QBARS - v12n1 R. forrestii

R. forrestii
Alleyne R. Cook, Vancouver, B.C.

A rhododendron species that is slow to flower yet produces hybrids that smother themselves in bloom is R. forrestii var. repens . It is completely hardy and this feature is to a large extent passed on to its many hybrids.
There are many interesting groups of plants in the gardens of Windsor Great Park and one of these is the bank of R. forrestii var. repens . It extends for about 110 yards. above one of the shaded paths in the Burmha Gardens. In width it varies between 6 and 12 ft. and as they are planted about one foot apart it is quite possible that upwards of 5000 plants were used. In time these will grow together to form a solid low cushion of green and it is probably hoped that they will flower with no less freedom than do those growing high in the Himalayas where, in areas between 12 and 14 thousand feet it covers the rocks and pastures in sheets of scarlet. In 1951 there were 35 flowers on the bank-the following year this number had decreased to 25 but as at this time the majority of the plants were very small and only those at the upper end that had been planted first were carrying any blooms this is no indication of what they will do when they become established. Unfortunately except for a few isolated plants those growing in gardens have been rather disappointing but even if these are not free flowering the contrast of scarlet flowers against the green foliage is striking.
It is a great pity that the name R. repens could not have been dropped completely and that R. forrestii could not have been used for the plants seen in nurseries and gardens and now called R. repens . Not only does this plant commemorate the name of the greatest of all plant hunters but those responsible for naming the species and sorting out the varieties state that the red coloring on the underside of the leaves is not sufficient to distinguish a new species when other factors are constant. Both the articles in the 1952 Rhododendron Year Book make it clear that more work has to be done as there are some wide discrepancy between descriptions of the plants in the wild and those growing in gardens from collected seed. Some appear to be growing into much taller plants and others remain completely dwarf while a few even after 25-30 years have not yet flowered. All of this would be very confusing if it were not for the simple fact that anything that creeps is called R. repens by the local nurserymen and that except for one specialist nursery the fact that there are several varieties is completely ignored. The classifications are now, R. forrestii has red on the undersurface of the leaves, R. var. repens is identical except that the undersurface is green and R. var. tumescens which has a domed centre and creeping outer branches.

R. forrestii var. repens
Fig. 6 R. forrestii var. repens This plant is
about to flower over 150 buds.  The
label reads. R. repens , Ward 6832.
F.C.C. 1935.  Tower Court.

In 1935 a form of R. repens growing at Tower Court under the number K. W. 6832 was given a F.C.C. by the R. H. S. (Fig. 6) It is a free flowering specimen and at the time it must have raised the hopes and interest of a considerable number of gardeners. In the 1952 Rhododendron Year Book this plant has been reclassified as R. chamaethomsonii var. chamaethauma . Although not more than one foot across, the previous year it had carried 162 flowers and apparently this was not particularly outstanding. It grew on a dry sandy bank getting a fair amount of sunshine and no water except the rain which around there is only about 35 inches a year. Apart from this one I know of only two other plants of R. repens that are free flowering, one of which is mentioned in the old catalogue of the Sunningdale Nurseries as being on wet sticky ground facing north and getting no sun, while another grew at the Royston Nurseries in a prepared bed. in the shelter of a lath house. There are others that flower well and give great pleasure but these three appear outstanding.
The largest plant I have seen was one that was moved from Tower Court to the Sunningdale Nurseries. It was one of many in a bank of R. repens and appeared to be a small mound 18 inches across with the outer branches creeping out a few inches to join the ones from surrounding plants. What my companion and myself found when we finished separating the creeping branches from those around it was a specimen six feet long and four feet wide. We had expected to be able to handle it with ease but before we could lift it on to some burlap and then into the trunk of the car we had to obtain the assistance of two more men. The following year there were 73 flowers, not many for a plant of this size, but the effect of the scarlet bells on the dark green foliage was very striking.
R. forrestii and its varieties are oddities to be grown by those people who hope they have the perfect location to make it flower freely or those who are collectors and grow it because it is another Rhododendron. Its great value lies in the fact that it is the parent of a number of reasonably hardy very free flowering hybrids.

R. 'Ethel'
Fig. 7.  R. 'Ethel'

The most popular is 'Elizabeth', probably the best known of all the post-war rhododendrons; R. 'Elizabeth Jenny', the form the creeps downwards instead of growing up; R. 'Ethel' (Fig. 7) smaller growing with deeper red waxy flowers; R. 'Carmen' still more dwarf with flowers too dark to be very attractive and R. 'Treasure' with pink flowers, are some of the better known. As times go on there will probably be more and already second generation hybrids are on the market.