The History of the Species Study Group
by Susan B. Clark
The Species Study Group of the Massachusetts Chapter was started in the early 1980s. A small number of enthusiasts who wanted to learn more about species proposed the formation of the Group. Meetings were arranged to be held at the houses (and gardens) of members on a monthly basis.
In the first years the Group studied the taxonomy of species. After the first run-through, new members joined and some original members left; the study process started over again. Personal libraries were being created as members bought Leach's Rhododendrons of the World; Davidian's Rhododendron Species, Volume I; the first volume of the revision of the genus by Cullen for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Edinburgh; and Peter Cox's series on species, all excellent bed-time reading! Glossaries of botanic nomenclature had to be zealously studied as we tried to read these dense but informative books. Some of us started out modestly proud of keeping straight 'elepidote' and 'lepidote' but we soon were cartwheeling wildly through 'coriaceous, mucronate leaves' and 'sparsely floccose calyces'. Now the veterans of that intense study period breezily and, occasionally accurately, elaborate on zygomorphic flowers and 'loosely lanate-tomentose leaves'. It really was like learning a foreign language!
In the second half of the eighties, we rented the enormous slide course on species from the Rhododendron Species Foundation and dug into that, one slide tray at a time. Assignments were made to each participant to research a few species 'thoroughly' and report on them at the next meeting. We did so compulsively, keeping notebooks worthy of our younger selves. Our vocabularies were growing and our familiarity with the Genus Rhododendron was increasing rapidly. A few national conventions on the West Coast and trips to the Rhododendron Species Foundation near Seattle let us see in the ground many plants that we had only seen in pictures. A second run through the slide course with some new members of the group took place. We also were enthusiastically planting species in our own gardens.
Around this time some of the long-standing members began murmuring that reviewing R. dalhousiae and other Zone 9 plants again was not really what we wanted to do. What about learning about species suitable for New England? To do that we had to start learning what was already being grown here. That notion was combined with a growing desire to share some of our newfound knowledge with the other members of our chapter. We decided to publish a profile of a different species each month in the Chapter Newsletter, followed by a 5 question form, which readers could use to let us know if they had ever grown that plant and what their experience with it had been. Writing assignments were divided up among the Group members and in December of 1994 the Group published its first hardy species profile, on R. brachycarpum; this article was a summation of what we had learned from our many books and studies. We have tried to have a profile of a presumably hardy species in each Newsletter and our collection of reader responses continues to grow. We are collecting information on which species do well in northern and southern New England, as well as on which seem most unsuitable. These responses also are helping us build a list of where these species are being grown.
In the past few years the Species Study Group has broadened its interest in species for New England; we not only want to learn all we can about species already being grown in this part of the country, but we want to identify all the species that can be grown here. We have leapt into the age of the computer, not only with the information from the Profile questionnaires now in a data base, but with Joe's complete list of all species listed by various authors as hardy to -5° or better. This master list is now at the heart of our study as we collect field data to confirm or correct the book ratings. We are also searching out the many species possibly hardy here which, as far as we know, have not yet been tried in this part of the country. The master list has a surprisingly large number of unfamiliar plants which are not readily available; we have started to try to acquire seed for these species and to grow enough plants to distribute them among our members. We have thereby assigned ourselves many more years of happy research on Species for New England.
This booklet is a compilation of our efforts so far. It is a most tentative beginning, not in any way the conclusive completion of our task. We have learned a great deal, but there is so much more to do. But then that is the normal state for gardeners!
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