Rhododendrons on Vancouver Island
by D. E. Dougan, Cowichan Bay, BC
Because of the influence of the cold winds which occasionally sweep down the mainland inlets, carrying with them outbursts of arctic air, the east coast of Vancouver Island can be difficult country in which to grow rhododendrons. Our winter lows frequently reach zero and we read with envy, accounts of rhododendron gardens in areas with more gentle winters.
Those of us who can't resist them grow the tender aristocrats such as R. bullatum, lindleyi, kyawii, maddenii and others of their type under glass in the winter, with just enough heat to keep out the frost. Here too, we grow the early flowering species such as R. moupinense, ciliatum and leucaspis as well as their hybrids, because in this area they flower too early to be reliable out of doors.
However, we are able to bloom with reasonable frequency such lovely plants as R. 'Lady Chamberlain', 'Fusilier' and others in this hardiness category. Plants such as discolor, 'Albatross', 'Sunrise' and the Naomi's are seldom damaged. We grow several Dutch plants such as R. 'Jean Marie De Montague', 'Britannia', 'Earl of Athlone', 'Kluis Sensation' and others and would not want to be without them. However, the bulk of the hybrids in our gardens are the lovely plants originated at such places as Exbury, Bodnant and Caerhays.
Perhaps it is because these plants are mostly primary crosses and more nearly approach the character and purity of the species that we love them as we do. A well flowered plant of R. 'Jean Marie De Montague' is undoubtedly an arresting sight, but certainly is not more lovely than the less brilliantly colored R. 'Naomi' or the exquisite trusses of R. 'Albatross' while, although less hardy than the Dutch reds, the exotic blooms of R. 'Fusilier' know few equals.
Because we regard the English plants so highly we were perplexed to read the blanket denunciation of them in an opinion expressed in the recent quarterly bulletin, holding that they were "loose floppy and dog eared." This would seem to us to be much too sweeping. Undoubtedly the performance of any plant will vary a great deal between California and Vancouver Island and indeed from situation to situation, but with us the English plants certainly leave little to be desired in the way of plant habit and tidiness. Surely there is room in our gardens for both the flamboyant reds and the more subdued and gentle whites, pinks and yellows. If our goal is to be the ever larger truss and brighter colour, surely we have lost sight of the delicate beauty and character of the species. What gardener, having seen the R. cinnabarinum, the thomsonii, the bullatum and the R. maddenii in bloom can ever want to be without them.
Reflecting on our own evolution as gardeners, bold splashes of colour were our first objective however attained. Colour we still love but we look now for colour accents rather than solid banks of brilliant coloring. Perhaps it is that nature in the perfection of her high alpine gardens has left her impression on us in this way. To have walked the high hills and seen the perfection of the alpine plants is to remember them always and in remembering, to have gained perspective.