Life’s Chosen Few
by Norman Todd
Do you recall your years in high school and your sometime strivings for academic and social success? In my recollection, at any rate, it seems that one or two of my contemporaries managed to take everything in stride; they understood the tricks of trigonometry intuitively, could recite Shakespeare’s sonnets after one scanning and never double faulted at tennis. These people, perhaps you were one of them, were destined, it seemed, to be leaders, to flourish, and live beautiful lives.
There are a few rhododendrons that seem to have these same secrets to happy survival stamped into their genetic code. They grow and bloom and look contented and well composed year after year. ’Nancy Evans’ is one such happy camper. She is a good looker and although of modest stature, wins beauty contests at all the shows. She is consistent in her performance and manages on an every day diet, being neither bulimic nor anorexic. She is at home in almost any garden in these parts. Her equanimity assures her acceptance by the rest of the rhododendron group. Her comportment equates to harmony; a harmony that extends to her being one of the most prolific and nurturing parents in the rhododendron community.
I would also place ’Rosamundi’ in this easygoing, congenial group. ’Rosamundi’ will not be the garden’s valedictorian, or medal winner, but will shine in her season and move on smoothly from year to year. I would guess that because she starts to bloom so early in the season and is so popular and ubiquitous, she gets more notice than almost any other rhododendron. I have observed that even visitors to our part of the world who come from inhospitable places (in a horticultural sense I mean) – like Ottawa or Flin Flon – want to know who is this modest but radiant beauty, blooming in January. Furthermore, she enjoys blooming so much that she does it for three or four months. She is always modestly unassuming and unobtrusive but thoroughly reliable.
I also recall from schooldays the new arrival bursting onto the scene and taking the place by storm. A big and brassy and invincible sports jock idolized by half and feared by the rest. You could certainly claim that ’Point Defiance’ and ’Horizon Monarch’ fit this caricature. If they were human they would be sent for drug testing. Their stature and strength are suspiciously enhanced. By what? they ask for no special favours. Compare the behaviours of, say, fargesii. Fargessi whimpers at the slightest threat of thirst, rolling its leaves in premature pique. It can barely bear to breed as it may die if its swelling seedpods are not removed. I have noticed the same defect in ’Chief Paulina’. If the seed capsules are not detached – difficult procedures with the Chief as she is particularly loathe to part with them – it is probable that the twig bearing the pods will die. It has to be admitted that our super heroes ’Point Defiance’ and ’Horizon Monarch’ also have the rachis pretty well secured to the end of the branch but a quick snap at the right spot removes the spent blossom and I’m sure it does not hurt all that much. These two giants will grow more than a foot a year and once they start to get hair on their chins they blossom profusely every year. I could speculate that the breeders of corn will be looking at how to use their genes to give metre-long corncobs. But perhaps the cobs would be on five metre corn plants and therefore hard to harvest.
Another, get-it-right-first-time, shiner is ’Blaney’s Blue’. He could be the show-off of the class. What a power bloomer! I don’t think that in my garden ’Blaney’ will ever be deadheaded. It’s a life’s career to tackle a full deadhead. But it doesn’t make any difference. There is that old chestnut about an English gardener, Lord ‘So-and-So’, observing that deadheading is a foolish practice – it just makes the job more onerous the next year. This does not apply to ’Blaney’s Blue’. The creature will carry on showing off with thousands of blossoms no matter how it is neglected. Also, have you noticed that often when someone is not very gifted academically she will be at the top of the heap by having a keen sense of humour? ‘In her attire doth show her wit, it doth so well become her.’ I am thinking of ’Paprika Spiced’. Here is a seriously freckled blond who stops her audience by evoking simultaneously, mirth and sympathy. She may even elicit a therapeutic response, as she appears to have an advanced case of chickenpox. ’Paprika Spiced’ is surely a comic but she is also a cunning commercial success.
Being born with a deformity can be exploited to advantage if it is not too debilitating to one’s health. ’Linearifolium’ is among the most admired and all because of her genes being really messed up. I suppose some of her popularity could be due to her striking similarity to marijuana and resulting hop headed response of rhododendron illiterates. ’Linearifolium’s’ flower is not at all striking; it has been described as strappy. The message here, I suppose, is to use what God-given features one has to the full advantage and bask demurely in the attention generated.
Some of us react very negatively to another’s BO; especially so when squeezed in a crowd, shoulder to shoulder, or more accurately, armpit to armpit. However, this is the way I like to grow my rhododendrons and in particular the ones that exude smells. I personally like the BO of almost all rhododendrons and we should remember it is there because it gives some evolutionary advantage. Stripping the leaves of russatum when doing cuttings releases an odor that I hope will be present in the afterworld. Charitopes has a fruity sweet aroma; it will please the nose of an oenophile. I used to have a plant of kongboense (now on the most wanted list) and it was fun to ask little ones to crush a leaf and tell what it smelled of. “Toothpaste”, “Bubblegum”, “Kool Aid” were some of the responses.
Most of us, of course, are not endowed with film star looks or stratospheric IQs. Rhododendrons, as with people, are unable to defy the laws of statistics. Most are right in the middle of the great giant bell curve. So the ’Anna Kruschkes’ and the ’Percy Wisemans’ and the ’Dora Amateis’s’ will survive, as will we, contributing our two bits and being content to be among the great silent majority of the populace, paying our taxes and keeping out of trouble. We are with honour but not singularly honoured. We cut the mustard but don’t leave a burning sensation. I think O. Henry had it right when he wrote: “I’m not headlined in the bills but I’m the mustard in the salad just the same.”