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Al Muller in his rhododendron garder

All Hail the King of Shrubs

by Irene Virag

I’ve been running into Al Muller ever since I started on the garden path, and he’s always extended the same invitation. "You have to come by in the spring and see my rhododendrons." I’ve always said I would, and my intentions have been genuine. But you know what’s paved with good intentions.

This season everything changed. I finally took action and visited Al’s "rhodies." He likes to say "rhodie" because, as he puts it, rhododendron is a mouthful and I always have to stop and think about how to spell it." The minute I arrived at Al’s house, I understood his enthusiasm. The overall effect was summed up by the variety name of his favorite bush-a 15-foot-high pink beauty that was little more than a seedling when he planted it 30 years ago-Scintillation. A couple of years ago, Al and his dachshund, Sassy, posed in front of the Scintillation for a Scotts Miracle-Gro catalog.

Anyway, Al has a panoply of bushes on his two-acre spread in Brookville-"about 75 big ones and 100 smaller plants"-and they’re all scintillating. And not one of them is the mauve variety that has become a cliché of foundation plants and decorates most suburban yards-including my own. There’s not a Roseum elegans in sight. Instead, there are billowing borders of yellow and white and red and shades of pink that run from pale to hot.

"Here’s a Percy Wiseman," Al said. "The bud is pink and it turns a soft pinkish yellow as it opens." He and his wife, Frances, were taking me on the truly grand tour through the backyard where a tulip tree provides just enough dappled shade to keep the plants happy and where he showed me the yet-to-be named red rhododendron that won him the coveted Hybridizer’s Cup from the New York chapter of the American Rhododendron Society this year. Al’s rhodie show continued down the driveway and along the 60-foot-deep block of rhododendrons that hide the house from the road.

"This one is called Barmstedt," he said at another stop on the tour. "See that perfect flush of leaves. The truss is well formed. I’d feel happy showing that. And that white Sappho with the dark purple blotch-the former president of the International Rhododendron Society said that was the best Sappho he’d ever seen."

It was the first Sappho I’d ever seen, and it was lovely. So were the red Nova Zembla and the pink Wheatley and the Charmont, which is light pink with a deeper pink edge, and the white Boule de Neige. And many more varieties that enable Al Muller to stage a show that starts in April and closes in June. Al, a former president of the New York chapter, has built a life around rhododendrons- writing about them and photographing them and hybridizing and nurturing them. I tried to find out what makes Al run to rhododendrons. "Rhododendrons are aristocratic plants," he told me. "They’re the king of shrubs."

Rhododendrons may also be in his blood. Or at least in his childhood. A trim, white-haired World War II veteran and Grumman retiree who designed the black box for the F-14 and other naval aircraft and worked on the lunar module,Al is a flower lover from way back.He was born and raised on the 123-acre rhododendron-filled estate of Howard Phipps in Old Westbury, where his father was the grounds superintendent.

His father, L.J. Muller, lived long enough to see Al marry his childhood sweetheart, who grew up on the estate next door, where her father was the chauffeur for Howard Phipps’ sister. He lived to see his son have two daughters and build a home-and start his own rhododendron plantings. Al’s father, who died in 1956, didn’t get to know his three great-grandchildren or to see a small bush grow into a towering beauty. But surely he would have found joy in both. "I think he’d be pleased with how things turned out," Al said, "and he’d certainly be thrilled by the Scintillation.

The New York Chapter of the American Rhododenron Society is pleased to have the opportunity of posting this article originally published in Newsday on Sunday, June 16, 2002. This article was written by Irene Virag, garden columnist for Newsday and author of her own book, "Gardening on Long Island with Irene Virag". We wish to thank both Newsday and Irene Virag for their kind permission.

©2002 Newsday. Inc. Reprinted with permission

Newsday photo/Karen Wiles Stabile