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History of Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society

By Ted Stecki

The American Rhododendron Society (ARS) was founded July 1944, in Portland, Oregon, by a group of people who liked rhododendrons and wanted to learn more about them. There were no chapters until 1949. However there were many people interested in joining the ARS from all over the United States so this lead to the formation of chapters. The New York chapter was the first. The Portland chapter was founded in 1952.

In the Philadelphia area there were members of the ARS who felt that a local chapter should be started. On November 11, 1957, 17 individuals met at Morris Arboretum, in the Chestnut Hill section to charter the new Philadelphia Chapter. Two ARS members who were the driving force behind getting the chapter started were Betsi Kelius of Levittown, PA, and Charles (Charlie) Herbert of Valley Forge, PA. When the chapter’s first meeting was held in January 1958 at Morris Arboretum, the Chapter’s bylaws were approved by 19 members present and sent to the ARS. Betsi was voted in as President and Charlie as VP. Dr. J.W. Fogg Jr., who was director of the Morris Arboretum at that time, was the secretary – treasurer. Dr. Franklin West was one of the earliest members. The renowned horticulturist Polly Hill (1907 - 2007) joined our chapter in 1962. Joe Becales, joined in 1964 as did Dan and Betts Layman and Bruce Keyser.

In 1957 there were only Six chapters in the ARS: Portland, New York, Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver and Philadelphia. Dues were $5.00, associate dues were $1.50. Today there are 70 chapters located around the world with over 4,000 members.

Over the years, meetings have been held at Morris Arboretum, St. Joseph’s University, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's former offices at Third and Walnut Streets in Center City Philadelphia, Fairmount Park Horticultural Center, and now, coming full circle, again at Morris Arboretum.

The chapter was very active in its early years, having garden tours, plant sales, truss shows and of course banquets. The first banquet was held at the Union League in Philadelphia in 1959. Annual banquets have been held ever since.

In May 1962 the ARS held it’s 18th annual meeting/convention on the East Coast. This was a first for the Society. Eight of the eastern chapters participated, including Philadelphia. Henry DuPont invited the society to have the meetings at Winterthur. His home and garden were opened for the meeting, and Longwood Gardens was opened for tours and meetings. DuPont was a tour guide at both gardens. At the dinner/banquet Dr. John Wister, a member of the chapter, received the Society’s Gold medal. Other notables at the meeting included Dr. David Leach, Joseph Gable, Dr. John Creech of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dr. Clement Bowers, author and lecturer, Henry Skinner, Director of the National Arboretum, and Rudolph Henny, renowned hybridizer from Oregon.

In 1989 the chapter’s name was changed to the Greater Philadelphia Chapter, recognizing that the chapter drew members from the tristate region of southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and southern New Jersey. Betts Layman was the chapter president at that time.