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(As published in the ARS Journal, Winter, 2011

Now that we are ending the first decade of the 21st century, I thought it might be useful to step back a little and try to look at rhododendrons and how they fit into current society.  In 2012 I will celebrate (?) my 50th year anniversary of joining the ARS and growing rhododendrons, so I thought it would be useful personally for me too.

We should start by looking to see how things have changed in society over these last 50 or so years.  There have been remarkable changes in the way we live, in rhododendrons and in how people interact with these plants.

The most significant changes in how we live are in electronics.  Black and white television gave way to color and now high definition screens.  Magnificent color pictures displayed on 102 x 76 cm (40 by 30 inch) screens with the clarity of a perfectly printed color photograph.  Cable and satellite connections allow the viewer to choose from hundreds of stations or to select from a catalog of movies to view “on demand” in their home.

The personal computer started out as a semi-toy not able to do much, but now with its enormous storage capacity and speed they are almost a requirement for the home.  Of course connection to the internet is the enormous benefit of the PC.  It allows a user to communicate with people all over the world and to access information on any subject almost instantly.

Immediacy is an apt description for current society.  No one wants to wait for anything.  People have done without an item for years but now when they suddenly want something, they must have it NOW.  At fast food restaurants, you can have a complete meal delivered in two minutes.

Cell phones, a miracle ten years ago, have become blackberries, I-Pods and I-phones.  All of these devices have become commonplace and are now a part of daily living.  No one now even considers how miraculous they are.

Well how do all these electronic features of our current way of living affect rhododendrons?  Remarkably!   To put it succinctly, rhododendrons must compete with these modern electronic devices for the attention of people, and most of the time the plants lose. The desire for immediacy finds itself in rhododendrons too.  No one wants small plants that you will have to wait three or so years for to see a flower.  Everyone wants to buy plants with flower buds.

Around 1970, membership in the New York Chapter skyrocketed.  We used to have an information booth and display garden at the International Flower Show held each year at the Coliseum on Columbus Circle in New York City.  One year alone, we took in 150 new members, and we had 450 members in our chapter.  And we were not alone in having large active memberships!  All plant societies, clubs and civic groups were loaded with members.  Most had waiting lists for membership.

This was 25 years after the end of WW II.  Returning veterans who had purchased homes in 1944 and 1945 now found themselves with spare time and an improved financial situation.  Children had left the home, mortgages were paid off or were so small to be inconsequential and they had progressed in their jobs and careers.  There was very little competition for their spare time, so hobbies abounded, especially horticultural hobbies.

But by 1990, things started to change.  All those people who joined the ARS back in 1970 were now retiring.  That home that cost them $5,000 or $6,000 back in 1945 was now worth $250,000 – $300,000.  Taxes on the home had gone from about $100 in 1945 to $5,000 to $6,000.  With fixed incomes, those taxes looked threatening and the house value looked inviting.  They began to cash out, selling the home and moving to Florida, Arizona, North Carolina or somewhere where living was easy and inexpensive.  ARS chapter memberships began to fall.

The people who moved into these homes had life styles completely different from those who moved out.  They were electronically sophisticated with all the electronic gadgets, the PC, I-phone, Blackberry, HD TV etc.  A big mortgage on the home together with the high taxes added to their requirements for income.  In order to afford this life style, both husband and wife had to work.  Their days and evenings were filled with all sorts of things that had to be done.  What little free time they had was devoted to the internet or television.  After working all day and not getting home until 6:30 or 7 PM, they had very little time for meetings of any sort, including an ARS meeting.

But there was something else holding them back from joining any plant society.  You see the seemingly simple life of growing rhododendrons is completely alien to their speedy, sophisticated life style, so that they just could not comprehend themselves getting involved in a horticultural club, any horticultural club. Some young people have told me that horticulture is “so retro” or “so 1930”!

So that is what we are facing now, a culture that is very busy and super sophisticated using all kinds of gadgets to occupy all of what little spare time they have.

So as you can see, society has changed, but so too have rhododendrons. Just about 50 years ago, nurseryman started experimenting by growing rhododendrons in containers.  That has progressed to the point now where virtually all commercially produced rhododendrons are sold as containerized plants.  This mode of production has enormous advantages for the nurseryman.  By selecting suitable cultivars he is able to produce in two years a plant that would have taken five years to grow in the ground the old fashioned way.  Costco was selling rhododendrons in 11 l (three gallon) pots for $US 19.95 this spring.  I counted 40 flower buds on one of the plants.  The cultivars being offered were ‘Roseum Elegans’, ‘English Roseum’, ‘Catawbiense Boursault’ and ‘Nova Zembla’.

I have written in the past of my opinion of these containerized plants, so I will not revisit my concern with them2. Someone in the rhododendron group chat room on the internet called these “plants on steroids”, which I think is a good description. These plants, purchased in the spring, must be watered every week until late fall and it wouldn’t hurt to watch them next year for any signs of desiccation and to respond appropriately. The problem is that the purchaser is not told of the weekly watering requirement of these plants. But I am told that without containerization, there would be no rhododendrons available to the general public, which I guess is true.  This means that hybridizers now must not only have unique, hardy hybrids but the plants also must have to respond perfectly to container growing.

The other new feature for rhododendrons, at least in Northeast America, is the increase in the number of deer.  Bambi might be a beautiful animal but she can really destroy rhododendrons.  Nature kept the deer population in check with bears and wolves, both of which are gone, at least where I live. Hunting, which is really the only way to keep the numbers down, is not permitted anywhere near homes. You can not grow rhododendrons where there are deer unless you erect a three metre (10’) high fence all around the property or have a large dog stationed outdoors at night.  Stores sell deer repellents, but I am told they are not very effective.

Probably the most exciting new feature with rhododendrons, which fits right in to modern society and electronic gadgetry, is the internet group or chat room1. It is extremely valuable and using it, you will learn a lot and be able to help others with questions or problems.

The situation with hybridizing the genus is terrific.  There are several active hybridizers in the East, all with many beautiful hybrids in their gardens. I know I’ll get many people angry at me to say this, but it is really easy to hybridize rhododendrons and get beautiful seedlings.  Just cross two Dexter hybrids. Cross ‘Janet Blair’ with any good hybrid and you will get plants with beautiful flowers.  They probably won’t be too different from those we already have, but you will be the proud parent of some great plants. Of course you will have to wait five or six years to see flowers, which flies in the face of the desire to see immediate results.

But nobody is propagating these great plants in hybridizer’s gardens.  There are very few rhododendron specialty nurseries, so many hybridizers propagate their own plants now and give them to friends or offer them for sale at chapter plant sales.  There is no easy source for purchasing new hybrids from hybridizers who are in different chapters.  Many hybridizers hold back their plants, concerned that their name might be associated with a hybrid that, in the long run, turns out not to be too good.  So they want to test the plant in their own garden for several decades.  I do respect that thought, but I fear many good plants will be lost upon the death of the hybridizer.  I personally don’t name plants, I just number them to identify them and make them available to anyone who wants to grow them.  If sometime in the future  wants to name and register the plant, they are welcome to do so.

Also thrown into the mix is the “no more room” factor.  Many of our members have been growing rhododendrons for a long time and have an extensive collection of cultivars.  They have run out of room in their gardens for more plants.  To add a new plant requires that an existing plant be removed and it can be difficult to decide which plant must go.  I know of garden where its owner had collected all the newest, best hybrids back in the 60’s and 70’s and had a fabulous garden, a must see on any garden tour.  He stopped collecting because he had no more room and couldn’t get rid of any of “his children”.  Over time, those newest, best hybrids didn’t turn out so well.  Remembering the effort he put into acquiring the plants, he just couldn’t get rid of any. So he ended up with a collection of overgrown, ho-hum plants that didn’t compare with what is available now in the 21st century. The garden became old, outdated and uninteresting.

I can remember back in the late 60’s a new plant was named ‘Ben Mosely’.  Everyone wanted it. It had a flawless reputation: beautiful, large truss, great foliage and leaf retention that gave the plant a dense, full appearance.  I was able to beg a cutting of it.  I rooted it and after a few years took cuttings of it and ended up with 5 or 6 plants.  Well after 35 years the plants were enormous and took up a third of my front garden.  The cultivar that was at one time so revered and desired had lost its glow.  Last spring I cut all but one down to make room for new cultivars.

In the good old days, people seeked out and found the ARS chapter and became members.  Now things have changed 180 degrees. We must go out and find the people.  Even though I have written in the past of my “unease” with rhododendron flower shows, the show is an easy and direct way to attract members3.  Visitors who seem very interested in the entries, or who ask a lot of questions at an information booth should be approached and asked about membership.  An offer to visit the garden of someone who is having a problem with their rhododendrons is a great way to break the ice and get them interested in membership.

Giving talks to garden clubs and civic meetings is another way to introduce the gardening public to rhododendrons.  The important thing is that we must do something. Sitting back and doing nothing is inviting slow death.

There is something that the ARS offers members that is not found on the internet, HD television, the blackberry or I-phone.  That is interaction with real people, nice people, in person with no electronics between them. And this is what we must stress.

Our goal should be to integrate the study and growing of rhododendrons into our sophisticated society so that people can see that there is as much a challenge in being successful with these plants as there is in most other challenges they encounter.

1 .  Just go to WWW.YAHOO.COM. Go to group, then type in “rhodo” and away you go.

2 Journal of the ARS, Vol 51, #3, Page 145

3 Journal of the ARS, Vol 60, #2, Page 70

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