by Norman Todd - August 1999
We read and hear a lot these days about genetic engineering. We are promised an end to hunger with an abundance of food. We are tempted to hope for longer life by reading that the world’s best minds have created the technology to grow replacement organs from embryonic stem cells. The ethical problems raised by these scientific advances are far beyond my understanding but the promise of a longer life, I admit, has some attractions. When I first became interested in rhododendrons one of my mentors was Albert de Mezey. As we strolled through his famous garden on Foul Bay Road he advised me in his richly resonant Hungarian baritone that to grow rhododendrons you needed two things – a physical age of thirty and longevity of three hundred.
I am musing on these matters as I am sticking cuttings in my propagator. Today I put in five cuttings of diaprepes ‘Gargantua’. I know that should I be lucky enough to get these cuttings to develop roots, and I am then lucky enough to get the roots to support some top growth and make a new plant, it will probably be 2020 at the earliest before there is a hope of that plant bearing a blossom. I also know that even as I am absorbed in this stone age style attempt to create another living entity, the new bio-technologies will not be available soon enough for me to see that flower on this particular diaprepes. Quite quickly, I reason with an amazing appeasement of my initial unease, that the world will most probably be a better place with one more diaprepes in it, and certainly not any the worse for me not being in it, and I should quit making any connection between the life of that cutting and my own.
I think, therefore, the world would probably be a better place if we all got at least one cutting to root and made a new plant and to heck with a three hundred year life span for humans. Just be glad that rhododendrons have it. And so with this primitive process that I use, I become a creator and I can look forward to the hugely fulfilling feeling I will have when I gently tamp those rooted cuttings into a six inch pot and tie a brand new label on each fledgling plant.
In the past I have had groups of people come to my not very sanitary greenhouse and the group sits on a plank on one side of the propagating bench while I do a demonstration of how to make a new plant. I have a supply of styrofoam coffee cups and a pail containing a mix of moistened peat and perlite , a small container of rooting hormone and some clear plastic bags. These groups are often what I call the ‘blue rinse’ set – middle aged ladies who have immaculate gardens as well as immaculate hair-dos. (Middle age in these genetically-enhanced times goes from 55 to 85). Then they all prepare their own cuttings; removing all but three or four leaves and cutting those leaves in half; wounding the base of the cutting just through to the cambium under the bark; dipping the cutting in the rooting compound, then dibbling a hole in the ’dirt’ filled coffee cup and popping in the cutting. After labelling and making a little greenhouse with the plastic bag sealed by a rubber band they take off for home, trooping out of the greenhouse in single file with smugly satisfied smirks on their faces and the precious plastic bag held delicately between thumb and forefinger; each of them looking as if she was reliving the taking home from kindergarten of that first finger painting to show to an admiring parent. For me, the most satisfying part comes when these people come back and say, "Do you remember when we took those cuttings of that azalea? Well, I put it on the kitchen window sill, and now it has grown three inches. Should I plant it outside?"
If you would like to know some more about making new rhododendrons and have not attended a session of the ‘Propagators’, contact Ken Webb or President Norma Buckley for more details. The group usually meets in the middle of the month. It is a very informal group and meeting times and locations vary.
If you do participate, you will quickly become aware that certain varieties - ‘Lem’s Cameo’, for example – are notoriously difficult to root. You will also be amazed at the success you will have with your first efforts. Neophytes have a high success rate. I attribute this to beginners’ cleanliness and the extra care taken but there is no doubt beginners have chlorophyll in their fingertips. When I first took cuttings of ‘Lem’s Cameo’ twenty years ago, I put in ten cuttings and I got ten plants. Every year since then I have put in ten cuttings of ‘Lem’s Cameo’ and just occasionally get one with roots. The latest ‘must have’ species is pachysanthum. It is very hard to root. I have never been able to do it. Some of the ‘Propagators’ find pachysanthum easy. It’s the same with tsariense. However, just to make sure that you are not the exception to this ‘novice-no-problem’, or ‘tyro’s triumph’ phenomenon, take a few cuttings of an evergreen azalea or ‘Elizabeth’. Now there are those who would say that the world will not necessarily be a better place with another ‘Elizabeth’. However, she is a turn-on, as she is so easily propagated . That initial success is crucial to your continued career as a plant creator.
New plants can also be created from seed. Seed may be obtained from our local society and also from the Seed Exchange of the American Rhododendron Society. You can also be really creative and do some hands-on genetic engineering and make your own hybrid, taking the pollen from the anthers of one flower and putting it on the pistil of another. There is a faction, to which I belong, that thinks that there are too many registered hybrids, and that the world would be a better and certainly simpler place, if more restraint were exercised in registering new names. That does not imply that there should be fewer new plants but only that those enshrined in the Rhododendron Registry be distinctive enough in habit or blossom or hardiness or some other characteristic, to merit inclusion. I once counted 32 registered plants with yakushimanum and ‘Mars’ as parents. No one grows or knows them all but it is doubtful that more than a few are worth having a special moniker. That having been said, I sure would like to have one named for my granddaughter – and there is another grandchild on the way – so you can see that when we do our little bit of rhododendron procreation and want the world to know about it, we should take some pains to make sure we are, in fact, making our world a better place.
Compared to plants like soybean, cotton or wheat, the level of effort going into genetically engineering new varieties of rhododendrons is minute. Some of the latest offerings from some of the big nurseries are genetically engineered. They have had the number of chromosomes in their cells augmented. It is claimed that these plants are tougher, with thicker foliage, longer lasting flowers and are good ‘doers’. This induced polyploidy can now be achieved by the amateur by using a colchicine-like chemical on seedlings. Such increase in chromosomal numbers is very low-tech compared to adding new material to genes – which is the cause of so much concern and debate with GM foodstuffs. Still, isn’t it tempting to think of adding genes from a plant that blooms all the time - Impatiens for example- to our rhododendrons so that we get a longer period of bloom? And I think it would be nice to put in a gene or two to make rhododendrons unwelcoming to the powdery mildew. However, it is at this point that our cautionary alarms should go off. If there are no root weevils are there subsequently no strawberries?
Once afflicted by the compulsion to create new rhododendrons, the pressure can lure you into questionable practices. I am told that when a truss of ‘Point Defiance’ was first displayed at a show, a pollen thief swiped every grain. There was an outcry. I also recall being with a group on a garden tour and among the group was a well known hybridizer. Going round the garden, I was astonished to see this hybridizer, in a manner that certainly looked subversive, snap a truss from a bush of ‘Phyllis Korn’. I was embarrassed for him when our eyes met. He really did look guilty as sin, but obviously he wanted that pollen. Later, when the subject of polyploidy was being discussed, ‘Phyllis Korn’ was singled out as being a naturally occurring polyploid, having come from open pollinated ‘Gomer Waterer’ seed. The discussor bemoaned the fact that ‘Phyllis Korn’ was totally sterile. The famous hybridizer’s face fell to the floor. He has, however, produced so many good plants that I am sure in the final reckoning he has made the world a better place and his lapse in etiquette has been forgiven.
We are told that biochemistry and cell biology will be the technologies
of the 21st century. Meanwhile in the last months of the 20th
century, we can, with very little effort or expertise, improve the ambiance
of our habitat by making a new plant which has the potential, without having
any modified genes, to live into the 23rd century. It’s an act
of faith, of course, but there are rhododendrons in our city that are now
well into their second century. I think you’ll agree they do add just a
little to making our world a better place.