Journal ARS Article
Vol. 51: No. 2: Year 1997
Washington Hybridizers Create Plants For the Future
Recently a gardener suggested that the popularity of rhododendrons is waning and the use of perennials is on the rise. That may be true, but it is hard to beat the use of evergreen rhododendrons and azaleas as the "bones" of the garden.
We know that the landscape value of rhododendrons is infinite and that there is a tremendous variety to work with-sizes from creepers to trees, beautiful colored flowers (with no thorns) and foliage with shapes, colors, indumentum, bristles and scales that are definitely not boring. We can find fragrance in flowers and leaves. We can make a choice of semi-tropical rhododendrons to the very hardy. In addition, they are of easy culture. Fortunately for us, rhododendrons are seldom costly and, heaven forbid, they may live in our gardens longer than we do!
Rhododendrons of generations ago were primary crosses between species and, as a rule, a matter of guesswork-not scientific. As the nurserymen and gardeners gained commonsense knowledge of these new ornamentals, they crossed and re-crossed their plants to create new hybrids, always seeking to improve the rhododendrons for their particular conditions and commercial possibilities.
Decades later these hybrids were crossed more often with other hybrids. Whether the breeders realized it or not, they were creating an enormous mix of genes. From the seedlings a few really superior rhododendrons did result, but hordes of inferior rhododendrons proved not as attractive or useful as the parent plants. A few gave a desirable "color break," increased hardiness or developed certain rare characters such as fragrance.
Now, about 200 years later, hybridizing is still a gamble. It's a lot of fun, too. Many years ago a hybridizer, Guy Nearing, stated that it might take 10,000 seedlings of one cross to produce that one superior, unique rhododendron. How lucky are you?
So much enthusiasm developed in the Seattle Chapter of the ARS for this hybridizing treasure hunt that a study group was formed. It grew fast, crowding our small meeting place and requiring its division into a north and a south group. Early on much of the discussion revolved around the basics or rules (unwritten) and goals for hybridizing rhododendrons. Of course, most of our experimenting has used the many types of rhododendrons that we can grow successfully in the benign Pacific Northwest climate.
Rhododendron hybridizers from Washington State were queried about their hybridizing programs. Although the author regrets that not every hybridizer could be included, the following "stories" are a cross-section of those who responded.
JOHN WINBERG and CLINT SMITH, members of the Seattle Chapter and founding members of the Hybridizers Study Group, have had a hybridizing partnership for at least 15 years. They have observed that the test of a true hybridizer requires time, labor, money-and space in the yard! They also emphasized: "Set your goals and then hybridize without worrying what others are crossing."
Early goals, as with so many beginners, focused on developing huge trusses, without regard to plant habit or hardiness. They learned over time and by certain failures, so that their current goals are more extensive. They still like large trusses, hopefully with good yellow color and a red "eye." But wouldn't it be a triumph to produce them with plant habits similar to those of 'Nancy Evans', 'Golfer', 'Noyo Brave' or 'Yaku Sunrise'?
Clint and John are in the nursery business and have determined that the trade needs some new white-flowered, tough, compact rhododendrons. One of their registered crosses is a likely candidate: 'Head Honcho' (R. yakushimanum 'Siouxon' x 'Mrs. J.G. Millais'). Earlier crosses that they see as promising are: ('Smokey #9'* x R. diaprepes ssp. diaprepes 'Gargantua'), (['Good News' x 'Kilimanjaro'] x R. yakushimanum 'Siouxon'), ('Butter Brickle' x 'September Song'), (['Butter Brickle' x 'September Song'] x R. pachysanthum), ('Butter Brickle' x 'Odee Wright'), ('Nancy Evans' x 'Gandy Dancer'*) and (Lem seedling x 'China'). This list gives us a clue to their early hybridizing efforts. It might prove useful for us to learn of those that they consider disasters as well-('Albert' x 'Purple Splendour') which refused to open their flowers and ('Mrs. P.D. Williams' x unknown yellow) which displayed inferior quality.
BRITT SMITH, a member of the Seattle and Tacoma chapters, took an early philosophical approach to the hobby of hybridizing. He "entered into rhododendrons in response to a life-long conviction that retirement should be into a physical activity which is constructive." That was what he himself wanted to do.
Becoming familiar with the hybridizing activities of Halfdan Lem, Hjalmar Larson, Bill Whitney and Mr. Bovee of Portland attracted me to that aspect of rhododendron culture. Having been invited by Dr. Frank Mossman to participate in exploring the habitations of R. occidentale, I also joined Frank in application of pollen from Exbury azaleas to stigmas of better forms of R. occidentale. Then pollen from better forms of R. occidentale was applied to other selected forms of R. occidentale. After that, hybridizing activities expanded spontaneously, as limited by physical ability. Enough of the results were gratifying...even exciting...and addiction took control.
"After the use of R. occidentale as a parent, interest shifted to R. lacteum. The quest for daffodil yellow flowers on plants with beautiful leaves seemed naturally to start from R. lacteum and its hybrids already available. Then indumentum became important, then plant form and size, and R. yakushimanum entered considerations. Now any desired improvement is an interest to be pursued."
Britt Smith has for years been raising his seedlings and has carefully selected several, namely 'Hawaiian Holiday' ('Señorita' x 'Autumn Gold'), 'Dee Dee Wegener' ('Jingle Bells' x 'Mrs. Betty Robertson'), 'Jean Eleanor' (for his wife) ('Jingle Bells' x R. lacteum) and 'Adrienne Elizabeth' ('Mrs. Horace Fogg' x Loderi Group). Also named is a big red, 'Brittenhill Bugle' ('Karkov' x 'Red Loderi'*). (Brittenhill is his homeplace.) 'Bonnie Jean' ('Fred Rose' x 'Matador') and 'Merrie-Bells' ('Jingle Bells' x R. lacteum) have met his approval.
Other seedlings are under consideration and will be named "if it is felt that their qualities and desirability in the marketplace have been verified."
The Pacific Northwest hybridizer having the most purely scientific goals is probably PAT HALLIGAN, a member of the Whidbey Island and Seattle chapters. For 15 years he has followed three specific breeding lines, two of which concentrate on the lepidote group of rhododendrons. He is seeking orange and red colors among lepidotes, a seemingly impossible task (what if there are no recessive genes for orange or red color?). Now on his fourth and fifth generations, he is close. None of the seedlings yet meets all his requirements: good color, vigor, disease resistance and hardiness. Rust and mildew remain a problem.
Plants he has used are: R. racemosum, R. edgeworthii, R. keiskei, R. calostrotum ssp. keleticum, R. saluenense ssp. chameunum, R. campylogynum, R. spinuliferum, 'California Gold', 'Scott's Valentine'*, 'Rose Scott', 'Else Frye', 'Patricia', 'Mary Fleming' and 'Razorbill'.
Pat's second challenging goal is to produce fragrance. Sterility seems the big stumbling block limiting interbreeding and back-crossing. "The rare hardy back-cross is crossed with the primary cross. With this I hope to obtain fertile lines which will eventually yield Seattle-hardy fragrant plants. Unfortunately, these plants tend to get rust and often have weak root systems."
Plants he has used are: R. racemosum, R. edgeworthii, 'Else Frye', 'California Gold', 'Rose Scott', 'Scott's Valentine', R. spinuliferum, 'Mary Fleming' and R. keiskei.
"I have attempted to introduce R. nuttallii, R. lindleyi and R. taggianum into this line without success. I tried to bridge the gap by crossing these with R. edgeworthii and I obtained a nice plant with 6-inch fragrant flowers that observers consistently like better than 'Mi Amor'. It is fertile, so I keep hoping!
"I obtained one fragrant hybrid of (R. keiskei 'Yaku Fairy' x 'Else Frye') which turned out to be sterile, so I registered it as 'Motherly Love', since it seemed to be sufficiently different to warrant registering and was a dead end and could not be improved. "My other main line is crossing R. concinnum Pseudoyanthinum Group with polyploid Maddenias and with R. cinnabarinum. I've obtained a number of vigorous hybrids, none of which have endured an exceptionally cold winter.
"I grew a large number of plants of (R. moulmainense x R. latoucheae), a Peter Valder cross, of which I have chosen the hardiest plant. I may someday name and introduce this plant, so that the connoisseur can obtain and enjoy the spectacular new foliage generally only seen in tender species of the Choniastrum section."
Playing with the elepidotes to obtain foliage plants with good flowers, he crossed among this group: 'Lem's Cameo', (R. strigillosum x R. facetum), 'Bruce Brechtbill', 'Unique', 'Nancy Evans', 'Noyo Chief', R. bureavii, R. yakushimanum (small, flat leaf), 'Red Olympia' and 'Bergie Larson'. Results: ordinary. Rhododendron bureavii hybrids experience severe sunburn. ( R. yakushimanum x 'Noyo Chief'), both with beautiful foliage, produced one distinctive foliage plant. "I have stopped doing elepidote crosses, since the plants take up too much room. The elepidotes don't take drought nearly as well as the lepidotes."
A word of warning: "A number of the capsules had rust on them and the spores apparently were disseminated among the seeds. Now I discard all diseased capsules or I disinfect them in bleach."
Suggestions: "Think of some characteristic or combination of characteristics that is not presently found in rhodies. Then figure out which species and hybrids could possibly lead to your goal. Keep in mind which plants are compatible genetically. Don't depend on 'way out' crosses. You'll do much better to stick within one group of rhodies and one 'ploidy' level. Save the 'way out' crosses for fun."
WALTER ELLIOTT of the Shelton Chapter has the moist, humid and warm climate that supports luxuriant growth among rhododendrons. Most of Walt's rhododendron breeding of the past 30 years has been between the "tried and true," moderate sized hybrids that have been successful in gardens and in the trade. Earlier goals included the search for a bright yellow with good habit and fragrance. Currently he has amended this list to include compact growth habit and foliage that has year-round interest. He has selected 23 clones that he feels have merit.
Two of his hybrids, 'Class of Thirty-eight' and 'Husky Fever' out of a cross of a ('Crest' x R. wardii Litiense Group) seedling, were given to the University of Washington, which promised to propagate them. However, it appears that little has been done and these rhododendrons may never reach the public. Can hybridizers learn something from this experience?
Walt has enjoyed success using 'Mrs. Furnival', 'Lemon Custard', 'Crest' and 'Van Nes Sensation' in crosses. His registered hybrid 'Vera Elliott' ('Virginia Richards' x R. fortunei), named for his wife, has proved an excellent seed parent. In 1995, a lovely hybrid with yellowish-pink buds that mature to a deep pink color was registered as 'Ruth Tracy'.
Two seedlings that he has been evaluating are ('N.N. Sherwood' x R. fortunei) which he proclaims enthusiastically as "the best pink that I have developed" and 'Florabundant'* ('Bow Bells' x 'Unique') which grows in a perfect ball-shaped plant without pruning and is, also, a dependable heavy bloomer. 'Odd Ball' ('China' x 'Goldbug') produces an unusual flower of two colors but has somewhat poor plant habit. It is in demand by hybridizers who are willing to raise hundreds of seedlings attempting to get something extremely unusual. Note: I crossed 'Odd Ball' with the late Jim Elliott's 'Confusion'*. What am I likely to get!
One of his most recent introductions (1995) has been named 'Evelyn Maranville' ('Lemon Custard' x 'Hotei'). Buds mature to greenish-yellow colored trusses.
Bill Whitney and Hjalmar Larson were mentors, lending him excellent guidance and support. Exchanges of information with those in other chapters has been fruitful. Walt has supplied the ARS Seed Exchange with his hybrid seeds for years. Displaying a smile, he muses: "We hope there have been some pleasant surprises."
A member of the Olympia Chapter and vice president at Briggs Nursery, STEVE MCCULLOUGH, has stated his views on hybridizing very efficiently when he lists his goals as: "Dependable, easy-to-grow plants for both producer (nurseryman) and consumer (gardener)."
By this he means:
- Plants that set flower buds at a young
Steve describes one of his registrations, 'Forever Yours' ('Creamy Chiffon' x 'Vulcan'). "Its flowers appeared first in 1984, thrusting up ball-shaped trusses of 16 to 18 corollas of red-edged, white-centered flowers. It has received the Chairman's Award in the Tacoma Rhododendron Show." An unnamed yellow ('Nancy Evans' x 'Whitney #5736') has shown great promise with its lemon-yellow flowers.
His suggestions to beginners are: "Visit other hybridizers; listen, learn and ask all your 'dumb' questions. They'll give excellent advice and encouragement! "Patience! Be patient, but always rogue your seedlings... save just the best. "Keep a goal in mind. The seedling you select should be better than what is in commerce. It should have characteristics that make it unique and desirable."
William Whitney, early hybridizer and member of the RumDum Club, once pointed out that he selected among his seedlings for their foliage before they bloomed. He "rogued" those unknowns until he had only 40 seedlings of each cross remaining-the very best in foliage and habit. These "chosen ones" he allowed to grow to blooming size, continuing on his evaluation.
A founding member of the Seattle Hybridizers Study Group, ELSIE WATSON, has been developing new hybrids for 35 years. She has registered seven rhododendrons from the 496 crosses listed in her records. She estimates that 43 percent of her seedlings did not germinate or died in infancy. "Along the way many more were discarded for various reasons and when the ones that are left do bloom, well...sometimes I wonder!" Elsie tends to be very critical of her plants.
Her earliest attempts at hybridizing used three hybrids created by the local nurseryman and breeder, Endre Ostbo, namely: 'Mrs. Donald Graham" AE, 'Jane Rogers' and 'Edna McCarty'. "The results after growing several hundred were promising, but I found nothing I believed worthy of propagation."
Elsie's next goal involved working with the purples and the near-blues. Success achieved! Out of a cross of ('Blue Ensign' x 'Purple Splendour'), made in 1965, she has registered her blue-violet with its intense black blotch as 'Blue Boy'. A ruffled lavender-purple with a greenish-gold blotch is 'Blue Hawaii'.
Elsie's attention turned to 'Anna', which had proved such a fine seed parent for Halfdan Lem. A favorite cross ('Anna' x 'Purple Splendour') yielded 'Katrina'. The closest description of its unusual color is brilliant magenta. "Bruce Briggs, who had it in tissue culture, told me it always stood out in a field because of its eye-catching blotch."
"Sister seedling 'Marley Hedges' was hidden and neglected in my wooded garden for 14 years until the spring of '83 when it surprised me with a most magnificent truss of some 24 funnel-shaped corollas, the inside of which were white with rosy-purple margins and purplish blotches. The reverse side of the flower was of the same rosy-purple color. Leaves were long and dark green. 'Marley Hedges' sets its flower buds at a young age and fortunately has proved easy to propagate. In 1990, it won the Best Truss at Seattle's ARS May Show, and in 1992 made the Eligibility List of the ARS Plant Awards."
Having more garden space than many of us, she used ('Sarita Loder' x R. calophytum), a Lem cross, with her form of the species R. macabeanum. From the 75 plants grown to maturity, she registered one of these big growers under the name 'Pink Prelude'. It blooms in late February or early March, making a fine large-flowered specimen.
"I have been told that fragrance in red rhododendrons is rare. Crossing 'Loderi Venus' with 'The Hon. Jean Marie de Montague' resulted in what I call my 'Fragrant Red'. The plant, now 6 feet tall, is very floriferous with trusses of a current red and the fragrance of 'Loderi Venus'. Three plants grow in the Test Garden at the Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens on Whidbey Island."
'Greensprite', registered in 1983, produced gardenia-like fragrance. It is ('Golden Jubilee' x 'Crest'). The flowers are a very pale green, almost white, have light green blotches and are sterile (no stamens).
Her goal of early bloomers was met using 'Unknown Warrior' crossed with the red species R. strigillosum. However, although the plants are hardy, flowers are sometimes frosted. Rhododendron strigillosum is dominant in foliage; colors vary from pinks to deep, bright red. 'Tabitha' (1994), named for her unruly cat, is another red (['Unknown Warrior' x 'Ole Olson'] x R. strigillosum) and a true harbinger of spring.
"Over the years I have used my Exbury form of R. yakushimanum many times and have grown lots of seedlings, a number of which I believe to be excellent garden plants but have yet to come up with anything that excels my beautiful plant of that species. Generally, I have found R. yakushimanum to be the dominant plant in flower color. Reds become pink and purples become mauve.
"One of my goals for the future is a purple rhododendron with a large calyx. A seedling from her ('Blue Boy' x 'Brandt's Tropicana'*) cross has purplish-pink flowers with a dark blotch. The same blotch is repeated on an enlarged calyx. I shall probably cross it back on a good purple.
"This coming May when the rhododendrons in my garden will be coming into bloom once again and the neighborhood children wander through, I hope that one of my plants will have a lasting impression on one of them as my neighbor's rhododendrons had on me...and who knows, maybe another hybridizer will be born." Way to go, Elsie!>
Another quite casual point of view was voiced by ROBERT GEORGE, a founder of the Cascade Chapter and a member of the Seattle Chapter. Along with a garden full of purchased rhododendron plants, he has found pleasure growing them from seed. Two of his seedlings were good enough to enter in a rhododendron show, but he has registered none-not even the one named for his wife, Colleen-and it has received a blue ribbon for a Best New Hybrid! Bob wrote: "I really enjoy growing open-pollinated seeds from gardens visited, near and far, for example, seeds acquired during trips to Ireland and New Zealand where the plant material comes from very different strains than material here in the United States. The real fun is the expectation of seeing something as good as the parent...or maybe even better!" Bob's best advice is: "Enjoy and have fun."
Hybridizing primroses was the beginning. Then CLIFFORD CANNON of the Olympia Chapter moved on to hybridizing woody plants, the beautiful rhododendrons. In the 1950s, there were hybrids available to him from the work of Halfdan Lem, Lester Brandt, Mr. Heineman and Mr. Morgan. "The big interest at the time was the development of a yellow rhody. I got all the 'near yellows' that I could...such as 'Lem's Goal', and made crosses. I eventually got some very good yellows, but not having the facilities to bring them on rapidly, others got good yellows first. These crosses and others I have made resulted in some nice plants that haven't been registered...whites, pinks, etc. I have two registered rhodies. I would have more but registering, etc., is so complicated that I just as soon do other things. My two registered plants are: 'Travis L.' (Morgan seedling x 'Albatross') and azalea 'Cannon's Double' ('Corneille' x 'Cecile'), a double flowered azalea.
"Yes, I hybridized azaleas also...the Exbury types. Doubles such as 'Cannon's Double' have been well received."
Cliff's first parent Exburys, purchased from Lester Brandt, were from plants imported from England by one of the Henny brothers. These registered plants have responded to tissue culture at Briggs Nursery.
"In hybridizing, I have tried to cross similar colors with each other rather than crossing different colors with each other. "I am not hybridizing now as I have run out of room."
The Holden family moved from an urban area to Harstine Island, near Shelton, Wash., creating a nursery there. In the late 1960s, ARTHUR JOHN HOLDEN became intrigued with the idea of extending the rhododendron season. He made a number of crosses involving the hybrid 'Polar Bear', using it with 'Evening Glow', 'Autumn Gold' and 'Vulcan's Flame'. From these three crosses, yellows, pinks and some two-tones, bloomed-from late June to as late as mid-August.
Registered are: 'Jane Holden', a salmon pink, and a smaller 'Eva Rebecca', from ('Polar Bear' x 'Autumn Gold'). 'Carol Amelia' ('Polar Bear' x 'Evening Glow') is a white with red spotting. 'Mrs. A.J. Holden' is the same cross. 'Ada Agnes Archer' ('Polar Bear' x 'Vulcan's Flame') is a deep rose pink.
As you would expect, the 'Polar Bear' crosses are large, making great specimen plants or useful as background shrubs. They are hardy, bud well and like some shade, but the Holdens have had some difficulty determining the right time to take cuttings.
An interesting note stated that "'Carol Amelia' was grown via tissue culture, but the plants do not bear enough resemblance to the original plant to warrant its use."
PAUL HOLDEN has carried on his father's hybridizing tradition: "I cannot say that I had any goal whatsoever. I have always liked to cross plants that Mother Nature never allowed to become intimately acquainted. I have registered eight of my crosses. I feel that since I have had a demand for some of them, I will name them rather than have another "A" x "B" or "x #1000" in a catalog somewhere. All mine have been seen at the Shelton Chapter Rhododendron Show as a plant or truss.
:I feel my best is 'Arthur John Holden' (unnamed seedling x 'Purple Splendour'), a light purple with salmon throat color, prominent white anthers that extend from each flower, heavy substance and hardy to below zero." 'Hugo Casciola' was selected from the same cross. It is purple with white stripes and an orange stripe-like dorsal blotch...then there is the sun tolerant and slightly fragrant 'Fred Holden' out of ('Prelude' x 'Sappho'), 'Ben Veltri' ('Witch Doctor' x 'Starfish') whose flower is pink and white, speckled and sports a notable calyx." He has used 'Captain Jack' and 'Mrs. Furnival' successfully as well.
"Both my mother and I are still making some crosses with no particular goal in mind. We hope to see more interesting plants in the future.
Washington hybridizers have indicated that age is not a limiting factor in this avocation. ALLEN JOHNSON continued his hybridizing program until he was 90 and then for the following six years watched his seedlings come into bloom. Ben Nelson, one of the early hybridizers, was his mentor. Al was one of the first to try the species R. pseudochrysanthum as a parent to impart low, spreading stature and outstanding foliage to his new hybrids.
He found his first successes with the blues, 'Blue Dawn' ('Susan' x 'Mrs. Davies Evans') and 'Blue Girl' out of the same cross. Al had wanted to register his 'Blue Girl' clone as 'Blue Boy', but the name had been used. After a moment's hesitation, he said: "Well, if there is a 'Blue Boy' there has to be a 'Blue Girl'"...and so there is. Later he joined the hunt for bright yellow or orange-flowered rhododendrons that would hold their leaves for more than one year. Unfortunately, his best clone was lost before it could be propagated. Rhododendron yakushimanum, used with 'Anna', yielded nice plants and flower, some with a good red "eye." As the seed parent, R. yakushimanum, used with 'Lem's Cameo', produced flowers having a yellowish hue. Should the registered rhododendron 'Allen Johnson' (R. yakushimanum Exbury form x 'Lem's Cameo') be crossed with bright yellow-flowered rhododendrons to get yellow/orange genes on both sides of the cross? (R. yakushimanum Exbury form x Thomaleum Group) produced an especially slow growing plant, 4 feet tall after almost 30 years, with pink buds and white flowers that literally hide the foliage in May-named 'Shirley'.
The very talented hybridizer Dr. E.C. (Ned) Brockenbrough has suggested that we might get deeper, brighter and more non-fading color into "yak" hybrids if the plants were only one quarter R. yakushimanum.
A member of the Tacoma Chapter, FRED MINCH originally had a simple goal, that of obtaining flowers in new colors with bigger and fuller trusses. We do tend to think of flowers first, don't we? Now he is trying to develop greater hardiness in his seedlings, more compact habit and beautiful foliage as well. His registered plants include the beautiful azalea 'Jean's Old Spice' and the rhododendron 'Jeannie's Black Heart'. Another is 'Oh! Kitty' (parentage unknown) which is especially pleasing to those who take keen delight in its huge pink trusses.
The clones showing the most promise, some already in the local trade, are 'Skookumchuck'*, 'Amocat'* (Tacoma spelled backwards) which was introduced at the 1993 ARS Convention in Tacoma. 'Orange Schnapps'* and numerous "yak" hybrids are being scrutinized with a critical eye.
One of his finest achievements was recognized in 1990 when the city of Puyallup, Wash., asked him to name one of his deciduous azaleas 'Puyallup Centennial'* in honor of their 100th year celebration. Perhaps you will remember the photo of this beautiful double-flowered orange on the cover of the ARS Journal, Vol. 43, No. 2, Spring 1989.
The Minches, Fred and Jean, emphatically recommend to beginners: "Start right from the beginning with real good records and permanent plant identification."
HAROLD AND MORNA STOCKMAN, Juan de Fuca Chapter: "Thirty-one years ago we visited Kammer's Nursery near Puyallup, Wash., to buy a rhododendron. Intrigued by Mrs. Kammer's demonstration on how to cross-pollinate and grow from seed, we had to go home and try it. No one had mentioned that a person practically needed a magnifying glass to separate the seedlings the first year or that it would take from five to ten years (or longer) for the rhodies to bloom. But by the time we found out, we were hooked!"
A move to Oregon did not discourage rhododendron hybridizing; it just added to the items that had to be transported. Then there was a move back to Washington. Some rhododendron bushes and several hundred "babies" came with them.
"Neighbors informed us that rhodies didn't do well in this particular mini-ecosystem. But we had 'em so we planted. "An irrigation system solved their biggest problem. "Years later a friend saw some of the end results of our breeding program and wondered why we didn't register some."
By 1991, this couple had registered the names of six new hybrids and since then many more. They, too, have used the "tried and true" rhododendrons such as 'Purple Splendour', 'Cotton Candy', 'Kammers's Ruffles', 'Evening Glow', 'Van Nes Sensation' and even the old-timer 'Cynthia'.
"When a 90-year-old hybridizer (Earl Murray) was asked his secret for longevity, he said he had to live long enough to see his rhodies bloom. Twenty years from now we hope we'll be saying the same thing. In the meantime we'll keep crossing healthy beauty to healthy beauty and let the 'guy upstairs' decide what he's going to produce!"
FRANK FUJIOKA, a member of the Whidbey Island Chapter and the Seattle Hybridizers Group, is growing about 1.5 acres of rhododendron seedlings, lined out to evaluate.
On reflection, it seems that his hybridizing efforts began after visits to Halfdan Lem. "Mr. Lem was the inspiration because of the magic he could create. I realized that hybridizing would provide infinite goals for the rest of my life so that I didn't have to worry about 'the meaning of life'."
Frank's collection of rhododendrons was small...other people had the exotic plants! Even then his primary interest lay in the foliage, and though he described his goals as "confused and inconsistent," he struggled to obtain pollen or plants or "yak" hybrids-'Yaku Sunrise', 'Yaku Incense', 'Bob Bovee' and 'Noyo Brave'-to be the backbone of his hybridizing program.
Currently, he has added other requirements as well, such as greater hardiness, improved plant habit, bloom at an early age and sun tolerance.
"At the peak of my insanity, I was making as many as 250 crosses in the spring. Fortunately, many did not produce viable seeds, tags got lost and natural selection reduced the number to a manageable size." Then for four years, Frank did not make any crosses at all. He must spend his time evaluating all those seedlings. About two years ago, he was "at it again," mixing in a bit of R. rex hybrid or R. bureavii hybrid with some potentially interesting results.
"One of my problems is in selecting out the ones that might be worthy of propagation and registration. I try to evaluate the hybrids for about 10 years, being very discriminating. If a seedling shows potential, a few cuttings are taken and grown under adverse conditions of full sun, minimal water and minimal care. The problem is that during this testing period, other seedlings, my own or someone else's, may appear which are superior, so back to step one." At present, his more interesting "possibles" are complex hybrids using 'Bob Bovee', 'Odee Wright', 'Noyo Brave', 'Yaku Sunrise', 'One Thousand Butterflies', R. rex, R. bureavii and R. macabeanum.
He lists his "disasters" as some nice oranges whose flowers lasted only a few days in full sun and some hybrids with unpleasant yellowish-colored leaves inherited from 'Britannia'.
The following hybrids have met his criteria, but only a few names are registered to date: 1986 - 'Vibrant Violet' (R. impeditum x R. augustinii 'Tower-court'*); 1990 - 'Silver Skies' (R. yakushimanum 'Koichiro Wada' x 'Medusa'); 1991 - 'Elsie Watson' ('Anna' x 'Purple Lace'); 1993 - 'Cranberry Lace' ('Anna' x 'Purple Lace'); 1995 - 'Midnight Mystique' ('Midnight' x 'One Thousand Butterflies') (see cover photo); 1995 - 'Starbright Champagne' (['Yaku Sunrise' x 'Hansel'] x 'Lem's Cameo'); 1995 - 'Primary Pink' (['Yaku Sunrise' x ('C.I.S.' x 'Jingle Bells')] x 'Lem's Cameo').
Frank's advice to us: "Study the hybrids currently available. Study some of the species which are interesting to you. Attend hybridizers meetings and ask a lot of questions. Visit hybridizers near you and learn from their mistakes. Carefully set objectives: what factors are important to you (flower color, leaves, growth habit, etc.). Ultimately, grow the plants you personally like. Most important: Patience! Test the plants thoroughly avoiding the temptation to name and propagate plants which are not truly superior."
WARREN BERG of the Seattle and Olympic Peninsula chapters has been described as a "modern plant hunter." His work as an airline pilot gave him opportunities to search out the many rhododendron species native to Asia. More than that, he initiated a serious study of the propagation of rhododendrons in the 1960s. Hybridizing began in 1962, using the Exbury form of R. yakushimanum.
"My goal was to develop hardy hybrids with nice flowers and indumented foliage. With some limited preliminary success, I made the mistake of not continuing with the next generation. Instead, I switched to looking for a good yellow, using mostly large-growing elepidotes. It soon became clear that I would be using more space than I could take care of, and moving large plants was a heavy, back-breaking job. I did come up with one good large yellow, ('Mrs. Betty Robertson' x 'Fred Rose'), but in 1970 I decided to try my luck with lepidotes. Being the first to introduce R. keiskei 'Yaku Fairy' to this country, I used it extensively. In the last few years I have been working with R. proteoides. My goal is for small hardy rock garden plants with five-star foliage and a full-trussed flower of any good color."
Rhododendron yakushimanum crossed with other fine species include: 'Golfer' (R. yakushimanum x R. pseudochrysanthum) honoring his wife; 'King Bee' and 'Berg's Queen Bee' A.E., NW (R. yakushimanum x R. tsariense); 'Wanna Bee' (R. yakushimanum x 'Jiminy Cricket').
His work with the lepidote rhododendrons produced floriferous small lepidote plants: 'Ginny Gee' S.P.A., NW (R. keiskei, prostrate form x R. racemosum); 'Patty Bee' A.M. & S.P.A., NW (R. keiskei 'Yaku Fairy' x R. fletcherianum).
'Golden Bee' A.E., NW and 'Golden Princess' combined R. keiskei 'Yaku Fairy' with another yellow, R. mekongense var. melinanthum. Beautiful and distinctive are 'Too Bee' A.E., NW and 'Wee Bee' A.E., NW ['Not to Bee'] selected from ('Patricia' x R. keiskei 'Yaku Fairy').
"Like most hybridizers, I have had many failures, but all those expectations and a few successes have made it worthwhile." Recalling these successes, he finds it important, especially for beginners, to set goals early, then study hard.
The late ALICE POOT SMITH, North Kitsap Chapter, was captured by the hybridizing bug in 1971. She wrote that she registered some large-flowered hybrids several years ago grown from ARS Seed Exchange seed, namely: 'Kingston' ('Lem's Cameo' x 'Polynesian Sunset'); 'President Point' ([Jalisco Group x R. yakushimanum] x ['Lackamas Spice' x R. lacteum]); and 'Shirley Creelman' ('CIS' x 'Apricot Nectar'). "Kitsap King" ('Grenadier' x R. yakushimanum) is her own cross.
She, too, had seedlings under observation, with the most promise of "good things" coming from ('Mrs. Lammot Copeland' x 'Kingston') and ('Kingston' x 'Lem's Cameo') and (R. tsariense x R. yakushimanum).
Following a suggestion from Dr. Frank Mossman, Vancouver, Wash., she took pleasure in the fuzzy little seedlings from a cross of (R. occidentale #189-#282 x 'Leonard Frisbee'). She wrote wistfully and wishfully: "Be young enough to see them bloom!"
Husband and wife teams involved in hybridizing rhododendrons may have an advantage over those working singly, for they can certainly collaborate on every aspect of the breeding and share in the actual work, from the pollinization, harvest of seeds, planting, selecting promising seedlings, determining how well they propagate and the rhodies' response to various conditions. Do the plants fill a need somewhere?
JIM BARLUP is a member of the Cascade and Seattle chapters and the Northern Hybridizers Group. He enjoys sharing experiences and ideas about hybridizing rhododendrons with others who are also interested in hybridizing.
When I became interested in hybridizing in 1975, I found very little information to help me get started. Some of us may wonder, 'Can I do it?' I started with lots of patience and determination, very little knowledge, two 4-inch x 6-inch plastic trays for planting and a small city lot. I have now graduated to a 2-foot x 4-foot propagating case in the basement, two simple unheated outdoor cold frames, one 12-foot x 24-foot hoop house and a large city lot. The most important ingredients are patience and determination! Yes, you can do it too!
"What do you really want to create? As hybridizers, we have the unique privilege of selecting the parents we want to use to create new hybrids. There are so many factors to consider that it's difficult to know where to start. Do we want dwarf or tree type, fragrance, beautiful foliage, huge trusses or nodding bells? What color range will we pursue? Shall hardiness be a major or minor part of our program? When do we want the new plant to bloom? Will powdery mildew become a factor in choosing which parents to use? As we learn what works and what doesn't, we become more discriminating as to what we are after and why.
"In 1975 there was a lack of apricot, orange and peach colors. I wondered why...could I create them? After years, I know why...they just aren't hardy.
"In the fall of 1987, I potted 1,150 new seedlings in gallon containers and placed them under fir trees for protection as I had done for the previous nine years. 1987/88 was a winter to remember! Temperatures ranged from 0°F to 10°F for about 10 days. I lost 800 of these container plants and about 50 percent of the rhododendrons that were planted in the ground. This gave me an opportunity to step back and evaluate everything I was doing. That winter truly changed my way of selecting parents.
"Now as a West Coast hybridizer, I want to introduce more East Coast hybrids into my garden. My goal is to merge the wide range of Western colors with Eastern hardiness to produce new plants for hybridizers and growers on both coasts."
Of the various Barlup selections now being propagated by nurseries, he has singled out his 'Mindy's Love' ('Nancy Evans' x 'Lionel's Triumph') as a favorite parent because it produces fine-foliaged plants that usually bloom at a young age. 'Amber Touch' ('Nadia'* x ['Brinny' x Whitney's late, frilled, yellow ]), one of his newer hybrids, is one of his most successful at producing the long desired orange-colored, prolific bloomer. I wonder what his 'Silk Ribbon' ('Anita Dunstan' x 'One Thousand Butterflies') might produce? Or 'Windsong' ('Nancy Evans' x ['Mrs. Betty Robertson' x 'Fred Rose'])?
"Learning from our own experimentation is a slow process. It is extremely valuable for hybridizers to share the knowledge they have gained, to see other viewpoints and to get inspiration from the work of others. Choosing parents is a critical decision."
LOYD AND EDNA (EDDIE) NEWCOMB, members of Seattle and Pilchuck chapters and founding members of the Seattle Hybridizers Study Group, share this common interest in hybridizing rhododendrons. Eddie has been creating new hybrids for about 15 years, and Loyd has been making crosses for about 35 years. Loyd recalls his early years living in the great central valley of California never having heard of evergreen plants called rhododendrons. Moving to Seattle in 1955, he claims that he wasted a few years raising iris and lilies and fighting the slugs...then discovered rhododendrons while in a Seattle park.
"I knew that most plants grew from seeds so I thought, why not? It won't cost much to try." It seemed logical to grow his own material to landscape his new yard. "Well, not knowing what I was doing and coupled with beginner's luck, I planted some seed in milk cartons, placed them on the windowsill and I ended up with several thousand open-pollinated Mollis azalea seedlings of very ordinary colors, as well as a significant quantity of open-pollinated R. ponticum. Still not realizing that these plants were by most any standard weeds, I finally located a nursery wholesaler who gave me 12 cents each for the bulk of them. This experience abruptly awoke me to the realization that if I was going to grow rhododendrons from seed, I should at least control the parentage. Thus began my hybridizing of rhododendrons. I was unaware that I was well on my way to a terminal case of the 'rhodaholics'.
"In 1963, quite by chance, I discovered that there was an elderly fellow who lived three-quarters mile from my home who had about five acres of rhododendrons which he had been hybridizing for about as long as I had been living. His name was Halfdan Lem. For the next four years I spent a significant amount of time visiting him and his garden. I will never forget how emphatically he told me to go home and throw away my 'Van Nes Sensation' seedlings which I had so proudly told him about. He assured me that no one would want those colors. He said I should be hybridizing to get yellows and maybe oranges." Though Mr. Lem gave him thousands of tiny seedlings, Loyd admits that "I didn't follow his advice about destroying my seedlings, one of which was eventually registered as 'Mount Clearview'." With growing experience, Loyd changed direction from the tall tree-like hybrids of Halfdan Lem to those plants more hardy and more compact.
Registered are: 'Newcomb's Sweetheart' ('Pink Walloper' x R. decorum); 'Mount Clearview' ('Van Nes Sensation' x 'Purple Splendour'); 'Blue Thunder' (open pollinated 'Blue Diamond'); 'Pridenjoy' ('Lem's Cameo' x 'Kubla Khan'); 'Nicandra Newman' ('Anna' x 'Cotton Candy'); 'Qualicum's Pride' ('Anna' x 'Cotton Candy') [plant was chosen by, and rights to the plant given to the Mount Arrowsmith Chapter. They held a plant naming contest and presented the plant to the city of Qualicum Beach on its 50th anniversary celebration in May 1992].
Eddie and Loyd, still joint hybridizing in 1990s, consider themselves as still novices since their crosses number only 310. "We have registered seven of our hybrids to date. Most had been evaluated from 10 to 20 years. It seems apparent to us that far too many plants are being named without adequate evaluation, and we are attempting to avoid succumbing to this temptation.
"Eventually I realized that it was more important to create a spectacular plant than a spectacular flower. In fact, we are always destroying plants based on poor plant form and foliage. We may on occasion retain a plant because of the flower alone, but only with the idea of further hybridizing to improve the plant." Their other demands include working with hardier parent plants to achieve stronger colors and at the same time retain the hardiness and to instill vigor in the new rhododendrons.
Early goals were much the same as with other rhododendron hybridizers-outstanding indumentum, richer, more stable colors on R. yakushimanum progeny, calyxes, doubles and good truss form. Later on, they have added to those goals by focusing on improving foliage, plant habit, fragrance and hardiness. Even the azalea group is not neglected; they are looking for better red deciduous azaleas!
Eddie has registered a "yak" hybrid that retains more saturated color than most: 'Rosalie Hall' (R. yakushimanum x 'Double Winner'). She is keen at the moment on a hybrid of ('Anna' x 'Elby') and (['Anna' x 'Cotton Candy'] x R. yakushimanum 'Koichiro Wada'). She speaks of her hybrid ('Flaegel's Double #2'* x 'Flaegel's Double #3'*) as one of her disasters, needing better plant habit, but one that she plans to use as a pod parent.
Her advice to beginners encourages reading and talking to long-time hybridizers about their experiences. "File their recommendations away for future reference. Set goals and try not to repeat other hybridizers' mistakes. Cull poor or frail seedlings as soon as you can see undesirable leaf and plant forms. When they are 2 to 4 years old, be brutal and shred those that don't measure up to your goals."
Her number four concern is space. "Don't go overboard with hybridizing! Remember, those cute little seedlings grow very fast into large ones that need to be put in the ground, and if they haven't bloomed yet, you won't want to part with them until they do bloom."
This couple strives toward the same goals now. Loyd insists emphatically that he is going to create the "perfect truss." Eddie's response and advice to us-go for it!
Gwen Bell, a member of the Seattle Chapter, frequently speaks to chapters on the history of Northwest hybridizing.
Editor's Note: The International Registration authority for the genus Rhododendron does not urge that hybridizers name more plants but that if a plant is named that it be registered.