CHARLES RAGER: HIS PLANTS, HIS SERVICE, HIS FRIENDS
By Dr. James E. Sefton
"Looking back, I would have to say those were wonderful years [the 1980s], and
Charles Rager's seedlings, new introductions, and constant curiosity were a huge part of it
all. No one could have had more fun, or taken more delight in his new discoveries and
'surprise' plants than Charles!"
‘Spotlite Hotline’ flower & eaf ‘Jackpot Wild Rose’¹ ‘Jackpot Majestic’² ‘Lil Pat’³
‘Rager’s Pink’4 ‘Rager’s Star’5 ‘Big Red’ ‘Oakwood Surprise'
‘Betty Boop’ ‘Sarahtoga’ ‘Rager’s Five Spot ‘Cream ‘n’ Green’ 6
Thus does Kay Young, who with her husband Bill operated Young's Mesa Nursery in the 1980s,
think of Charles Rager. Indeed, to anyone who knows him, Charles is a delightful person.
Born 87 years ago on a farm in Crawford County, Pennsylvania,
he had his first garden at age six and has enjoyed plants (and people) ever since.
Army duty in World War II brought him to Camp San Luis Obispo on California's Central
Coast, where he remained as a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. employee for 32 years. Now
retired to Saratoga, he keeps active with geraniums, though limited to a small number of
miniatures and dwarfs in his room.
Why geraniums? Charles credits his addiction to Helen Van Pelt Wilson's The Joy
of Geraniums (1947), which gave the plants wide public attention. He joined IGS in 1967,
became a Board member in 1971, and Membership Secretary in 1972. The same year, he
helped found the Central Coast Branch. He has been a Life Member of IGS since 1987.
Charles has always liked performing service and meeting people. Though limited
now by health problems, he still enjoys going to meetings. JoAnn Smith remembers how in
the early days they would be on the road before sunup to attend a show and Charles would
chuckle, "Just think, most people are still lying in bed while we are out having fun!" Gregarious
and inquisitive by nature, Charles liked the IGS scene of thirty years ago because he
could meet prominent hybridizers like Bill Schmidt, Clara May, Holmes Miller, and Frances
Hartsook. Charles' travels and conversations reinforced with ideas and techniques his life-long
curiosity about hybridizing, which has included fruit and vegetables as well as flowers. Bill
Schmidt used to say that for all the labor of his own efforts, a bee was still the best hybridizer.
And Charles was never one to let the little creatures' work go unappreciated. While
serving as Membership Secretary he had dozens of plants in his yard producing dozens of
seeds. He started packaging them up and sending them to members, a practice that began the
Seed Exchange, the lineal ancestor of the current Seed Center. This
(Continued on Page 3.)
exemplifies one of the main themes of Charles' life with plants: do fun things that make
nice people happy.
Always looking for new ways to share his hobby with others, Charles became
an avid photographer. As Kay Young remembers: "When Mrs. Rager was still able to
travel in their motorhome he would come down to the nursery, set up his backdrops and
spare camera, and spend the good part of a day photographing blooms at the nursery."
Many of his slides appeared in shows for the Central Coast Branch, and he submitted
many photos to this journal.
As a hybridizer Charles did not seek national commercial success. He did not
sell plants to mass marketers in hopes of royalties. He was quite satisfied to give plants
away at meetings, sell them at local shows, and introduce them through Young's Mesa
Nursery. When the nursery introduced his plants, they were always the best in growth
habit, flower size, and color out of many examples, and the introduction would be a
group of the same type, such as Angels, Ivies, or Semi-dwarf Zonals. The nursery catalog
for 1989 featured a group of 20 new Semi-dwarf Zonals that Charles named the
Jackpot Series. These he introduced himself as a body of work at the l988 Central Coast
show and then turned the plants over to the nursery for development and sale.
Charles raised hundreds of seedlings from bee crosses, and hundreds more from
his personal hybridizing. Like all careful growers he kept records, but not all have survived
his various residential moves. In late 2002 he compiled from his available records
an inventory of 104 plants he had created between 1977 and 2001. The inventory consists
of 37 Zonals, 25 Angels, 18 Ivies, 14 Scenteds, 8 Species, and 2 Regals.
Charles named the first plant in what became the Jackpot Series of Zonals
"Janet," without the prefix, in honor of his wife. As with those that followed, the seed
parent was "Salmon Floral Cascade" and the pollen parent an unnamed dwarf seedling.
"Janet" is a double rose pink. Among the others, "Jackpot Orange Ruffles" is a small
double orange, "Jackpot White Cap" a double white, "Jackpot Summertime" a semidouble
light pink, and "Jackpot Chief" a large double orange-red. The plants are all
semi-dwarf, but very bushy and floriferous. Elsewhere among Charles' Zonals, "Happy"
produced "Li'l Pat," a double peach and white, "Black Vesuvius" generated "Orange
Gem," and "Deacon Barbecue" produced "Rager's Pink."
Another major series was the Spotlite line of Ivies, created in 1987. All thirteen
were the product of grafts, which appealed very much to Charles' curiosity. In some
cases he started with an unnamed "Summer Showers" F-1 seedling, in others a wellestablished
cultivar. The grafts included "Rouletta," "Crocodile," "Harlequin Mahogany,"
"Harlequin Picotee," and "Harlequin My Love." Thus, "Spotlite Destiny," a double
lavender with white stripes on each petal, came from a "Harlequin Mahogany" graft
onto "Mrs. Martin." "Spotlite Gigolo," in which Charles grafted "Rouletta" onto
"Monty," emerged, not surprisingly as an orange with a white stripe. When "Harlequin
Mahogany" received a graft of "Crocodile," the result was "Spotlite Knockout," showing
off its mahogany petals, white stripe, and mottled green and white leaves. One of the
most remembered in the series is "Spotlite Plum Tart," a single purple with a white
stripe that came from grafting "Rouletta" onto a "Summer Showers" seedling. It is a
good basket plant if you like long trailing stems.
Footnotes: 1. www.pelargoniumoasen.blogspot.com 2. www.monicaliljaingelmark.se/
3. thegeraniumpage.com/ 4. picasaweb.google.com (Elena LIoganson’s Gallery) 5.
spek.bizland.com/ 6. www.fuchsia.be/en/
There were other well-appreciated Ivies along the way. "Burgundy Beauty," of
grower's love but unremembered parentage, is a very strong basket plant which had favored
status at Young's. "Big Red," which came from "Decora Red" in 1986, proved to
be another good basket plant. "Blue Ribbon," a progeny of "Decora Lavender," proved
true to its name by winning blue ribbons at the Central Coast show and also the Mid-
State Fair in 1986.
Most of Charles' Scenteds are forms of lemon. This was a special focus in 1998-
99, when he raised large numbers of seedlings from P. crispum and P. citronellum.
These became the "Rager's Lemon" series, with numbers rather than unique names.
They vary in flower size and other minor floral characteristics, and some have a particularly
strong scent, such as No. 2, a tall citronellum seedling with a flower similar to
Charles' contributions to the world of Angels are chance seedlings, in some
cases second generation ones. An example is "Oakwood Surprise," whose upper petals
are various shades of purple and the lower petals white. This arrived as a seed from the
Seed Center in 1996, won a blue ribbon at the 1997 Central Coast show, and soon produced
"Oakwood Starlet" (1999), which in turn produced "Mabel's Angel," "Linda's
Angel," "Lynne's Angel," and "Starlet's Sister" in 2001. Charles also found interesting
results in seeds from "Old Orchard," "Solferino," "Roller's Shadow," and of course
"Veronica Contreras," long a favorite of collectors. That famous plant gave Charles one
descendant with dark red-purple centers to lavender upper petals and white lowers with
lavender lines. Not knowing what to call it, Charles asked JoAnn Smith, always a source
of amusing plant names, who christened it "Betty Boop."
The wild colors and markings of Regals are a hybridizer's challenge. Charles
introduced only two, neither a deliberate cross. One is "Marsolee," a dark purple and red
bicolor, that came to him from Charles Blodgett as a second generation seedling. The
other, "Cream "n Green" for its variegated leaves, is pink with white edges and a dark
blotch on each petal. Some people will say this is a strange regal because it is a sport of
a seedling of "New Gypsy," which is itself a sport of "Firedancer." It went to England in
1983 where, odd or not, it grew well and gave pleasure.
If Charles developed few Regals, he planted many seeds of P. cucullatum, the
chief ancestor of the Regals. The results, however, were limited. Chance seedlings from
this species, while numerous, offer a narrow range of variations in lines and shadings, a
characteristic confirmed in Charles' inventory.
It is a common social game in geranium circles to ask someone what his or her
favorite plant is. To answer is often difficult, all the more so if one is a hybridizer as
well as a collector. Charles lists six favorites: "Marsolee," "Cream "n Green," "Janet,"
"Spotlite Plum Tart," "Burgundy Beauty," and "Geri Rush," one of his Angels. The selection
of favorites is always personal and subjective, and there are always many left
behind. But while Charles provided six choices for this essay, the truth is he has loved
all his plants, spectacular or plain, unique or common, named or nameless.
The truth also is that all of the different activities -- the service to IGS, the traveling
to meetings, the visiting with growers, the photography, the home hybridizing, the
selling and giving of plants -- all go together to form a consistent whole. They all confirm
the sharing, happiness, and intellectual curiosity that have marked his eighty-year
life with plants, going back to that little boy garden in rural Conneautville, Pennsylvania.
[This article originally appeared in Geraniums Around the World, Volume 54, No. 2,
2006, pp. 13-16. It is reprinted here with kind permission of the last editor, Faye
Brawner, and the author, Dr. James Sefton.]
Note from Bill Lemke: One of Charles’ last Angels named by JoAnne Smith is ‘Sarahtoga’ (the correct spelling
is “Sarahtoga”). This a beautiful angel available from Robin Parer’s nursery as ‘Saratoga.’
N.B. All photographs are by Wayne Handlos unless otherwise noted.