Reprinted from the Scottish Chapter newsletter
I think the first time I saw R. aperantum was on a miserable late winter's day in the Valley Gardens in Windsor Great Park.
The reason that it caught my eye was that in the winter I tend to look for foliage plants rather than to try and hunt out some wretched, partly frosted flower, and as I have a small garden the smaller rhododendrons are of great interest to me. (Oh for a dwarf R. macabeanum!)
The plants were all growing in the open with a little distant shade. They were quite widely spaced and were sporting a few flower buds (on some plants these were bright red, almost like berries). With a great deal of impatience I waited for their opening. I was not to be disappointed, some of the flowers were red and some pink, resembling flowers of R. forrestii var. repens or R. chamaethomsonii var. chamaethauma. The effect of these flowers on the perfectly symmetrical foliage of the best specimens was really attractive. The older and more sparsely furnished specimens, as one would expect, bore the most flower - an irritating characteristic of some rhododendron species.
My interest having been stimulated by these plants, I started to look for R. aperantum in other gardens. It was interesting to note that where I did find it it was growing in similar conditions to those described in the Valley Gardens, i.e. distant shade.
The largest number of mature plants of R. aperantum I have seen growing in one place is at Nymans in Sussex. These have proved to be an absolute delight. Having seen most of them in flower over a period of years confirms my opinion that R. aperantum is very variable, very beautiful, and very desirable!
Rather than to try and think of a list of superlatives, I think I had better quote Farrer on the subject. He wrote of it: " It is simply one of the most radiantly lovely things you ever saw, and when you see it your mouth just opens and shuts feebly. It is common, in drifts and sheets, and, for the altitude and for its stature, rather large in all its parts. In stature it ranges from half an inch or less, to about six inches, spreading widely and often plastered flat against a rock, where starved. The flowers are very large, and in a sequence of the most glorious warm pink tones absolutely clean of mauve or blue shades, through hot flesh pinks, rose pinks, salmon pinks, to flushed snow and pure white."
Whilst I heartily agree with his description of flower colour, the plants that I have seen to date have a very different habit, ranging from about 18 inches to 8 feet!
Most of the literature referring to R. aperantum (and there isn't much) describes it as being a sad disappointment in cultivation, and whilst this may be true as far as the quantity of flower is concerned, where the cultivation is good the plants look very happy and flower.
It seems a shame that such a beautiful species should have been stigmatized with such comments as difficult to propagate, shy to flower, and liable to die off in parts for no apparent reason. One only has to see a well furnished plant with a few trusses of "hot flesh pink" flowers on it and the above comments fade into insignificance!
I hope that this article will encourage some species enthusiasts to try for the first time, or even again, this seemingly fickle and potentially very rewarding plant.