JARS 43n2 - Second Thoughts On Rhododendron Landscapes

Second Thoughts On Rhododendron Landscapes
Clive L. Justice
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

When Esther Berry asked me to prepare something on landscaping the rhododendron collector's garden for the 1983 ARS National Meeting in Portland, the talk became the basis for an article in the Rosebay (1) which subsequently was reprinted in the American Rhododendron Society Journal (2). However, this was before the publication of the two beautiful books The Rhododendrons of Yunnan (in Japanese) and the more recent Sichuan Rhododendrons (3).
Both these books contain superb colour photographs of natural rhododendron landscapes in these two Chinese provinces. My favorite landscape in the latter book is the one taken in the Wolong Reserve with a Giant Panda among rhododendrons munching on his favorite food, bamboo shoots, while in the Yunnan book the one I treasure most is the two page spread of a large, high, upland pasture, a sea of pink Rhododendron racemosum enveloping a flock of sheep!

Sequoia and <i>R. occidentale</i>
At Yosemite National Park, California, a
rhododendron landscape with Sequoiadendron
and R. occidentale .
Photo by Clive L. Justice

Neither my western North American favorite rhododendron landscape with Sequoiadendron giganteum and R. occidentale in Yosemite or China's Giant Panda (mascot of the World Wildlife Fund) among R. balangense (4) and bamboo, is readily adaptable to the smaller suburban garden. Now, having just seen some of the eastern North American mountain landscapes with rhododendrons on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia along with the superb photograph by David Meunch of a R. catawbiense and windswept scrub-oak landscape around an Appalachian Mountain Bald in the beautiful book Wildflowers Across America (5), these landscapes can be filed away with the woodland landscapes of Pennsylvania with R. maximum and the azalea thickets of Georgia.

Mt. Omei, Sichuan Province, China</i>
Rhododendron landscape with R. wiltonii and R. faberi on the
vertical crevices of Mt. Omei, Sichuan Province, China.
Photo by Clive L. Justice

Also to be remembered are the vertical rhododendron landscapes of Mt. Omei seen in 1981 where R. wiltonii and R. faberi hang out of crevices and pockets on the cliff faces and the mountainside landscapes of R. grande with the large tree specimens of R. falconeri in the Sikkim-Nepal Himalayan foothills.
Can these varying kinds of natural rhododendron landscapes be synthesized and integrated into meaningful garden designs and layouts to produce a garden for the rhododendron collector? It may be that in this way we can overcome the horticulture zoo of plants so often the main characteristic of many rhododendron gardens. I believe these worldwide natural rhododendron landscapes can be incorporated into a design to assist the garden designer, garden maker and yes, even the landscape architect who have all been reared in traditional garden making styles.

Mt. Omei, Sichuan Province, China</i>
A natural landscape, R. maximum , at Frank Lloyd
Wright's Falling Water house in Pennsylvania.
Photo by Clive L. Justice

Two characteristics of these traditional styles that are combined in plant display gardens such as a rhododendron collector's garden are (1) arranging a selection of the best grown plants as objects in a setting of grass, the so called "zoo", or (2) using numbers of rhododendrons and other shrubs arranged along the edge of walks or grass swards. This English pastoral landscape setting is the style of most of the large, great and near great rhododendron gardens in England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Belgium along with U.S. and Canada. There are some woodland style exceptions where the weather conditions require shading and protection for the rhododendrons.
It is difficult to overcome or to break away from these strongly entrenched garden traditions. Even the rock garden for alpine plants is now more of a display area for many different individually grown plants than a natural mountain top landscape setting. In addition, the horticultural standards set by these traditions of garden making die hard, as seen by examples of perfectly grown specimens arranged around a carpet of mown grass with some high overhead trees.
Rhododendrons in their natural habitats are usually community plants growing in groups, they do not need companion plants. While no plant in nature is a perfect specimen, when we coddle and shape a rhododendron to make it conform to a preconceived tight and tidy piece of topiary we lose much of the quality and character these marvelous plants achieve from the struggle to grow, adapt and survive in different natural habitats and environments.
With only a little help and guidance we can use many of these natural habitat and environmental conditions and adapt them to the garden landscape environment. Some of these natural rhododendron characteristics and landscape qualities are listed below.
1.  Windswept, sheared-like shape without all of the wind damage associated with natural conditions.
2.  The lace curtain network of stems and leaves of deciduous azaleas and the Triflorums providing subtle screening and spatial depth.
3.  The billowing cloud-like forms and texture of tightly massed groups of rhododendrons on a hillside slope.
4.  The tapestry or star studded "sky" effect of scattered flowers on a snow flattened mat of alpine rhododendrons.
5.  The silhouette against the sky of branches, leaves and flowers of rhododendrons hanging from a rock face.
6.  The reflection of a bank of rhododendron along the edge of still water.
7.  The floating effect of rhododendron branches dipping into water or providing a perch for dragonfly and butterfly beside a running stream.
8.  The colour and texture of moss lichen and ferns (benign epiphytes) on branches and trunks of old rhododendrons.
9.  The smaller garden scale of the rugged and picturesque oak-like branches and trunks of rhododendrons grown as trees.

Design for rhododendron garden

These nine elements when combined with the principles of grouping rhododendrons by leaf shape set out in the previous article "Landscapes With Rhododendrons" are here incorporated into a layout for a west coast rhododendron enthusiast's garden in a suburban setting near Vancouver Victoria Seattle Tacoma Portland Eugene. It consists of the rear of a fifty foot property with an on grade living room and study opening onto a large terrace. The ground is relatively flat and all the surface drainage from the lot is collected in a central pond area. There are eight groupings of rhododendrons shown on the plan that form a composite landscape as follows:
A.  A three stepped hedge the full length of one property line using Triflorums and Cinnabarinums.
B.  A billowing area of Yakushimanums, Caucasicums and Griersonianums.
C.  A Kweilin mountain with cliff hanging epiphytes and rock crevice Lapponicums and Anthopogons.
D.  A swarm of deciduous azaleas.
E.  A carpet of Satsukis, Campylogynums and Lapponicums.
F.  A "windswept" slope of Williamsianums and Orbiculares.
G.  A conservatory of Vireyas and Malesians.
H.  A display shelf and potting counter for Bonsai rhododendrons, shade house for propagation and a storage wall for tools and equipment to service and maintain the landscape.
These eight elements are arranged around a central pond with a linking walkway - and (Oh Yes!) a tree rhododendron or perhaps the only non rhododendron but a plant still in the family, our native madrone, Arbutus menziesii , shades the terrace.

Clive Justice, Landscape Architect, has long been active in the ARS. He is the designer of the University of British Columbia Botanical Gardens and a consultant for heritage and plant display gardens. He has recently returned from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he has been advisor for the development of an Orchid Conservation and Display Garden and a Hibiscus Display Garden.