How Good Is a Species Or Is A Hybrid Better?

One sometimes finds a wild plant or the representative of a wild species that is as beautiful as a garden hybrid. Depending upon the kind of plant under consideration, the purpose for which it is being used, and the taste of the person who is talking about it, one may find sharp differences of opinion on the question: 

Which is best—a species or a hybrid? Among enthusiasts, this rather silly controversy sometimes waxes warm.

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This author maintains that there can be no such discrimination. Both may be equally good, sometimes for the same purpose, and certainly, each has its special advantages. When garden purposes are being considered, it is the individual, often than not, which is most significant regardless of whether its ancestry is hybrid or not.

Species or Hybrid

Our impressions of the plant we see about the label which accompanies it often lead to false assumptions if we do not realize what the common terms “species” and “hybrid” imply.

Now, what is a species as it applies to our garden plants? Many people think of a species as a hard and fast thing, like a “named” variety—a kind of plant, as it were, which follows a faithful pattern with little or no deviation from the typical form.

This can be true of a good many species, especially those which tend to “come true” from seed and are commonly propagated in that way. In such cases, the deviation between sister seedlings may be comparatively slight from the viewpoint of a casual observer.

But among the many garden plants which are ordinarily propagated by cuttings, grafts, division, and other vegetative means (chiefly because they do not “come true” from seed), such is not the case. Many of our leading garden plants, especially perennials and woody ornamentals, have been intensely selected and “improved” to the point that they differ widely from the common herd.

And while a great many wild species are relatively stable, there are others that, even in their natural forms, are quite unstable and may vary widely.

One Important Fact: A Species Constitutes A Whole Population

One important fact about natural species, applicable to almost all the higher plants, is the fact that a species constitutes a whole population or race —an aggregation of different, but related individuals rotating about a common or average pattern, known as the type.

The individuals constituting this population may deviate very little from the type, or, on the other hand, they may deviate very widely, depending upon the propensities of the group to which they belong. Where the deviation is wide, sister seedlings may belong to the same species and yet differ from one another like a litter of mongrel pups.

Our leading genera of cultivated plants are prone to be quite variable, this is often the thing that has made their improvement possible. Some appear to be in a state of flux evolution-wise, possessing no stability within the species itself nor solid boundaries to separate one species from another.

“Species” Is A Man-Made Concept

One must always remember that “species” is a man-made concept. A “genus” and “species” which constitute the binomial or two-named Latin term by which wild plants are identified, is mainly a convenient system of classification based as nearly as possible upon natural affinities. 

It differs only in degree from the broader term “family” or the narrower term “variety,” which, likewise, are collective terms denoting populations within their respective brackets.

The lure of a “new” species intrigues the minds of adventurous gardeners and helps build up enthusiasm for species. In the genus Rhododendron, for instance, where modern exploration has introduced scores of hitherto unknown wildlings into cultivation, this frenzy has run rampant. 

Many interesting new things have been discovered. Yet in the whole bulk, it must be conceded that perhaps 90% are horticulturally mediocre. A species is not necessarily good because it is a novelty.

The broad genus Rhododendron, which embraces azaleas, too, furnishes some good examples of the relative merits of species versus hybrids. Because it comprises a large group of some 900 species, scores of which are readily crossable and most of which are widely variable, it is one of those groups which are in a state of flux.

Variations between its extremes are tremendous, as may be noted by considering the examples on the accompanying color plate.

Their Native Habitat

The different types range from six-inch dwarfs to 60-foot trees. Most of the kinds shown here come from the mountains of Western China, that great melting-pot of species in and about the Himalayas. Because of their lack of hardiness, they are mostly unfamiliar to northeastern Americans but have done well in Britain and on our West Coast. And they have further potential usefulness in the genes that can contribute to future hybrid races.

Before Publishing NOTE CAPTURE THE DRAWING – Page 259

Figure 1 shows R. cinnabarinum, with tubular flowers which look more like those of honeysuckle than of a rhododendron, A form closely related to this, but with a more open flower, is R. concatenans, Figure 7, which has about the deepest yellow color of any evergreen rhododendron that I know. R. ambiguum,

Figure 2, looks more like an azalea with greenish-yellow flowers, yet it is a dwarf evergreen rhododendron and would make an interesting subject for floral arrangements with its dark, thick leaves. Along similar lines is B. Russian, Figure 14, a low-growing shrub that is covered with small blue-lilac flowers having white throats and is very useful for rock gardens or banks where the climate is suitable.

This is one of many similar oriental alpines belonging to the Lapponicuin series of rhododendrons which cover the incredibly high Himalayan meadows with purple, pink, and yellow flowers—the so-called “table-top” rhododendrons.

Although successful in Britain, few of these alpine rhododendrons thrive in our eastern American summers, not being geared up to our seasons. They are apt to start next year’s growth and bloom again in the autumn, becoming sparse in bloom, only to fizzle out or become winter-killed in our cold seasons.

But there is still hope for them. Among almost all of the species illustrated, variation between individual seedlings is apt to be considerable. Gardeners can discover good, poor, and indifferent plants within a batch of seedlings.

A few gardeners on difficult climbs take advantage of this variation to select rare, aberrant individuals which occasionally survive under conditions that destroy the others. There is always the possibility, therefore, that some rare seedling, harder than the rest, will five and become the basis for a new successful garden race.

Outstanding Forms

Such an individual plant, although not an interspecific hybrid and perhaps only a form of the natural species, may depart sufficiently from the type to constitute an utterly new thing. One must, therefore, carefully distinguish such rare individuals, which can be increased by vegetative propagation, from the run-of-the-mill seedlings arising from the same species.

Thus, for gardening purposes, an individual may be excellent, while the average of the species to which it belongs may be mediocre indeed. A species can be kept pure from generation to generation for only so long as it does not become contaminated by crossing with other plants. 

The seed taken from plants in a mixed collection is almost sure to be hybridized by the bees if two crossable species bloom at the same time. This likelihood is even greater because many plants are self-incompatible and do not set good seeds to their pollen.

If you see an exceptional plant labeled as a species, therefore, it is wise to inquire if it is a typical seedling or some fine-selected individual. For the protection of the buyer, such special plants should always be designated as clones and given “fancy” names for identification. This is particularly important when certain color variations are concerned.

For instance, R. Augustine, Figure 9, is as near to a blue color as any rhododendron ever gets. The example shown here, which is one of those growing in the collection on the Crown Lands in Windsor Great Park, England, is of good, blue-violet color.

There are other different individuals in existence which are similar as the best blue varieties of lilacs. All these may properly be considered non-hybrid members of this species. But if you were to raise seedlings, or purchase run-of-the-mill material, you would run the risk of getting plants that bear merely unattractive pale lavender-pink flowers—for that is the common form of R. Augustine.

Like many others, it is only the exceptional individuals of the species who have superior flowers. Although the species illustrated here are mainly shown as good individuals, few have yet received special names.

To be precise, the vegetative progeny of a superior individual is now officially called a clone, which under modern usage is supplanting the less accurate term “variety.” Reliable nurserymen now usually designate their best plants as such or give them special names to distinguish them from the average of the species.

R. dichroanthum, Figure 3, depicts a superior plant within what is normally a rather mediocre population. The matter is further confused by the fact that the example shown resembles a related sub-species, R. apodectum. There are many instances in this genus where the species seem to merge and it is hard to tell them apart.

Among the others illustrated are B. campylogynum, Figure 4, about I8 inches high and cushion-like with small, nodding flowers, and R. trichostomum var. ledoides, Figure 5, a small shrub that resembles Labrador Tea. R. scyphocalyx, Figure 11, is the nearest to a brown rhododendron that I have ever seen.

The Alpine Rose

R. ferrugineum, Figure 12, is the alpine rose from Europe in its two forms—pure white and sprightly rose-red. I feel that it is deserving of more trials in this country.

R. racemosum, Figure 13, has the advantage of being both beautiful and hardy in New York City. Its face turn, Figure 7, has a gorgeous blood-red color and shiny flowers but is a greenhouse subject. R. griersonianum, Figure 8, is one of the most-used reds in recent hybridization work but is not hardy outdoors except in mild climates.

R. wardii, Figure 6, is a fine yellow rhododendron from China, the size of our R. carolinianum, but not hardy enough for our northeast. Last, of all, R. discolor, Figure 15, is a Chinese species with large, white flowers, and it has already entered into several hybrid races, notably our American Dexters.

There are several other genera among our ornamental plants which resemble rhododendrons in having superior individuals among their species, and it doesn’t matter whether they are hybrids or not, a good plant is always a good plant.

44659 by Clement Bowers