Which is Better?  Species or Hybrids

by Alec McCarter  2003


This article is based on one that was written for the Victoria Rhododendron Society’s newsletter in 1992.  The late Ernie Lythgoe had commented on a statement attributed to the renowned plant hunter, Frank Kingdon Ward that could be interpreted to mean that Ward preferred species of Rhododendrons over hybrids.  Species, concluded Ward, might take longer to bloom but by and large, he said, they are tougher, superior in leaf and in colour, form and freshness of flower; “Good breeding” he called it.


Ernie quoted Kingdon Ward, writing about Rhododendrons at home in the Himalayas; 

blazoning the hillsides, rolling like crimson lava down the mountain gullied, frothing in every snow-choked scupper, not in ones and twos but in thousands and tens of thousands.”


I have forgotten the source of the quote, but the picture thus painted in the mind of the reader will last a long, long time.  It has in mine.

Those who have visited the mountains have visions of broad expanses of meadows alive with flowering plants that Mother Nature has sown with a profligate hand.  To examine a scree from a distance gives no idea of what is to be seen if one goes down on hands and knees, close up, to crawl over the scattered, pulverized rock and grit.  Then are revealed the treasures, so happily growing and flowering there, apparently so tough, yet unwilling to survive being moved from their stone and water beds into the comfort of a nurturing garden border at a lower altitude.  Unless their exact needs are met, and likely not even then, many of these treasures will not survive captivity for long.


I have seen fire-weed glowing like close-spaced, red-hot embers among the trunks of trees burned jet black in a forest fire – stretching over acre after acre, square mile after square mile.  In mountain meadows, acres of Mertensia reflect the blue of the sky, Glacier lilies, Delphinium, Monk’s Hood – these also are common at high altitudes and stretch over field and ridge among the wind-blown and stunted evergreens.  Carpets of kinnikinick, and Bunchberry  and Mountain avens – these I have also seen.  Yellow-flowered Balsam root is striking for mile after mile among the Ponderoso pines in the dry interior.  But I have never seen Rhododendrons as Kingdon Ward saw them.  I have seen only those that are grown in people’s gardens or in Public Parks.  “Beggars can’t be choosers”, so goes the saying.  If hybrids will grow in our gardens, then why not hybrids?  And if we should think that by growing the species, we are saving it from extinction in the wild – think again.


The species, in their thousands or tens of thousands of individual plants have had thousands of millennia to develop and evolve and they have done so because of the diversity found in them.  A single plant, or even a hundred, taken from the much larger population in the wild is probably no more representative of that species than a single human being is representative of our species, Homo Sapiens.


There are good reasons to grow the species of Rhododendrons – and they are what Kingdon Ward claimed.  But they are not necessarily any better than a hybrid.  And some of them, if taken from near the edge of their range where other Rhododendrons may be growing, are probably hybrids themselves.  We shall never settle the matter – which is, as so often the case, a matter of opinion.  I think I like the species because they are a direct link with their wild relatives and with the plant explorers who found them and brought them into cultivation.