ORNAMENTALITY (Originally published in the ARS NY Chapter Newsletter around 1990. It is somewhat dated.)
Ornamentality is what we are looking for, or at least should be looking for as rhododendron hybridizers. Not just new rhododendrons, ones that are tough, somewhat compact growing, and bloom unfailingly year after year but especially highly ornamental – those that are beautiful when they bloom and when they don’t bloom.
Where are we going to find these new plants? To get a clue, why not look at what other successful hybridizers have done. Far and away the most successful Eastern hybridizer was Charles Dexter. The Dexter hybrids are what the average person thinks a beautiful rhododendron is. What was the basis for his success? – rhododendron fortunei. It is gorgeous, fragrant, and a consistant bloomer. It is also a tall growing, leggy plant that usually is not very hardy.
We have a great advantage over Mr. Dexter because not only do we have a very hardy form of rh. fortunei,we also have the hardy form as a parent in hybrids. Of course, we also have Mr. Dexter’s own hybrids.
Cecil Smith’s ‘Nestucca’ – yak x fortunei – is certainly a place to start if you want dense growing whites. There are other yak x fortunei hybrids available too but ‘Nestucca’ is certainly beautiful. Dexter’s ‘Gi Gi’ et al (‘ripple’ and ‘Lady L’) could be a starting point for reds – especially indumented ones as it is reputed to be a haematodes hybrid and haematodes is almost as indumented as yak itself.
Hardgrove showed that hardy fortunei transmits the yellow color of a pollen parent to the progeny along with fortunei’s hardiness. ‘Golden Star’ or ‘Donna Hardgrove’ could be the start for yellow and orange hybrids. ‘Donna Hardgrove’ is quite hardy and not a leggy grower. It is very orange-yellow. Even though these are quite yellow, the flowers have long pedicels and you don’t get a tight, full truss.
We are beginning to see that smirnowii is giving hardy yellow hybrids when crossed with yellow – ‘Hello Dolly’ for example. Why not cross these yellow smirnowii hybrids with the Hardgrove yellows?
Let’s get back to what the public thinks an ornamental hrododendron is. The public wants a reliably bud hardy plant that can be planted anywhere, given no special care, will produce an enormous number of flowers on a fairly compact plant year after year and will not be damaged over the winter. The public wants a lot of bang for the buck and no excuses.
The trend of some contemporary hybridizers is for odd ball hybrids, plants that have no hope of performing in the nurseryman’s field or the garden of a non rhododendron enthusiast in the Northeast. These are conneseur rhododendron – meant for a market of perhaps 200 growers nationwide.
It is of meager value to develop a plant that blasts two out of three years, even if the one year it is super. It is of no value to develop a wide open growing leggy plant that is 10 feet tall in as many years no matter what the flower is. One of our problems is truss shows. Someone climbs a 10 foot ladder to cut the closest – to – the – ground (and only) truss to enter in the show. People see this beauty and immediately demand it be named and propagated after it wins “Best New Hybrid”. It is, of course, really a dog.
We are all going hither and dither making crosses for rhododendron connoisseurs – really I suspect, because they are the ones who are judges and tell the hybridizer how great he is. They are also the people who give Gold Medals to hybridizers. No one is hybridizing for the masses. Not only is it such a simple thing to do but you also get a good proportion of seedlings that are beautiful. Just use any of the Dexters as parents – ‘Scintillation’ is a wonderful mother. (It has no pollen, so it can’t be a daddy). With a yellow pollen parent many of the offspring are yellow and yellow-pink. With a red parent, the offspring are dark pink to blue red. ‘Janet Blair has probably the best reputation as a seed parent among the Dexter rhododendrons.
Many sophisticated rhododendron collectors turn up their noses at the blue-red color we see so often in Northeast hardy rhododendrons. This business of blue-red unattractiveness gets a little silly. The masses think that blue-red rhododendron are gorgeous. It is a few enthusiasts who keep talking them down. The influence that a few have had in this respect is phenomenal.
I’d love to cross ‘Scintillation’ with any of the west coast monsters – ‘Wallaper’ et al for example. Since ‘Anna’ has produced so many wonderful hybrids, why not use it on ‘Scintillation’. (‘What does ‘Anna’ have that produces such offspring? I never see ‘Wallaper’ used in hybrids. Is it because it is sterile? If it is, it would add to my suspicion that it is a triploid. Maybe ‘Anna’ is a tetraploid.)
Please remember that what the general public thinks is ornamental is a Dexter type plant – tough, gorgeous and easy to grow and propagate. Shoot for those goals. Start with a Dexter or similar hybrid and go forward – at least two generations keeping colors separate (cross red to red, white to white, etc.). Remember the hybriders credo: If you have to make any excuses for a hybrid of yours, its not good enough.