Pictured above: Rhododendron 'Christmas Cheer'
Eight days before a collection of rhododendrons hybridized and registered by Bellevue native Jim Barlup were unveiled at Wells Medina Nursery, the 84-year-old parked his van at the nursery and walked a B-line toward his old stomping grounds. Ambling through the nursery's rhododendron house dislodged memories of his 15-year tenure at Wells Medina Nursery and his early days as a hybridizer.
Prior to his career in horticulture, Barlup was a photographer in Seattle for seven years. Between frequent trips to the arboretum, he was hired to shoot The Beach Boys’ first program. He left photography in 1974 and took a “year off,” during which he climbed Mt. Rainier and decided to clean up his backyard which, in his mind, was a complete mess.
“I decided to plant some rhododendrons and I began looking for coral and orange flowers,” Barlup said. “I went looking at several nurseries, and I came to Wells Medina and they said, ‘We only have one orange, called Medusa.’
“So I thought, ‘Why aren’t there more?’ Maybe I should create some.”
In 1975, Barlup began his mission of creating an orange rhododendron and spent a good deal of time visiting Wells Medina to talk to its owner, Ned Wells, about horticulture and hybridizing. Soon, the conversation turned toward employment and Barlup was hired to help during the busy spring season.
“I was only supposed to from the first of March to the end of May, but I was still there 15 years later,” Barlup said.
During his tenure at Wells Medina, Barlup sewed himself into the circle of rhododendron hybridizers, collectors, growers and enthusiasts like himself. In the process of creating an orange rhododendron, he created plants of several other colors, shapes, sizes and fragrances. He also learned that hybridizing takes a tremendous amount of patience.
It takes between four to six years before a hybrid flowers and Barlup can decide whether it meets his expectations. Sometimes they come up short, but occasionally he is pleasantly surprised.
“Maris – I thought this one was going to be a great plant, but it could have turned out a little better,” Barlup said as he strolled through the Wells Medina collection before it’s unveiling. “But here, Sun Shower, I didn’t think that was going to be good at all, but it turned out pretty good.”
The veteran hybridizer tends to categorize his hybrids into “good” and “everything else.” When he gets the result he wants, it take about ten years to register the plant and put a name on it, which he did for the first time in 1978 with the orange-yellow flowering Sedona.
“I get my names in a lot of ways, sometimes from music, sometimes they come in a dream,” Barlup said. “Carol's Candy was named after a woman who took care of the plant and said that it looked like candy.”
Barlup's list of around 250 registered and named hybrids include Heidi’s Love and Mindi's Love, named after his dogs; Teri Lee, named after a lady working at Marenakos Rock Center; and Terra, a name he saw on a cashier’s name tag and couldn’t get out if his head.
Barlup retired from the workforce in 1991 and turned his focus entirely toward hybridizing. His current projects include working with hybridizers on the eastern seaboard to create an East-West cross than can survive on both coasts, tweaking Laramie because “it gets too darn tall,” and circling back to his first objective as a hybridizer.
“My first hybrid was orange, and I’m still working on orange!” Barlup said.
In his four-plus decades of hybridizing, Barlup has been incredibly prolific and innovative in his field. In 2004, he was awarded the Gold Medal by the American Rhododendron Society and has a bench dedicated to him and his wife, Judy, at the Bellevue Botanical Garden.
In recent years, Barlups plants are being grown by fewer nursery vendors and have become increasingly hard to find in the United States. He has sent more than 800 cuttings to a propagating group in Victoria, British Columbia, which will have more than 100 cultivars this spring. With his plants disappearing in the United States, the hybridizer was happy to see them at Wells Medina, especially in such wonderful condition.
“The grower makes all the difference,” Barlup said. “These came from a very good grower and even look a lot better than the ones at my house.”