QBARS - v25n1 Thirty Years of Rhododendron Experience

Thirty Years of Rhododendron Experience
Ruth M. Wood, St. Helens, Oregon

When we first moved to St. Helens we lived in an apartment, the only place there was to live. Good weather came and I was living with a caged pacing animal. One day we went for a drive and stopped to look at a piece of land. Wales picked up a handful of soil and said, "Look at that beautiful dirt." Dirt - something to get out of things and stay away from. We have been in it ever since.
We bought the gently sloping piece of land and had a house built. We overlook the Columbia River and have left much of the native growth: madrons, dogwood, pines, cedars, berberis, wild ginger, trillium, yellow violets. We have added an enkianthus, a split leaf maple and two or three magnolias. There is no room for more.
With all our shade it was only doing what comes naturally when we started planting rhododendrons. Then we were "hooked." At first there was a color scheme but that did not last. The plants had to be put where they were happy and color of bloom did not seem so important. Each of you knows that a plant tells you when it is happy - or unhappy - it jubilates or it sulks. If a plant sulks the problem is yours: too much sun, too much shade, drainage, depth of planting, moles, ringing from freezing and so on ad infinitum.
We started with hybrids as almost everyone does but we were curious, not yellow, about the parentage of these beautiful plants. One day when we were visiting a nursery we saw a group of dug plants. On inquiry we were told, "Species. We are getting rid of them. They do not sell."
They sold. And we have been sold ever since. But for a long time there were no species in local nurseries. We went to a primrose show at which Mrs. A. C. U. Berry had a bouquet display of R. sperabile and R. neriiflorum . We made inquiry and that is how we got to know Mrs. Else M. Frye of Seattle. Her careful selection and good botanical background gave us a start in collecting.
Year or two later we were driving around on Vancouver Island and were answered by the typical British understatement, "A couple up the island grow a few rhododendron." The couple was Mary and Ted Greig. Their garden was a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Those days no permit from Washington, D.C. was required, only inspection both sides of the border, so you could bring in all your car could hold and your pocketbook could stand.
Ours is a small garden. As the plants get larger and larger the planting space gets smaller and smaller. As the years pass our backs get weaker and weaker. We have become more and more interested in the smaller plants. the dwarfs and even the pygmies.
We feel that this group of rhododendrons has been under-appreciated by the rhododendron buffs with small gardens. Nothing is more perfect for the rockery; they make attractive group plantings or foreground fillers. The lowness blends nicely with a sprawling one-story house. Our house is too small to sprawl. They are ideal in front of view windows. We use them beside the garden paths. If you have limitless space the really big plants, hybrids and species, can be magnificent but a city lot can be charmingly interesting. Sometimes it is more fun to appreciate the little things than it is to think big.
Selection of plants is a matter of what is right for your location and what suits your personal taste. We have a hodge-podge because the world is so full of beautiful things. We do not have many large leaved - I mean really big - rhododendrons because first: we do not have room; second: they have been frozen out about every ten years. R. calophytum is an exception. It is hardy in the Pacific northwest. Our plant is about ten feet tall. The new growth, covered with silver fairy dust is almost as attractive as the bloom. We did bloom R. falconeri last year and it is only about seven years old. The huge, leathery, green leaves with the orange indumentum are a delight. R. fictolacteum seems to have buds for next year and it is tall enough that one can look up at the tawny indumentum. R. galactinum blasted buds last year.

R. calophytum
R. calophytum ; taken in the garden of
Mr. and Mrs. Wales Wood.
Photo by Wales Wood

We try to plant for emphasis on foliage contrast in shape, color, gloss, indumentum, cilia, bristles. This is inseparable from selecting better forms, much of which is a matter of personal taste. We like best the form of R. orbiculare that is so orbicular that the leaf overlaps above the petiole; the form of R. strigillosum that has a cob-web in the leaf whorl formed by the bristles that also carry down the shoots.
In the last named the flowers must be a clear, waxy, brilliant red. There are many bad forms around. R. concatenans gives a blue green color of foliage, true in a lesser degree of the cinnabarinums and their progeny. Beautiful bronze new growth occurs in R. williamsianum and many of its hybrids. The delightful white dusting of the new growth of a good form of R. yakushimanum and its heavy brown indumentum carry over in some crosses as do the cilia of R. ciliatum . The plastered metallic indumentum of R. insigne adds interest; this is characteristic of many of the arboreum series. R. insigne needs this, it takes forever to bloom. Foliage talk could go on all evening.
I am not going to discuss rhododendron culture. Many of you probably know much more about this than we do. There is a supply of written material to help you. This was not always the case. Our very first help came from a booklet published by the arboretum at the University of Washington. It was a nuisance to send to Britain for books and convert the U.S. dollar to pounds, shillings and pence but it was well worth the effort. The R. H. S. handbooks and the Rhododendron Society's large book on species are still the supreme authorities at our house.
Our plants think they are people. They love to have their roots in rotten wood and leaf mold. If their feet are too wet too long they get pneumonia and die. Some are much more susceptible than others. If the roots are too deeply covered suffocation takes place. With too much sun some of the plants get sun-stroke. With less sunshine the plant may have lush foliage and beautiful form but be sparse with bloom. The happier some rhododendrons are the less the population explosion. Maybe they are people. All rhododendrons like light showers via the heavens or the hose: they have no objection to mist or fog. True Oregonians? Our plants fend for themselves. We rarely feed them, maybe once every four years.
For an introvert gardener and his extrovert wife the friendships we have made in the past thirty years are priceless. Sometimes the memory association is with a specific plant or group of plants. John G. Bacher had a beautiful group of the Taliense Series that, so far as we know,, have been lost to posterity. Fred and Dorothy Robbins have a magnificent blooming R. fulvum that is a queen in a garden full of royalty. Dr. Phetteplace has a glorious group of R. crinigerum .
Ben and Josie Nelson had great knowledge, a fascinating rhododendron library and a garden full of carefully selected plants. The perfume of the Loderi's reminds us of Sir Giles Loder, his beautiful garden, and his modest statement when he was in Portland at the International Conference, "Any man likes to talk about his garden."
There are many more names, no less esteemed, that I could add to this list. But you would be bored; I would be in trouble, neither of which is the purpose of this dissertation.
This last has been name dropping in a big way but it is also the stuff of which memories are made and is a very important part of thirty years of rhododendron experience. Each person has contributed as has each plant.
Anyway, it is widely accepted by a large percentage of the population that you can not trust anyone over thirty. Maybe senility has set in and you should not have trusted me. So I'll pretend that I am a journalist and use "30" meaning an end to my part of the program.