QBARS - v17n3 A Forest Garden

A Forest Garden
Miss Bernice Cornehl, Olympia, Wash.

At last, a champion of R. macrophyllum , Dr. Doleshy, praises it for its four star quality of withstanding summer drought and then putting forth its bloom in the usual manner.

Not only does R. macrophyllum flower at a reasonable age, I find blossoms are lush and profuse in my native rhododendron grove. The bud blasting to which it is subject does not prevent a charming display each year. It does not show perversity by blooming just every other year. I need not search the plants for bugs to kill for if there are any, it thrives regardless. I do not find moles have pushed plants out of the ground and checked their growth or bud formation. The little seedlings, sprouting in every protected nook and cranny and in the open, are an extra bonus that keeps coming each year.

Friends who do, or do not, have green thumbs, are happy to receive these seedlings to grow in some spot where it is unnecessary to stay home and soak them with water continuously all summer to keep them from dying. My summer place was chosen for its natural grove of rhododendrons.

A Rocky Soil

May I describe the soil in personal terms? The slope beside a lake where native shrubs abound is worse than gravel. The stones remind me of the alluvial washings of Foster Creek in the prairie country after a cloud burst, or the gold-dredged wasteland in parts of Northern California. First there is a tough layer of forest litter, and under this a layer of ashes. The forest litter is springy and one must use a pick to dislodge it. At once the hard compacted mass of rocks of all sizes is struck, and the jar to the shoulder is felt. No matter how heavy the rain, water soon drains away.

To relate the growth of very many of the Asiatic species to R. macrophyllum seems unrealistic, as I was to discover, being a complete novice to gardening. The first few young dwarf species acquired in early 1955 were placed in the ground under the same conditions as the natives, and given a pail of water from the lake as needed. Then came the big freeze, but the following spring those frozen back grew out a little, and now R. calostrotum , carolinianum , ciliatum , glaucophyllum , moupinense , pemakoense , racemosum , rubiginosum , yunnanense , all among that first collection, have completely recovered and bloomed. R. impeditum and 'Blue Tit' lost no stature from that historic freeze.

Raised Beds

As I gradually learned, I began to build raised beds of anything available, chiefly quite old sawdust hauled from nearby. Evergreen needles, rotted wood, baled peat, swamp muck, forest litter and scrapings of decayed materials, cones and bark, all went into the pile. The beds were raised because digging was too difficult, discouraging, and unnecessary. I now have 75 species, including seedlings and cuttings, representing 27 series, and a "Rock unknown" with its first bud. Now there is a well and plants receive water when convenient to water them, which is on week-ends.

R. macrophyllum is marvelously adapted compared to all of these. Another should be noted. R. carolinianum refuses to suffer from "hot foot" in the gravel, and decks herself in her beautiful pink dress every year with a little encouragement such as fertilizer, peat, sawdust, and nozzle watering. At the Southeast corner of the cabin it receives a sweep of wind from the lake and the hot noonday summer sun. There are no roof gutters and the natural drainage in its direction helps it. What with moles and wind, I gave it plenty of mulch and held it down with heavy stones to get it established. How it does grow and bloom!

How About Adaptation?

If rhododendrons are truly marvelously adaptable plants, as has been claimed, may we not desire more species to adapt to our conditions as has R. macrophyllum , or is this a request for centuries of time? I have noticed variation of hardiness within a species, but not of adaptation to drought.

I think many of my Asiatic species would do very well under the cultural conditions described if it were not for the moles, but the moles definitely like to circle the plants. I have found certain plants unfailing in producing a mass of bloom each year; namely, Rhododendron pemakoense , impeditum , pubescens , mucronulatum , lutescens , canadense , ravum , russatum , racemosum , 'J. T. Lovett,' 'Corsage,' davidsonianum .

Even R. macrophyllum enjoys a spilling over of water and fertilizer meant for these sparkling new comers. Today I measured a leaf in a handsome bouquet of greens. It was 3½" by 9" without the leaf stem; others were ½" smaller.

The terms "cool and dry," are relative in describing a situation, but for an abundance of bloom R. pemakoense can be rated next to R. carolinianum , in thriving under conditions in my garden that many would consider adverse. I have a number of species and hybrids that do not live up to descriptions of how they flower with ease. Perhaps that is the challenge. At one time I purchased four large budded hybrids in order to have something that bloomed. The following year there was not a bud on any of them.

Late Blooming

As I look at my diary on bloom, I find the earliest I have observed opening of buds of R. macrophyllum was on Mother's Day. The summer of 1962, a wintry season, we had our first warm day on July 20, and there were still many scattered blooms on numerous tall shrubs, or trees. On July 22 with 90°, the blossoms began to wilt. The buds on the tree in my patio continued to open. It received water along with the dwarf plants near it. On August 26th after three months of continuous bloom it had one small blossom at the top and a cluster of three at the side. It was most unusual. Only the big bush facing North near the swamp had ever had a bloom in August.

The center of my road, on the shady North side of 'a steep slope is thick with rhododendron and evergreen tree seedlings with roots entwined and bound to the ground, so tightly, that only a pick will dislodge them. R. macrophyllum has a tap root imbedded horizontally. When it becomes a tree it has a large heavy bole imbedded in the rocky concrete-like ground. When the bulldozer took out some of these about 7 years ago, I had one with a single gaunt branch moved to a rocky hole, against a shady bank. It stayed alive and even bloomed each year, and now has a cluster of sprouts from the heavy, solid, round root.

At the entrance of my long narrow acre there is thick shady forest growth, and not a rhododendron. The delicate twin flower, Linnaea borealis , creeps over the needles. Then a swamp drains through with Douglas spirea. Pacific crabapple and pussy willow. On a wide ridge between the swamp and the lake the rhododendrons thrive, and amongst them stands the cabin. Seedlings do not sprout where the road crosses the swamp and gets flooded in winter, but they do sprout dangerously close to that flooding water as the road slopes upward. As they are the greener and faster growing, they get dug out the more quickly. Some old large plants even hang over the swamp. Perhaps their roots are on high enough ground in winter. Quite the contrary for a collection of native American azaleas in a border along the road, for the swamp was higher than usual in December, and they were flooded. They look alive and I am awaiting their future performance.

For Highway Beautification

A few years ago, Mason County road builders, in widening a road, carefully pushed the rhododendrons to each side. Some people tried to haul off these big shrubs until a sign was posted. Those that remained, established themselves and grew. That portion of the road is especially beautiful with shrubs and blossoms, and the person responsible is to be commended, whoever he is. It is a part of the Bremerton Rhododendron tour and each May the traffic is heavier as flower lovers refresh their souls. It would seem that both county and state roads could be beautified with our native plant. It is still plentiful in certain areas, but will not be forever.

A friend recently commented how much more beautiful the Hood Canal highway was 20 years ago, with an abundance of rhododendrons, than it is now. A movement in that direction could do much to recapture its former reputation for delight and charm.

Mother relates that in May, 1904, when as a bride passing through on her honeymoon, father bought her a big bouquet of rhododendrons. They were being sold on the streets of Seattle. I have often wondered where they grew, for apparently native stands are completely eradicated now, in the Seattle area. All that is needed is for someone to plant them in the empty places 'and by-ways. Wanted: A Johnny Rhododendron.

I asked my neighbor if I might set out some surplus seedlings on her side of the property line through a bulldozed clearing. The rocks had been loosened and some shallow holes with forest litter sufficed. With occasional watering they were off to a good start. They seem to stay fresher and greener with a hedge of evergreen seedlings growing up to give them protection from sun and wind.

The ruthless bulldozer, used on many a summer place, destroys the rhododendrons and buries the forest mulch. This invites alder, dandelion and obnoxious weeds. My other neighbor re-planted with R. macrophyllum and to my surprise, gave them a heavy dressing of wood ashes. They were burned, but after two years have survived with new leaves at the tips. The ashes were their only mulch.

Drought Resistant

Exploring on a remote dry hill top (mountain to some) of that logged-off area, I have seen acres of short, sparse-looking, leggy, wilted rhododendrons. There was little other vegetation, except a few trees. It was an extremely hot, dusty summer, and I wondered how they could survive. The leaf must be extremely efficient, performing its duties without indumentum or scales. Do the tough impacted roots supply themselves with insulation? They do travel surprising distances, sometimes to a buried piece of rotted wood that helps with moisture and food.

R. macrophyllum does well in high shade with direct or filtered light for part of the day, 'and will even bloom well facing an open north situation where it gets no sun, but it then blooms later in the season. Not everyone is successful in transplanting. One who failed tried to dig them out with a shovel and tore off the roots. When planted they were half buried and stamped down into solid-packed good earth. After a few survived, grass took over, which does not grow in their forest home. There was never a mulch for their roots, to take the place of their forest mulch. This should tell us what not to do!

The old axiom of amateurs beginning with showy hybrids is the result of seldom seeing others. With disbelief evident, one hears, "Is that a rhododendron?" A newspaper article in 1955 by the late Dr. Hanley on dwarf rhododendrons for the rock garden caused me to search for species. There were few displays of plants in or out of flower at shows. We have been continually admonished to remember the rule of variation in evaluating our species. R. fargesii , H-2, performed well its first year of bloom, yet its sibling, beside it, split its bark 'and lost its buds, after a warm January and a cold March. Among R. keiskei one plant of six has had browned leaves from cold weather, and that is 'a species recommended for the Atlantic Seaboard. Out of a flat of R. ciliatum , some grew faster, some bloomed sooner, some grew taller, some are spreading. All look healthy after the January cold, while 'Azor's' big leaves have a cooked brown appearance. Hardiness, obvious to the amateur, is wanted, but he will soon demand other characteristics in plants, and it is better to grow several of a kind for comparison.

It would be desirable to propagate the variations of R. macrophyllum as described by Mr. Doleshy. I once observed a very deep rose form growing in the wild, but within a year or two it was no longer there.

Rhododendrons have opened up a field of fascinating reading. If you live in an apartment, you can grow a few seedlings on your window sill and become an armchair gardener. Your seedlings will become a conversation piece. If you read enough, you may, in time, learn a great deal about them.

In summary, questions that arise, follow:

  1. What of a survey of advances made with intra-species propagation?
  2. Do we want more reliable plants for our unpredictable winters with their succession of warm -and cold spells, some of them early, and some late?
  3. Do we have a list of species and hybrids adapted to a summer drought area that will bloom freely the next season if the vacationer takes a trip during the summer?
  4. Should one grow lepidotes in preference to elepidotes if there is too much drainage? What elepidotes compare favorably with R. macrophyllum ?
  5. Are there other late blooming shrubs for a summer home, easy to cultivate, such as R. micranthum and R. brachyanthum ?
  6. If the season in a mountainous area is a month later than the one under which a mature plant has been grown, will this affect the bloom the following year?