Gardens East and West
Although my first job was with the rubber plantation industry in the then Federation of Malaya (now West Malaysia), I lived in houses provided by my employer, and had not yet become interested in gardening, and I now regret the opportunities I missed. However, I did fall in love with the people, culture and climate of SE Asia. After 8 years there, politics and personal reasons made it necessary to leave and return to the UK.
I went to Edinburgh, and the first garden of my own belonged to a ground floor flat (apartment) in a moderately salubrious part of the south of the city, only a five-minute car ride from the genetics laboratories where I was working for a Ph.D. The flat had a small garden area outside the front windows, only about 70 square feet, with a manhole cover over a drain access in the middle. Here was my introduction to gardening, a love that has grown over the last 35 years to become a consuming passion. I began (doesn’t everyone with no gardening background) with annuals - quick returns in color and scent. These rapidly lost their attraction, and, in view of my limited space, I turned to alpines. I even made a garden in a cement bowl, to put on top of the manhole cover! I think my rock garden must have been one of the smallest ever, and my enthusiasm for acquiring new plants rapidly outgrew the space available. I can remember working round the garden by torchlight (like most postgraduate students, I was working all the hours there were in the lab) trying to plant something without digging something else up. Also, despite the poor soil and vicious climate, plants persisted in outgrowing their allotted space. Something would have to be done. Fortunately, this episode coincided with the completion of my Ph.D. and submission of the thesis. I could now look for a job.
The Medical Research Council (MRC) offered me a post as a research scientist in its Clinical and Population Cytogenetics Unit (now called the Human Genetics Unit) based in the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh. On the strength of the offer, I started to look for a house with a proper garden. This I found about 7 miles south of Edinburgh, in a village called Eskbank. The fact that the MRC unit was on the north side of the city, requiring a commute across the city twice a day, seemed less important than that the house had a garden of nearly an acre, which had been almost totally neglected for about 3 years. The garden was entirely surrounded by a high stone wall, and I immediately had visions of all the exotic trees and shrubs I could grow in that sheltered space. There was also a conservatory on the north side of the house, and a lean-to greenhouse on the south-facing wall of the garden. The climate in that part of the east of Scotland is cold and dry. Frosts can occur in 10 months of the year (only July and August are reliably frost-free) and it has been known to snow in mid-June! Rainfall is low, only 25 or so inches per year, falling mostly in the winter months, and there are frequent cold winds. Temperatures in the worst years, like 1981-82, can go down to -17°C (0°F).
Tall privet hedges (so high they had to be cut from a stepladder) divided the garden internally into three areas. The front garden, to the west of the house, had two broad areas of lawn on either side of the gravel drive, with a broad bed down the north wall. Then there were the "side garden", to the north, and the "orchard" separated from the rest by a concrete path, on the south of which was one of the hedges, with another tall wall on the north. The side garden had a small lawn, but much of the space was occupied by a raised area (perhaps intended for a pool), on top of which 2' X 2' concrete slabs had been laid, alternating with open squares of earth, to make a chess board. Hybrid tea roses had been planted in the open squares, adding further to the Alice in Wonderland effect, though most of the roses had died. The remainder of the garden was largely choked with scrubby Michaelmas daisies (I really don't like most composites). When these were cleared, it revealed a vast quantity of snowdrop and Chionodoxa bulbs, so many they had been pushed out to lie on top of the soil, which augured well for the success of other bulb species.
The raised area was the first to be tackled. Rather than try to remove this structure, I took away the concrete slabs, added quantities of gravel and turned it into a raised bed, to form the center of a rock garden, building up screes and cliffs around the perimeter. I thought that alpines would do well in the local climate. I started with the commoner sorts - Aubrieta and so on, but rapidly became enthused by dwarf bulbs and corms - Narcissus, Tulip, Crocus, Cyclamen, Iris and Galanthus. I also grew a lot of gentians, and primulas, both alpine species on the rock garden, and the beautiful Barnhaven polyanthuses for the ordinary garden beds. Right at the top of the rock garden, against the wall, several species of Juno iris (I. magnifica, orchioides, bucharica) survived for several years, but never increased.
By this time I had been introduced to the Scottish Rock Garden Club (SRGC), whose members were generous both with plants and advice. I am especially grateful to the late Dr Simson Hall, who was not only a keen rock gardener, but also passionate about all flowering shrubs and bulbs, and in particular rhododendrons. It was he who introduced me to the late Euan Cox, founder of the rhododendron specialist nursery Glendoick Gardens, and in turn Euan was happy to take me on guided walks round his beautiful woodland garden outside Perth. My rhodoholicism started with the dwarf species and hybrids grown in and around the base of the rock garden and neighboring areas. These began with the Lapponicums, like R. russatum, scintillans, microleucum, chryseum and hybrids, 'Blue Diamond' and so on, which I was sure would be hardy in the east of Scotland. But I soon (as do we all) began trying to push the limits of what I could grow, so added species like the beautiful R. moupinense (always one of my favorites in all its color forms, white, apple blossom pink-and-white and rose pink) and hybrids like 'Cilpinense', as well as its other parent R. ciliatum, plus the gorgeous R. yakushimanum. You will notice, I am still using the older names - I don't have the energy or mental agility to learn a whole new set! Many rhododendrons, like R. leucaspis and its hybrids, though perfectly hardy in themselves, flowered so early that their flowers were destroyed by frost almost every year.
I planted a whole lot of dwarf conifers, and the ease of these and the dwarf rhododendrons made me consider a suitable plan for the remaining section of the garden - the so-called orchard. This was an area of about a quarter acre containing a few old and diseased apple trees in rough grass, with a row of large lime trees (Tilia europea) down the west border, backed by a brick wall. With the help of Joe Sharp, an ex-coal miner (most of the mines in the district had closed) I cleared the apple trees, trimmed the grass, and erected a chain-link fence across the eastern third of the area. This included a lean-to greenhouse against the south-west-facing wall), and I intended to use this part for fruit and vegetables. The remainder would be a tree, shrub and bulb garden. I had already learnt that herbaceous plants take a deal of care, for which I could not spare the time. I made an exception though for hellebores, as their rich and somber flowers are so rewarding in the depths of winter, and last for weeks. Reading Jan de Graaf's books had fired an enthusiasm for lilies, and I was growing many of these, as well as rhododendrons and other plants from seed. Much of the seed came from the various seed exchange schemes - Alpine Garden Society, SRGC, ARS and so on, but I had also collected berries of many Sorbus species from the arboretum at Westonbirt while on a fall holiday. These were very successful, and fruited early and regularly, as well as providing fine fall color.
My rhododendron collection had already expanded to include all the Cinnabarinum and Triflorum species and hybrids I could find (I believed these would be best suited to the climate, and I love the Cinnabarinum flowers and foliage), as well as several clones of R. edgeworthii (the only reliably hardy Maddenia). I even tried some of the large-leafed species like R.fictolacteum, but they were never happy, even when I could give them a shady position. Just too dry for them. However, a number of Thomsonii species did well in the shade of the lime trees. These included the lovely bowl-shaped R. soulei and R. callimorphum and the yellow R. wardii in several forms. In the open areas I planted all the sweet-scented deciduous azaleas I could get - R. prinophyllum, R. nudiflorum, R. viscosum, R. luteum and R. atlanticum, and as many clones of R. occidentale as I could find.
Then Graham Stuart Thomas's books on shrub roses started me on another collection (especially of the yellow species and near-species like 'Canary Bird', R. ecae, R. X cantabrigiensis and so on), and I got keen on willows, and Camellias and Rubus and tree and herbaceous peonies and honeysuckles, and, and...You know how it happens. Anyway, after about 5 years the garden was getting pretty full. The walls were almost completely covered, with a Mermaid rose having the north-facing wall to itself -the thorns were too vicious to try any pruning: once inside their clasp and you would never escape! The fruit and vegetable section was also well stocked by now - a peach and a nectarine in the greenhouse, and espaliered apples, plums and pears along the wall, strawberries and raspberries (very successful in Scotland) as well as gooseberries and blackcurrants, and even some exotic varieties of potato.
The conservatory on the north side of the house proved ideal for seed raising, but had insufficient light and ventilation for my alpines and bulbs. I built an alpine house (using the concrete slabs taken from the rock garden as footing) in the side garden. This had the great advantage that I could be dry while caring for my plants, and the summer dormant bulbs could be left to bake in comfort if I had to go away. Two hot dry summers, and correspondence with the Aril Group of the American Iris Society (by snail mail - this was before the days of email for everyone) encouraged me to try some of the desert irises of the Oncocyclus group. I built two raised frames (stealing ground from the vegetable patch) and got plants from Israel. The flowers were spectacular, huge things in reds, purples, browns and silvers, with a few pinks and yellows, and they did wonderfully well for a couple of years, but then the weather pattern reverted to its normal showery dull cool summers, and they gradually rotted away. A few of the Regelio-Cyclus hybrids survived for another 9 or 10 years, but never flowered at all freely and when I moved house into town, I gave them to friends in the south of England, who I hope have had better luck with them.
The bitter winters of 1981-82 and the following year, which felt as if we were entering a new ice age, and killed many of my more tender plants, made me realize the problems of commuting in snow and ice. This, plus the cost of heating a big Victorian house, caused me to seriously consider the possibility of moving into town, and I finally surrendered two years later.
The next garden was a reversion to an ordinary suburban plot, though with more space than my very first garden. I moved in a snowy January, with the ground hard frozen. Despite this, I tried to move some of my hellebores and the smaller rhododendrons, and even hunted for the more precious bulbs, though the earth had to be broken with a pickax! I managed to salvage some of the better things, and they sat in the garage until the earth thawed sufficiently to let me plant them. It took a couple of years for me to adjust to the small space, and I still kept bringing home shrub roses that outgrew their space in a season! Eventually I was back to dwarf rhododendrons and bulbs, with my surviving hellebores in among them. One of the most successful rhododendrons was 'Dora Amatais', which flowered regularly every spring, with flowers that withstood several degrees of frost.
This was the period when I started visiting gardens seriously, as my own took less time to care for. There are many gardens in Scotland and England, both privately and publicly owned, open either year round or on specific occasions, and nearly all are worth a visit. I took holidays in the west of Scotland, in Argyll and Sutherland, visiting places like Glenarn, Arduaine, Gigha and Benmore (an outpost of the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens, RBGE), and later started going to Ireland, particularly the southwest, Cork and Kerry. Here the summer climate was perfect, the landscape idyllic, and the gardens spectacular, and I resolved to look for a house with some land for my retirement. I was encouraged by visiting gardens like Ilnacullin (Garinish) in Glengarriff harbor on Bantry Bay, where the Maddenia rhododendrons scent the whole island in May and June. Fota, near Cork City has a fine arboretum full of tender trees, and Dereen, on the Kenmare river, north of the mountains between Cork and Kerry, has tree ferns better than I have seen them anywhere since the Cameron Highlands in Malaya!
I moved to my 200-year-old farmhouse, with 3 acres of rough bog and grassland 50 miles west of Cork city, in June, towing a trailer full of plants in pots and plastic bags. It was raining when I arrived, and the wind was a cold north-eastern. It barely stopped raining and blowing for the remainder of the year. I managed to get some clearing and planting done round the house, but the bog-land behind the house, with a stream running through it, which I had planned to drain and plant with trees, opening the stream into a pool, remained too wet for any machinery to get in there. The gales steadily increased in frequency and violence, and at Christmas so many trees and power lines were brought down that I was without electricity for 5 days. Fortunately I had a gas cooker, but for water I had depended on an electric pump from my 100 ft well. My neighbors to the west were farmers, with a generator for their pump and milking parlor (this is a dairy-farming district) and supplied me with water by the bucket, as well as inviting me to share their Christmas meal. Good people.
The following spring continued the same pattern of weather, and, having come here to escape the cold of Edinburgh, I felt I had wasted my time. I decided to cut my losses and head back to SE Asia, where I knew I would be warm. Malaysia has changed a great deal in the 30 years since I left, and I knew something of Thailand, so decided to try there instead. That was more than 3 years ago, and I am still here, and still content.
The climate here in Phuket, while similar to that of Malaya (a further 500 miles south) is very different from that of central and northern Thailand, as well as from Europe, and some westerners (farang as they are called here) find it unbearable. It is hot, and, for much of the year, humid. Daily temperatures range from a minimum of 20°C (68°F) in the cooler season (January) or 25°C (77°F) the rest of the year to a maximum of 35°C (95°F), or, on one or two days last month, 37°C. For comfortable sleep you need air-conditioning, but we don't find we need it during the day, unless we have visitors.
We get rain all year round, with peaks in the monsoons in May-June and September-October. During the monsoon seasons we get occasional days when it rains all day, but most of the time even then we get heavy rain showers (sometimes with thunder and lightning) interspersed with warm, sunny periods. Outside the rainy season we get a heavy rain shower once or twice a week - enough to keep everything growing well. Even when it rains, it is never cold! The annual average rainfall is about 90 inches, and we get around 8 hours sunshine a day from November to May, falling to 4-5 hours a day in the rainy season. Further north they have a different climate, with distinct wet and dry seasons. They only get half as much rain as we do, but it all falls between May and October. In the wet season they have floods, and in the dry season the hills burn, lit by sparks from burning rice stubble, carelessly thrown cigarette stubs, charcoal burners' fires, picnickers or even deliberately set, to clear forest for planting. In the wet, it is hotter than here, with temperatures sometimes passing 40°C (104°F), while in the dry it can be cooler than here. In the high mountains of the north, temperatures at night in January can occasionally go down to near 0°C, and frosts are not uncommon. However, the general run of night time temperatures on top of Doi Inthanon (Thailand’s highest peak at 2565 meters, 8000+ feet) don’t go much below 7 or 8°C (46-48°F) though that feels very cold after living in the south!. Daytime temperatures in January run up to 20-30°C (68-86°F) and in July go very much higher.
The soil here is abominable - sticky clay on top of broken laterite rock. Phuket was a major tin mining area, and most of the housing developments are built on the spoil from the mines, with the dredge pools converted into ornamental lakes and water reservoirs. Despite this, it probably won't surprise you to learn that any plants that tolerate our climate and soil grow VERY FAST. I have grown coral trees (Erythrina) from seed sown in January 1999 that are already 20 feet high, with a canopy as much across. Peacock bushes (Caesalpinia) also from seed sown at the same time, have to be cut back every 3 or 4 months and this only stops them flowering for a matter of a week or so. Fiddlewood trees (Cytheraxylon) from 12-inch cuttings are now 12-15 feet tall and covered with tassels of sweet-scented white flowers, loved by sunbirds (the Old World version of humming birds) and huge birdwing butterflies. I could extend the list, but you get the idea.
The ideal rhododendrons for this climate are, of course, the Vireyas, but there is not a single nursery in Thailand that supplies them. Mind you, that is not such a surprise, because the general run of nursery stock is limited to the standards - Bougainvillea, Canna, Allamanda, Hibiscus and assorted palms. The one garden in Thailand that grows Vireyas in quantity is the royal arboretum at Mae Fah Luang, right up on the northern border with Burma. Their plants (some 20,000) were all imported from Australia, but they tell me they do have plans to propagate for sale in a year or two. My plants have also all been imported, from nurseries in Australia, Oregon and Hawaii. I am very grateful to those who have been willing to take on the hassle of dealing with Agriculture Departments (described by one nurseryman as "Gestapo") to get phytosanitary certificates for export, in return for small orders.
I am pleased to say that nearly all of them have survived the trauma of the journey and are alive and growing well. They are all in pots, and I have to consider what to do when they outgrow their containers. The best plan will probably be that used by Mae Fah Luang, where they plant them in shallow saucers, spreading the roots out, and covering with a mulch of pine needles. Here we might have to substitute Casuarina leaves for pine needles, as there are no local pine trees. In the pots they grow in a mix of coconut fiber chunks with perlite, pumice and broken brick - very free drainage! I have also tried a few of the Thai native species, which all grow on the northern mountains, at upwards of 1400 meters. Some have survived and are growing, like R. arboreum, R. lyi, R. simsii and R. surasianum, but others are looking unhappy (R. moulmainense), and some (R. pachypodum) and non-natives (R. nuttallii) have already died. They survived, and even opened new leaves, until the heavy rains started in May, when the leaves started to brown and fall, so it seems to be the humidity that they don't like, not the heat.
However, I now have some 40 Vireya hybrids and species, all growing well and apparently healthy, apart from the depredations of a particularly nasty beetle, about 1-1½ inches long, yellow and gray, which loves to chew holes in newly emerging leaves. There is also a rather unpleasant caterpillar, only ½ inch long, that sticks the leaves together while they are in bud, and lives happily inside, eating away, until the outer leaves open, and reveal a mess of dying leaves inside, and a dead terminal bud. If terminal buds are going to get removed to encourage branching, I prefer to do it my way! I don't really bother much about ordinary caterpillars; they don't do a lot of damage, and they are going to turn into the lovely butterflies and moths that decorate the garden. Some of the caterpillars are quite spectacular in their own right; those of the Atlas moth (a huge cinnamon, pink and silver beast, with a wingspan of more than 8 inches) are about 6 inches long, and a glistening silvery-white. They feed on the leaves of the torch gingers, Etlingera, which always have more leaf than flower!
Other plants that have proved successful are all the Bauhinias I have tried: B. purpurea, B. variegata (in several color forms) B. acuminata, and B tomentosa (only the plain yellow one so far, but I hope to get the two-colored one eventually). My favorite so far is a form of B. variegata of which I collected seed near Mae Sai, on the northern border with Burma. It has pure white flowers with a pink flare on one petal, very strongly and sweetly scented. One of the many attractions of the Bauhinias is that they flower within a year from seed.
I also grow about half a dozen different jasmines. I love all scented plants, and the jasmines are among the best. I am still looking for seed of Jasminum revolutum (humile), the shrubby yellow scented species. I have a lot of climbers (including some of the jasmines) and one of the best is Odontadenia which has long creamy yellow buds, opening to 6-inch trumpets, apricot in the lobes and peach-orange in the center, with a beautiful scent.
Several Passiflora species also do well, and Quisqualis (Rangoon Creeper), with flowers that open white and change to red, needs to be kept in check. Scented shrubs include several Gardenias, Murraya paniculata (Orange Jasmine, Chinese Box) and Wrightia religiosa, as well as a lovely small tree, Millingtonia hortensis with the dull name of Indian Cork Tree. This really ought to be called a tree jasmine, as it has 3-4 inch long tubular creamy white flowers, with a delicious scent.
Pests other than those I have mentioned are fairly few, though fungus diseases are always a risk in the high humidity. There is a rust that attacks the frangipanis (Plumeria) but doesn't seem to bother anything else, and a pink and white fungus that grows on the stems of Hibiscus mutabilis, as well as some that cause leaf-spotting on several species (Phytophthera?). There are other pests that bother people of course - mosquitoes (only at night out of doors) and the odd snake. We had a 5-foot cobra in the garden yesterday morning. The dogs had cornered it and were barking their heads off, and the poor beast could not get out through the dog-proof wire netting. A pity, as we had to kill it (it made a meal for some neighboring gardeners), and I prefer to live and let live. Snakes don't bother you if you don't bother them, and it was only its inability to escape that made it a danger. So all in all, Phuket is a very satisfactory place to garden, though I would like to be able to grow some of the more temperate rhododendrons, and the deciduous azaleas. Still we always hanker after something we can't grow, otherwise we would be moribund, if not dead!
Three Little Reds
Many of us are downsizing our gardens and growing smaller Rhododendrons allow us to indulge our passion for our favourite genus. There are lots of small rhodies to choose from, but if you’re looking for good reds, then three small reds come to mind that fit the bill of small plants with good foliage.
If you’re interested in species, then R. forrestii ssp forrestii 'Repens' is a lovely plant to grow. It really is a ground cover, not growing over about 18 inches in height, if that. I've been growing this species as a "companion plant" in a couple of large containers. While I've had the plants for 5 or 6 years, my R. forrestii hasn't bloomed much (I think it is a shy bloomer anyway), but I don't really care. The occasional red flowers are handsome and I enjoy seeing them, but it's the foliage I like as the plants have good, shiny green leaves that make a lovely, well-behaved ground cover in my large pots. I have the 'Repens' form, but there are a number of selected forms available.
R. forrestii ssp forrestii is one of the parents of both 'Baden Baden' and 'Carmen', two nice small hybrids, both of which have been around for many years. 'Baden Baden' is a Hobbie hybrid ('Essex Scarlet' x R. forrestii), and 'Carmen' is a Rothschild hybrid of R. sanguineum ssp didymum x R. forrestii.
'Baden Baden' has bright red flowers, about 2 inches across, with a slightly darker eye. Flowers are borne in clusters of 3 to 5. When in bloom, the flowers make a nice contrast with the emerald green foliage. It's fully hardy here in the Pacific Northwest where it blooms in mid to late April. Plant height is 2 to 3 feet after 10 years, so it's a good choice for either a small garden or to grow as a container plant.
'Carmen' has deeper red flowers, more maroon red than scarlet. It is considered a true dwarf hybrid, reaching just 18 to 24 inches after 10 years. The leaves are rounded and the plant forms a nice mounded growing habit. I've been growing 'Carmen' in a container plant for a few years now, and it blooms reliably for me in late April to early May. It's a great plant to enter in flower shows because people just fall in love with it when it's in bloom. The flowers are small and bell-shaped.
All three of these plants are reasonably easy to find and easy to grow, both in conventional shrub borders or in containers, so, if you're looking for small, red-flowered rhododendrons, consider growing these three - they're all good 'do-ers'.
Bill Stipe - A Lifetime of Creativity
There are some who are content to merely live life as it is. To glide through endlessly, simply being. But for others there is an innate drive to create, to build, and to construct. Of those, there are some we revere as great artists, Picasso and Rembrandt, who spend their life in fame for their great works. And there are those who quietly hold the task of keeping the world moving forward, one silent but significant project at a time.
Wilbert Stipe, or "Bill" as he assures me I may call him, is the perfect example of an innovator. From his first horticultural experiments on his parent's farm to his increasing talent as a nurseryman and hybridizer, his life has been a constant source of creativity and exploration.
Growing up on a wheat farm, Stipe had ample time to experience both the practical and mysterious side of the plant world. "A lot of the time I was the truck driver" he tells me, "...and I would notice that every once in a while there was a stalk of wheat that was about this much higher than all the rest of them...So I started collecting those. And when I grew those, they all grew tall." Stipe's first experience with genetics was later to turn into an avid interest and skill for hybridizing, but his initial experiments weren't extremely successful. "We had some fruit trees, so I learned about grafting them...I even tried grafting prunes on apples," he tells me with a laugh"...and that didn't work." Around this same time, his father gave Stipe a small plot of land to grow whatever he liked on. "I'm the thirteenth child in the family and there was always four or five sisters at home, and they all had their own gardens and I had my own garden, and I started growing vegetables. My dad always encouraged me and gave me a piece of land...and I lived there."
Stipe continued living on the farm after his marriage to his wife Mary at the age of nineteen. After five years however, his keen mind led him to a new frontier of exploration; electronics. "Television hadn't come to Eastern Washington yet," he begins, "and I was one of the first in the area who knew anything [about TV]... I probably had the first television there." After building his own business, Stipe TV, from the ground up, he found that running any enterprise in the farming community was far from easy. "Famers want to pay their bills once a year - after the harvest - and if the harvest is bad you don't get paid at all. There's still some farmers over there that owe me money," he jokes.
Stipe's love of electronics and enterprising spirit led him to receive an excellent offer of employment from Boeing, at that time a burgeoning company in need of many electronic technicians. While working there, Stipe also attended the University of Washington, which eventually steered him into the field of electrical engineering. After a few years employed at Boeing, Stipe and his family were relocated to Fort Walton Beach, Florida. There he spent time on an Air Force base testing missiles.
While his day job centered mostly on technological innovation, the world of horticulture was never far from Stipe's mind. "While I was there [Florida], I rented a place and started planting things. I got some books and learned about bananas, and what to fertilize and what not. My postman came by one day and said, "That's the first time I've seen a banana tree in Fort Walton Beach!" I even put one in a pot and brought it home [to Washington]", but it didn't live here."
From Florida, Stipe spend time in the military, and then moved back to Washington, this time to the west. It was there, in the heart of rhododendron country, his fascination with the brilliant blooms began. "I'd never seen rhododendrons in Eastern Washington; they don't grow there. It's too cold and too hot. So when I moved to Seattle, I saw all these rhododendrons growing about and I had to learn something about it, so I joined the Rhododendron Society and the next thing you know, I was planting rhododendrons everywhere."
Mentored by big names in the field, Stipe soon became involved in much more than plant growing and society meetings. In fact, under the encouragement and direction of Warren Berg, he found himself nearly ten thousand miles around the world, hiking and seed collecting through treacherous terrain in the mountainous regions of China. "We went into places where there wasn't any road..." Stipe tells me, his description a far cry from the comfort of his beautifully crafted Whidbey Island home. "We would go hike another five or ten miles, sometimes up in really rugged territory...we even had to go up on a glacier." The team was comprised of international hybridizers, some local guides, and a few army men carrying rifles with bayonets attached. "I don't know if they were trying to protect us, or protect the Chinese," Stipe jests.
For a trip of thirty days, each man carried only a pack containing basic supplies like a compass, iodine for water purification, and bags to collect plant samples. While Stipe recalled that one friend, Peter Cox, carried a little foldable microscope, he himself chose something a little more creative. "Before I left, I went to my doctor to have a physical...And I said, "Doc, what should I take along as survival food in case I need it?" And he says, "Take nuts." And so I took a big bag a cashew nuts and I took a big package of M&Ms. He said, "You can survive a long time on that."
Stipe also carried supplies for gathering samples, collecting mostly just the pepper-like rhododendron seeds, due to a ban on exporting full plants. Despite having a permit to transport seeds out of the country, he came up with an ingenious plan to avoid the stringent regulations. "Some people who brought stuff out had been caught by Chinese and had some terrible times..." he told me, "so what'd we do? I mailed them." Later, as I ask Stipe if he had kept the infamous envelopes, he quickly had me chuckling as he explains why they didn't arrive in the best of shape. "One of the problems that I had was the Chinese stamps didn't have sticky on the back of them. Now I don't know what their idea was: I guess they wanted you to buy glue. So I got some jam and smeared on the back of the stamp. And I'm not sure they all showed up here, because that wasn't the best way to secure stamps to the envelopes. But some of them did, anyhow."
The trek through China was incredible, and enormously taxing. Stipe takes me on a walk through his garden and points out the massive and hardy rhododendrons that he has cultivated from the trip's seeds. "We saw plants that were a hundred feet tall," he tells me, "rhododendrons that had big trunks on them..." The rhodies in Stipe' yard, while not quite this big, are equally impressive in vigor and variety. As we stroll through the acres, I ask Stipe about how he became more involved as a grower. "I joined the American Rhododendron Society shortly after I moved to Seattle," he begins, "I knew about Mrs. Meerkerk...she and her husband owned property here...and he had 51 acres out here on Whidbey Island." The land, bequeathed after the Meerkerk's death to the Seattle Rhododendron Society, was finally dedicated as hybridizers test garden. As plant samples from all around the world began arriving, the team including Stipe worked hard to clear and cultivate the land. "We got quite a few: from Germany, Scotland, quite a few from the US. So we'd plant three of each variety. And the idea was to test them to see how they'd do on Whidbey Island... every summer we would ask members to come up and evaluate these hybrids and rate them... once a year, I would put that data all together and publish it. And the results would show up in the Rhododendron Society Journal."
Stipe stayed at the forefront of Meerkerk garden creation until he finally became the manager. In this position he labored many hours to ensure that more than just hybridizers would enjoy the beauty of Meerkerk. "I worked to open the garden to the public. Before then there was no way to have people come in and enjoy the garden." While manager, Stipe kept areas in constant change, moving plants and landscaping entirely new sections to keep guests coming back again and again. Innovative as always, he described to me how he had enlarged the garden substantially. "Even over at Meerkerk, I started clearing land that had never been cleared before because I always wanted to plant a new garden."
Rhododendrons were a continuing passion for Stipe as he evolved from his station at Meerkerk to begin clearing and planting his own fifteen acre jungle. As he did this, a simultaneous project arose of a beautiful two-story house, built from the ground up. Beginning in 2000, Stipe and his wife moved into a small apartment on the property, and began construction that took over four years. There was obvious and legitimate pride in his voice as Stipe spoke to me about his now entirely completed home. "This is probably my best accomplishment. I designed this house from scratch, built it and lived in it, and I can't find anything wrong with it." Stipe's garden posed, and still poses, another enormous challenge with acres of land to cultivate and upkeep. His natural innovative spirit has come to his aid many times in problem solving on the property. In one case, he designed and developed a brand new tractor attachment in order to carefully remove plants from the ground and move them about.
This same creativity, focused now on genetics, has allowed Stipe to become one of the best known hybridizers in the Northwest. "I'm most proud of my 'Amiblue'," he tells me. "I've propagated, and I sell a lot of them. As a matter of fact, I just got word from a friend down in Oklahoma...And he said, "Bill, it's grown for five years!" And Oklahoma gets terribly hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and he said, "I lose a lot of plants every year that I try, but 'Amiblue' is still alive." Stipe's network of friends through the society reaches beyond the United States however, something he is very appreciative of. "I've loved meeting people from all over the world in the Society. I guess I could count a thousand friends...at least. And getting together at the conventions, we share friends' stories and memories and achievements... I belong to a lot of different organizations, but the Rhododendron Society is probably the friendliest."
Stipe's natural inclination to create has had to come with a healthy dose of patience. In describing the lengthy process of making crosses, I can see his keen interest is willing to wait the years it takes to gain success. "So it takes you four or five years," he says about certain hybrids, "but I'll do that every year, so every year I've got new ones. And I anticipate what they're going to look like. And that keeps me interested."
Sitting in the glowing warmth of his timbered home, the view of his gorgeous multi-acre garden out the window, I ask Stipe from where his inspiration to create beauty developed. "Well, I think it's a very interesting thing..." he tells me, instantly serious. "I mean, just the very fact that you can take a seed, which looks so insignificant, and contain all of the elements of a fantastic plant.... It's hard to classify. My passion is growing things. Let's put it that way."
"A" is for Rhododendron albrechtii
I keep a wish list of rhododendrons I want, and at the moment, the species R. albrechtii is included in the top three of my list. I grew it in my old garden, but sadly, when I moved, it was one of the plants I had to leave behind. I haven't found a replacement plant for sale yet, but I keep looking, and after all, the hunt is almost as much fun as growing the plant. I may have to break down and order some seed of this species as it's not commonly available in the trade as established plants.
photo by Tijs Huisman
Why do I like it so much? Well, in bloom it's such a sweetheart! The plant I grew had deep cerise-pink flowers, two or three to a cluster, and each flower was almost 2 inches across in size. In doing a bit of internet searching, I see other growers report floral colours ranging from the deep rosy pinks into the purple reds, and up to 5 flowers per cluster. In the Pacific Northwest, R. albrechtii usually blooms in mid to late April.
The plant, native to Japan, is a deciduous azalea, and the leaves on my "old" plant turned a lovely yellow before they dropped in the fall. I'm not sure if fall leaf colour is a constant for all albrechtii plants, but it's nice when it happens. I had my plant situated on the north side of the house, but it got good light from mid-afternoon on into the evening. It prefers areas with cooler summer temperatures, so avoid planting sites that receive hot temperatures and mid-day sun. The usual recommendation of even soil moisture applies. Plants grow to a height of about 4 feet, so R. albrechtii is a good choice for the small garden, or even a large container. It's also a good choice for woodland plantings. Do keep an eye out for this great little plant – it should be on everyone's wish list.
"A" is for 'Alison Johnstone'
I first saw Rhododendron 'Alison Johnstone' in a garden in the Oakland California area on a tour organized by the local chapter hosting the ARS conference. I can't remember the year, but I think it was in the late 80's or early 90's. I simply fell in love with "Alison" and started a hunt for a plant upon my return home. I was lucky enough to find one, but at the time, I was living in an apartment so I had to grow it in a container on the balcony. Some 20 plus years, and three moves later, it is still in a container, albeit a much larger one (a 90 liter pot) than when I started.
photo by Stuart Imrie
"Alison" blooms reliably every spring, and it's the flower colour that continues to attract me as it is such a curious colour. The flowers are not a true pink, but have almost an amber undertone which makes the colour hard to describe. I don't know of any other rhododendron that has quite the same flower colour. In addition, the foliage has a definite bluish cast which provides interesting foliage throughout the year.
Since my original plant is so big, I find the thought of trying to plant it in the ground too daunting, so this plant will spend its entire life in a container. Using a slow-release fertilizer, I fertilize at least twice a year: early April and again in late June and the plant gets lots and lots of water. Other than deadheading and maybe a bit of judicious pruning, this is all the care this big plant gets, but it seems happy and puts on new growth and flowers well each year. Others have told me that their 'Alison Johnstone' plants occasionally suffer from mildew, but I haven't found this to be a problem. However, I have a windy garden so my plant gets lots of air flow. I now have a second plant (won it in a raffle at one of our club meetings this spring), and this plant will get planted in the ground this fall.
Now, here's a curious problem I've never encountered before. I noticed earlier this week that there were suddenly dozens of healthy new leaves of my 'Alison Johnstone' lying on the ground around the plant. My other rhodies nearby were fine and I couldn't find any evidence of disease or insect pests that might be responsible. We haven't had any big wind storms recently, so that wouldn't have caused the problem either. I kept on going out and checking, and all I could find were yet more young leaves on the ground. Then, last evening, I noticed the leaves and branches were moving slightly, and sure enough, leaves fell off. I'm thinking, EEK, A RAT! - or something equally awful, but after watching for awhile, out popped a small wren. Since then, I've seen the wren flying in and out of the plant, and every time, more leaves appear on the ground. The bird doesn't appear to be eating anything, nor does it seem to be making a nest or using the leaves for anything. I know birds often break off small branches for nests, but this behaviour baffles me: I've never seen anything like it before, nor heard about this kind of behaviour. So if any of you bird watchers know why the wren is doing this, I'd love to hear the explanation. The only thing I can think of is that the wren shares my love of 'Alison Johnstone', but really, enough pruning already!
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.”