by Norman Todd 2003
When the Endeavour reached Australia on Cook’s epic first voyage, Joseph Banks, the biologist, was dutifully recording in his journal the ship’s approach to this almost unknown land. The expectations of the crew about the natives had been conditioned by the sketchy reports of the two or three occasions of prior contact. In particular, the travelogue of William Dampier, a privateer, which was part of the Endeavour’s library, contained very disparaging commentary on the Aborigines. They were “enormously black”, Dampier wrote. Banks, a more discerning observer noted, “So far did the prejudices which we had built on the Dampiers account influence us that we fancied we could see their Colour when we could scarce distinguish whether or not they were men.” On the same day, he also noted, that while he and a few others still dreamed of finding a southern continent, “…the rest begin to sigh for roast beef.” The Endeavour had been away from England for 18 months. Prejudgment and nostalgia.
It is true that often we are conditioned to expect some result or sensual impact before we have actually experienced it – some even start to cry before the onion is cut – and most of us yearn for the old standbys, taking pride in the things that are most familiar to us.
When we were first planting a few ornamentals in this patch of bush that we now inflatedly call a garden – I had an Endeavour’s prejudice about purple foliage. This had resulted from association with a landscape architect who must have eaten some rotten beets as a youngster because he hated all things purple with a passion. Purples created black holes in the landscape – and the West Coast was a landscape, in large, already replete with black from the unlit foliage of cedar and fir. Purple was out – gold brightened up the vista – and gold was in. Also, we knew gold well as we had had a couple of Golden Pfritzer junipers that lurked under the snow at our house in Ottawa. There is no doubt we thought of golden junipers as the roast beef of suburban gardens.
There were a few rhododendrons that I was preconditioned not to like. ‘Vulcan’ and ‘Ernie Dee’ come to mind. My prejudice has since been on trial and in both these examples. I have come around. ‘Vulcan’ is a rent paying user-friendly plant. It is a June bloomer and it is dense, well foliaged, floriferous and is certainly one of the easiest rhododendrons to grow. ‘Ernie Dee’, a small flowered lepidote, blooms for three months in the fall and two months in the spring. Its great sin is that its flowers are mauvey-lilac. Every gardener with a British background knows to despise the colour mauve – especially on a rhododendron. This aversion is instilled most probably because of the ubiquity of R. ponticum. Its mauve flowers are therefore, in the minds of the elite horticultural opinion moulders, definitely non-U. (There, I have really dated myself). Ponticum is linked to the proliferation of the proletariat and absence of refinement in breeding. It is ironic that the pinkish mauve of the common heather is quite acceptable. Heather provides good honey and cover for game birds. Therein the irony of the no mauve movement is further compounded when it is remembered that Rhododendron ponticum was introduced to provide just that very thing – cover for game. As I said, I have seen the light and have discarded the canon Law of Mauve Proscription. ‘Ernie Dee’ is now as welcome as the flowers in November. ‘Ernie’s’ happy face beams on its neighbours for four or five months and I have never seen a bird chased away by it. And, although not choice deer fodder, I have disturbed a doe asleep cozied up to its aromatic foliage.
My early mentors in rhododendron growing were certainly people of taste and learning. Among them were Albert de Mezey, Clive Justice, Ernie Lythgoe, Stewart Holland and Peggy Abkhazi. I had long listenings with Clive on his retracing the rhododendron-strewn path in Sikkim taken by Joseph Hooker in 1848-49; Stewart Holland’s normally studious eyes glazed over when he talked about R. augustinii and R. thomsonii; Ernie Lythgoe drove up to our place one day with a six foot wide rhododendron on his trailer. Would we like to naturalize it? He had grown it from seed as that most sought after rhododendron yakushimanum and clearly the bees had interfered. Not to belittle Ernie’s generosity but he was not going to grow an unrated hybrid in his garden. It’s actually a fine plant and is now addressed as ‘Lygoe’s Legacy’. Albert de Mezey spent considerable sums importing the F.C.C. and A.M. forms of species from nurseries like Reuthes of England. From these he made hybrids which in their creator’s eyes had superior status. In the Abkhazi garden, the rhododendron alpha and omega were the January dauricum and the August auriculatum. I learned that those who knew, grew species. The assumption was that what nature had taken 60 million years to perfect could never be equaled by tampering from humans – except in a few individual cases . Hybrids, by and large, were for parking lots and industrial estates.
I probably misheard their message, a message amplified by not being able to find any species rhododendrons in local nurseries. I probably thought that the hybrids that were available were merely ponticums with more pronounceable names. Perhaps if I had known Dave Dougan at that early stage I would have had a more open mind. Dave always stresses that he doesn’t give a hoot (Dave sometimes says it more forcefully than that) whether a plant is a species or a hybrid, and I have to repeat his declaration that he would rather grow spinach than R. proteoides. It is more rewarding.
Nowadays, I think I am very open-minded and completely without prejudice and admit to just a little pride. If you want to listen I will bend your ear off with endless advice on what should be in your garden. There is a quote in the new book on Peggy Abkhazi, ‘A Curious Life’ by Katherine Gordon, which is appropriate. Princess Abkhazi wrote, “There are some odd facets to life, and one runs into the oddest characters – knowing all the time that one’s own character is just as odd.”
Don’t forget the roast beef.