A Sextet of Species Rhododendrons
By John G. Bacher
The lure of growing species rhododendrons has many hurdles presented to the beginner. There seems to be a great wealth of names to choose from when you look into the index of the species books. yet one fact stands to meet you at every turn when trying to find them, and that is, where are the sources of supply? So while endeavoring to get one acquainted with the charms of species one may as well face facts, and speak of such as are more readily found in the nurseries of growers that specialize in rhododendrons. The writer has in mind a half dozen that can be assembled without too much searching and which bring out features of varied nature quite charming and in a way very distinct from the so-called standardized rhododendron sorts of the trade.
The first of these is unquestionably unique in many ways and often a spectacular performer in our northwest gardens. R. mucronulatum . Here we have a very hardy shrub (although deciduous) that believes firmly in being first of all for flowering, and many a year have I observed it in full bloom in January with its bare sterns loaded with purplish to magenta colored flowers. A harsh difficult color it seems to be, but flowers so early in the season impress you nevertheless. As seasons vary quite a lot, some years this shrub may bloom in February or early March, but without fail it is the first of the family in our gardens, and arouses interest wherever seen. Those who are color sensitive will really learn to appreciate it if care is taken to provide a background for R. mucronulatum by planting blue green junipers so frequently seen, but seldom placed with any logic in the garden scheme. That is the secret that brings out the trite beauty in the color of this species. The lush grows readily in most porous soils and rewards you with it magnificent display of late fall color in its foliage. especially when exposed to full sun.
Number 2 of our sextet is R. racemosum , also an early variety, but with evergreen foliage of a bronzy grey green which during the winter resembles boxwood. In the vicinity of Portland R. racemosum begins to function during March just as the frosting period comes to a halt. It is a rather low shrub about 2 foot tall usually with slender arching branches or short stubby ones if growing conditions are not lush. The flowers are small about the size of flowering plums and are produced in great masses all along the branches. The flowers are a pleasing gay pink in bud that turn to white when reaching maturity. Being of good natured disposition it is not particular as to location and is a delightful sight when used as a rockery subject or a border shrub in informal plantings. Some day when available in quantity it may become a favorite evergreen for small hedge effects. as a minimum of clipping will keep it in compact shape. Easily grown. R. racemosum will tolerate full sun and grow gracefully in partial shade as well.
Number 3 is Rhododendron lutescens . This happens to be another early flowering type with somewhat larger blooms than the preceding, but with flowers of a very charming sulfur yellow. The blossoms do appear in groups of three all over the branches and if the bushes are in a sunny location which they should be one may expect blooms in early March or some years even in February. They are a bit more tender to frost however, but as they unfold over quite a period of time there will always be a portion that escape without harm and the sight of this lively color so infrequently seen among rhododendrons is a joy to every one. Its growing habit is rather upright and the leaf form resembles privet or willow. They are bright green early but by summer acquire a handsome bronzy hue often rivaling a Japanese maple for charm. This shrub will grow to 4-6 feet tall depending on soil, water supply and exposure.
Number 4 of the series is R. pemakoense , and in this plant we have something quite different in growing habit, for it forms a miniature clump-like shrub often creeping over the ground. Its foliage it dark grey green about the size of boxwood and its height will not exceed 12 inches. Under ordinary conditions is shows preference to a shaded location, with sunshine in the morning hours only. The flowers appear quite early in the season usually about middle of March or April depending on season and locality. R. pemakoense has a very unusual type of bloom, the flowers are almost like large thimbles in an upright position and of a peculiar pink or lavender hue. It is a rock garden jewel from the Orient that will be much admired wherever grown. The fairy like flowering of R. pemakoense reminds one of Gentiana acaulis in some respects for there is a slight similarity of form in the blooms of these plants. Fanciers will grow this handsome Chinese species in the future as it is easy to propagate and the cost will not be high once a supply is at hand. Unfortunately this is not the case at the present.
Number 5 of the group is the R. yunnanense , a free growing shrub, tolerant to sunny locations and not particularly fastidious as to soil or exposures. It is evergreen, of course, with leaves somewhat longer than privet and more pointed, also of glossy appearance with a tint of bronze during the winter season. Its flowering season happens to be around the forepart of April in this part of the country. The blossoms arrive in clusters with an airy gracefulness that places them in a class by themselves. The color is somewhat variable, often between an apple blossom pink changing to white with small or large blotches of brown or red. There is an inexpressible charm about this Yunnan rhododendron that in time will make it a garden leader for gardeners who delight in exotic color effects and gracefulness. Mass plantings will enhance this type of effect and as the duration of bloom is much longer than Azalea mollis, many will come to realize the extra merit of R. yunnanense , and use this fine species in plantings.
Number 6 of the series is the R. augustinii also an evergreen of free upright branching habit with a tolerance for heavy soils. That is the outstanding feature that makes this rhododendron especially useful for foundation plantings. Another feature is the color of this species which ranges from a handsome light blue to a deep ultramarine blue with a wide intermediate series of variants. This color factor must be taken into consideration when a person is to select a plant for the home garden.
In most instances where stress is placed on a definite tint of color, the thing to do is to make the selection at time of flowering which is generally in early May. Homes with red brick walls will find this one of the most useful shrubs. As the color effect is most useful and pleasing. Whenever exposed to full sun the foliage assumes a decided bronzy cast, which during the fall season adds much to a garden The flowers open in clusters of three, for it belongs to the Triflorum series, and in such profusion that the entire shrub is one mass of color during the blooming season, When good color forms are selected they make a startling sight and evoke the admiration of every passerby. however it must be stated that there are color variants decidedly flat, and even a white form is known. Rhododendron augustinii is of immense merit as a garden subject for gardeners who do not have a lot of time to care for their gardens, will appreciate colorful shrubs that will function without much attention. Most leading growers can offer plant, of this species in one size or another.