Charles Owen Dexter And Rhododendrons

Charles Owen Dexter with his rhododendrons.

Charles Owen Dexter and Rhododendrons

Dexter was a wealthy man who established the Beacon Manufacturing Company, which became one of the largest manufacturers of cotton blankets in the United States. He purchased the current site of Heritage Museums & Gardens, Shawme Farm, in 1921 and started to hybridize plants, starting with vegetables and later expanding his interests to rhododendrons. Dexter’s goals in hybridizing rhododendrons was hardiness, clear bright colors, fragrance and big blossoms. To develop his rhododendrons, Dexter collected plants around the world attempting to take the best characteristics from each one to combine into new cultivars.  At the height of his work, Dexter was creating over 10,000 rhododendron seedlings a year.

Characteristics of Dexter’s Hybrids

Heritage currently has approximately 150 named rhododendron varieties by Charles Owen Dexter and the Dexter Estate Superintendent J.C. Cowles, who hybridized in the 1960s. Dexter’s rhododendrons can be found in colors ranging from pure white, to pale yellow and pink, to red and purple with combinations of each. Many of the plants are of a fragrance reminiscent of orange blossom or even a slightly fruity fragrance. Heritage’s most notable rhododendron examples include:


Dexter’s Orange

  • ‘Scintillation’– with a subtle pink color with shades of yellow, ‘Scinitillation’ is considered to be the best of the more than 120 varieties created by Dexter. It can grow up to 8’ tall and 8’ wide in 20 years, has a pleasant fragrance, and when closely examined, it’s flower clusters are 8-10” across and made up of 20+ funnel-shaped clear pink blossoms with freckling on the upper side.
  • ‘Yellow Gate’– hybridized by Dexter Estate Superintendent J.C. Cowles in the 1960s, the ‘Yellow Gate’ rhododendron begins its bloom with coral pink buds that open into vibrant yellow petals.
  • ‘Dexter’s Orange’ – an original Dexter hybrid that boasts wonderful pink flowers that appear orange from a distance. They have the added bonus of being wonderfully fragrant.
  • ‘Dexter’s Spice’ – boasts one of the largest white flower clusters of any rhododendron. This cultivar is known for its fragrant flowers that has a distinctive spicey fragrance.
  • ‘Eben Jordan’– hybridized by Dexter Estate Superintendent J.C. Cowles in the 1960s, Eben Jordan is known for its beautiful magenta color with a white blush and deep magenta spots.

How Are Rhododendron Hybrids Created?

Simply put, pollen is taken from plant B, (the “father”, or pollen parent) and given to plant A (the “mother”, or seed parent) to produce a new, distinct seedling with characteristics from both.  As with many things in nature it isn’t always that straightforward.  Rhododendron hybridizing presents its own set of difficulties, ranging from how to recreate the optimal environmental conditions for fertilization, when to harvest the pollen, how to transfer the pollen to the seed parent, and when to harvest the seeds. Each of these considerations varies to differing degrees among the the different cultivars which Mr. Dexter created.  For a detailed examination of rhododendron hybridizing you can read this interesting article by The American Rhododendron Society.


Celebrate Heritage’s Rhododendron’s with Us!

From May 27-June 4, Heritage celebrates rhododendrons during peak bloom. Visitors will enjoy peaceful walks surrounded by majestic flowers, learn more about Heritage’s storied rhododendron legacy, participate in activities with horticulture experts, and take one of these signature plants home from the special plant sale.  Come to Heritage and celebrate these wonderful plants and their spectacular beauty with us.  Learn more!