by Norman Todd - December 1999

Some numbers are hard and some are soft and some range in between. The date is a hard number. There is nothing you can do to change it, even if you are in debate about when the millennium starts. The unemployment rate is a soft number. We read its value every day but most of us don't know how to measure it and many of us think that those who do measure it don't know either. Some would say that recent B.C. government budgets contained some very soft numbers. The amount you owe on your Visa is both hard and soft. It's hard because you have to pay it sooner or later, and then some, but you can postpone some of the hardness by paying only the soft part on the current bill. Rhododendron ratings are soft/soft numbers.

Most of us refer to commercial catalogues and reference books to get descriptions of rhododendrons and we note their ratings. We read 4/4/4 alongside a name and this tells us that it has an above average flower, an above average leaf and an above average habit. This is useful information but we have to remember they are soft numbers. I was surprised to read in one of the issues of the Scottish Chapter's newsletter that many of the plants we cherish so much here are disasters over there. John Hammond reports that 'Noyo Brave' and 'Haida Gold' , for example, are not good plants in Britain. In Victoria, we love the big leafed rhododendron rex (3/4/3-4). It is almost certainly the best big leaf rhododendron for these parts. However, I am told that there is only one lone sole specimen of rex - a super-hardy clone - growing on the entire east coast of the American continent and that is in the spray-swept garden of Walter Ostrum at St. Margaret's Bay, Nova Scotia. For east-coasters this plant is a ?/5/5 but here it might only rate a ?/3/3. Its leaves are smaller than those of the specimens we grow and it has never bloomed, but it stops the cognoscenti when they see it.

The British, particularly the English, ruled our horticultural world, here in B.C., for a century - from the mid 1800's to the mid 1900's. Then, local breeders on the Pacific west coast started to do their own thing with gardens and with plant breeding. The Washington/Oregon/British Columbia region jumped ahead, not only with the creation of better rhododendron hybrids but also with interest in the entire genus. Rhododendrons became important garden plants. My observation is that only in Britain and in our neck of the woods is the rhododendron the most revered plant for the landscape. I would guess that in New Zealand we saw at least five camellias for every rhododendron. Hans Hackmann of Germany has done monumental wonders in creating a market in continental Europe for rhododendrons where they are now becoming more and more popular. In 1996 he was a worthy winner of the ARS Gold Medal which was awarded to him at the Oban, Scotland convention. His 'Fantastica' is deservedly given a high rating (4/5/4); it should be in every garden, even though Mr. Hackmann's acceptance speech took nearly as much time to deliver as it took him to make the plant. The Dutch have been exporting the latest horticultural wonders for an eternity and fifty years ago were still the main source of rhododendron hybrids in B.C. In those days rhododendrons were rated like Michelin does hotels and restaurants - with stars. The 'Loderis' were given ***** and 'Bow Bells' **. That was a composite rating for all characteristics of the plant. I am not quite sure of the process by which these ratings were determined, just as I am not sure how the current three number ARS rating is derived.

Isn't it strange that we have endless debate on some matters, like Free Trade or clear cut logging, often without conclusion and yet on something as important as rating rhododendrons, the number just appears - bingo - no debates, no campaigns, no protests, no pepper spray. And there doesn't seem to anything we can do about it. Perhaps, we rhododendron growers are quite civilized after all.

However, one fact that makes me feel fairly comfortable with the current ratings is that with over 30,000 registered hybrids there are less than a handful of 5/5/5's. One does wonder if the rating may, from time to time, be influenced by how easy the plant is to propagate or how many plants the grower has on inventory or if that grower is a committee of one. These are spurious codes and one must always remember that the plant that is a garden treasure in San Francisco will probably not do very well in Helsinki. The ratings are soft, soft numbers.

Conversely, there are quite a few plants among my favourites that have rotten ratings. I know I should have the courage of my convictions and not be all that concerned about what others think but that's a bit like admitting to liking Kraft Dinner; you need to be made of pretty stern stuff to sing its merits. For example, take my adoration of 'Airy Fairy': my spring would be barren without it ; it's as welcome as the first humming bird. Some references give it a 3/2/2. For me it's a 10. When did you last see 'Nobleanum Venustrum' in a nursery or even in a catalogue? It's rated 2/2/3. It's better than 'Christmas Cheer', in my opinion, and 'Christmas Cheer' gets a 3/4/4. Here is a case of a plant getting a bad name because it has a bad name - no one can say it, or if they can, don't want to, especially if they have dentures. The 'Nobleanums' have been around since the 1830s, as has 'Christmas Cheer' and probably have the same or close to the same parentage but are definitely the black sheep in that family.

People who don't associate 'Cowslip' with a primrose and take the name literally, cringe at the name. I've heard people say they would not grow a plant with such an inappropriate name. I tell Clint Smith that he has no one to blame but himself for a 3-4/3-4/3-4 rating on his 'Woody's Friggin Riggin'. It's a super plant but often goes without a label, either because of the unpoetic, prudish sensibilities of the gardener or because there is never a large enough label. Clint, of course, would like to be the Robert Service of the rhododendron world. Jack Lofthouse, who has made some superior hybrids, had a spell of giving them names that I would rate as 1/1/1's - things like 'Pink Petticoats' and 'Hot Pants'. 'Taurus' is a good name for a good plant and it is rated appropriately. There is no question the name influences the rating. People in the entertainment industry often adopt new names for commercial reasons. Think of Cher and Madonna. With rhodos that can't be done. Once named, no amount of deed polling can change it.

Most good stories contain a moral and if there is one here, perhaps it is that reducing the worthiness of a rhododendron to a number is simplistic and subject to the same political scruples that beauty pageants now suffer from. The contestants are under lascivious scrutiny for only a short time and that is in a glitzy, show-biz setting. The true character of the entrants is marginalized and the superficial aspects are emphasized. Another moral may be that... "What's in a name?" That which we call a rose "by any other name would smell as sweet" may be true if your name is Romeo or Juliet; it isn't always so if you are a rhododendron and are about to be rated. Names and numbers are soft commodities. Samuel Johnson said it 250 years ago: "Round numbers are always false."