The Northeast Rhododendrons – 100 Years And More

One hundred years ago the word “”rhododendron”” was a name touched with magic, conjuring up images of mansions framed in priceless shrubberies, the utmost in beauty and exclusiveness. Today that magic is slowly fading from the name.

What has happened? A wild shrub, Rhododendron maximum, with leaves resembling garden rhododendrons, but with ungraceful stalks and disappointing flowers, has been sold by the millions under this enchanted name. Actually it is a rhododendron, so there can be no charge of fraud. But there is nothing magical or even desirable about this wild shrub. So with many people the name rhododendron brings to mind a picture of that inferior rhododendron rather than the magnificent race of hybrids.

The “new” rhododendrons will not render those we have less beautiful or less beloved. If you have a fine specimen of one of the better sorts, and if you take proper care of it, it will remain 50 years hence a landmark and a sight to marvel at. As with the rose and the iris, new varieties do not efface the choicest of the old but rather supplement them.

Nor will the best of the new kinds come upon us in a flood. It involves the painfully slow work of hybridizing, the growing of millions of seedlings, the rejection of hundreds of thousands as unworthy and unfit, and the watching of a eventual few selected for their superior qualities, while frigid winters and torrid summers thin their ranks. For sad to say, the most spectacular of all are the least hardy.

The races so long rumored were bred for milder climates. For gardeners of the northeastern states, all the work of breeding. and all the wafting had to be done over while those who live along the Pacific are already enjoying the glories we anticipate. We will soon be deluged with unnamed seedling hybrids, rejected but not destroyed. These will be offered this year under the name of Dexter hybrids. Most of them will not be hardy. Comparatively few will be even as good to look at as the rather frowsy wild rhododendron from the nearby hills.

Out of perhaps 20,000 seedlings which have outlived their originator, about 20 or 30 superb ones will be selected by a group of expert judges. These few will then be propagated and given appropriate names. Until the work of the judges is finished, it would be presumptuous to attempt any estimate of the best individual plants.

While a large proportion of the seedlings will prove utterly worthless, perhaps a thousand or so will possess some merit. The best of them will come so close to the final few chosen that their judges will meet with many a difficult decision whether to accept or reject a given plant. Of these borderline cases, some will even be named and propagated by enthusiastic owners, and it may well be that public preference will eventually promote two or three of these into the select class.

Therefore, it would be foolish to condemn all the unnamed hybrids without qualification. But before you buy any of them, take this advice—select them in flower and make sure that they have passed at least one winter and one summer in a climate as severe as your own. Their original home on Cape Cod is on a par with the shores of Long Island and southern New Jersey, much milder than the same latitude a few miles inland.

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