JARS v41n3 - My Ten Best Dwarfs For The Rock Garden

My Ten Best Dwarfs For The Rock Garden
Felice Blake
Kallista, Victoria, Australia

Reprinted from the Victoria Chapter Newsletter

It is always interesting to read other growers' ideas of their first choices, and as a keen rock gardener and grower of dwarf rhododendrons, I was particularly interested to read in a recent Journal of a Canadian grower's "best ten". I agree with some of them, but to me some of the most desirable did not reach that list, so I thought I might try and find my "best ten". With the wonderful selection of dwarfs available, either readily in the local nurseries or, as in my experience, acquired after very great difficulties - due to our geographical location in the main, the selection of only ten requires much cogitation!
Yellow is always a rewarding colour in the garden, particularly in early spring, one really cannot go past the charming R. keiskei in one of its many forms, more particularly I would say, one of its dwarfest forms. It seems these days that every really dwarf form is called 'Yaku Fairy', but this name should be reserved to the clone which received the R.H.S. Award of Merit in 1970, and not to all the "look alikes"!
Then on to one of its many children - my favourite would be the Cox hybrid, 'Wren', the other parent being that wonderful but difficult R. ludlowii . If 'Wren' is not available in your area, try 'Patty Bee' as the previous writer has suggested.
Although I realize that 'Rose Elf' has many desirable attributes, personally I just cannot rate it above its parent, R. pemakoense , which to me is the very essence of what a dwarf rhododendron should be. It is a reliable performer, beautiful in flower and generous, increasing in spread by its stoloniferous nature. I feel its flowers are far superior to 'Rose Elf', but then the climatic difference may be the answer.
The great subsection Lapponica offers so many choices, one must think very hard to name one or two. The previous writer opted for R. tapetiforme , I am just about to agree with this, but going out into the garden to cogitate a bit more, I feel swayed towards R. fastigiatum . It is such a perfect little plant, with such tight growth of tiny greyed leaves, smothered with little blue-purple flowers.
If one could pick another lapponicum, I would have to choose R. intricatum for its sweet little posies of pale blue. Although this one is inclined to grow more than the desired 20 inches in ten years, I would keep it nipped back to keep it within the category!
I cannot imagine any list of dwarfs without representatives from Section Pogonanthum or subsection Campylogyna. Again it may be for climatic reasons - after all the climate at Victoria, Vancouver Island must be far removed from the climate of Victoria, Australia!
In Section Pogonanthum, there are some beauties, the difficult part is to make a suitable choice. For the lovers of yellow, one could not go past the early flowering R. anthopogon ssp. hypenanthum 'Annapurna', with its very dwarf habit, tiny leaves, and little round trusses, or, even more petite, the lovely yellow form of R. sargentianum . If you prefer pink, try the fairly early flowering and delightful R. primuliflorum v. cephalanthoides , or one of the better forms of R. trichostomum v. ledoides , such as the exquisite clone 'Collingwood Ingram'. Perhaps these two might grow over the 20 inch limit, but they are so desirable that one could easily keep them with limits. Just pick one out of those four, if you can, to try and keep within the limit of ten dwarfs!
So onto the campylogynums, these are amongst my favourites, I like them all! To pick just one is so difficult to be almost impossible! I would have to toss a coin to decide this one. Sometimes I think that the pink form of R. campylogynum v. myrtilloides or the lovely creamy white of the form which used to be called v. leucanthum is the best. Or perhaps I would opt for the very floriferous hybrid 'Canada', with its bright pink bells flowering a little earlier than the species.
Now, I've just about lost count, but could one overlook one of the forms of R. keleticum such as the Rock 58 form? I just can't imagine a collection of dwarfs, however small, without one of these.
I am a little hesitant about R. kiusianum , not because I don't like it, I grow quite a few forms, from white through to crimson, but there are so many other competitors! And their claims are very strong.
So where do we go from here? For those gardeners who enjoy a slightly cooler climate than here, one could not go past two of the most exquisite dwarfs imaginable - 'Pipit' and R. cephalanthum v. crebreflorum . I grow both of these, but I must admit that my results are not yet up to the standard of those which I saw ten years ago at an Alpine Garden Society show in London. These were perfection plus, and made such an impression on me that I decided then and there that I would not rest until I managed to acquire them both, and try to grow them to equal perfection!
As most of the Journal readers know, 'Pipit' is a natural hybrid between R. lowndesii and R. lepidotum , so it would have to be something very special, and it is! It is really enchanting, and lives up to the image so well known from the colour plate by Margaret Stones in Peter Cox's Dwarf Rhododendrons .
If you cannot track this one down, I would suggest that you opt for the delightful pink form of R. lepidotum . R. cephalanthum v. crebreflorum with its exquisite daphne-like trusses of flowers in a lovely shade of pink, on a little mound of a bush, also demands and gets its many admirers.
Now I have lost count again! Ten is such an arbitrary number to choose from a genus which is so lavish with its offerings. I haven't yet considered the "reds", and as I have kept to the lepidotes, why not continue there? I am thinking of two, R. calostrotum 'Gigha' and R. campylogynum v. cremastum 'Bodnant Red'. Yes, different reds to those offered by the elepidotes, but to me more in keeping with the other choices. I find the reds in the elepidotes a bit difficult to place with the lepidotes, more so in a restricted area.
If you must have an elepidote red, then I would choose the old hybrid 'Carmen', or the newer one, 'Martha Robbins', both of which are of the stature suitable for the rock garden.
As a final note, I just must include one elepidote, the charmer R. tsariense . Yes, it will get too big in due course, although doubtfully in ten years - at least in my experience, but one can enjoy its fascinating foliage in the meantime. It would not matter if it never flowered, it is a year round beauty!
You might say that these are not obtainable in your area, but I have run through several up-to-date and more or less up-to-date catalogues of the Pacific Northwest area, and have found nearly all are included - so over to you, gentle reader, what would your choice be?

Felice Blake, a regular contributor to the ARS Journal, takes up the challenge to pick the 10 best dwarfs. (ARS Journal, Vol. 40:2, Spring 1986)  For more information on Felice Blake's rock garden see "Companions For My Dwarfs", ARS Journal, Vol. 41:2, Spring 1987.