The Versatile Rhododendron
D. E. Dougan, Cowchan Station, Vancouver Island, B.C.
The Genus Rhododendron seems to have been favored, in creation, by more than the usual, with beauty of form, foliage and flower. While undeniably in the front rank of the most beautiful flowering plants, many species might be said to bear foliage which would be difficult to find the equal of for character. beauty and variation. Thinking of the tiny leaved R. microleucum on one end of the scale and the magnificent leaves of falconeri on the other, both are easily identified as rhododendrons. The mantle of nobility fits one no less than the other.
Many a shrub such as the Philadelphus undoubtedly beautiful in flower, but springs glad weeks are soon spent and the Mock Orange as well as many another hardly rates a second glance after the transient blooms are gone. Not so the rhododendron. A well planted drift of rhododendrons planted with some thought for the infinite variation in flower, form and foliage is a joy even in winter's saddest days.
We think the tremendous contrast in foliage alone can make a collection of rhododendrons well worth the planting. Many of the species wear foliage which at any season, is beautiful enough to justify their stay in our gardens. Adding the beauty of their flowers and their habit of reacting to cold spells, as they do, by curling up their leaves in utter dejection only to smile again when the weather is more kindly, would we think, recommend them to the most discriminating.
Among the species which we are able to grow out of doors in our less than ideal exposure and climate and which particularly impress us as being lovely at all seasons are R. sutchuenense, R. strigillosum, R. wiltonii, R. concatenans, R. haematodes, R. insigne, R. exquisitum and R. orbiculare. Nor are the hybrids to be left out. We think the indumentum in the hybrids between R. haematodes and R. eriogynum called 'Grosclaude' is as lovely as any in the garden. We also are fond of the williamsianum hybrids for foliage contrast as well as their lovely blooms. R. 'Thomwilliams', 'Moonstone' and 'Bow Bells' all give a good account of themselves in the most select company. Such plants as R. 'Susan', 'Lady Bessborough', discolor and its hybrids make good contrast plants when planted with the more spectacular foliage plants.
A long standing regret in our area is our inability to grow R. falconeri with any hopes of long term success, although a plant of that species was brought to blooming size at the Layritz Nurseries in Victoria only to be killed in the 1955 freeze.
A large plant of R. hodgsonii growing out of doors at Royston, where it survived the 1955 cold, and still in good health would seem to argue that at least this form of R. hodgsonii is as hardy or hardier than any other of the series so noted for its magnificent foliage.
The species R. beesianum of the Lacteum series seems to be hardy here and although not as lovely in foliage as the best of the falconeri, the large leaves with their buff reverse make it a striking plant.
R. strigillosum seems to be perfectly hardy beyond having some foliage damage in the new growth in heavy spring frosts. This plant we think is among the first rank even in rhododendrons because of its very good habit, its most interesting foliage and the striking red trusses. There is a magnificent plant of this species at the Royston Nursery which must have survived many a harsh winter judging from its size.
We think the Lapponicum series a particularly useful one for the winter garden because of such plants as R. hippophaeoides, impeditum, intricatum and others of this small leaved series, which reminds us of the harsh loveliness of their mountain habitat. The Saluenense series also contains several good winter foliage plants. We like the brown leaves of R. calostrotum and R. riparium very much indeed.
While we grow a fairly large collection of rhododendrons and would not want to be without any of them, still we feel that with a knowledge of the habit of the species and hybrid rhododendrons even smaller city gardens might well use more of these plants, which when well planted, impart so much of their aristocratic air to the gardens which they occupy.