QBARS - v35n3 What Makes Rhododendrons and Azaleas So Special

Austin C. Kennell, Waynesboro, VA

For over twenty years, I've grown rhododendrons - big plants, little plants, new hybrids, old favorites, hardy ones, not so hardy ones, small-leaved, large-leaved, species, and hybrids. I've grown azaleas - evergreen, deciduous, and native. My plants came from Oregon, Pennsylvania, Scotland, England, Japan, Washington, New York, Maryland, Ohio, New Jersey, North Carolina, Canada, Denmark, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. I've grown them in Maryland, West Virginia, and two locations in Virginia. I moved over 500 plants a distance of better than one hundred miles, not once, but twice.
I've lost plants to frigid winters, sweltering summers, late frosts, early frosts, ice, drought, falling trees, bugs, diseases, floods, winds, voracious animals, thieves, and just plain stupidity. I've bought and studied many "how to" books, subscribed to various magazines, and read countless articles about rhododendrons and azaleas. I've talked to experts and listened to amateurs.
I've sprayed, dusted, misted, and watered. I've fertilized and I've mulched. I've planted trees to get more shade - and cut down trees to get more light. I've paid too much for some plants - and not enough for others. I've pruned, pinched, and deadheaded. I've dug big holes and little holes. I've hauled sawdust, top soil, pine bark, manure and leaves. I've shoveled, troweled, swung a pick, operated a tractor, run a chain saw and used by bare hands. Yes, and I've cussed at times and prayed at other times.
Now, you would think I would have learned something about rhododendrons and azaleas from all this. Well, I have! I've learned what it is about these plants that makes them so special. All my plants have it - and it is the only thing about them that is not affected by soil, weather, moisture, or any other factor.
The one thing I've learned? The thing that makes rhododendrons and azaleas so special - People!
When anyone asks me what it is I like so much about rhododendrons and azaleas, my reply is invariably, "The people who grow them". It is my deep conviction that these plants are only grown by a very special and very wonderful breed. I really don't know why except that maybe the traits it takes to grow plants - patience, understanding, and a deep love of living things - are also the traits that make fine human beings.
When I look at my plants, I see far more than foliage or flower. I see something in every one that forever makes that plant something special to me. I see the friend who gave me the plant or cutting - or I see someone who started out as a stranger but who shared his or her friendship as we shared plants. Some plants stir memories of walks - and talks - with others in the sun - and in the rain, too - and of kneeling beside a plant that we might better share its beauty. Some of my plants are monuments to friends who are no longer here but who will never be forgotten.
My plants have brought me friends from far - off places - from just down the road - and from radically different walks of life. My plants conjure up memories of telephone discussions, priceless correspondence, plant sales and auctions, truss shows, chapter meetings, garden tours, slide shows, and articles in the Bulletin.
It's truly amazing, but my plants are also endowed with very discerning taste as they've never introduced me to anyone I didn't like.