A RHODODENDRON CAVEAT EMPTOR
The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (12/12/07)
My grandfather, Brynjolf Prom, was a Norwegian ship’s master who left the sea after his brother was swept overboard during a Caribbean hurricane. After leaving the sea, he used his navigational skills as a surveyor, charting the course for the Great Northern Railroad across the high plains. A seaman and a plainsman, he was always on watch, scanning the horizon, deeply set, steel blue eyes underneath great craggy eyebrows peering into the unknown.
He also said, “If you look at the horizon where your line of sight leaves the earth’s curve and travels straight into space, Dana, you’re looking into eternity, and if you could see clearly enough, you just might see the face of God, but, alas, no one never sees that clearly.”
A tough-minded mystic, Brynjolf gave me a sense of wonder and a critical turn of mind, something similar to Ernest Hemingway’s “built-in, shock-proof crap detector.” He often said that doubt is “the growing edge of faith.” As for atheism, he snorted, “Ach, what merit is there in believing in nothing?”
Gardeners need a sense of wonder and a critical turn of mind in the High Country. Beginning in wonder at the beauty surrounding Flagstaff, gardeners have to consider whether or not a plant belongs here. When meine Überfrau and I moved to Flagstaff several years ago, I knew I couldn’t bring my camellias, avocados, and figs, but I craved a rhododendron and some forsythia.
Along with dogwood and eastern red bud, they reminded me of my four halcyon years at Princeton when the world of the mind about which Brynjolf had so often spoken opened up for me. Born and raised in the desert of the West where beauty is sere, severe, and austere with its browns, grays, reds, greens, and granites I was stunned by the voluptuous beauty of Princeton in the spring. After winter’s stillness, all at once the campus erupted in a blazing potpourri of colors, reds, purples, pinks, yellows, roses, whites, and greens. I wanted a remembrance of things past. By the way, my tuition in 1947 was $600 a semester, $2,500 a year including room and board.
In spite of meine Überfraus cautionary words, “I don’t see any rhododendrons around here,” I was determined to have a rhododendron and forsythia. Even with large holes in the clay stuffed with organic material and special care, my rhododendron shriveled each year while my forsythia flourished. Determination a flourishing plant does not make.
Purchased locally, I should’ve “stopped and thunk,” but my lust for a rhododendron kept me from doing “due diligence,” as the brokers say. Asked about rhododendrons in Flagstaff, the sales person looked away, answering faintly, “Well, they’ll need a lot of care.” However, when asked about forsythia, the eyes were straight and the voice firm, “Yes, they do well.” That should’ve been a clue.
Even such a premier gardener as Jacki Hainsworth tried a rhododendron, wanting to bring a little of Pennsylvania with her, but, try as she might, “winter kill,” a Flagstaff malaise, knocked it off. A woman with whom no sensible person would care to mess, Jacki hied herself back to the nursery complaining that she was sold a plant not suitable to Flagstaff, only to be told, “Well, people want them.”
Caveat emptor, Let the buyer beware!
Rhododendrons don’t do well because our soil isn’t acidic enough and doesn’t have enough organic matter. Our climate is too harsh with low humidity and aeronautical winds. Rhododendrons like humidity, protection, acidity, and organic soil.
Jacki has a beautiful, flourishing garden. A Pennsylvania pragmatist, she likes things that work, and as a Master Gardener, she learned what works in Flagstaff.
By the way, a gift of the tuition for February’s Master Gardening Class would make a fine gift for a loved one who loves to garden. Being taught by experts, people who know what they’re talking about, is a rare gift in this age of spin and hype. They not only teach the facts, but also how to find out the facts and, what’s important, how to think horticulturally.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007