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 your 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 have 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 nitrogenous 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 soak 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 Atlantic 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 rhododendrons. 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 New York Botanic Garden in the Bronx. 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.