A Window to the Past

So, I hope we all survived the holidays with class – I know I did. Yesterday was my 33rd birthday. Though I may now congratulate myself for having exceeded the average male lifespan in 9th century England, I’m not really old enough to call myself old, nor do I especially want to. Some of you reading this are probably like “oh, he’s still a young’un.”

So, being relatively less old than many people, I don’t exactly have a great feel for what horticulture and gardening used to be like, say, 50, or 100 years ago. And many from among the earlier generations, from whom much could potentially be learned, don’t tell me about this subject; because as the nursery business has morphed over the years many of them have inadvertently abandoned the specialty nursery market to get sucked into the boring world of conventional horticulture, and/or been deluded into buying all their plants at box stores, so our paths never cross. But whenever I manage to learn something about this topic, it’s usually interesting.

So recently I happened across a book at Goodwill, called Rhododendrons of the World, written by David Leach in 1961. At 50 years old the book is pretty much an antique, yet it was in perfect condition. With 550 thick, letter-size pages I had thought it may be worth a fair sum of money (for example, in Powells’ vintage book section, or whatever it is) though it is listed online mostly in the $30-60 range. But at Goodwill it was $4, which, I thought, was good enough for me. $4 isn’t much to part with even if I’m not really that into Rhododendrons.

Anyway, it’s a spectacular book. Every aspect of Rhododendron history, culture, and descriptions of species are spelled out in meticulous detail. Then there is an appendix at the end listing several thousand (!!) Rhododendron hybrids and their ratings and features. Intended to be comprehensive, it shows that even 50 years ago the number of Rhododendron hybrids already in existence was truly immense.

Here are some thoughts I had after spending some time with this book. It is apparent that people were really into plants and gardening then, leaving one to wonder what happened later that things seem to be so different now.

First of all, the internet and all that comes with it is definitely making people stupider. Oh, wait, did I really say that? I mean, attention spans continue to be on the wane – mine too. I can’t think of many serious horticulturists today who could read a book this long and comprehensive, let alone write one!

This book is some incredibly deep plant-geekism coming from a horticulturist. The only work that compares in scope and detail (that I can think of) that I have in my possession from the modern era would be The Grevillea Book, by Olde and Marriott. I suspect this book did not sell as well as the Rhododendron book because Grevilleas are still not widely grown outside of Australia. But more importantly, these two are trained botanists first and foremost (though I think Marriott has, or had, a nursery). I find it curious that great monographs seem to be always written nowadays by botanists, not horticulturists. Could one consider this an area of deficiency in the horticultural realm?

But you don’t just get the feeling that the author was the only one who was into Rhododendrons. Hundreds of other people are cited and many of their actions involving Rhododendrons are described. An extensive list of Rhododendron breeders and their work is provided. There is also the definite sense that this book is written to an established readership of avid horticultural fanatics. From his writing style, one gathers that he’s not trying to win anyone over to Rhododendrons: everyone just loves Rhododendrons. Nowadays you can start reading a gardening book and feel midway through that the book is still trying to sell itself. This tells me that people just aren’t that into plants or gardening anymore, in general. I sort of knew that already, but it is interesting how that fact comes through by comparing garden books now with 50 years ago.

And (did people ever stop to think? Do they now?) why Rhododendrons? That’s really a great question, considering there are so many other kinds of plants in the world. There’s no denying that the decades-long obsession with Rhododendrons has permanently influenced the gardening culture of places where they can be grown, including the Pacific Northwest. Just look around; now we have a million Rhododendrons everywhere. They’re a part of our culture we can’t shake off. You could say their popularity still hasn’t ended. Any retail nursery in the Northwest is pretty much expected to have a Rhododendron section, and usually an extensive one with an excellent variety from which to choose. You could say the “fad” continues to this day, though the excitement has diminished somewhat along with gardening in general. We are left with the remnants of a passion that we forgot we had, or why we had it. But, looking to the future, as I tend to do; I like to think that the genus Arctostaphylos, our western-native “Rhododendrons,” (think about it – they’re in the same family!) has the potential to be just as exciting.

In the back of the book were numerous appendices, including one providing a list of nurseries where you could buy Rhododendrons, including quite a few of them in the Pacific Northwest. I only recognized a couple of their names. Now you have to wonder: what happened to all those other nurseries? What did they look like in 1961? What kinds of plants did they sell? I would be intrigued to learn more about that. Sometimes the past is the key to the future. Sometimes old geezers who think young people don’t care anything about what they have to say and therefore don’t make the effort should speak up and share some of the horticultural history they keep within their memory.

Meanwhile (because it wouldn’t be a blog post from me without one really cynical paragraph) everyone in my demographic has finally abandoned World of Warcraft to try to figure out how to get into the housing market which usually involves cutting all costs not deemed as absolutely necessary. This cost-cutting means there’s no point in shopping at your independent retail nursery (let alone a mail-order or specialty nursery!) when “we all know” that the cheapest source for landscape plants is the big box.

So before it starts to sound like I’m completely rambling, I’d better attempt to tie things together. The changes I note in the last fifty years of Northwest gardening, are but a few small pieces of a much larger and complex puzzle; which involve societal change and fragmentation, globalism, changing trends, a growing discontent among younger people, a shrinking middle class, and a challenging job market and housing market.

So what does it all mean? Is the past the key to the future? I have also been at times politely critical of nurseries that seem to go on as they always have, pretending nothing has changed. What is the appropriate balance when assessing the past vs. the future of Northwest gardening and nursery culture? Now I must admit, I have no shortage of ideas and views about this (what a surprise, right?), but they’re complex enough to be worth several blog posts; so, more to come! For the present, I leave this post open-ended: I am sincerely interested to hear your thoughts.

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Desert Dweller / David C.
    Jan 04, 2012 @ 12:40:14

    Good book find, especially for $4! At 12 years older than you, I agree that I’ve also missed out on horticulture’s brighter ages. But after re-reading your post, I’m more jazzed than ever about being part a revolution in horticultur that a few opportunists are only scratching the surface on. And I think that is where they will stay.

    Someone invented the earth mover or chain saw, but only more recently, have those have become used for something more thoughtful and good than raping the land or clear-cutting down every tree.

    Where I am, big box stores sometimes have mass-grown xeric plants that some small nurseries are still not on-board with, so I can get something that the gatekeepers parrot, “but that’s not hardy…except in a microclimate.”

    It seems people like you or I will move horticulture to become more unique to each ecoregion, yet more skilled in design or refinement than now. It might even expand beyond one genus in a family in each place, as you noted about manzanitas and not just rhodies in the Pac NW, etc.

    Thanks for another thoughtful post!


  2. Loree / danger garden
    Jan 04, 2012 @ 13:30:36

    Happy Birthday! I have to admit I almost asked you how old you were when I emailed the questions for my DNW danger garden post. I saw a picture of you (on your blog or website) where you looked about David C and my age, and another were you looked fresh out of college. Mystery solved.

    Great book find (I’d like to think I would have been savvy enough to grab it but probably not) and excellent points made in your post. I was nodding in agreement as I read your take on the chances of someone writing, or reading, a book of that depth and length in this age of the shortened attention span. I finally found an affordable used copy of Agaves of Continental North America by Howard Scott Gentry, yet I haven’t managed to get started on it yet. It’s 670 overwhelming pages!

    I’ll look forward to checking back to see what others have to say on this topic. In the mean time I just read that you’ll be at Dragonfly Farms in July, I’ve put the dates on my calendar. Now I’ll need to start researching your available plants so I can see what I need to beg you to bring!


  3. georgeinbandon,oregon
    Jan 05, 2012 @ 17:58:34

    Ian, happy birthday. interesting post. FWIW and IMHO, a few thoughts….David Leach’s monograph probably had a fairly limited readership back in the 60’s and was as much a labor of love as a work for any kind of large general audience in other words i would suggest not that much different than now. BTW, there have been other books on the genus of simular intensitiy like cox and davidian since leach. while i applaud your love of manzanitas (i love them,too) they may suffer in the public eye because they lack the showy spring flowers that make rhodies easily sellable in the spring and they have a rep for being hard to grow both in the nursery and in the garden (not that many of the most attractive rhodies don’t actually have the same problem). hopefully, you and other forward thinking folks will help change the gardening publics perceptions. i think you would agree that nurseries—especially small scale “mom and pop” specialty nurseries are often not around for decades so the fact that the list of nurseries in leaches book has few suvivors today should be no suprise. OTOH, greer gardens is an example of a specialty rhodies nursery that has lasted for the long term (so far). .that said, the internet has changed on how and where people find information or TRY to find info (some of the discussions on the plant blogs is “the blind leading the blind”) but useful information is out there and perhaps just as important (maybe more so for online nurseies) is that those small specialty/regional nurseries now have a potentially wonderful way to show themselves to those specialist gardeners, to that particular region (and beyond) in a way that would have been impossible even 15 years ago. this will hopefully help folks like you combat the societal changes that appear to have less and less people gardening in any significant ways due to less time, less disposable incomes, and less space to garden in.. sorry about the rambling rant and hope that maybe a few parts were germane to your post.


  4. Ian
    Jan 07, 2012 @ 09:56:32

    David, well stated. There are lots of other genera that one could pick out besides Arctostaphylos – how about Penstemon? I don’t think Rhododendron needs to be replaced as a ‘cult genus’ – to me an exciting plant collection or garden is usually one with a lot more diversity. Let, the revolution begin, I guess!

    Loree, thanks! I’m coming up on ten years since graduating WSU in May 2002. Isn’t Gentry’s Agave book fabulous? (though now outdated) I scored a paperback copy a few years ago. Yet again it’s emphasis is botany – though it is full of growing advice, it doesn’t have that horti-centric (how’s that for a word?) feel of Leach’s Rhododendron book. As such, one tends to consult it for reference rather than read the whole thing cover to cover. Hope to meet you in person this summer!

    George, you are certainly the book expert among us as I recall your extensive collection of “those things that don’t require an electrical input” – however, I guess the question that comes to mind from your first statement is, if interest in Rhododendrons were as narrow and specialized then as now, how did they come to such a place of prominence in present-day mainstream horticulture? Of course they do have showy flowers, as you say, so perhaps that question answers itself. I may be hopelessly optimistic about changing customer perspectives, but I like to think people will eventually figure out that manzanitas, with their year-round attractive bark, leaves, and form; plus the seasonal interests of flowers, fruit, and (on some) colorful new foliage offer a greater number of ornamental virtues, on average, than do Rhododendrons – not to mention their more natural compatibility to a Western climate. I agree that the internet has certainly added a lot to the clutter – hence I appreciate the continued need for books (though there are certainly plenty of nearly-worthless gardening books out there too!) Well I guess I just can’t stop raving about manzanitas, LOL.


    • georgeinbandon,oregon
      Jan 07, 2012 @ 12:30:18

      Ian, i think there is a distinct difference between somebody buying rhodendron plants for example and plugging down serious money for a specialist book on same—the plants (or at least their flowers) will seduce him and hopefully slay his neighbors with envy for a significant period of time while the book no matter how good ends up just filling up space on the bookshelves with few to admire it—unless he or she is some kind of enthusiast/plant geek. often interest in buying and growing plants is different from buying and reading books on them. BTW, just got a copy of “new trees in cultivation” by john grimshaw—some very nice pictures and text on new and rare plants (which i believe mentions your name in the eucalyptus section) and ends up being the very epitome of a (very expensive) hortaholic extravagance. hopefully, people will eventually “get it” about manzanita and other native plants like penstemons (my hybrid red garden penstemons started in july and are STILL blooming) and so many others—but i am afraid that the average gardener will need something sexy (like showy flowers) to hook them in and for those types the somewhat subtle charms of arctostaphylos may escape them—for now—but we should try to correct this problem. ,the PNW climate and weather patterns have the potential of accomodating so many plants from so many places (including some wonderful natives) that DON’T need the watering, fertilizing, and general fussing that traditional garden plants often require that people will eventually figure out that such “new” plants can be the waterwise, eco-friendly, and just plain lazy gardneres new BFF’S!!!!!!!!.


  5. David R.
    Jan 08, 2012 @ 13:37:25

    Nice post Ian! Happy Birthday!


  6. Ian
    Jan 20, 2012 @ 11:15:15

    Well it may be that I am more optimistic than you are – or perhaps I have the idea that necessity will change people’s ideals of what a appealing garden or plant looks like. That book sounds great but I’d better wait until I have a little more money save up for it!

    David – thanks – and thanks for reading!


  7. Trackback: Has the word “nursery” lost its meaning? « THE DESERT NORTHWEST [blog]

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