Tips for Beginners: Ten Rules for Choosing Rhododendrons for the Garden
Vancouver, British Columbia
Reprinted from the ARS Journal, Summer 1994
Rhododendron - a plant for all seasons, a plant for all locations. But which plant? When you are at the in-between stage in life, when you are no longer satisfied with buying something on the basis of big red flowers, when you have joined the [Vancouver] Rhododendron Society, and when you feel that it's time to start selecting your plants based on discriminating criteria which you haven't had time to develop, you might be tempted to throw in the trowel. But do not despair, dear reader. Consider instead the following helpful hints to start you on the way towards developing a collection that in a few short years will be the subject of a slide show at a rhodo society meeting.
Flowers last only a few short days, but you will be looking at the plant itself for many, many years. Go for good-looking plants. You can't go wrong with a "yak" (R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum) or any of the hybrids in its family. They all have terrific flowers as well as fascinating foliage. The noble 'Sir Charles Lemon' has beautiful foliage and eventually becomes a lovely small tree. Others worth looking for are 'Unique', R. pseudochrysanthum and R. campanulatum ssp. aeruginosum.
Keep it simple. Don't set your heart on a plant that isn't available locally or is a known prima donna. There are so many others which would make you even happier. PJM Group is a doer - a medium-sized plant with aromatic foliage and bright flowers; it always looks good. Another easy-to-grow plant is 'Dora Amateis', a vision in white. If you like a larger-growing plant, 'The Honourable Jean Marie de Montague' is a good solid red. For something smaller, try R. impeditum, a tight bush of vibrant violet flowers.
Do some research. It's fun. A combination of walks in a well-labeled garden and browsing through books will do the trick. Trips to Van Dusen Gardens and the Asian Garden at UBC when in Vancouver are obvious winners. Then get yourself at the very least a Greer's Guidebook to Available Rhododendrons and the Coxes' books, providing carefully considered evaluations. Make use of the library - borrow a different book each meeting and soon you'll be an expert.
Choose a plant which is at its best when you are in the garden. If you spend every June in Arizona, there is no sense filling your garden with late blooming R. auriculatum hybrids and Exbury azaleas. You'll miss them when they are in their glory. But if you don't venture outdoors until bathing suit weather, then these are the plants for you. The hardy souls who use their gardens for a quick winter pick-me-up (or would place these plants right outside their windows) might consider some early bloomers. 'Snow Lady', 'Mary Fleming' and R. moupinense are all pale beauties. Try 'Olive' if you like sizzling colours, or 'Christmas Cheer', R. dauricum or R. pemakoense for something in between.
Ask the experts. Rhodo society members like to talk about their plants even more than they like growing them, so use the social time at the meetings to get advice. Volunteer to do something about which you know next to nothing so that you can hang out with those who do and learn from them.
Indulge your fancy. Don't think that there's some ultimate criterion determining the "right" plants to grow. If you like purple, grow every shade of it. There are many named varieties of R. augustinii which offer every shade of blue/purple. My very first plants were 'Fastuosum Flore Pleno', 'Bob's Blue', and R. impeditum. They're still flourishing, and they blend quite nicely together. Or go for fragrance - 'Loderi King George' and the other Loderi hybrids are all heavenly. So many of the deciduous azaleas are fragrant - look for plants in the Northern Lights group and 'Daviesii'. Don't forget plants with fragrant foliage such as 'Windbeam' and PJM Group.
If something does well in your garden, get more like it. If you have nothing but sun, go for azaleas rather than the broad-leaved rhodos which prefer some protection. If a R. williamsianum hybrid flourishes in your soil, it has enough friends and relations (Wilbar Group, 'Linda', 'Bow Bells', 'Karin', Moonstone Group, etc.) that you can appear to have lots of variety while staying within a narrow range.
Don't ever get discouraged by adversity. The experts lose plants occasionally; you will too. Look upon these losses as opportunities to acquire replacement plants. This leads to...
Don't throw good money after bad. If 'Purple Splendour' dies on you twice, forget it. Some plants are just not meant to be grown in certain gardens. Try 'Anah Kruschke' instead; it's much easier to grow and is a better looking plant.
Take a chance. Use every opportunity to get young, inexpensive plants at the sles and grow them along. They'll have a better chance of making it if they do thier growing up in your garden. If they don't turn out to be what you had in mind, they're easily disposed of. Some 'Unknown Warrior' might turn out to be the love of your (gardening) life!