Seven Dwarfs Without Snow White
Ruth M. Wood, St. Helens. Oregon
Having been elected to draw up a slate of favorite dwarf rhododendrons I submit the following. Any list of favorites is a matter of personal selection. You may heartily disagree.
R. williamsianum is a tightly compact spreading shrub. We prefer the lower form with pink fairy bell flowers, usually two or three to the truss. These are red in the bud. The new growth is a deep bronze color almost as delightful as the bloom. Some writers suggest that this plant needs pampering. Not so in our garden where it blooms in sun, part sun and shade.
R. pemakoense is one of the most popular of pygmy rhododendrons although there is quite a large range in color of bloom. Pink is probably preferable. The leaves are bright green, up to one inch long. The plant is free flowering and most of the widely funnel shaped blooms open at once so that the foliage can hardly be seen.
Flowering during February and March in the Pacific Northwest, R. leucaspis comes at a flower hungry time. The chocolate colored anthers contrast sharply with the flat creamy-white flowers borne doubly and sometimes triply on terminal branches. F. Kingdom-Ward in his book "Rhododendrons" has expressed the charm of this plant when he says, "...R. leucaspis will form a low, more or less rounded shrublet perhaps two feet across, a glorious sight when smothered under a drift of snow-white flowers; handsome too when the leaf buds, their scales silver-tipped, are breaking, the soft baby fingers, which are the newborn leaves, changing from bronze to mahogany red, and finally to the tart greenness of youth." Occasionally the bloom will be frosted but the plant is so interesting that this lapse can be forgiven.
Early flowering R. megeratum should be grown in any garden that escapes spring frost. This stiffly branched compact mound, when mature, will be somewhat over one foot high. The rounded hairy leaves one-half to one inch long and about one-half inch wide with the, usually single, flat faced yellow flowers bearing chocolate anthers, form a cheery picture. The name means passing lovely. Along the east coast of the United States this plant is considered an ideal pot plant.
R. trichostomum var. ledoides is more loosely twiggy than most of our favorites but the color range, white to rose, of the densely capitate truss formed from small tubular flowers is fascinating and a pleasing contrast to other rhododendron bloom. On casual observation the truss looks more like a daphne than the usual rhododendron. Given enough years this plant is a trifle tall for dwarf classification. Several of its progeny are delightful and not as tall.
R. camtschaticum is a very attractive plant, deciduous, with spoon shaped hairy pale green leaves. It is usually about six inches high, never more than one foot, and spreads over the ground layering itself. The solitary flowers are rose colored and large for the plant. It is somewhat unique in bearing flowers on new wood, being deciduous and having the history of circling the globe around the Artic Ocean linking America with Asia. This is not an easy plant to grow but it is well worth a try. The foliage undergoes interesting color changes in the autumn before the leaves fall.
R. radicans is a must for the rockery. It is prostrate, densely matted with narrow polished dark green leaves, a joy even if it never flowered. But the single purple flowers are borne well above the green mat and are an extra dividend. A close relative, R. keleticum, should also be in every rockery; the name means charming.
I have listed my favorite dwarfs - seven of them - without changing my preference for the term pygmy. There were three runners up.
R. hanceanum var. nanum is an excellent compact plant about six inches high with bronze color on the new growth. Although the books list the color of flower as yellow the plants grown in this area are only cream and there has been confusion in listing as var. nanum.
R. glaucophyllum with the "old rose flushed magenta" small bell shaped flowers is delightful but there is no preference, personally, for the light pink forms. The aromatic leaves bearing both yellow and brown scales add interest.
R. lepidostylum is outstanding as a foliage plant. Semi-deciduous, in spring it is a blue green mound. The leaves are fringed with silky white hairs. The flat, pale yellow twin flowers are attractive but not spectacular.
R. repens (R. forrestii var repens) was not among the chosen in spite of the beauty of the prostrate creeping plant because it takes very long to flower and then it does so sparsely.
R. sargentianum in a good yellow form is a lovely plant but it is very difficult to grow.
Were we not daft about species some hybrids would probably have been included in the list. Had we a colder garden or a less mild climate this slate would have to be revised. R. megeratum and R. leucaspis would be beyond consideration. However, there is a wide range of possible selections in the sturdy Lapponicum series and one could spend measureless time on botanical differentiation. R. fastigiatum, R. chryseum, R. hippophaeoides and R. russatum are very good although care needs to be used in color selection. In our location the latter two reach the upper height of dwarfdom.