Rhododendrons have long been a part of our lives. The first ornamental plants we bought in our twenties for our first home in Dunedin were three rhododendrons, chosen with great care from a local specialist grower. They were ‘Mayday’, ‘Princess Alice’ and, obscurely, R. oreotrephes.
Mark is not exaggerating when he says he started the nursery here from one wheelbarrow up. We will give credit to his parents, Felix and Mimosa, for many things but starting the nursery was not one of them and attempts by others to credit Felix as a nurseryman never fail to irritate. The first mail order list we ever posted out in 1982 comprised fifteen rhododendrons and Magnolia Iolanthe. Five of those fifteen were first releases from his father’s breeding and the others were mostly species, including the rare R.bachii. Rhododendrons remained a key part of our mail order offering for the next 22 years, with a wide range of both species and hybrids.
Mark gathered up all the new hybrids he could find which meant a fair swag of material out of USA, very little of which thrived in our conditions. In our time, we grew all those popular varieties of their day – ‘Lems Monarch’, ‘Lems Cameo’, ‘Ostbo’s Low Yellow’, ‘Markeeta’s Prize’ and ‘Percy Wiseman’ amongst many, probably scores, of others. Very few of them are in the garden now. Most needed a colder winter and somewhat drier conditions than we could give them. They were particularly vulnerable to thrip, giving them silver leaves and weakening the plant over time because we were not prepared to routinely spray plants in the garden.
Felix had dabbled in breeding for years and his interest in the maddeniis was because of their excellent foliage, high health performance and fragrance. He named about twelve which we released onto the market but they were always a bit of a hard item to sell because they didn’t have the full truss that most people associate with rhododendrons. No matter that they put up a wall – or maybe curtain – of gorgeous blooms, often well scented, and kept healthy foliage all year round, it took a more sophisticated gardener to appreciate their charm.
In his turn, Mark took his paintbrush to the task of pollinating rhododendrons. He has only named four so far, three from the maddeni group and one, ‘Meadow Lemon’, with a full truss. There are more, quite a few more here but the rhododendron lost its elevated social status in the New Zealand garden. Sales declined and the earlier abundance of specialist rhododendron nurseries either changed tack or closed down. A highly competitive market became instead one of very limited supply and little specialist knowledge.
A fair number of readers will know Our Mark. He has never let the changing market deter him and he has continued to potter away breeding rhododendrons, albeit without the sense of urgency because we don’t see any immediate commercial potential in them. He does it very quietly so when he asked me if I had seen the rhododendrons across the road (we have another block of land that is more Mark’s domain than mine), I knew he must be pleased. These were the latest lot of crosses that had hung about the nursery for a while and were finally planted out – a ragtag collection that had not received any tender, loving care and were put out into full sun in the field a year ago. They have never been sprayed or had added fertiliser so it is a regime which separates the good performers from the strugglers.
I was impressed. I admit that I am not a huge fan of the full trusses. They are not my personal preference. But I could see the commercial appeal of these, were they presented in their pots in the garden centre, tidy little mounds in full bud and bloom. What impressed me most was the foliage. We are too well acquainted with grungy rhododendron foliage and, as our winters have become milder, the issue with thrip infestation is getting ever worse. I photographed a fine specimen at the cemetery last week – so badly thrip damaged that it was silver all over. Not a green leaf in sight. But it wasn’t a good enough photo to use.
To see plants growing in what are not coddled and managed conditions with perfect foliage is a joy to a gardener’s eyes. For readers with a technical interest, these are highly complex hybrids. Mark started many years ago with the red R. arboreum, ‘Sir Charles Lemon’ (for its indumentum), ‘Pink Delight’ and ‘Helene Schiffner’ and he introduced other genes from good coloured rhododendrons that did not thrive in our conditions. Because he has kept breeding with each generation of seedlings, the finer details of the genetic make-up of this latest lot is largely a mystery, even to him.
We have no plans to release any of these. Mark will no doubt carry out some propagation trials to narrow the selections down to those that root easily from cutting. Over time, we will replace some of the under-performing rhododendrons in the garden with better selections. The hybrids may just be a little legacy that he leaves to whichever child of ours eventually comes home – a collection of market-ready, high health, proven performers with commercial potential. By that stage, the rhododendron may have returned to popularity in good gardens again. And who knows? His next generation of seedlings may be better yet.