JARS 43n1 - The Incomparable Rhododendron elegantulum

The Incomparable Rhododendron elegantulum
Felice Blake
Kallista, Victoria, Australia

Among the desirable attributes of any rhododendron, surely foliage must stand out as the hallmark of high merit. After all we look at our rhododendrons the whole year around, so our plants should look good at all times. How many of our rhododendrons can truly fill that bill? You have only to look at the average nursery in the non-flowering season to find yourself confronted with a collection of more or less look alikes - maybe that is an exaggeration, but basically true.
I recently overheard a conversation between two gardening friends, owners of quite large gardens, whom I thought were reasonably interested in our favourite genus and felt quite shocked when they agreed that after all rhododendrons weren't much of an addition to the appeal of a garden when out of bloom, whilst in flower there were too many regimented trusses! I quickly protested that they were not acquiring the cream of the cosmopolitan throng.
Looking around my own modest collection, I always seem to feel biased towards that desirable "all the year around" look, but in doing so I still cannot bring myself to completely discard those which do not really meet this criterion. One of my favourite year around rhododendrons is the incomparable (or almost incomparable) Rhododendron elegantulum . This species is suitably named, for it possesses a matchless elegance of foliage and flower and with me makes an appealing shrub.

R. elegantulum flowers
Truss of R. elegantulum
Photo by Felice Blake

R. elegantulum hails from southwest Sichuan (Szechwan) province of China, near Yungning, at an altitude of about 13,000 feet. This species grows in a variety of sites - among Larix and Abies , in meadows and on rocky slopes. It was first described by Tagg & Forrest in 1927, so although it was discovered quite a long time ago, it is only in more recent times that it has been in more or less general cultivation.
It belongs to that wonderful Taliensia subsection, along with many fascinating foliage plants, however it is not so slow to flower as some. This rhododendron grows, we are told, to about five feet and makes a rounded and compact type of shrub. I can't recall exactly how long mine took to flower, but it would be about five years which is really not long for species in this subsection.

R. elegantulum
R. elegantulum
Photo by Felice Blake

The flowers on my specimen are a delightful light pink with darker spots, in a rounded truss. The chief glory is in the foliage, it unfurls its new growth in a lovely light, silvery cinnamon tomentum with indumentum which deepens to a very rich dark pinkish shade before maturing to a deep cinnamon on the undersides of the leaves. The indumentum is like velvet to touch inviting you to feel the leaves when passing!
This rhododendron is closely related to R. bureavii , another superb plant, and according to Dr. Chamberlain, could be a hybrid between that species and R. adenogynum . The leaves on R. elegantulum are narrower than those on R. bureavii and to my mind much more shapely and elegant. Many growers seem to consider that the species in the Taliensia subsection are not worth growing, as they are too slow to flower, but I would dispute this. To me they are an intriguing collection from the fascinating pygmy R. proteoides upwards. Some such as R. proteoides are indeed very slow to flower, however you can enjoy them just as foliage plants during those waiting years. Others including R. balfourianum and the irresistible R. roxieanum do not keep us waiting for more than a few years.
It seems that R. elegantulum is still not as widely grown as it undoubtedly deserves, so take a look around your favourite nursery and try to track it down. It is a resplendent addition to any rhododendron collection.

Some ARS members attending the recent International Rhododendron Conference in Australia had the pleasure of meeting Felice Blake and visiting her garden. She is a regular contributor to the ARS Journal.