March Meeting 1993
by Evelyn Weesjes
“Letters by Halfdan Lem” was the topic of our guest speaker, Gwen Bell. Gwen is a member of the Seattle chapter and a longtime researcher and history buff of the early plant hunters and pioneers of rhododendron growing in the Pacific Northwest. She knew Halfdan Lem and was able to collect many letters he had written to other hybridizers. The lively presentation of Lem’s life was interspersed with excerpts from his letters.
Born in Norway, Halfdan Lem went to Alaska in 1912 to become a fisherman. Through his mother he came to have a love of plants and gardens. After some unsuccessful starts with other plants, he eventually settled on rhododendrons as his great love. He must have been the only fisherman to raise rhododendron seedlings on a fishing boat.
In 1934 he and his wife, Anna, moved to Seattle where they established an nursery. It was tough going to make a living but in spite of that Lem dived into hybridizing. When World War II started, Mr. Fred Rose in England sent Lem seed and scions of many of his crosses and the resulting plants formed the nucleus of Lem’s breeding program. By the mid-sixties he had made over 2000 crosses and had about 50,000 seedlings. One of his first introductions was “Lem’s Cameo”, an outstanding and popular variety. “Anna” named for his wife, was one parent of “Lem’s Cameo” and was very successfully used in other crosses including the Walloper group. The Wallopers (“Anna” x “Marinus Koster”) noted for their very large, opulent flowers include “Point Defiance”, “Lem’s Monarch”, “Red Walloper” and “Gwen Bell”.
Lem had a great sense of humour and often this carried over into naming his hybrids such as “Holy Moses”.
He had many friends, especially other hybridizers who formed the RumDum club to socialize and discuss rhododendrons while downing a few drinks. The discussions would get pretty lively as the evening wore on and the drinks flowed (two snorts were equal to one on Lem’s Snirt). His 80th birthday was the occasion for a big bash after which he kept on working and hybridizing until he became too ill. The A.R..S. awarded him the Gold Medal in 1963 and in 1969 at the age of 83 Lem died. His legacy lives on with his many hybrids well-established in the trade.
Other hybridizers using Lem’s hybrids, particularly “Anna” and “Lem’s Cameo” in further crosses are producing many outstanding hybrids. The latter part of Gwen’s program was on these new hybrids. Some outstanding slides were; “Horizon Monarch”, “Nancy Evans”, “Mavis Davis” and “Naselle” all in orange-yellow shades and “Anna” x “Kilimanjaro” and “Ring of Fire x Lem’s Cameo” in red.
We hope that soon we will have a chance to acquire some of these luscious hybrids. Perhaps we should raise a glass to the Norwegian who loved rhododendrons with a passion and so made us beneficiaries of his legacy.