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History of the ARS Seed Exchange

David Leach wrote in the January 1963 Quarterly Bulletin of the ARS that the growing of species was very much more widespread in the British Isles than it was in America and one reason was probably the annual seed distribution of the Royal Horticultural Society.  He thought an ARS seed exchange would encourage the cultivation of species in the widest possible range.  He pointed out that a further consideration was the potential development of locally adaptable forms of species when they were grown from seeds.  Specialists have repeatedly observed how some plants in a seed lot of a species will be conspicuously more vigorous and occasionally appreciably hardier than the other.  Thus some species strains evolved which were more adaptable to the local climate and which made possible the cultivation of that species by others in the same region.  Guy G. Nearing was a pioneer in the selection of hardy forms of species normally unsuited to the New Jersey climate and he made important contributions doing this.

Also, in the January 1963 edition of the Quarterly Bulletin, President J. Harold Clarke announced that a new project envisioned for 1963 was a seed exchange.  The ARS Board had approved it in principle, and a new committee would work out details.  The announcement was popular with many ARS members.  Gordon Emerson said it was "the best news in many a day." [4]

Molly Grothaus wrote that the proposed seed exchange was an excellent idea.  She thought the most democratic way to organize the seed exchange was that each member would be allowed the same maximum number of packets and pay a flat fee to defray the costs involved in the seed exchange.  She also would give first preference in asking for seed to the members who donated seed to the exchange, and supplied seed to other members in the sequence their letters were postmarked.

Esther Berry was selected chair of the ARS Seed Exchange.  In 1963, the first year of the program, it was limited to the seed of species rhododendrons.  Members collected the seed during the year and sent them to the Grays Harbor Chapter which packaged and distributed them.  The January 1964 Bulletin published a list of the seed thus made available. 

The first seed list was not as complete as anticipated.  Esther reported that the best seed that was possible at that time was hand-pollinated from plants that were considered typical.  She encouraged efforts toward that end.  She said that was a goal that was reasonable, worthwhile and possible, but not immediately attainable.  In most cases, only a very limited quantity of seed was available; in some the quantity was so small that it was thought best to offer half packets only.  In that way a larger number of persons would have the opportunity to acquire the seed.  To cover the cost of cleaning, packing and mailing this seed there was a charge of $5.00 per packet, except for half-packets which will be $2.50 each.  All hand-pollinated seed was in small packets at 50 cents.

By 1965, the seed exchange had grown to be a major enterprise: 2,500 packets were sent out to 227 applicants.  In 1965, Mrs. Berry announced some alterations to the ARS Seed Exchange.  The seed was divided into two parts; part one contained kinds which were in adequate supply.  Members could order as many kinds as they wish from that list but only one packet of each kind.  Open pollinated seed on that list was 25 cents per packet, and hand pollinated seed was 50 cents.  Part two contained choice seed which was in very limited supply, sometimes only a single packet; the number of packets which an applicant could receive from that list was limited.  Contributors were again given first choice before the general distribution began.

In 1966, the seed exchange committee packaged and distributed approximately 6000 packages of seed.  The quantity of seed distributed doubled during each of the first three years of the program.  Fortunately there was also a corresponding increase in contributors and the quantity of seed contributed.  They sent seed to Belgium, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and England.  There was an exceptionally brisk demand for seed collected in the wild, and surprisingly there was considerable interest in seed from the more tender rhododendrons.

By 1967, the seed list had become quite international in its scope.  Two world famous gardens: Exbury of England and Brodick Castle of Scotland each sent a fine selection of seed.  Mr. K. Wada, Dr. Tsuneshige Rokujo, Mr. Teruo Takeuchi and Dr. Schichi Hirao all sent seed from Japan.  Johannes Hedegaard supplied seed of the hardy rhododendrons that he grows in Denmark and the Belgian Experiment Station for Ornamental Plants contributed azalea seed.

There was a marked increase in the number of items collected in the wild.  The mountains of Austria, Spain, Japan, and New Guinea were all represented.  Of particular interest was the Malaysian (Vireya) species which came from Dr. H. Sleumer as a gift of the Lae Botanic Garden and from Mr. P. G. Valder of the University of Sydney.  They also had the rare R. sanctum from David Leach, R. alutaceum from the Portland Test Garden, R. taronense from the Bowmans and many other exciting things, both species and hybrid crosses using plants from the Rock collection, sent in by Dr. Carl Phetteplace and Cecil Smith.

In 1968, it was the ARS Seed Exchange's good fortune that Mr. Frank Doleshy of Seattle made another journey to study the Rhododendrons native to Japan.  He returned with generous supplies of seed for the seed exchange.  Johannes Hedegaard of Denmark sent seed collected in the wild in China and the U.S.S.R.  Seed was received from James Comber, who was the manager of a rubber plantation in Borneo.  This seed was collected in the Mt. Kinabalu State Park.  Mt. Kinabalu is 13,500 ft. high and has occasional frost at higher elevations.  Warren Berg sent selfed seed of several named forms of the ever-popular Exbury azaleas.  There were hybrid crosses from Dr. Yelton of North Carolina and Robert Emmerich on the east coast.

Even before the ARS Research Foundation was in place in 1976, research projects had been funded from money from the Seed Exchange, such as the work of Dr. W. C. Anderson at Mount Vernon, Washington, under the title of "Tissue Culture Propagation and Rapid Multiplication of Rhododendrons". [14] This project was one of the first pioneer research studies on tissue culture techniques anywhere in the world.  In addition twelve grants of $500 each were made using funds from the Seed Exchange, which at that time was under the direction of Mrs. Esther Berry.  These grants provided for a wide range of research including nutrition, propagation, the nature of the control of flowering, regeneration of roots on bare rooted plants, protection from cold injury, propagation of deciduous azaleas, embryo culture, nature of pollen tube growth, establishment of container grown plants, and effect of herbicides on rooting and flowering.

In 1978, Kay Ogle reported that in her first year as ARS Seed Exchange chairman, she received 680 orders for 12,000 packets of seed from 36 states and 13 foreign countries.  This did not include the Malaysian (Vireya) seed handled by Esther Berry.  Seed was supplied to many of the leading arboreta of the world including the Edinburgh Botanic Garden.  The largest volume item was unidentified species from China with 250 Packets sent out.  There were over 100 contributors who made the effort and took the time to pollinate, collect, clean and contribute the seed.

The supply from international contributors was active and generous.  However there was a shortage of native American species, particularly the special forms.  Everyone wanted yellow carolinianum and the named forms of bakeri, occidentale and catawbiense.  They did not include in the catalog any item which had a quantity fewer than five packets.  These were used for substitutions.  Thanks to George Ring, they had a good start on a slide program of plants raised and flowered from the Seed Exchange. 

After two years as Seed Exchange Chairman, Kay Ogle regretfully resigned and the Seed Exchange was placed in the capable hands of Bill Tietjen, Guilford, CT.  Bill had recently retired and was serving as President of the New York Chapter of the ARS. 

In 1985, Jack Cowles said, "the real 'moon landing' in rhododendron research, in his opinion, happened with the formation of a 'seed exchange'; by and for members of the American Rhododendron Society. [13]  That year, seed from 36 states and 13 countries was listed and 12,000 packets were sold.  The income provided support for the ARS budget and also helped to fund research projects.

Starting in 1987, Bill Moyles started handling Vireya seed for the ARS Seed Exchange.  Bill Moyles had been an active member of the American Rhododendron Society for 19 years.  He was also a hybridizer of rhododendrons (non Vireya) and had several 'in the trade'.  He maintained a half-acre garden in the Oakland hills, combining rhododendrons with conifers and other compatible plants.  Bill was retired from the University of California at Berkeley.

Bill Moyles reported in the JARS on the 1989 Vireya Seed Exchange: "For those of you who have not seen the list of the ARS Seed Exchange for the past two years, it may be news that a variety of Vireya seed were included."  Though always in short supply - and this year in even shorter supply - some Vireya seed have been available.  In 1989 the Vireya Seed Exchange was able to list over 30 selections from both US and overseas contributors; over 200 packets of seed were distributed.  Many rare species (e.g., R. leucogigas, R. hellwigii, R. goodenoughii, R. luralense) and interesting hybrid crosses were included.  Seed was received from the Palni Hills (7000 ft.) in South India, from the Pukeiti Trust in New Zealand, from South Africa, from Melbourne, Australia, from Ft. Bragg, California, and other places." [19]

Seed often represents the only access to rare Vireya species.  Growing Vireyas from seed was both satisfying and frustrating, and Vireya seeds presented more problems than other rhododendron seed.  Besides exhibiting a rapid loss of viability they were often slow developers.  Even after good germination, some will just languish for no apparent reason (look for wet roots!).  One can never expect instant success, but the potential rewards of perseverance were evidenced in the color plates appearing in past issues of the Journal: vibrant reds and oranges; bi-colors; large fragrant pinks.

Because Vireya seed take that extra bit of care and patience, a two-page germination guide was made available.  The "Vireya Vine," a quarterly newsletter edited faithfully by E. White Smith, and sponsored by the Rhododendron Species Foundation, was the best exchange forum for Vireya growers - new and old.  It was based solely on "letters to the editor" and offered a unique, hands-on perspective on Vireya growing.  There was less margin for error in collecting and storing Vireya seed than with other rhododendrons.  Vireya seed was collected from mature (splitting) capsules and after a brief drying was popped into the freezer until it could be sent.

After Bill Moyles received the seed, he stored it at 0 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent any further deterioration, otherwise it quickly lost viability.  Vireyas were marvelously varied plants requiring only minimal care once established.  Being semitropical and often epiphytic they did have specific temperature needs and demanded excellent drainage.  But, as Dick Cavender pointed out "as a group Vireyas will tolerate more rough treatment than any of the others." [18]

In 1989, after ten exciting years as ARS Seed Exchange Chairman, Ginny and Bill Tietjen decided to retire.  In the next season the Seed Exchange was in the capable hands of Linda Wylie, Eugene, OR, a member of the Eugene Chapter.

In 1993, the ARS Vireya Seed Exchange received over 40 requests for seed and distributed over 400 packets.  Approximately 25 percent of the requests came from overseas ARS members.  This was the first year in some time that Bill Moyles was able to offer at least a bit of wild collected seed - Alan Clark's collection from Vietnam and an anonymous collection (R. buxifolium) from Mt. Kinabalu (Sabah).

At the 1994 ARS Annual Convention in Asheville, George Woodard received instructions on how to facilitate and cultivate the national ARS Seed Exchange from Linda Wylie.  George quipped that "it would be much easier for me if she had done a terrible job". [22]  Linda had been dedicated and thorough and did an outstanding job for four years.

George believed the Seed Exchange represented one of the best activities the ARS had to offer.  Some members who had been hybridizing for a long time had ceased contributing to the Seed Exchange.  In other cases a network of friends developed and seed was shared between them, some seed was sent to local seed chapter exchanges, and, after all of that, whatever was leftover was sent to the national Seed Exchange.  George wanted to see a change, basically by asking everyone to pollinate more flowers each time a cross was made.  He appealed, "Throw three in for the national." Do three extra flowers of whatever cross you were making and send it in.  If the Seed Exchange could make more money, more money could be distributed to gardens like Meerkerk, the Cecil Smith garden, Planting Fields, the Rhododendron Species Foundation, etc.  [22]

From the very beginning the Seed Exchange had accepted open-pollinated seeds, due to an inadequate supply of seeds, but as the supply improved, the demand for open-pollinated seeds dwindled.  Finally in 1995, George Woodard made the decision, we were "no longer going to accept open-pollinated seed - except in cases where a species was known not to hybridize or the species was very rare." [25]

George Ring pointed out that George Woodard's request for hand-pollinated seeds of species rhododendrons was really a request for seeds from authentic forms of the species.  Hand-pollinated flowers on plants grown from previously distributed open-pollinated seed should not be expected to reproduce a true species even though the seed parent may somewhat resemble a species.

George Woodard reached out to a new group of hybridizers who supplied seed of crosses that were more significant and that excited the interest of growers.  George obtained species seed, from the Rhododendron Species Foundation as well as from individuals, both from gardens and from plant expeditions.

In 2001, John Nicolella took over as chair of the ARS Seed Exchange.  He promised to continue George Woodard's efforts to encourage all ARS members to participate and to seek out more contributors.  He still did not accept open pollinated seed from hybrids.  Open pollinated seed from species was collected in the wild or collected from species known to be only self-fertile.  The exchange only accepted cleaned and well-marked seed.  The deadline for receiving seed was December 1.  The price of all seed packets was made the same.  The Seed Exchange continued the practice of donating funds to gardens, such as the Cecil and Molly Smith Garden, the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden, Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens, and Planting Fields Arboretum.

In 2001, the most popular seed was the seed collected by Jens Nielson in Tibet.  The Exchange hoped to continue seeking opportunities to contribute funds to such expeditions.  To that end, the exchange extended to all ARS members the offer that if they donated a minimum of $20 to go to the Exchange's next partially funded expedition, they would receive all of the benefits due any contributor.

To supplement the efforts of the Pollen Bank, in 2007 the ARS Seed Exchange introduced a Pollen-to-Seed program.  The ARS Seed Exchange would pay up to $100 (USD) to reimburse contributors of seed to the Exchange for purchase of pollen from plants they deem desirable to use in their breeding programs from pollen sources of their choosing.  The Exchange then expected to receive seed produced from crosses made using this pollen within 2-4 years of receiving the pollen.  The Exchange acknowledged that seed may not be produced in some cases and, if so, no problem.  Seed contributors from 2004 through 2007 catalog were eligible.

The following is a chronological list of the ARS Seed Exchange Chairs:

  1963 to 1977         Esther Berry
  1977 to 1979         Kay Ogle
  1979 to 1989         Bill Tietjen
  1989 to 1994         Linda Wylie
  1994 to 1999         George Woodard
  1999 to 2009         John Nicolella
  2009 to present     Norm Beaudry


  1. “A Seed Exchange for Society Members”; by David G. Leach; QBARS V17, N1; January 1963
  2. “ARS President’s Report”; by J. Harold Clarke; QBARS V17, N1; January 1963
  3. “About The Proposed Seed Exchange”; by Gordon G. Emerson; QBARS V17, N2; April 1963.
  4. “Another View on the Society Seed Exchange”; by Molly M. Grothaus; QBARS V17, N3; July 1963.
  5. “The Initial Plans for the Society Seed Exchange”; by Esther Berry; QBARS V17, N2; April 1963.
  6. “ARS Seed Exchange, 1964”; by Esther Berry; QBARS V18, N1; January 1964.
  7. “Seed Exchange 1965”; by Mrs. Robert Berry; QBARS V19, N1; January 1965.
  8. “Seed Exchange Notes”; by Esther Berry; QBARS V20, N4; October 1966.
  9. “Seed Exchange - International”; by Mrs. Robert Berry; QBARS V21, N1; January 1967.
  10. “Seed Exchange 1968”; by Esther Berry; QBARS V22, N1; January 1968.
  11. “Seed Exchange Notes”; by Esther Berry; QBARS V27, N4; October 1973.
  12. “Rhododendrons from Seed” by Jack Cowles; QBARS V28, N3; October 1974.
  13. “ARS Funds Twelve Research Programs”; by August Kehr; QBARS V29, N3; July 1975
  14. “Seed Exchange Report”; by Kay Ogle; JARS V32, N4; Fall 1978.
  15. “Bill Tietjen to be New Seed Exchange Chairman”; by Kay Ogle; JARS V33, N4; Fall 1979.
  16. “Collecting and Storing Rhododendron Seed: Sources”; by Jack Cowles; JARS V39, N1; January 1985
  17. “In Defense Of Vireyas”; by Dick Cavender; JARS V41, N3; Summer 1987.
  18. “The Vireya Seed Exchange”; by Bill Moyles; JARS V44, N1; Winter 1990.
  19. “New Seed Exchange Chairman”; by Bill Tietjen; JARS V43, N4; Fall 1989.
  20. “Notes From The Vireya Seed Exchange”; by Bill Moyles, Oakland, California; JARS V47, N4; Fall 1993.
  21. “New Chairman to Head ARS Seed Exchange”; by George Woodard; JARS V48, N3; Summer 1994.
  22. “ARS Seed Exchange: A Precious Resource”; by Allan and Shirley Anderson; JARS V48, N4; Fall 1994.
  23. “From the President”; by Dick Brooks; JARS V 49, N2; Spring 1995.
  24. “Hand Pollinated Seeds Only?”; by George Ring; JARS V50, N2; Spring 1996.
  25. “Commentary: The Challenge of the Seed Exchange”; by Herman C. (Bud) Gehnrich, Eastern Vice President; JARS V51, N2; Spring 1997.
  26. “Changes at the ARS Seed Exchange”; by John Nicolella; JARS V55, N1; Winter 2001
  27. “Seed Exchange Committee: 2007 Pollen-to-Seed Program”; (no author); JARS V61, N1; Winter 2007.

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