Tender Rhododendrons

By: Joe Eck Wayne Winterrowd

Joe Eck is the co-authors of three books, with Wayne Winterrowd that are derived from their garden, North Hill, in…

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Wayne Winterrowd  is the co-authors of three books, with Joe Eck that are derived from their garden, North Hill, in southern…

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Rhododendron ‘Fragrantissimum’. Photograph by Michael Lewis, courtesy Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture

Rhododendron ‘Fragrantissimum’. Photograph by Michael Lewis, courtesy Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture

Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd together created one of the country’s finest gardens, North Hill, in southern Vermont. They wrote several books and numerous magazine articles from their experiences creating that garden and, eventually, creating gardens for others. They have long given credit to the influence of the West Coast horticultural scene, its gardens, its nurseries, and, perhaps most of all, its gardeners. In their latest book, Our Life in Gardens, they share some of the stories of their visits to the West Coast, particularly to the San Francisco Bay Area, and of the people they met and the plants they brought home. This is an excerpt from that new book, published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, LLC.

So much of what we’ve grown over the years has been the result of what we have gone to bed with. When our garden was only a hope and a dream, and we were living in a rented house, we ended each day with a thick reference book on some aspect of gardening. We did not look things up or skip about but, rather, worked our way systematically from front to back. Though our method might sound to others a little like reading the dictionary, there was nothing that was not of interest to us. So, in that way, we plowed through Donald Wyman’s Garden Encyclopedia, T H Everett’s New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Gardening, and The Royal Horticultural Society’s Color Dictionary of Flowering Plants. Our reading resulted in a serial involvement with all sorts of plants previously unknown to us—Cytisus, Fremontodendron, Ceanothus, Carpenteria, even the magnificent Myosotidium hortensia, the rare and cranky Chatham Islands forget-me-not. It was an endless list, and it still seems to be continuing. (Now, of course, we would have twin volumes of The American Horticultural Society’s AZ Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, and start with that.)

One of the largest, heaviest, and most scholarly of these books encouraged the most enduring of all these youthful enthusiasms. When it was published in 1961, David Leach’s Rhododendrons of the World was simply the definitive work on that large genus. It probably still is, though, when we acquired our copy in 1974, it was already out of print. We could understand why, because it is a huge book, oversized, densely singles paced, and with not a single photograph in all its 544 pages. But it enabled us to see for the first time a whole world of plants we had no knowledge of at all, and we eagerly absorbed the wealth of information it offered, covering distribution, care, diseases, propagation, and so on. As we read, however, we realized that, of the thousands of species and hybrids that make up this enormous, circumpolar genus, few would consent to life in a [USDA hardiness] zone 4 garden. Of David Leach’s hundreds of recommendations, a bare dozen would be suitable for us, and those—with a few remarkable exceptions—not among the showiest of even the hardier rhododendrons.

Of course, no one knew this better than David Leach himself. For he spent a lifetime creating beautiful hardy rhododendrons, producing one magnificent hybrid after another in the coldest part of Pennsylvania, a place almost as cold as where we had chosen to live. In addition to increasing hardiness, Leach also enormously increased the range of colors available, extending the predominately pink and white and purple forms into peach and clear yellow and even green.

But in 1975, the new possibilities David Leach had created still lay in our future. We had begun to plan the house we would build the following year, and we knew that it would contain a greenhouse. No passionate gardener can survive Vermont winters otherwise. And since there was to be a greenhouse, we thought it should be attached to the house, open to the living earth, and be treated as a real garden. It would be a winter garden, in fact, no matter how small it had to be, and in it we would grow a whole range of winter- and early-spring blooming plants forbidden to us outdoors. So we read with enormous interest Leach’s brief, seven-page chapter called Rhododendrons for the Cool Greenhouse, which contained these words. “. . . the most impressive of all Rhododendrons . . . under glass produce sumptuous flowers of luxuriant proportion and delicious fragrance.” For what we had in mind, that sounded perfect.

None of the rhododendrons Leach especially recommended for greenhouse culture were grown on the East Coast. The plants were hardy outdoors only around the San Francisco Bay Area, and so, for us, that was one more reason to take our school vacations there. The classified ads in the back pages of Pacific Horticulture listed several growers of rare and species rhododendrons, and we were confident that at least some of the fifty-seven forms particularly commended in Rhododendrons of the World could be found among them.

One of the deepest pleasures gardening offers is the enthusiastic welcome gardeners extend to other gardeners who share their interest. The first nursery on our list, in Oakland, was quite small, perhaps a quarter of an acre in extent, and given over entirely to rare azaleas and rhododendrons. The young man who greeted us was startled that someone would have driven 3,500 miles in pursuit of just what his nursery offered. He insisted on phoning his elderly father, now retired, to come from his home a few blocks away and meet us. For, as he said, the plants before us were his father’s greatest joy, and he would relish telling us about them and helping with our selection. Mr Lopez arrived shortly thereafter, intent, we soon realized, on sending us away with the whole nursery. But we had only a borrowed station wagon, and we had already made the resolution to buy only small plants, the more to bring home. But Mr Lopez offered us one splendid Rhododendron ‘Forsterianum’, the only one he had, which was a large plant already four feet tall, with smooth, reddish brown bark like a manzanita. It barely fit into the car, and everything else we were to acquire on our trip would have to be packed around it. It was evident, however, that old Mr Lopez took great delight in the idea of his plant blooming against the snow of a Vermont March, so far from its previous home. And besides encouraging him in his evident pleasure, we simply wanted it, so we cheerfully paid the absurdly small amount of money he asked. It flowered abundantly early in our first spring at North Hill, producing large, loose trusses of white, funneled flowers, each ruffled at its end and strongly scented of cinnamon and nutmeg. That scent, we soon found, was the hallmark of rhododendrons in the Maddenii class, the various members of which originate in India and Bhutan on the lower slopes of the Himalayas, between 5,000 and 9,000 feet elevation.

We took one other plant that day, not a rhododendron but a late-flowering azalea of a group bred in Japan and called “Satsuki.” Satsuki means “fifth month,” for these plants typically bloom in May. What makes them remarkable, however, is that many varieties produce distinct variations of color when in bloom, all on the same plant. ‘Haru-Gasumi’ had blooms of orchid pink, though some flowers were marked with rose purple stripes, and some had white centers. This, too, was the first of a group of plants that would be added to over the years. We took away two other important things that day, but neither was a plant. We were told to visit Nuccio’s Nursery in Altadena, California, for the best collection of azaleas and camellias in America, many of which its founder, Guillio Nuccio, had bred. We were also given the name of a backyard breeder of Maddenii rhododendrons in Fort Bragg, on the North Coast of California. Since our quest was primarily for tender rhododendrons, we decided Nuccio’s could wait, and we headed north.

The small house we found among the redwoods at Fort Bragg was the home of a true enthusiast, the sort of nursery we have delighted in finding all our gardening lives. Its owner, Marge Drucker, grew everything on David Leach’s list, and she enthusiastically filled out his dry, scholarly descriptions with glowing praise of her own. Of the dozen plants we took away, our favorite has been ‘Countess of Haddington’, though not for its plant form, which is ungraceful, lank, and rangy. But in the winter garden in early April, each terminal growth produces a large, lax truss of tubular three-inch long flowers that begins suffused in wine red, and opens to a pristine white with pink stains, as if a fine Burgundy had been spilled on a snow-white damask tablecloth. And we could not do without ‘Else Frye,’ much smaller in stature and more compact, with tidier trusses of white, fragrant flowers, or ‘Fragrantissimum’, though it seemed in bloom no more fragrant than the others, since all three produce the same rich lily-like scent with strong nutmeg overtones.

Plants grow, of course, and our rhododendrons grew remarkably. Rhododendron ‘Forsterianum’ increased the most rapidly, and was a larger plant to start with. After four years with us, it reached the top of the greenhouse glass and so we gave it to the botany department of nearby Marlboro College. We miss it still. ‘Fragrantissimum’ gave its place to a rapidly increasing and very beautiful single Higo camellia, with rose-striped white flowers, and ‘Else Frye’ succumbed quite suddenly, we think from mice tunneling at her roots. ‘Countess of Haddington’ is with us still. But one Maddenii rhododendron is hardly enough, and so we have just ordered a new ‘Else Frye’ from Gossler Farms Nursery in Oregon. We miss her snow-white, open-funneled flowers produced in great abundance just a little after ‘Countess of Haddington’. We miss ‘Fragrantissimum’ too, and probably someday soon we will locate it again as well. For though other passions and enthusiasms have come to us in the thirty years since that trip to California, we seem always to return to our first loves.

Excerpted and adapted from Our Life in Gardens, published in February 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC . Text copyright © 2009 by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd. All rights reserved. (www.fsgbooks.com)

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A Maddenii Rhododendron Resource Guide