How To Select a Rhodie at Your Local Nursery
Jan D. Kelley
Over 30 years ago I purchased my first rhododendron for a Mother's Day present. I still have a vivid picture of proudly presenting it to her on Sunday morning after selecting it the day before from a local nursery. Like most beginners I was looking for a big plant with lots of blooms that didn't cost any more than a 16-year-old boy could afford. However, with the passing of time I now realize that I was fortunate to have purchased a quality plant without really knowing what I was doing. Today when I purchase a new ariety several criteria come to mind before I make my purchase. As there are some readers of the Journal who are new to rhododendrons, I will try to identify some of the things I look for when selecting a new plant for my yard.
The following general topics are not necessarily in any specific order but seem to be worth consideration prior to selecting a plant:
Learn About Climate
Get knowledge of local climatic conditions with special attention to the most extreme winter temperature in the last five years. This information is typically available from the local airport, radio or TV weather station, or local newspaper. This extreme cold temperature is critical as most all rhododendrons sold are rated for hardiness. The hardiness rating is a generally accepted temperature that the plant will endure and survive. Notice I said the plant and not the flower buds. The rationale behind plant hardiness is that you can afford to lose the buds on a given year, but not the plant. Rhododendrons are generally rated from H-1 (will survive to minus 25 degrees F) through H-6 (will survive at plus 30 degrees F).
Talk To Local Gardeners
Talk with neighbors and rhododendron club members about varieties that they have had for several years. Discuss with them how frequently the plant flowers, when it blooms, and where in their yard they have it located, i.e., in the shade, in full sun.
Read About Rhodies
Background reading about rhododendrons in one of the several books that are available is helpful. Several of the books have many excellent color pictures. I would recommend any of the following authors as good resources: Van Veen, Greer, and Cox. Each of the authors provides good description of flowers, plant habit, bloom period, and hardiness in a very understandable form.
Visit several local nurseries, if available, to view their selection of rhododendrons. Find a rhododendron knowledgeable sales person and seek his/her opinions about varieties that do well locally. Generally, retail nurseries tend to sell "tried and true" varieties that have stood the test of local time. Frequently, your choice will be quite limited in the number of different varieties that are available.
When you have all of the general information identified and are ready to make your choice - that one plant that is going in that special place in your yard - I suggest that you have the following in mind:
How large will the plant be at 10 years of age. Standard varieties are about 6 feet at 10 years. Semi-dwarfs are about 2 to 4 feet at 10 years of age and dwarfs are about 1½ feet at 10 years of age.
Know the plant size that you want to purchase: are you after instant landscape or are you willing to grow with the plant.
Know that the variety you want meets the conditions of your location, i.e., full sun, semi-shade, etc.
When you make the final choice the foliage of the plant you select should be dark green and vigorous looking. It should not have burned or spotted leaves. Burned leaves generally result from inadequate water in the summer or excessive cold in the winter. Leaf spotting typically results from some disease condition in the plant. The plant should be uniform and well branched. Stay away from lopsided or crooked plants. The leaves should be free of insect damage. Uniform notching around the border of the leaves generally indicates weevil activity. Other insect damage is evidenced by irregular holes in the leaves. If you want the plant to bloom in the coming season, look for large flower buds on some of the branch ends.
I realize that initially all of the above takes a great deal of time, but your labors dramatically increase the chance of purchasing an excellent rhododendron. All too often we buy the plant with the big open flowers only to later realize that it was a mistake. Good Hunting!
Jan Kelley is a rhododendron grower and co-owner of Hall Nursery in Drain, Oregon. He is a member of the Eugene Chapter of the ARS.