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Archive for December, 2010

I  recently returned from the Northeast Regional Conference held in New Jersey in November 2005. It was a terrific meeting with everything done beautifully. There are, though, some comments I’d like to make.

The theme of the meeting, the “Species Look” in rhododendrons, meaning rhododendrons with splendid foliage and compact plant habit, was different from other meetings and engendered a lot of interest. The idea was, since we look at only the foliage for 50 or 51 weeks a year, we should pay more attention to it and the general appearance of the plant out of bloom.

This theme was great. I actually agree with the idea that foliage and the general look of the plant is important. I did think though that it got a little out of hand with some of the comments about some species plants being so beautiful they didn’t need flowers and in fact the flowers in some cases got in the way of the “ornamentality” of the plant. I certainly understand, but let’s remember that rhododendron means flowers! If we like foliage plants, why not grow dwarf conifers? They are certainly beautiful and are generally much hardier than rhododendrons and can provide all kinds of different foliage effects—and of course no flowers to get in the way of their ornamentality. The look of a bed, with plant after plant being a tight, globose, pincushion-look, gets boring. I’ve seen pictures of German nurseries with row after row of different rhododendron cultivars grafted onto ‘Cunningham’s White’ all looking exactly the same in plant character: tight, globose balls. Boring!

Mention was made that we ought to use Rhododendron maximum (the Rosebay rhododendron, native on the East Coast) in our hybrids because of its beautiful foliage and extreme hardiness.

Driving home from  the meeting, I began to think about all I had heard at the meeting and I got more and more concerned over some of what I had heard.

First, Rhododendron maximum: In the 1930s Clem Bowers made many crosses using Rhododendron maximum. There was absolutely no interest in them at all even though some of them were quite nice as foliage plants. Many were later planted at Planting Fields on Long Island, where they are to this day, still with no interest. The ordinary colored flowers are too small and bloom in July and wilt quickly because of the heat. They are, though, very hardy. Also, I have found that, much to the horror of rhodoholics, very few people are interested in rhododendrons that bloom in the summer. The idea of extending the blooming season is great in theory but there is very limited interest on the part of gardeners. Don’t forget, most casual gardeners are very interested in the garden in the spring, but Memorial Day starts the summer and they lose all interest in gardening until next spring. (One reason that rhododendrons are so desirable is that they bloom in May and June.)

Next, the business of ornamentality of rhododendrons as foliage plants: I have a hybrid of mine in the garden that has “the species look.” It is a cross of (R. adenopodum x R. metternichii’*) x R. degronianum AE (* Now R. degronianum ssp. heptamerum var. heptamerum.). I have numbered it TT81. It is a splendid looking plant with indumented, narrow leaves held for four years giving the 5-foot high plant a very dense look. Its flowers are pink, produced in profusion every year with full trusses. But it blooms on May 5th, more or less, exactly at the same time as `Taurus’. No one will take two looks at it when a 5-foot plant of `Taurus’, not far away, is also in full bloom.

I have taken many, many non-rhodoholics through my garden and never do they spend more than a second looking at spectacular yakushimanum (R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum) plants out of bloom, nor any non-blooming plants for that matter. They are interested in flowers!

If the foliage is so important, why is it that nurseries can’t sell rhododendrons out of bloom? Can wholesale nurseries sell rhododendrons to retailers without buds? Just ask Mike Stewart of Dover Nursery.

Just look at the plants produced by our most successful hybridizers. In the East, one Charles O. Dexter comes to mind. Sixty years after his death, his plants are still the most important rhododendrons in the East. Did he produce any “species look” hybrids? Hardly. A name some might recognize on the West Coast: Halfdem Lem. Know any “species look” hybrids of his?

If the “species look” is so important, why, why do we still have truss shows which are the antithesis of “the species look”? About twenty years ago I gave a talk to five or six East Coast chapters on why truss shows were killing rhododendrons because the show focuses completely and solely on the truss and not the rest of the plant. Not one chapter, or the American Rhododendron Society Annual Convention, has stopped their annual truss show. An illustration of how much influence I have! The reason these truss shows are so popular is because that is what most people are interested in.

What chance does a “species look” truss have competing for Best New Hybrid in the show? I can tell you story after story of wonderful “species look” plants shunned in the judging for Best New Hybrid at truss shows. People won’t even waste their time entering “species look” trusses in the shows. I can remember Julie Dumper telling me that she had a beautiful seedling of R. fortunei x R. makinoi in her garden that was just a beautiful plant with beautiful, insect damage-free foliage, but wouldn’t enter the truss in a show because it lacked a top flower in the truss and wouldn’t stand a chance in our show. One year, when I was still entering these shows, I entered two sister seedlings in the show. One had perfect truss form but came from the worst looking plant you could imagine and the other, just the opposite, bad truss form but a spectacular plant. Guess which one got a blue ribbon in the New Hybrid class. Truss shows emphasize the truss and nothing else. Nothing else.

Over the years, being awarded the Breeder’s Cup or having your plant named the Best New Hybrid at the show, especially the Annual Convention show, has become quite an honor and much coveted by hybridizers. So of course it has forced hybridizers to become truss hybridizers. This focus on the truss only at the show freezes out the “species look” hybridizer. His plants are unexhibitable (a new word?). Over the years, only a very small handful of hybridizers have made “species look” crosses and have received virtually no recognition from local chapters or the ARS for that matter. Have you ever seen a Gold Medal given to a hybridizer creating “species look” plants? I can sure point to many who have received one for creating trussy plants!

Also, since the chapter’s truss show is held only on one weekend, usually the second or third weekend in May in the East, only those plants that bloom on that weekend can be shown. That weekend was chosen because it was the height of the Dexter hybrid bloom (trusses again). That forces hybridizes, if they wish to enter their creations in the show, to hybridize for the middle of May. That, by the way, is another reason we never see extended season rhododendrons, once again because of these crazy truss shows.

Are we really serious about the “species look”? If so, I challenge the chapters and the ARS to cease their truss shows for all of the above reasons. Now I know being against truss shows in the American Rhododendron Society is akin to being against apple pie and motherhood and the chance of stopping them is minuscule, so I have some suggestions to improve them. In New Hybrid classes, why not have the exhibitor fill out a questioner for his entry:

•How old is the plant?

•How many years does it hold its leaves?

•What is the height and width of the plant?

•What is its annual growth?

•What was the lowest temperature in the garden last winter?

•How many trusses are on the plant this year?

•Are there any pips blasted in any of the trusses on the plant this year?

•What percent of the plant has flowers this year?

How about requiring a photo of the entire plant in bloom to be placed with the entry? At least with these questions answered, and perhaps a photo of the plant, visitors and judges have a much better idea of all the characteristics of the new hybrid.

Why not have a foliage only section at our shows in the spring with a separate trophy for the best entry. The fall foliage shows are great, but the general public never sees the entries. Exhibiting them at the spring show will allow them to be seen by the casual gardeners who visit the spring truss show

We must understand also that many casual gardeners visit these shows and they leave with cultivar names they have seen at the show and would like to purchase for their own gardens. Thus we should impart information about the cultivars shown so that visitors can select appropriate cultivars for their gardens. Casual gardeners do not understand that rhododendrons vary in their winter hardiness. They think all rhododendrons can grow anywhere. Why don’t we require an exhibitor to state the climatic zone in which the plant was grown or list the minimum temperature the plant was exposed to last winter? We used to have a member in the New York Chapter from Staten Island who could grow ‘Cotton Candy’ in his garden and every year would bring a spectacular truss of it to the show and always win a blue ribbon and in some years get Best In Show I can barely keep it alive in my garden and I have a very favorable rhododendron climate. I shudder to think how many casual gardeners left the show with ‘Cotton Candy’ written on a must-get list not realizing that they had virtually no chance of being successful with the plant. Along with the hardiness information, a statement of how large the cultivar will be in 10 years would be nice together with a one word description of its growth habit: dense, open, leggy, etc.

We grow a spectacular genus of plants with ornamentality found in many aspects of the plant, its foliage, growth characteristics and flowers. But by presenting only the flowers at truss shows, we are really not being fair to uninformed casual gardeners and we are certainly not showing them the spectacular foliage effects of some cultivars. Let’s find a better way to present the genus and at the same time inform the public. Who knows, we might attract some members!

Richard Murcott is a member of the New York Chapter.

Where have all the people gone?

In 1962 I started to get involved in what I call “Organized Horticulture”.  At that time there were many civic, religious and horticultural organizations.  Every church and temple had a men’s club, woman’s club, single’s club, couple’s club etc.  There were Masons, Elks, Moose, Odd Fellows, Eagles.  Societies existed for chrysanthemums, rhododendrons, African violets, roses, orchids and several others that I can’t remember.  Many localities had a garden club, probably 30 or so in Nassau County alone.

All of these organizations were vibrant, active, energetic groups. The Long Island Chrysanthemum Society limited itself to 125 members and it had a waiting list.  Its annual show had 1300 entries and would attract 3500 visitors during its two day run at the State University at Farmingdale.  The New York Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society met at a Schraft’s Restaurant on Fifth Ave. in Manhattan and would attract at least 100 people from New Jersey, Conn. and Westchester and Long Island.  At one time the NY Chapter of the ARS had 450 members.  In one year alone we took in 150 new members from our information booth at the NY Flower Show. All of the local garden clubs had waiting lists for membership.  Two that I knew of had a 10-year wait to become a member.

A look now at these organizations is a sobering experience.  Everyone is suffering from a lack of interested members. There are still Masons struggling along with limited membership but the Elks, Moose, Odd Fellows and Eagles are basically gone.  All of the other groups, if they are still around, are down to 10 to 15% of what they used to be.  Also, leaders of these groups all report a general lack of “spark plug” members, those who are right there ready to do or help on any project.  Most of the members are long time members who feel that they have done their share in the past and now want to relax and let the younger members do the work.

The problem is that there are no new members. Where has everyone gone?  Why are all these organizations not attracting new, young members?  There are several reasons. The first is competition from television, especially cable and satellite television, together with rented movies.  These make television a remarkable entertainment medium.  You don’t even have to go to a Blockbuster Store to rent a movie; they will mail it to you and give you a postage-free envelope in which to return it.  The old expression “watching the boob tube” just is not true anymore.  There is an infinite amount of very interesting programming available.

If the competition from TV is not enough we have the Internet.  There everything is available from information on any subject and correspondence with people to infinite entertainment options. There is also movies on demand, where by putting in a few numbers on your computer, you can immediately watch a movie.

We also have the new life style of young people.  Housing is very expensive in the NY City area.  In order for young married couples to live here, most of the time both partners must work, and usually, work long hours.  Getting home at 6:30 or 7PM to prepare and eat dinner really kills the idea of picking up at 8PM to drive to a Rhododendron , Mum, church or whatever society meeting.  And I have not even mentioned interacting with children, which must be done if there are any.  Most of these people are simply over worked and have very little spare time for outside activities.

Lastly we have the feeling on the part of young people that horticulture is “so 1930” and “so uncool”.  Any gardening work is to be done by hired workers.  So very many middle class families now use services to even cut the grass and do garden maintenance work, jobs that, years ago, every home owner considered his or her duty to perform.

Sounds dismal and hopeless doesn’t it. Well its not.  We have something to offer these people that is not found elsewhere.  People. You. What we must show these people is that rhododendrons are fun, interesting, exciting and most important they can get to develop a whole new circle of friends from all walks of life.

How?  First of all we should sponsor and run one hour free information sessions about rhododendron culture at local libraries at least once a quarter.  I would be glad to give the presentation.  We should start out in the communities closest to Planting Fields, Oyster Bay, Syosset, Locust Valley, Glen Cove, Bayville and then move out from there. Garden clubs in the area of the library could be notified of the upcoming meeting and invited to attend. Publicity for the meeting would be through a poster at the library and notices in the local newspapers.  The name and address of each attendee would be taken and an invitation sent to attend the next meeting at which they would be given a small rhododendron, ‘Scintillation’, ‘Parker’s Pink’ something nice and a cultivar different from what they would normally see at Home Depot.  We would continue to send out invitations for the ensuing three meetings.

When a visitor attends the first meeting, the President should meet the person before the meeting starts and chat with them to find out where they live and if they are interested in any other plants.  The President should also introduce the visitor to several older members and encourage the old members to stick with the visitor and continue in conversation.  If the older members are uncomfortable with this they should “pass” the visitor off to other older members.  THE VISITOR SHOULD NOT BE LEFT ALONE AT ANY TIME DURING OR AFTER THE MEETING. Everyone should have a nametag with the locality in which they live.  This will help everyone remember names.

At the start of the meeting, the President should introduce the visitor saying where they live and if they are interested in other plants.  The reason for this is that it gives other members a topic of conversation to start with the visitor after the meeting is over.  All of this gives the visitor a sense that everyone is actually interested in them.  Very important.  During conversation, the new visitor should be asked if they have any rhododendron problems and if so offers to visit their garden to give suggestions should be made by some of the older members.

We should also consider having a half hour beginner’s session before the regular meeting. Each session would go over what should be done for rhododendrons during the coming month.  A plant could be given as a reward to those who attend 75% of the beginner’s meetings during the year.  Why not have a class at the May show just for beginners with a special award for the best entry in that class.

We must become new member focused; after all they are the future.

If a rhododendron has more that the normal number of chromosoms it is called a polyploid.  Most polyploids have either 1 1/2 times the number, called a triploid, or twice the number, called a tetraploid.

John and Sally Perkins have taken an enormous interest in rhododendron polyploids and have had many cultivars analyzed to determine whether they are polyploids.  Here is a partial list of some of the rhododendron polyploids:

Anita Gehnrich Triploid

Anna Rose Whitney Triploid

Antoon Von Welie Tretrploid

atlanticum Tetraploid

austrinum Tetraploid

Beauty of Littleworth Triploid

Broughtonii Triloid

calendulceum Tetraploid

Cotton Candy Triploid

Countess of Derby Tetraploid

Cynthia Triploid

Doreen Gale Tetraploid

El Camino Triploid

Gentle Giant Tetraploid

Gomer Waterer Triploid

Gorgeous George Tetraploid

Grace Seabrook Triploid

Legend Tetraploid

Lem’s Monarch (AKA Pink Wallaper) Tetraploid

Lucky Strike Triploid

Mariness Koster Tetraploid

Phyllis Korn Triploid

Pink Pearl Triploid

Platinum Pearl Triploid

Point Defiance Tetraploid

Phyllis Korn Triploid

Solidarity Triploid

Taurus Triploid

Trudy Webster Tetraploid

Van Triploid

Now you might wonder why polyploids are important for hybridizers.  All you have to do is look at the list above and you will see some very important hybrid rhododendrons.  Most of them are West Coast plants, too tender for most East Coast gardens.  Many of them grow in my garden, but that is not saying much, as I have a very “tender” climate.  So the goal going forward is to see if polyploids can be developed that are hardy in cold climates.  There is one particular hybrid rhododendron that has a standard number of chromosomes, called a diploid, and has shown in the past to produce polyploid hybrids.  It is ‘Jean Marie de Montegue’ which I shorten to ‘Jean Marie’.  If you look at my list of selected seedlings, you will see that I have used it frequently in the past and gotten, I think, some polylpoids in its offspring.

Dick Murcott Speaks On Paul Vossburg

A transcript from a talk given by Dick at Planting Fields in 1980.

Chapter 1 THE BEGINNING.      Paul was born in 1896 in Pennsylvania, and when he was young, his parents moved to a farming community on Long Island, an agricultural community named Westbury. This was about 1910-1912. Of course Westbury was nothing but farms, surrounding a small village consisting of a railroad station and a few stores.  It was very rural. While Paul was attending High School, he worked in a local nursery after school and on Saturdays.  The nursery was Hicks Nursery. Hicks had a fantastic reputation all up and down the East Coast. The man who ran it, Henry Hicks, was a very well known horticulturist.

Hicks was the premier nursery on the East Coast and occupied much more land than it does now. It extended to the west far beyond Its present location, extending also far to the south, actually going all the way south to the Long Island Railroad tracks.  When Northern State Parkway was constructed, it was built right through the nursery fields. The state built a bridge for Hick’s Nursery to connect the southern part of the farm to the northern part. The bridge over the parkway is still there!

When Paul graduated from high school he started to work full time at Hicks. It was now about 1914. Henry Hicks took a liking to Paul and sort of took Paul “under his wing” allowing Paul to do much more than any other 18 year old kid starting to work in a nursery would ever be allowed to do. Now remember this was the beginning of The Roaring 20’s, the Great Gadsby Era. Large estates on the north shore of Long Island were being developed, as was The Coe Estate, now call Planting Fields.

Because of Hick’s reputation, it was involved in many of the landscaping projects of these new, large estates. Thus Paul got a great deal of experience in all phases of horticulture, outdoor and indoor.

When people were going to develop estates in this area, not only did they have extensive outside gardens, it was very common for them to borrow the idea from Europe of an orangery or a large bright room with windows on three sides and a very high ceiling, all painted white. In Europe it would be used to grow potted Citrus, oranges and the like, thus its name. In the US it was more palms, and believe it or not Hicks sold and maintained these plants too for their clients and thus Paul knew a great deal about indoor plants.   I was at a meeting once when someone came over and asked Paul how to repot a palm.  I was  astounded to see that someone actually thought Paul knew how to do that. Well, let me tell you, he knew exactly how to do it; when it should be done, the mix and the pot to use. He had an enormous general knowledge of general horticulture. To paraphrase an advertisement, “It wasn’t just rhododendrons”, by a long way.

Chapter 2:          HIS FIRST RHODODENDRONS.           Henry Hicks was afflicted with that disease Rhododendronitis. They grew many rhododendrons at Hicks Nursery. Now lets go back to 1915 and see what rhododendrons they had and look at how they propagated them. Well the primary rhododendrons were the ironclads. This is a group of 14 rhododendrons that the Arnold Arboretum in Boston had, over a period of time, decided were ironclad hardy, they would flower every year no matter the winter weather and were just great doers. These rhododendrons were English hybrids that had been developed in the late 19th century by Anthony Waterer.  They were propagated by grafting or layering. The technique of striking roots on cuttings had not yet been developed, so these were the only techniques they had available to them. Layering was hopelessly slow and thus not very popular. Grafting a scion from a desirable rhododendron onto an understock, which was a seedling rhododendron, was much the desired propagation method. It was more or less quick and there was a good percent of take.

But there were also problems with grafting. It was expensive as very experienced employees were needed and you had to go to the bother of growing seedling understock for two years. But most importantly, the understock, often twenty years later, frequently started to grow. This was because the understock was a seedling with latent growth buds below the graft union. Usually the understock was a European species rhododendron named ponticum. If the understack started to grow, it would grow very rapidly and in a year and a half or two years overtake the top of the plant. It was a very common question, even in 1965 at flower shows, for someone to come up and say, “My red rhododendron suddenly turned a crummy purple color with little flowers, what could have happened?” Well, what happened was that they did not see the understock growing, then all of a sudden the understock was way up there, and that crummy little flower was ponticum.

At Hicks they grew a lot of seedling rhododendrons, especially species: carolinianum, catawbiense, smirnowii and muchronulatum. About 1926 Hicks was able to get seed from the selected pink muchronulatum that had been developed at Cornell University named ‘Cornell Pink’ (which we still grow today). Paul grew seed of it and selected the best of the group of seedlings. He crossed the best two, grew on the seed, selected the best two from that batch and continued to do this generation after generation until after literally 30 years he had the best he had ever seen. That plant is named ‘Paul’s Pink’. The original plant is now at Sid Burn’s Garden. It has been propagated sparingly. It is indeed quite a lovely, deep pink, much finer than ‘Cornell Pink’. If there are any hybridizers around who are interested in pink muchronulatums, they should really make an effort to get this cultivar because it is quite a lovely plant.

In this time period a white catawbiense was discovered  in the Carolina Mountains. It was named ‘Powell Glass’, also known as ‘Glass White’. Paul started to grow selfed seedlings of it in order to obtain a           seedling that would be pure white. You see growing seedlings was easy and more or less cheap. It would be very desirable to be able to grow rhododendrons from seed and be guaranteed that the resulting plant would be a very nice white. (Which is not the usual case with seedlings of hybrid rhododendrons.) So they grew many selfed seedlings of ‘Glass White’ to see how many would be pure white. The joy of it was that in the first generation, out of two hundred seedlings, only two or three were white and all the rest were mauve, believe it or not. They crossed two of the best whites and grew that seed. This was repeated four times and after five generations they eventually ended up with a white race that 99% would come pure white from seed. It took about thirty years to do that. And to this day we have ‘Fifth Generation Glass White’ rhododendrons which are very hardy and pure white.

Well with all of this going on the roaring 20’s, all of this major garden and estate development, all of this excitement, who comes on the scene in 1925 but a man who was a doctorial candidate at Columbia University. Now you must realize that this was Westbury, a rural farm community where there probably wasn’t one person who had even been to college and here arrives a fellow with a masters degree and studying for his PhD. And he’s going to do research on rhododendrons, unbelievable! And where is he going to do this work?, but of course, at the premiere East Coast Nursery, namely Hicks Nursery.

By 1924 Clement Bowers had decided to do research in plant inheritance in general and specifically in rhododendrons. In order to conduct research for his dissertation he needed a place where he could make many rhododendron crosses and have them grown on, not just for the three or so years it would take to get his degree but for a much longer time, as he knew that it would take at least 6 years to see flowers on his hybrids. Of course, Hicks was the ideal place to do his work. They had a wonderful collection of all of the hardy rhododendrons known at that time. They had the staff  who know how to germinate seed and care for the seedlings and the land to grow the seedling on. Bowers goal was to develop very hardy rhododendrons, especially red ones that could be grown in upstate NY where the winter temperature was -40O F.

You can imagine with Henry Hicks interest in rhododendrons and now Clement Bowers coming on the scene with his academic credentials and scientific interest in rhododendrons, that disease of rhododendronitis had to spread and sure enough Paul got it. Paul became very friendly with Bowers and spent much time with Bowers when he was at the nursery. Bowers was a frequent dinner guest at Paul’s home. Paul’s natural inquiziveness and Bowers enormous rhododendron knowledge and interest in teaching combined to turn many after-dinner evenings into an excursion into the romance and challenge of rhododendron hybridizing.

One of Bowers three theories of obtaining hardy rhododendrons was to cross each of the ironclad rhododendrons with-each of the other ironclads. Since there were 14 ironclads, it involved making 204 crosses. One of these ironclad crosses would be ‘Mrs. C.S. Sargent’ x ‘Everestinianum’. For some reason Paul made the cross. I don’t know if Bowers asked Paul to do it or if Paul did it on his own, but -in 1927 Paul made that cross. Bowers certainly knew about it. For some reason, Paul did not use the ironclad form of ‘Everestinianum’ which was quite mauve in color, but rather he used the pink form that they had growing at Hicks. Several of the ironclads had two or more forms in commerce and ‘Everestinanum’ was one of them. ‘Roseum EIegans’ is infamous for its many forms.

Paul was always very proud of this cross and whenever he spoke about it he insisted that you be sure to say ‘Pink Everestinianum’ not just ‘Everestinianum’. The two ‘Everestinianum’ plants are actually quite similar in color so to be absolutely sure which is which, one must look at the ovary down at the base of the flower. If it was hairy, it is the pink form. If isn’t, it is the mauve form. 135 seedlings of this cross were grown on at Hicks.  Only three were really good and the best one  was named ‘Meadowbrook’. It was named around 1932.

Paul had two experiences with rhododendrons that he never forgot. Whenever you spoke to Paul about hybridizing rhododendrons he’d almost grab you by the lapels and shake you to emphasize the importance of hardiness. The reason for this were the winters of 1916/1917 and 1933/1934. Both winters were horrendous, minus 15 degrees; with 35 mile an hour winds and no snow cover.. Rhododendrons were devastated along with most other plants. Well the disaster, in 1916-17 was bad but it as not the end of the world. But right In the middle of the depression, ’33 and ’34 when no one had anything, and the only assets people had in the nursery business was in the ground in the form of living plants, to have them all decimated by a once in a century cold snap was an experience that Paul certainly never forgot. He was absolutely adamant that hybrids had to be hardy. Only two plants came through those winters and actually bloomed. One was ‘Atrosanguineum’ and the other ‘Kettle Drum’. I’ve asked rhatoricly in a lot of talks I have given why was everybody using ‘Astrosanguineum’ in hybridizing before the war. It is just another blue-red ironclad with a smallish flower and is really something you wouldn’t spend two minutes looking at. The reason, I now know, is that it is so desperately hardy.

Well 1932 was another interesting year because a man, who was from a very wealthy Long Island family, completed a new home on what had been an old potato farm. It was about 100 acres and the southern boundary of the farm was Jericho Turnpike just down the road from Hicks Nursery. He built a beautiful home on the top of a knoll overlooking the fields. By this time the development of the gardens around the house and on the entrance road were well under way. This man was Howard Phipps. His Superintendent was a man named Muller.

Mr. Muller was the President of the Westbury Horticultural Society and its Secretary was Paul Vossburg. Through this connection with the Superintendent, Paul got to go over to the estate frequently and to meet Howard Phipps. At this time Howard Phipps was definitely interested in Rhododendrons as he already had started to acquire rhododendrons and plant them in his garden.

Chapter 3: COD—ACADEMIA. In the 1930’s  there were several people at academic institutions who were developing an interest in rhododendrons. Of course there was Clem Bowers studying for a PhD at Columbia.  Henry Skinner was at Cornell.  He had not yet gotten a PhD but was working on it and was destined to move to Washington and become the Director of the National Arboretum. Donald Wyman was in Boston at The Arnold Arboretum. And lastly John Wister was at Swathmore College in Philadelphia. These four people all knew each other and corresponded and were destined to become life long friends. They all had a deep interest in rhododendrons and were constantly on the lookout for new, noteworthy plants.

In the early 1930’s they began to correspond with each other about a gentlemen on Cape Cod who was doing the craziest things with rhododendrons. Everyone knew at that time that the only way to obtain hardy rhododendrons was to take tender, highly ornamental Asiatic species and cross them on to the hardy, tough American species catawbiense. This of course is what Gable and Nearing were doing. Clem Bowers was attempting the same by using catawbiense hybrids (the ironclads) and also using maximum, the Rosebay rhododendron. Well this person in Cape Cod was Charles Dexter and he had a completely different idea. He was using the semi-hardy  species, fortunei and crossing it with tender European hybrids.  That was of course ridiculous! But the results were spectacular. Dexter started to bring trusses to the Arnold Arboretum for the people there to see them and they were astounded. The Arnold Arboretum started to travel down to Dexters’ farm and see for themselves.  Bowers had heard of Charles Dexter through the “grape vine” so he and Paul decided to drive up to Cape Cod to see Charles Dexter’s rhododendrons.

This was the early or middle 30’s. Mr. Dexter was a wealthy person and it was his habit to give away plants to his friends and acquaintances. But his friends always tendered to be in the same social and economic circumstances as he.  Thus the plants were usually given to estates in the northeast. None of the plants went to Clement Bowers that I know of and none of them came down to Hicks Nursery.     Bowers, Wister, Skinner and Wyman became friendly with Mr. Dexter’s gardener, Tony Consolini. It was through Tony that  they began to hear about Mr. Dexter’s generosity with his plants. If you read anything about these people and their trips to the Dexter estate, they never met Mr. Dexter. He was never there. They always spoke to Tony Consolini. This is important because later on you will see that the contact with Tony Consolini was very important.

I’m sorry to say that I have no idea how Mr. Phipps heard of Dexter or of the fabulous rhododendrons Dexter was creating at his garden on Cape Cod, but I have no doubt that he could have heard from either Paul or Henry Hicks. To make a long story short, by 1934 or so, several Dexter plants were in the Phipps garden in Westbury. Now I don’t know if Phipps received blooming size plants that Mr. Dexter had already seen bloom or seedlings that were unbloomed. Of course we all know that it was Mr. Dexter’s “thing” to give away small, or unbloomed rhododendrons, and usually many plants at once, not just one or two. Mr. Phipps must have received at least a dozen and I suspect the number was probably closer to 36.

When the first one bloomed, wow, there was some commotion.   You can just imagine after only seeing ironclad type rhododendrons for you entire life to suddenly have these enormously ornamental Dexters blooming in your garden for the first time!  These first-to-bloom Dexter rhododendron inspired Mr. Phipps to commence what was to become a life long hobby: hybridizing rhododendrons.  He immediately remembered that Paul and all the people at Hicks had talked of new hybrids and how they could be created. Here he had this magnificent Dexter plant, what could he use to cross with them? Well what he used was the new hybrid that Paul had just named ‘Meadowbrook’. He crossed ‘Meadowbrook’ onto the Dexter plant that was eventully named ‘Westbury’ and grew on many seedlings.

Please note that the following paragraphs are from the transcript of my talk.  Since giving this talk, I have discovered new data regarding Paul and his development of a commercial technique to root rhododendrons.  I will explain this new data after these paragraphs.

It was during this period, in about 1939, that a discovery was announced that the active ingredient that causes the rooting of broadleaf evergreen cuttings, rhododendrons too, was Indole  3  butyric acid, (IBA). That of course was right before the War.

When the World War II started, the nursery industry stopped. Everyone went to work in war related industry. So too did Paul. He worked for a company called Liberty Aircraft,  in Farmingdale. All during the war Paul was actively working with IBA in his spare time and developed a technique to use it commercially to strike roots on rhododendrons. This was a phenomenal development.  Several cultivars could be rooted using a Nearing Frame  but none of the sharp reds or pure whites. Paul must h  ave.been quite successful because Clement Bowers knew about his success by 1944.

Clement Bowers had left Long Island in 1932 and went upstate but continued to travel to Long Island at least twice a year.  Charles Dexter died in 1943.

Follows is what I have learned since I gave this talk regarding Paul’s success in commercially propagating rhododendrons.


When Paul died his propagating records were given to Betty Hager, a long time NYARS member who was very friendly with Paul.  When Betty sold her home and moved to North Carolina she gave me Paul’s records. I do a lot of rhododendron propagating as an amateur and was very interested to see the records as Paul was VERY close with his techniques and never told anyone how he was able to root the cuttings.  Of course, you must understand that he alone in the East and probably in the entire country knew how to root cuttings in the late 40’s and 50’s.  This was very valuable information.

Well, the records don’t tell you very much except, one thing is sure, he didn’t use IBA.  He cited five published articles in technical journals:

The concentrated 1p method of treating cuttings, etc.

Proc. Amer. Soc Hort Sci, 44; 533-541  W.C. Cooper 1944

The effect of various nigrogenous compounds on the rooting of cuttings etc etc

New Zealand Jour. Sci. Technel. 21(6A) 336A – 343A  B. W. Doak 1940

Comparative activity of root inducing substances etc etc

Contrib. Boyce Thompson Inst. 10; 461-480  Hitchcock & Zimmerman 1939

A physiological separation of two factors necessary etc etc

Amer. Jour. Bot. 32; 336-341 Overbeck and Gregory  1945

Factors affecting root formation of :Phaescolus Vulgarus

Pland Physiol. 16: 585 – 598  Thiman & Poutasse 1941

He mainly used a liquid dip that had sugar, ammonium sulfate and a unknown substance (to me) called ARG.  He also used “Thiamin Chloride”  in many of his formulas.

He would augment his rooting mediums with several different additives.  For rhododendrons he would use 1 part peat + 1 part sand + 1 cc sulfuric acid in 1 liter of water or 1 gram ammonium sulfate + 4 grams sugar in 1 liter of water or 10 mg ARG + 4 grams sugar + 1 mg ThCl in 1 liter water.

For azaleas he would use 1 part peat and 2 parts sand

Here are is instructions for sowing ericaceous seed:

1 part sand, 2 parts screened peat moss placed in flat.

Soak well using fine rose.

After 6 – 24 hours add 1 pint of  1 ounce ammonium Sulfate dissolved in 6 qts water.

Apply screened spaghnam 1/8”  Soak well

Compress surface – sow seed

Apply screened coarse spaghnum lightly over seed

Fine spray with water

Fine spray with thiourea 1/2 %  ½ pint to flat

Stand 4 hours, then soad good

Cover with glass cloth  temp 70 to 800 F

Water on sunny day 9 – 10 AM only and give air

Uncover on cloudy days.

Here is his instructions for using Colchisalve

Stearic Acid – 1.4 gr, Morphaline .53 CC, Water – 20 CC Lanolin 8 gm, Colchicine – .12 gr

Add water to stearic acid and morphaline, heat until stearic acid is melted.  Stir to creamy soap solution.  Add lanolin, continue heat without stirring until lanolin is melted and mixture is just below boiling point.  Add colchicines and continue stirring until mixture cools.  Put in glass jar.

Chapter 4: THE GOLDEN AGE. The news of Mr. Dexter’s death in 1943 got to Skinner, Wyman, Wister & Bowers quickly. They began to get very concerned about Mr. Dexter’s hybrids. They all had visited the Dexter Estate and they had seen some fantastic plants. They did not know if the Dexter Hybrids were hardy away from the estate which had a reputation of having a very moderate climate, it being just a few miles from the ocean and Cape Cod Bay. Upon learning of Mr. Dexter’s death, they were concerned for the disposition of the plants. John Wister made a trip to the Dexter Estate in ’43 to talk to Tony Consolini. Tony told him that the estate had been sold to Judge Brown, a neighbor, and the new owner was removing plants. They became very concerned about this because they could see all these spectacular plants disappearing and never being available to anyone. On that trip Tony Consolini gave John Wister a flat of seedlings, the last cross that Mr. Dexter made, which he brought back to Swathmore. They were a famous lot of seedlings. I think they named everyone in the flat.

As soon as the War ended, these four got together and decided to do something about identifying and propagating the better Dexter plants. They decided to-see how these plants were doing in other people’s gardens, to whom Mr. Dexter had given them. They realized one thing, they had to have a propagator. How were they going to root the selected plants? Clement Bowers knew who could root them: Paul Vossburg. So Paul was invited to join the committee, which was called the Dexter Committee. It was their job to go around and look at different gardens where Dexter plants were growing and determine which were really outstanding, then to propagate them. Paul was going to propagate them on Long Island and they were going to go to Philadelphia, as rooted cuttings and be grown on at Swathmore for evaluation.

And so it happened. In 1950 they traveled to the New York City area and started at the New York Botanic Garden in the Bronx. There they were astounded by three Dexter rhododendrons. One in particular was especially outstanding. I can remember Paul telling me in the 60’s that during the summer he would sit in the growing field at the nursery and look out over the green rhododendron. He could picture that plant at the Bronx Botanic Garden. He tried to come up with a good name for it but was unable until one day he realized that the plant was scintillating and he would call the plant ‘Scintillation’.

Since giving this talk, I have discovered that I was wrong on several points in the above paragraph.  Here are the corrections.


In 1948, Clem Bowers started to see advertisements for “Dexter Rhododendrons” that were actually seedling rhododendrons grown from open pollinated seed pulled off of some Dexter rhododendrons that had never been judged as being outstanding.  He released that if this were to continue, the Dexter name would be ruined and people would loose interest in his plants and his spectacular plants would never be recognized.  This is when he started the Dexter Committee.

Paul Vossburg was not a member of the original committee.  It was made up of Bowers., Wister, Skinner, Wyman, Paul Bosley, a nurseryman from Ohio who had received car loads of rhododendrons from Dexter, Harold Amateis, a hybridizer from Westchester County north of New York City and David Leach. In 1949 and 1950 they went around to the gardens that they knew had original Dexter rhododendrons and ended up identifying 125 plants as particularly outstanding.

The owners of the plants sent cuttings to Swathmore College for propagation in the fall of 1950. They were not able to propagate any of the plants.  It was a complete failure.  Bowers was devastated.  Obviously they needed someone on the committee who knew how to root rhododendrons and of course Paul was the only person who could do it, so Paul was invited onto the committee.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Back to the original talk.

An interesting side light about ‘Scintillation’ is that three or four years after it was first seen the plant was killed in a flash flood at the Botanic Garden. Needless to say, if it wasn’t for Paul and his ability to first identify and then root outstanding rhododendrons we wouldn’t have today this very important Dexter plant.

After the committee left the New York Botanic Garden, they came out to Long Island and went to the Howard Phipps garden. There they saw not only the original Dexter plant, that was going to be called ‘Westbury’, but they saw some of the progeny from the cross of ‘Westbury’ and ‘Meadowbrook’. They were impressed with the seedlings and made a special group of plants within the Dexter group, called Dexter hybrids, to accommodate two of these new seedlings. These were eventually named ‘Wheatley’ and ‘Brookville.’

The committee designated a total of 14 plants at the Phipps Estate, 12 Dexter plants and the two. hybrids that Mr. Phipps had created. This was the only time they designated hybrids of Dexter plants as especially noteworthy.

Well the committee continued on and designated a large number of Dexter plants all over the Eastern United States. It was Paul who not only gave them advice as to whether plants looked like they were commercial plants, but he was the person who propagated them. The idea was for Paul to root the cuttings and then send the rooted cuttings to Swathmore for growing on and eventual distribution to arboreta then to commercial nurserymen.  Fortunately for us on Long Island, not all of the rooted cuttings went down to Philadelphia. A few stayed on Long Island which is really the reason we all more or less have these plants. If it wasn’t for Paul and his ability to propagate them and to keep some here, we would not have all of these Dexter hybrids.

And if it wasn’t for Paul and his friendship with Howard Phipps, we would not have the hybrids from the Howard Phipps estate. Whenever the Phipps rhododendron story is ever told, you will then see the vital role Paul played in obtaining some of the magnificent, Phipps hybrids for commercial propagation.

All hybridizers have to have a propagator. That’s a very important fact that very few people realize. The guy who made Charles Dexter reputation was really Paul, because he was the person who made all of these plants available to us, for us to grow, know and, if you will, fall in love with. If it wasn’t for Paul, who’d know of the Charles Dexter plants? Same way with Mr. Phipps, I might add.

Fifth Generation Glass White was in Sid Burns’ garden in 1965 and I don’t remember anything about it except it was white (I don’t remember anything about a blotch) and that Sid and Paul Vossburg valued it greatly.  Paul developed it by first selfing ‘Glass White’.  Only 3 or 4 seedlings of that were white, the rest mauve.  He then crossed the two whitest, grew the seed and repeated the crossing of the two whitest.  It took five generations until all the seedlings came white.

It was VERY DIFFICULT to root, in fact I don’t think either Paul or Sid was able to root it. It and ‘La Bar’s White’ gave white catawbienses the reputation of being impossible to root. I think Russell Harmon layered La Bar’s White to propagate it.  I remember driving to the La Bar Nursery in Stroudsburg, Pa to pick up some plants for the NY ARS booth at the International Flower Show in New York City in 1966 or 67 and Russell have me two small plants of La Bar’s white as a VERY SPECIAL FAVOR for Sid and Planting Fields.  They were very hard to acquire.  Someone was tissue culturing it several years back and I got a couple, but it is not worth growing as it is hopelessly leggy.

I think for us on Long Island the days of using catawbiense in hybridizing are long gone. Mr Dexter killed the idea of using catawbiense on Long Island and coastal New England with his spectacular fortunei hybrids.  I think the Fifth Generation Glass White is long gone.

Written in September, 2010

This summer has been murder on Long Island (just outside of New York City).  We started off with a very wet spring and the rhododendrons looked great, even though we didn’t have a great bud set caused by a cloudy, dark summer in 2009.  It started to get dry in June and in July the heat hit.  103 degrees F. one day and in the high 90s for weeks on end with no rain and bright sunlight.  My garden is mostly shaded by very mature oak trees.  With that heat and sunshine, no matter how much you watered, it didn’t seem to have any effect.  You could water all day and the ground was just as dry as before after a few hours.

I did notice some interesting things.  First, the yellows did very poorly with the lack of water.  They collapsed rapidly and would reach the no-return-with-water point very quickly, a lot quicker than most of the pink rhododendrons.  I lost a 6’ Golden Star and very large Donna Hardgrove.  They collapsed seemingly overnight.  The very hardy plants would droop and curl their leaves but almost never got to the abort-the-leaves stage.  If it got too dry they would abort the least important branches, mostly those low on the shady side of the plant. The whole plant wouldn’t abort like the yellows did.  Deciduous azaleas eventually dropped their leaves, but the vegetative buds look OK for next year. I guess they just went dormant early.  Those plants that set buds late in the summer or early fall have a very sparse bud set while those that set their buds in early July are covered with buds. The indumented plants did quite well.  There was a little die-back, but in general they came through well. Well here it is the third week in September and we are still dry and it is getting hot again.

Last spring Costco had an enormous quantity of 3 gal rhododendrons for sale for $19.95. They had 3 foot diameter heads on them loaded with buds. Customers were buying them like crazy.  I wonder, after this summer, how many are still alive.  I run every morning and pass a home where someone had planted three Anna Rose Whitney plants this spring, about 3 feet high.  They sure were a knockout when they bloomed.  Right now, one is basically dead, another poor looking and the third not so bad but with no flower buds for next spring.  And these had been watered all summer.  I wonder if any will survive the winter. 

The following article first appeared in the New York Chapter newsletter, The Rhodora, Winter 1995.

Richard Murcott
East Norwich, New York

During the last 15 to 20 years, the nursery industry has changed the way they grow and ship rhododendrons. Instead of in-ground growing, they have switched to growing the plants in containers with an artificial mix as a growing medium. This technique allows them to produce a salable plant quickly, efficiently and economically. There is only one problem: the typical casual gardeners who purchase the plant in the spring have a terrible time keeping it alive after they have planted it in their garden. It is my guess that fully 75 percent of all containerized rhododendrons purchased in the spring by casual gardeners do not live three years.

Why? Because the mix in which the roots are growing in the container is so different from natural soil that water will not move into the root zone of the plant after it has been planted.

Soil can be looked at as what a chemist would call a colloid. Water moves through soil by capillary action. The water moves laterally (horizontally) and can actually move vertically. We have all seen soil dry out during the day from sunlight, but the next morning it is damp again. This dampness is water that has moved up from below by capillary action. When the gardener plants a containerized plant, he creates three different soils: the mix in which the plant is growing; the back fill which should be made up of a mixture of top soil and organic matter, and the great mass of existing soil in the garden. The combination of the back fill and the potting mix will not allow capillary action to carry water from the mass of garden soil to the root ball of the newly planted rhododendron. Water that falls outside of the root ball has no way to move to the roots. Rain and sprinkles do not do the job because of the umbrella effects of the leaf canopy of the plant.

Spring planted containerized plants must be hand watered weekly for six months! There are no casual gardeners willing to do that, even if they knew that was the only way to insure success with the plant. They have never been told that because they probably would not have purchased the plant in the first place if they had been so informed.
Let me explain how to plant a containerized rhododendron no matter when it was purchased:

FIRST-Dig a hole twice the diameter of the container and just as deep, no deeper.

SECOND-Remove the plant from the pot and examine the roots, if they are visible. The extreme root ends should be white, not brown. (If they are brown return it to the nursery and get another with white root tips.) Gently, gently remove some of the outer layer of mix to expose some of the roots, being sure the roots stay moist, especially the newly exposed root tips.9/8/10: After viewing a video from Rare Find Nursery, this should be changed to: Using a hand held cultivator, scratch out 1 to 1 1/2 inch of the outer root ball, leving the roots hanging out from the root ball.

THIRD-Place in center of the hole and back fill with a mixture of half peat moss (or organic matter-remember, no lime should have been added to the compost if that is what you use). The back fill should be tamped down using your hands or gently with your foot. It is not a contest to see how hard you can tamp it down, but it still should not be loose as that will really stop the capillary action of the water moving to the plant. The top of the root ball should be at ground height or 1/2 inch above, never deeper. Soil should never be placed on top of the root ball.

FOURTH-A 6-inch thick layer of leaves, pine needles or wood ships should be placed on the root area extending out a foot beyond the back fill area. If this is before May 15, 1/2 cup of 5-10-5 fertilizer can be broadcast on top of the mulch. Never put fertilizer in with the back fill. The plant and back fill area should be watered directly from a hose. This watering must be duplicated weekly until October 15.

Of course, if you plant it in August or September, your watering schedule is greatly shortened. The winter is the great equalizer. It brings all three soils back to one colloid and thus allows lateral transport of water to the plant.
Let’s take a quick look at what typically happens to our casual home gardener who has just spent a lot of money to purchase a magnificent rhododendron in April or May. Let’s say the gardener plants it perfectly as directed above. It is spring and he/she is really turned on to gardening and diligently waters the plant weekly for the next few weeks. The plant blooms and the gardener is ecstatic at the display! It is now the end of May and the plant puts out enormous leaf growth, virtually doubling the amount of leaf area. Unknown to the gardener, but very apparent to the plant, the soil is still cool and the roots haven’t even thought about growing out of the magnificent potting mix in which it has been growing. Why should it? The mix is moist and loaded with fertilizer from the nursery. The back fill area doesn’t compare, and also the cool soil temperature is not conducive to root growth.

It starts to turn hot. The gardener now starts to lose interest in gardening. There are many other joys calling him/her away from the garden and the gardener begins to forget the plant. (It has been watered consistently for six to eight weeks already. That surely should be enough, the gardener thinks.) The plant with its double canopy of leaves loses water rapidly in the hot, sunny weather, and since water is not being supplied to the root area because the capillary action has been blocked, the plant wilts. Our friendly gardener notices the wilted plant and is surprised because other plants right next to this one are perfectly fine. The gardener waters the plant and to his/her joy, within afew hours it again looks perfectly healthy. The gardener has just learned a lesson. One can skip watering until the plant wilts and then water and the plant will respond immediately. That is a deadly lesson-to the plant.

Even though the plant looks as if it has bounced back, it hasn’t. Great damage has been done to the root system by the desiccation shock, and repeating it increases the damage. Invariably the watering done is enough to bounce leaves back, but the root ball never gets fully wet. Many roots are still deadly dry and will abort. By the middle of August when it is really hot, the plant begins to look quite bad. Many leaves have dropped and the “recovery watering” does not have the remarkable effect it did in June. Going into winter, the plant is sparsely leafed, with no flower buds and is a good candidate to die over the winter from “winter kill.” If the gardener had a one-year guarantee on the plant, and has saved the receipt, he/she will be able to replace it next spring for free, but sadly, that is usually not the case. The chances are good that the gardener will not try rhododendrons again. Another lost prospect.

Just talk to any casual gardeners and ask them what they think of rhododendrons and they will look wistfully at you and say they are truly magnificent, but, “I can’t grow them.”

We must get the word out on proper planting and care!