JARS v41n3 - In Defense Of Vireyas

In Defense Of Vireyas
Dick Cavender
Sherwood, Oregon

I am sick and tired of hearing people put down Vireya rhododendrons. People say they are too hard to raise and that they have a poor plant habit. Neither of these statements is true for all Vireyas. They may be true of some Vireyas, but they are also true for some "hardy" rhododendrons. I have three to four hundred varieties of rhododendrons including over one hundred varieties of Vireyas, and as a group, Vireyas will tolerate more rough treatment than any of the others. If I treated my hardy rhododendrons as badly as I treat the Vireyas, they would all be dead.

My Vireyas are grown in 4" to 10" pots. Many are several feet tall including some of those in 4" pots. They get watered when the pot falls over or when the new foliage wilts. I fertilize when I think about it with whatever is at hand. The conditions get so bad that the weeds even die. The Vireyas not only survive this treatment but produce bloom every day of the year.

Vireyas are like other rhododendrons in many ways. They will not tolerate "wet feet", they prefer somewhat filtered sun, and they don't need lots of fertilizer. Vireyas do need protection from cold, but so do a great many of the "hardy" rhododendrons. Why do you think we have hardiness ratings? If your winters get to -35, you need to protect a lot of rhododendrons. Where do you store your fuchsias, geraniums, and dahlia bulbs? Part of my Vireya collection spends the winter in a poly house that is hopefully kept above 35 degrees but which has dropped to 26 or 27 on several occasions. I have burned off some new growth, browned some flowers, but never lost a plant. Many have not even lost their buds. They also put up with the fumes from the kerosene heater.

Many of the species Vireyas do have poor plant habits. So do many of the hardy species. Isn't that why we have hybrids? When you consider that the modern history of Vireyas goes back to the 1950's, we have come a long way. Many hybrids are much easier to grow, faster to bloom, and more vigorous than their parents. This is true for both hardy rhododendrons and Vireyas. A little TLC will produce nice looking plants. Go see Arne Jensen's or Lucie Sorensen's.

R. Herklotz #5
Herklotz #5
Photo by Dick Cavender

We have over 100 years of hardy hybrids at hand to work with but we still can't match the yellow of R. laetum , the orange and yellow of R. zoelleri , the fragrance of R. leucogigas , or the flower form of R. goodenoughii regardless of plant habit. As for foliage, try R. rarum , R. intranervatum , or R. leptanthum . There is lots of room for hybridizing. Regardless of plant habit I think it is hard not to like a plant that can spend 5 years in a 4" pot and bloom twice a year for three of those years. R. laetum will and I have several plants to prove it.

R. superbum
R. superbum
Photo by Dick Cavender

In the yard I have rhododendrons in bloom from about February 1st till late July. In my shade house and greenhouse I have Vireyas in bloom every day of the year. Some of the larger Vireya species bloom only once a year, but I like it when they bloom at Christmas. Many will bloom 2 or 3 times, and some almost all the time. R. lochiae can be kept in bloom almost all year, R. 'Valentine' has been in bloom now for three months and still has buds. Some flowers last for a week or more in the house while others may last only a few days, but most Vireya buds don't open at the same time and one plant may be in bloom for a month or more. Can you say that for your garden rhododendrons?

The dry atmosphere of the average home does not suit Vireyas very well. Florist azaleas don't like it either. You are willing to do a bit extra when you plant that special plant in the garden aren't you? Or for the Boston Fern in the house? Do you have a window greenhouse, a hot tub or spa area, an area under lights to start seed? Try a Vireya there. Do you grow orchids? Vireyas not only like the climate but they like the "soil" as well. Best of all, many Vireyas are very fragrant. They can perfume the whole house. Can your fern, philodendron, or orchid?

Vireyas can be a little bit of a challenge, not a huge challenge, but a little one. Isn't that part of the joy of growing rhododendrons or any other plant? Give them a try, the rewards are many. And if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.

Dick Cavender raises rhododendrons of all types as well as sempervivum, sedum and other plants at his nursery "Red's Rhodies & Alpine Gardens" near Sherwood, Oregon.