track of their plants. They take digital photos of a bed, then using Power Point, they label all the plants in the image. This seems like a good idea although there is still the issue of actually getting around to updating any changes.
One thing for sure though is to watch out that tags that are wrapped around Rhododendron stems do not get too tight. Every now and then, take a tour around the garden and loosen up wires or ribbon-like tags. Happy labeling!
Early Blooming Rhododendrons
While it's still early January, I've started to watch for Rhododendrons in bloom. Here in the Pacific Northwest, there aren't many yet, but I've seen a few brave trusses of what I think are 'Christmas Cheer' and 'Nobleanum'. Since the plants I see belong to someone else, I have to guess at the varieties.
The pale pink flowers of 'Christmas Cheer' look so delicate, but this is a tough hybrid. With mild winter temperatures, the flowers last for weeks although one hard frost will damage them. On the plant that I think is 'Nobleanum', the flowers are rounded balls of deep rose pink. I can't get close enough to the plant to see if there's a flush of white in the flower centers, but this would be typical of the variety. 'Bo Peep', another very early hybrid I see, is also just about to bloom. This small yellow flowered plant won't win prizes for showiness, but how can you not like anything that is in flower now.
In my own garden, 'Seta' is the earliest of my rhododendrons to bloom. I just love this hybrid. The flowers are tubular: light pink inside with dark pink backs. 'Seta' is loaded with flowers every year, and blooms reliably for me by mid-March. I have one 'Seta' in a large container that I move onto the deck when it's in bloom and I like this variety so much that this past fall, I planted another one in the garden.
'Snow Lady' is another of my early favorites, and it also blooms for me in mid-March. In addition to lovely white flowers, the leaves are hairy, adding another interesting dimension to the plant. The leaves are particularly pretty when there's a bit of dew on them. I grow 'Snow Lady' in a container, and it looks great when placed next to 'Seta'.
Both 'Seta' and 'Snow Lady' tend to get leggy, but who cares! They're great harbingers of spring. I could pinch them back a bit after blooming, but I like their open habit.
If you like the look of these varieties, another variety to look for is 'Cilpinense' (photo right). Another of my favorite early bloomers is R. mucronulatum 'Cornell Pink'. I like the pale pink flower color, but many people in our area prefer the more intense fuchsia-pink flower of 'Crater's Edge'.
Some of the species that bloom early for us in our area are super plants. R. dauricum, R. moupinense, and R. strigillosum all bloom in late winter or very early spring. R. dauricum covers itself in small flowers of either intense fuchsia-purple/pink or pure white flowers.
R. moupinense is a hardy pink flowering rhodie. The species has white flowers with small, red blotches. If you like red, then R. strigillosum is for you. This is a stunning early bloomer. In addition to the lovely flowers, R. strigillosum has hairy bristles along young stems, which are very pretty, especially when backlit.
To give yourself the longest possible chance for blooms to persist, you need to locate early blooming plants in an area where they receive some overhead protection from frost. My neighbors actually cover their 'Christmas Cheer' at night with a blanket if hard frost is expected during blooming time. By doing this, most years they are able to keep the plant in bloom until mid to late March.
Appalachian Spring Event
"Appalachian Spring", the 2012 ARS-ASA International Convention takes place May 4 – 7, 2012 in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina, in the heart of the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains where native azaleas and rhododendrons burst into bloom every spring.
Visit the event's enormous plant sale. Over 3,000 plants are being grown for the sale, featuring the hybridizing efforts of local plants men James Harris, Velma Haag, George Beasley, Augie Kehr, James Todd, Don Johnson, Kelly Strickland, and Earl Sommerville.
Four fabulous days of tours are planned for your enjoyment and wonder. We will be visiting a variety of beautiful gardens in Asheville and Hendersonville, North Carolina, and just across the border in South Carolina.
Tours include the Biltmore Estate and Gardens, this Frederick Law Olmsted designed estate has the largest single family home in America, the Charles Dexter Owen Garden, with a large collection of Dexter hybrids, the North Carolina Arboretum, whose 65 acres of cultivated gardens pay tribute to the region's rich cultural heritage, and the Ed and Mary Collins Garden, featuring dwarf rhododendrons, evergreen and deciduous azaleas, dwarf conifers and may perennials, wildflowers, and unusual trees.
Other gardens open for touring include the James and Mary Ann Stewart Garden, previously owned by Dr. August "Augie" Kehr, with one of the largest collection of magnolias in the U.S., the Bob and Audrey Stelloh Garden, with many native wildflowers, mountain laurels and thousands of choice azaleas and rhododendrons, and the Doley and Melody Bell Garden with an estimated 3000 rhododendrons, including Dexter, Haag, Leach, Kehr, Gilkey, Delp, Van Veen, Richardson, and Lee hybrid rhododendrons, and Glenn Dale, Back Acre, Exbury, and Girard hybrid azaleas.
Guest speakers at the event include: Don Hyatt - talking about plant diversity in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, Nicholas Yarmoshuk and Christina Woodward - discussing cold-hardy rhododendrons for diverse locales, and Dr. Thomas Ranney - talking on how the unique azaleas found on Gregory and Wayah Balds in the Appalachian Mountains evolved from complex hybridization among the native species.
Both members and non-members are welcomed at the 2012 ARS-ASA International Convention. We hope to see you there!
We are all looking for that blue rhododendron, but last time I looked all of the ones with "blue" in their name had purple flowers. 'Blue Admiral', 'Blue and Gold', 'Blue Angel', 'Blue Baron', 'Blue Bird', 'Bluebell', 'Bluebird', 'Blue Blood', 'Blue Boy', 'Blue Chip', 'Blue Cloud', 'Blue Crown', 'Blue Danube', 'Blue Dawn', 'Blue Diamond', 'Blue Effect', 'Blue Ensign', 'Blue Flame', 'Blue Frost', 'Blue Girl', 'Blue Hawaii', 'Blue Haze', 'Blue Heaven', 'Blue Horizon', 'Blue Ice', 'Blue Jay', 'Blue Lady', 'Blue Lagoon', 'Blue Light', 'Blue Mist', 'Blue Monday', 'Blue Moon', the list goes on and on. It is obvious that the hybridizers wanted blue, but alas, the blue gene is not to be found in the genus Rhododendron.
Mind you, some of these rhododendrons are nice plants, but their flowers are definitely not blue colored. I am even responsible by naming a hybrid 'Amiblue'.
So, let's look beyond the flowers, they are only visible for a short time anyway. How about foliage? There are many rhododendrons with blue leaves, well almost blue, closer to dark greenish blue, but quite evident in the garden among the other shades of green.
My favorite blue rhododendron species are: R. campanulatum ssp. aeruginosum, R. clementinae, and R. lepidostylum. I am sure there are many other also, but those are the ones I have in my garden. These are generally not found in your local garden center, but are available from many specialty rhododendron growers, such as the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden.
I am sure some of you may have other blue rhododendron ideas, and I welcome your comments on this blog.
Give Deciduous Azaleas A Try
A couple of years ago on one of our bus tours to visit local Rhododendron gardens, I got talking to the man sitting next to me, about, guess what - Rhododendrons. He was considered one of our local "rhodie" gurus and was quite a character. As our conversation progressed, I told him how much I liked deciduous azaleas, and tongue in cheek, he said that nice Rhododendron people didn't do azaleas. Well, I guess I'm not a nice Rhododendron person, because I just love them. This spring, my azaleas were late because blooming didn't start until the very end of May, but they put on a wonderful show throughout June. This fall, I'll get a second show from them when their leaves turn red before dropping.
With deciduous azaleas, there are flower colors to meet everyone's tastes, from intense, "in-your face" oranges to soft pastels. As an added bonus, most varieties are fragrant. Among my plants, I've got pure white 'Oxydol'; a gorgeous strawberry pink of unknown variety, as it was here when I moved in; 'Western Lights' which has pink flowers; a few yellows, including 'Northern Hi-Lights', 'Old Gold' and 'Apricot Surprise', and deep orange 'Mandarin Lights'. And then, there's gorgeous 'Irene Koster', which is a fragrant R. occidentale hybrid whose flowers open soft pink then fade to white, and 'Daviesi' which has fragrant, cream colored flowers. These last two plants are in a semi-shaded location and while happy enough, would benefit from having a bit more sun.
My plants are scattered throughout my garden, with most growing in sites that get full sun, and in the summer, these sites are hot and dry. One of the reasons I'm so fond of deciduous azaleas is that they are tough, low maintenance plants. I water them about once a week, but that's all the care they get. They also seem to tolerate heavy soils better than many plants. Deciduous azaleas are winter hardy, and for anyone living in cold areas, look for varieties that were developed by the University of Minnesota, as some of their hybrids are hardy to -40 degrees (and that's -40 in both the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales) - look for names that include the word "Lights", as in 'Northern Hi-Lights', 'UMinn's Lilac Lights', 'Lemon Lights', 'Golden Lights', etc. Most of these will be from the U. of Minnesota breeding program.
So, if you don't have any yet, consider adding some deciduous azaleas to your garden: they're adaptable, hardy, have fall color and gorgeous, fragrant flowers. Not a bad choice even for those of us who aren't nice.