A Portland Rhododendron Garden
Ruth M. Hansen
Some twenty-five years ago, the exact time has been forgotten, one of our members, Mrs. Sophie Cason, became interested in a new type of flowering shrub. There were only two or three small plants in bloom when first seen in a nursery. One was a shade of blue never seen before in any shrub, the other a light pink color and the flowers were in clusters of three with stamens which protruded far beyond the petals. "Himalayan azaleas" they were called by the old nurseryman; so a collection was started of the lovely new shrub, "Himalayan Azaleas."
After all these years, these once small plants of "Himalayan azaleas" are now 10 to 12 foot trees of R. augustinii, davidsonianum and yunnanense. There are twenty-seven plants left of the original collection, several having been given away when they were small.
As the years passed, each Triflorum increased in beauty as well as height. In one corner of the garden stands a grouping of three, one R. augustinii and two R. davidsonianum. These plants may be seen only from a distance due to their twelve foot height and the fact that they are almost surrounded by eight to ten foot mollis azaleas. Only the bare trunks of these small trees can be seen as one walks down the path beside them, but from across a small lawn area their blending of soft pinks and lavender beneath the deep pink of the Kaman Cherry (P. serrutata var. sekiyama) is an unforgettable sight.
During the month of April when the Triflorums are in bloom they become the dominant factor in the garden, creating a color scheme of their own which is enhanced by the early flowering trees. One mass planting of R. augustinii and R. davidsonianum has been restricted in height due to the spreading branches of a Fuji Cherry, but the color effect is enchanting with the pure white fluffy blossoms of the cherry hanging down into the lavender, blue and pink flower clusters of the Triflorums. When this particular planting is in bloom it holds the place of honor in the garden for it makes an almost solid bank of flowers which are literally covered with countless honey bees.
Of all the species, R. augustinii stands alone for having the finest blue color of any rhododendron. It is the prince of all species. This place has been granted to it because of its fine color, its neat year-around habit of growth, its adaptability to any landscape, its profusion of bloom and its resistance to diseases. The large specimen illustrated in Fig. 20 and 21 is considered to be the finest plant in this garden. It stands a full eleven feet high. When the first flowers appear they are a rather disappointing purplish-color and one wonders why it is considered at all. Then after three or four days a miracle happens, the color changes to a most dazzling blue. It is not the soft powdery blue of the later varieties but a deeper color which almost shimmers in the sun.
In another planting are the later varieties which come into flower almost two full weeks after the first ones have gone. Among this group are the fine powder blue colors which equal any of the named varieties which I have seen. These small trees, ten to twelve feet in height, usually bloom the end of April and carry over into the first week of May. It has been suggested that these particular plants might be R. chasmanthum, but no one has taken the time to really identify them. Whatever they are, their blue color is above reproach.
After twenty-five years of growing these plants, there seems to be no doubt that there are distinctly two forms of augustinii, one the typical type, tall and bushy in habit, the other a more dwarf horizontal type. There are two plants of the latter habit. One old specimen is now only five feet high with a spread of six feet, the other is slightly taller, but still quite horizontal in habit. Their treatment has been the same as all the other Triflorums of this collection. The color of these two dwarfer forms is quite purplish and might be frowned upon by many connoisseurs of augustinii, but it takes all colors to make a beautiful garden. For a landscape effect this purplish color, when combined with the golden Kerria japonica, the deep pink azalea schlippenbachii and the delicate pink of R. makinoi makes a most beautiful planting especially when seen through the arching branches of the blush colored Ojochin Cherry (P. Ojochin).
From my observations up and down the Coast, I believe that this collection of R. augustinii, R. davidsonianum and R. yunnanense contain the largest specimens to be found in any private garden. They have never been pruned other than being cut for cut flowers nor do they require any particular care. All they seem to want is to be planted in a good garden soil in plenty of sun, then they are perfectly happy and will bloom profusely year after year.
No one is quite certain of the origin of any of the Triflorums found in tine Portland area. It is thought that they were all grown from seeds collected in China by either the Dr. Rock or Kingdon Ward expeditions between 1900 and 1910.
The interest in the Triflorums did not stop with this original planting. Since then Mrs. Cason's collection has grown until now there is an excellent representation from the entire Series. However, it is only great age that makes real beauty in such plants, so the more recent introductions, which are still infants of only four to six feet in height, will have a few more years to grow and develop before they can compare in beauty with the first planting.
All the original plants seem to be of a very hardy constitution. The severe winter of 1950, when the thermometer dropped to five degrees below zero here in Portland, damaged only one yunnanense. This plant stands in a group of augustinii and davidsonianum and it seemed as though it had been caught in a draft of exceedingly colder air than any of the other plants. It was almost defoliated and many branches were killed. The other plants in the group all bloomed that Spring, though none were in such good condition as formerly. The following year they all resumed their usual floriferous habit. The yunnanense which was hurt by the freeze is just now fully recovering. As a planting these ten to twelve foot davidsonianum and yunnanense are rangy in habit, but when seen in bloom they look like great puffs of pink cotton candy.
The Triflorums are primarily sun lovers. This fact has been proven many times by watching the leaves drop off and branches die on plants when planted in heavy shade. However, when the shade is removed or the bushes transplanted to a sunny location, new growth soon appears up and down the trunks. Full sun also intensifies the color of the flowers.
In my experience, I have come to the conclusion that the Triflorums are the most satisfactory of any plant group for all around planting. Due to their height one would usually consider them only for use in a wide shrub border or woodland setting; however as these plants mature their trunks take on interesting irregular shapes and by using them with great care they are well adapted as accent plants in a foundation planting of our modern horizontal homes. Here the tracery of the branches against rough siding makes a most pleasing pattern I heartily disagree with anyone who frowns on the various colors of the R. augustinii, insisting that "the blue form is the one and only good form."
It is true that seedling R. augustinii run the color gamut from white to lavender to pale pink to the finest blue color. If one is interested in creating a pleasing picture composed of plant material instead of paint then it is necessary to use these "off" colors in his plantings for they give a perfect blending of tone quality unsurpassed by any other plant group. There is no other rhododendron or other plant material that gives quite the satisfaction of complete beauty as do the Triflorums, a fact which is undisputable after seeing the large specimens growing in this Portland garden.