Rhododendron Suo Loco
Austin C. Kennell, Afton, Virginia
"East is East, and West is West...and ne'er the twain shall meet." How about that for an electrifying bit of prose! Really grabs you, doesn't it?
Okay, okay, so a simple little unvarnished statement about a couple of cardinal points of the compass and something called a twain ain't nothing to get excited about. I didn't make it up anyway! I borrowed it from a poem by Rudyard Kipling. Or was it Omar Khayyam? In any event, there's more truth than poetry to it as far as rhododendrons are concerned.
For many, many years - some 25 or so - I've tried to grow rhododendrons from the Pacific Northwest. And, for just as many years, they up and died on me. Some took a few years while others started dying as they crossed the Mississippi River. I do not keep a record of my failures in anything (I don't think I have the space that would be required - we only have a 10 room house), but the number of rhododendrons that laid down their lives in an attempt to satisfy my insatiable hunger for some of those Pacific Northwest beauties is well over (gulp) 150. At this point in time, I have about a dozen still giving it their best shot and hanging on, but only 3 of these have been in my garden over two years. Yes, I brought in some P.N. rhododendrons as recently as this spring.
I've tried mature plants and young things. I've gotten big plants and little ones. I even tried varieties hybridized here in the East but propagated in Washington or Oregon. They've come by air freight, air mail, air parcel post, United Parcel ground service and United Parcel blue label service. They've made the trip in private planes, on my lap in commercial jets, and in automobiles. I've gotten them in early spring, late spring, early fall and late fall.
I drenched them with Truban - and with Subdue. I washed off all the plant medium in which they were planted and replaced it with local materials. I've cut, spread, and combed the roots. I've planted them just about everywhere in an attempt to find a life-supporting environment, varying degrees of shade, several different sheltered locations, and in raised beds. I've grown them - or rather tried to grow them - in Maryland, in two places in West Virginia, and in four locations in Virginia. I've used alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, ground pine bark, plain loam, peat moss, perlite mix, sawdust, chopped-up rubber, cuss words, prayers - and Lord knows what else.
Some of the plants died with dignity, some expired after a long hospitalization, some gave up quickly and, I swear, I believe others committed suicide after they found out they were in my yard! A roster of the varieties I've lost reads like a collector's list. Just this year, I lost my third Lem's Cameo. (At least, you'll have to admit, I don't give up easily.)
Now, I'm very, very fond of the Pacific Northwest. It is one of the most beautiful areas I have ever seen. And, oh, those plants!
And even more, I love its people. They just don't come any nicer. But they have one really bad trait; they share their beautiful plants with me! And if they really loved rhododendrons, they wouldn't do that, now would they?
It sure doesn't do much for my ego to admit that it took a heck of a lot of rhododendrons and so many years to convince me that, in fact, East is East and West is West. Or I should say I think I'm convinced. Where rhododendrons are concerned, rhodophiles like me are not just your everyday run-of-the-mill, straight-thinking, self-disciplined, normal types.
Yes, East is East and West is West, rhododendronically as well as geographically. If I've learned nothing else about rhododendrons I've learned this. No more shall I let my heart lead me astray. No more beautiful, magnificent, wonderful rhododendrons from the West for me. My mind's made up, definitely, irrevocably. Never again. No way. I've had it. This is it.**
However - I do have a few good-dies on order from the P.N., so I might as well add a few more. Just to reduce the shipping cost per plant, you understand. (Maybe I ought to give that rascal Lem's Cameo another whirl.)
An interesting sidelight! For a long time, the use of the word “twain” perplexed me. But after a lengthy and extensive research into the life of Rudyard (or was it Omar?), I was able to establish that he was a closet rhodophile who tried to alert us other Easterners. And that's why he used the dumb word "twain". It's actually a code: T = The W = Wise A = Avoid I = Importing N = Northwest rhododendrons.
*suo loco (L): in its proper place
**Special aside to Lucie, Harold, Ted, et al. Now don't you all take me off your mailing lists. If memory serves me right, this is about my 25th annual resolution to quit bringing in Pacific Northwest rhododendrons.