Logo for the Journal American Rhododendron Society

Journal American Rhododendron Society

Current Editor:
Dr. Glen Jamieson ars.editor@gmail.com


Volume 39, Number 3
Summer 1985

DLA Ejournal Home | JARS Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search JARS and other ejournals

Rhododendron: A Plant for All Seasons
Monty Monsees
San Pablo, CA

        Rhododendrons. How to live with them year round? No problem for most of us as our appreciation of them increases with age - of both plants and planters.
        Always impressive no matter what variety, the obvious beauty of rhododendrons occurs in spring, when buds swell into blossoms. However, with shifting emphasis, during summer, autumn, and winter, other aspects help make a rhododendron a plant for all seasons: bark, leaves, new growth, fall color, petioles, and flower buds. These comprise a less noticed and sometimes hidden realm; and no matter what season, frequently one finds serendipities, those unexpected images awaiting discovery.
        When one first looks at rhododendron blossoms, he sees the conspicuous beauty of trusses as a whole, but closer observations reveal details: color gradations, vein patterns, petal textures, and stamen and pistil characteristics. Sometimes what one sees through a camera macro lens resembles a non-objective painting, a pleasing composition of design and color. This fleeting blossom beauty appears quickly and all too soon disappears, leaving us the rest of the plant for the remaining forty-eight to fifty weeks of the year.
        If one looks beyond the obvious during those other weeks, various features await any curious observer; and, more often than not, serendipities result. When I show a multi-image slide program on rhododendrons, I like to heighten a viewer's awareness by calling attention to some of those serendipities the unexpected, often "hidden," details the unaided eye might overlook or in some cases not see without magnification. Let us get down to examples.
        Consider a species native to the United States, R. catawbiense past its bloom at Craggy Gardens, a preserved wilderness along the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Asheville North Carolina. First impression? A forest of rhododendron trees, a canopy of leaves shading out the sky. If one moves closer to a tree and observes trunk details, he sees a mosaic in shades of orange and brown, with some of the subtle color blends enhanced to a metallic sheen when wet with rain or cloud mist, also native to Craggy Gardens.
        However, one need not travel to the southern Appalachian Mountains to appreciate bark. Anyone can walk into a rhododendron garden, think "macro," and observe. Numerous varieties, species and hybrids, have colorful trunks, some with peeling bark. 'Forsterianum', for example, shows multi-colors of brown, dull red, maroon, mauve, beige, yellow, and even white (all more evident when isolated through a macro lens), along with peeling bark and subtle color changes throughout the year. 'Roy Hudson', 'Saffron Queen', R. odoriferum, R. cubittii, to name a few, have interesting trunks. To best appreciate bark, one needs to see a color slide of it projected to reveal more of its "hidden" beauty. Even on trunks that appear uninteresting to the unaided eye, through 2X or 3X magnification one sometimes sees a labyrinth of bark "canyons."

R. cubittii 'Ashcombe' form bark
R. cubittii 'Ashcombe' form bark
Photo by Monty Monsees

        Because only R. catawbiense grows at Craggy Gardens, there a uniformity exists in leaf pattern; but one sees diversity in our own gardens, most likely a collection of species and hybrids. Not only different leaf shapes but also variations in vein lines with their network patterns, leaf textures, and shades of green immediately become evident. On some varieties fine hairs stand up on the surface or like eyelashes line the edges. Still others display a peppering of scales.

R. montroseanum x R. basilicum
R. montroseanum x R. basilicum
Photo by Monty Monsees

        Also, on some rhododendrons a special leaf feature lies "hidden" on the underside - indumentum in some shade of orange or beige or brown or bronze or silver or white. Through a macro lens indumentum of various forms of R. yakushimanum shows as a tangle of wool matting the undersurface of a leaf. For orange indumentum, who remains unimpressed with 'Sir Charles Lemon' or R. fulvum or R. tsariense or R. bureavii, particularly if these grow on a mound or slope so that one looks up into them in late evening sunlight?
        New leaf growth merits attention, sometimes white and felty, sometimes green and glossy or bronze and bold or chocolate and conspicuous, but eventually fading to summer green, with some exceptions like R. lutescens, F.C.C., which fires red in full sun. Some rhododendrons display an added feature: as new leaf growth elongates, so do the bracts, which become ribbons (red in some cases), hanging in a festive manner.
        Then, before leaf-drop many rhododendrons show noticeable fall colors. In my garden last year's leaves dress 'My Lady' in yellow before they drop. R. auriculatum flashes radiant red to rival that of New England maples. And R. lutescens, F.C.C. does one better than both; after summer red in full sun, those leaves about to drop fire to a more intense red before falling.

Autumn color, R. lutescens FCC.
Autumn color, R. lutescens FCC.
Photo by Monty Monsees

        Winter chill also effects color changes on certain varieties, such as 'P.J.M.' with leaves that darken to mahogany - even in "sunny California." 'Ramapo' evolves through more subtle color changes. So it goes, from dwarfs to giants, in any rhododendron garden.
        Winter wilt? I don't mind seeing it, but it disturbs my neighbor who looks after my garden when I travel. She wonders if the plants get enough water, although another plant next to the "wilted" one looks fine. Tomentum? Somehow that does not seem quite right to her, either; she has the urge to "wash off" the leaves. Recently I gave her some of my "rejects" and included a plant with tomentum. Now patiently I wait to see whether in her garden it might evolve a change of her opinion about "all those dusty-looking leaves" - but back to color in various parts of a rhododendron plant.
        Even petioles show variations in colors. Frequently this feature enhances flower buds by providing interesting color combinations as background for the buds.

Bud, R. polyandrum
Bud, R. polyandrum
Photo by Monty Monsees

        Flower buds. They fascinate me; consequently, I spend considerable time (and patience) photographing them during November and December. With variety in bud size, shape, color, bract patterns (sometimes dotted with scales in various colors), macro photography of rhododendron flower buds offers some special challenges. Enlargements or slide projection best reveals all the details. Even expanding buds merit more than a second glance.

Bud, R. yakushimanum 'White Velvet'
Bud, R. yakushimanum 'White Velvet'
Photo by Monty Monsees

        This returns us to where I started, spring and rhododendron blossoms that unfold from the flower buds. This also brings us full cycle with rhododendrons as plants for all seasons.
        Serendipities? Some images I especially remember include the following;

R. 'Roy Hudson'
'Roy Hudson'
Photo by Monty Monsees

Blossom cloud of R. formosum at peak of bloom; later the drifts of fallen flowers.
Sunlight backlighting only the yellow center of 'Roy Hudson' or the yellow blotch of R. johnstoneanum
A rosette stigma that has caught a chain of pollen bridging from a brown pollen sac, white rimmed.
Network of veins in pink-red petals of 'Markeeta's Flame'.
Fleeting glimpse of the fire-glow of peeling bark backlit by a low sun behind 'Forsterianum'.
Flower bud of R. yakushimanum 'White Velvet', a woolly ball of frost-white accented with beige, the bract pattern like a jigsaw puzzle, the same colors as the indumentum under a leaf but in reverse proportion - frost-white dominant on the bud but beige dominant in the indumentum.

Throughout the seasons images like these await anyone in a rhododendron garden and add to one's enjoyment of the plant for all seasons.

Pistil and stamens, 'Naomi Nautilus'
Pistil and stamens,
'Naomi Nautilus'
Photo by Monty Monsees

        In regard to photography, obviously any camera will take pictures of rhododendrons, but certain sophistications enhance results, especially close ups. In other words, to look at rhododendrons as I do through a camera lens requires some special equipment - and unlimited patience. I stress patience!
        Camera? I favor the Nikon F3 because it does what I want a camera to do and does it well, with a minimum of adjustments, making possible more of that "perfection" I desire in results.
        Film? For the most part, I stay with the old standard, slow Kodachrome 25, for fine grain and good color balance (white comes out as white). Using tripod, small f stop, and slow shutter speed - to obtain maximum depth of field - I have mastered great patience in doing macro photography with Kodachrome 25. Anyone who has photographed a rhododendron blossom in only a slight breeze can appreciate my emphasis on patience.
        Lens? I use a variety, all Nikkor, including zooms. For critical close-ups I prefer the micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 for blossoms and the micro-Nikkor 105mm f/4 for buds (and "small" things), both flat-field lenses (important in macro work).
        Two years ago I became liberated from a tripod for close ups and now use a special macro bracket with two flash units (TTL system). No tripod necessary. No need for patience, either. Since I keep the macro bracket assembled, once I attach the camera, I walk up to a subject, ignore any breeze or wind, work out a composition, shoot, and move on to the next subject, now a matter of minutes instead of hours for one picture.
        Although I have not completely rejected the tripod method for rhododendron close ups, I reserve it for special use. With flash I get more accurate color, neither washed out nor reflecting other colors, such as a clear sky casting blue on white blossoms. The macro bracket also allows me to photograph details not possible otherwise with Kodachrome 25.
        However, one does not need a camera to enjoy the various features of rhododendrons stressed in this article; a camera merely extends one's range. There for observing, along with serendipities, beauty awaits anyone who walks among the plants for all seasons - rhododendrons.


Volume 39, Number 3
Summer 1985

DLA Ejournal Home | JARS Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search JARS and other ejournals