For the Love of Rhododendron
By ARS NextGen
This podcast is a production of The American Rhododendron Society Next Generation Program. Learn more at www.rhododendron.org
For the Love of RhododendronOct 02, 2022
Faith in a seed
In this episode we meet Emily Ellingson, Plant Collections Curator at Polly Hill Arboretum. We learn how Emily’s own career was inspired by Arboretum founder Polly Hill, who held a strong faith in seeds and became an early adopter of electronic plant records. Emily shares the story of Polly’s Rhododendron and Azalea hybrids, and highlights the important work taking place now in conservation horticulture, including an excellent internship program, presenting the next generation an opportunity to grow and try out different things, carrying on Polly’s legacy, as expressed by Henry David Thoreau:
“Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
From distraction to discovery
In this episode we meet Dr. Mary Jane Epps, a scientist at the Center for Urban Habitats in Charlottesville, Virginia. Dr. Epps tells us how a moment of distraction while researching beetles led her to discover that flame azalea, a.k.a. Rhododendron calendulaceum, is pollinated by the wings of Tiger Swallowtail butterflies. We learn that this extremely rare type of pollination works because the flower shape offers the butterflies a clear landing platform, but that high diversity in Rhododendron flower shapes results in diverse rhododendron pollinator communities, and that there is an urgent need for us humans to support these pollinator communities: by making small changes in how we manage our home gardens, and by taking the time to get distracted, even by places as plain and humble as powerline cuts, we too can contribute to the conservation of pollinator biodiversity.
As observed by polymath and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, “The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”
Read the original publication showing butterfly wing pollination of flame azalea:
Epps MJ, SE Allison and LM Wolfe (2015) Reproduction in Flame Azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum, Ericaceae): A Rare Case of Insect Wing Pollination. American Naturalist 186: 294-301. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26655157/
A postcard is a small thing
In this episode we meet Dr. Anna Asatryan, a Senior Researcher at the National Academy of Sciences in Armenia focused on the documentation and conservation of Armenia’s rich native flora, including Rhododendron caucasicum. We learn how Dr. Asatryan became involved in the eco-tourism industry and fell in love with Rhododendron as she conducted her primary work documenting the Important Plant Areas of Armenia. Her efforts to fill the data gap on Rhododendron have inspired residents of Armenia’s small and cozy mountain villages to see their native species with different eyes, and we discover that something as un-assuming as sharing an illustrated postcard has the power to stimulate daily acts of conservation, reminding us that we are all one organism, one ecosystem. Following the wise words of Mother Teresa,
“Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”
Yogurt for your plants
In this episode we meet Dr. Jean Burns and PhD candidate Yu Liu to learn about their research program focused on the science of gardening, they describe their recent findings on the important role of microbes that live in, on and around Rhododendron in determining plant growth and survival, they assure us that some microbes can actually be good for Rhododendrons, and we find out how the pure aesthetic joy of Rhododendron can lead to a deeper understanding of the basic biological process of plant-soil interactions that lead to species co-existence.
Now, that’s not so farfetched as it might seem, for as he sat alone in a garden, Isaac Newton in 1666, age 24, fell into a speculation on the power of gravity.
A bit of paradise
In this episode we meet Tom Clarke, Head Gardener at the world-renowned Exbury Gardens, we learn how Exbury founder, the late Lionel de Rothschild, turned to gardening amidst personal disappointments, cultivating his own bit of paradise where Rhododendrons are interwoven with the natural landscape to create an exotic floral tapestry. Tom shares how the Crown Jewels of the Exbury Rhododendron collections were forged through plant exploration, hybridization, and good old fashion business sense, and how the focus today is on meeting the challenges of climate change and providing public access to one of the most spectacular green spaces in the UK, reflecting the words of Ladybird Johnson, “Where flowers bloom, so does hope”.
Visit Exbury Gardens https://www.exbury.co.uk/
As soon as the sunrays hit
In this episode Juliana and Ryan meet Dr. Shweta Basnett, who shares stories from her PhD work on the pollination biology of Rhododendron in Sikkim Himalaya. We learn how she left her bed well-before dawn to trek up a mountainside and survey many different Rhododendron species and their pollinators, including sunbirds who start drinking the nectar as soon as the sunrays hit the ground, and how the difficult task of climbing a mountain day after day led to stunning views and a chance to expand from local to global Rhododendron studies as a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Maryland. Thus, illustrating the words of author William Arthur Ward, “Opportunities are like sunrises, if you wait too long, you’ll miss them.”
We named the trees
Expect blooms anytime
In this episode we meet Don Graham, a retired emergency medicine doctor, a long-time member of the Portland Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, and a Rhododendron gardener extra-ordinaire. We find out how he successfully transitioned his love of Rhododendron from a large-scale outdoor rock garden to a small-but-mighty indoor garden prominently featuring tropical epiphytic Rhododendron species known as Vireyas. Don shares techniques he’s used to transform his second-floor condominium and balcony into a botanical wonderland so spectacular that passersby are known to shout their praise up from below, and we learn that the best thing about growing a Vireya garden in your house is that you can expect blooms anytime.
Recalling the words of biographer and historian Jenny Uglow, “We may think we are nurturing our garden, but of course it’s our garden that is really nurturing us.”
What keeps me up at night
In this episode we meet our intrepid podcast narrator, that’s right you get to meet me, Dr. Juliana Medeiros. I got together with my fellow podcast hosts Connor and Christina to discuss how genus Rhododendron sparked a fire in my collector’s heart and how it makes an ideal study system for all kinds of biological research, I present my theory that leaves are indeed the coolest things in the universe, and we learn that unanswered questions about Rhododendron are what keep me up at night.
For like Anne Brontë, “I love the silent hour of night, for blissful dreams may then arise, revealing to my charmed sight, what may not bless my waking eyes.”
Shake the world gently
In this episode we meet Mike Stewart, President of the Van Veen Heritage Garden in Portland Oregon. We learn how this newly formed non-profit organization is carrying on the extraordinary legacy of the VanVeen family, three generations of horticultural pioneers who dedicated themselves to learning about Rhododendrons, devising new propagation techniques, and generously sharing their plants and their knowledge. In doing so, they turned their little corner of Portland into a veritable sanctuary of Rhododendrons and built a huge community of friends, evoking the wisdom of Mahatma Ghandi, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
Finding new mountains
Much like John Muir described in a letter to his sister Sarah in 1873, “The mountains are calling, and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.”
The pitch of their wingbeats
“Look around you...Feel the wind, smell the air. Listen to the birds and watch the sky. Tell me what's happening in the wide world.”
You can add your own twist
In this episode we meet Rhododendron hybridizer and college professor, Paul Chafe, we learn how a memorable brush with giant Rhododendrons led him to hybridizing, how he's adding his own twist on breeding cold-hardy Rhododendron by chasing a dream of tree-like, big-leaf plants that don't look like they should survive in the frigid cold of continental Canada.
Representing the next generation of Rhododendron breeders, Paul is expanding the palate of cold-hardy forms with the same modernistic approach embodied by author Henry James, who once quipped "A tradition is kept alive only by something being added to it."
Where kindred spirits convene
In this episode we meet some of the organizers and speakers from the upcoming American Rhododendron Society Fall Convention, they share their fascinating Rhododendron origin stories, the important work they are currently doing in Rhododendron, and give a tantalizing preview of the virtual convention line-up. Though our friends and families may tire of hearing about Rhododendron, as Lucy Maud Montgomery reminds us in Anne of Green Gables:
“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It's splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”
More info and registration for American Rhododendron Society Fall Convention here: https://rhododendron.org/Fall_2021_Conference.pdf
A treasure-trove of experiences
In this episode we learn about Ryan Fuller’s research on Rhododendron evolution in the Hengduan Mountains of China, how this magical place spawned Ryan’s polyploidy problems, how the people in Yunnan and the Rhododendrons themselves welcomed him, and how the rather practical goal of collecting plant samples led him to a goldmine of adventures worthy of the most ambitious bucket-list.
Just as told by Paulo Coelho in the “The Alchemist”, when you are about to climb yet another dune, that is the moment when your heart whispers, "Be aware of the place where you are brought to tears. That's where I am, and that’s where your treasure is.”
The genome was the puzzle
Reflecting on the words of the immortal Smokey Robinson, “Love's a puzzle, love's a puzzle, Confusing as can be, But work it out and you'll discover, The beauty of love's mystery.”
There wasn't a map
For, as DH Lawrence once wrote: “Love is the flower of life, and blossoms unexpectedly and without law, and must be plucked where it is found, and enjoyed for the brief hour of its duration.”