Kingdon-Ward's "Pink Baby"
Kallista, Victoria, Australia
This little gem of a rhododendron, R. pumilum, so often referred to as Kingdon-Ward's "Pink Baby", is an absolute "must" for all growers of dwarf rhododendrons, and indeed for all lovers of species rhododendrons. This species was collected as long ago as 1849 by Hooker in the wilds of the Sikkim Himalayas. He was apparently impressed by the elegance of this little plant. However, for some reason, unknown to us, it was not successfully introduced at that time.
It was left to that great and indefatigable collector, Kingdon-Ward, to rediscover it, this time on the Doshong La in southeast Tibet (now the Chinese province of Xizang) in 1924. Two years later Kingdon-Ward collected this species again, in Upper Burma. It was this form which he called his "Pink Baby" and which carried "flowers of a delicate shell-pink, hoisted above the crowded leaves on long crimson stalks". Many years after this he found it again, this time in 1950, on the Assam/Tibet border.
Photo by Art Dome
This rhododendron was also collected by Ludlow and Sherriff in 1936, and again when accompanied by Taylor in 1938, and by Hicks in 1949, in S.E. Tibet (Xizang province, China) and Bhutan. It has again been collected by Stainton in East Nepal. It can therefore be appreciated that this little species is very widespread in the wild. It is found at elevations ranging from about 3350 to 4260 metres, on rocky slopes and banks.
This rhododendron is a most distinctive member of the subsection Uniflora, quite unlike other species in this subsection. It makes an elegant dwarf shrublet, usually only up to about 25 cm in height and can grow to about the same in width. It has small elliptic leaves, dark green on the upper surface, and paler or even slightly glaucous underneath. I find that the leaves are inclined to turn dark bronzy shades during winter. The exquisite little campanulate flowers are held well above the foliage, in ones, twos and threes, in beautiful shades of rose pink, looking like thimbles. At first glance one could almost consider it to be very close to R. campylogynum Myrtilloides Croup, but on closer examination the difference is most apparent. In R. pumilum the style is straight, whilst in all forms of R. campylogynum the style is always sharply bent.
It is interesting to read accounts from various growers who have at times described it as both "miffy" and "quite easy"! So where do we go from here? I suppose it all depends on climatic conditions, but if any reader of these notes finds this charmer difficult to grow, l think the peat bed is the answer. My plants have really thrived in the peat environment. My peat beds, all quite small, are raised about 40 cm above ground level, and are retained by old, rugged railway sleepers. The mix I use is composed of granulated peat (German), coarse river sand and rotted acid oak and beech leaf mould. The mixture becomes more peaty towards the top of the beds. The beds are sheltered from the hot midday and afternoon sun in summer, and are kept well watered during the hot, dry months.
It is quite simple to propagate this rhododendron by cuttings taken from the ripening wood in mid-summer, using hormone powder (0.25% I.B. acid), and inserted in peat and sand, preferably in a propagation unit with bottom heat and mist.
This charming rhododendron has given much joy to many gardeners. Who could doubt the delight it must have given to that eminent collector who called it his "Pink Baby"!
Felice Blake grows a variety of species and hybrid rhododendrons at her home, "Little Bramerton", Victoria, Australia. She is a regular contributor to the Journal.