JARS 43n3 - The Glorious Four

The Glorious Four
Felice Blake
Kallista, Victoria, Australia

Magical names - R. lindleyi , dalhousiae , nuttallii and taggianum - subsection Maddenia is a treasure trove abounding in wonderful species. One would be hard put to decide the winners in that fascinating galaxy. All of us in temperate climates grow some Maddenias, but which ones? I grow a number of different species, but my top awards would go to these glorious four! They are now included in the Dalhousiae Alliance of subsection Maddenia - if you follow Cullen's classification.
The only drawback to the glorious four is their usually straggly growth habit but do not be put off by this rather fundamental fault. Instead, pay attention to their position when planting and do not grow these in the forefront of the garden. Although these really could not be regarded as rhododendrons for all year round interest (some readers may well disagree), they are irresistible when the flowering season arrives. These species have all won innumerable Awards of Merit and First Class Certificates from the Royal Horticultural Society.
Even the names conjure up visions of some of the greats in the horticultural world. Rhododendron lindleyi commemorates Dr. John Lindley who lived from 1799 until 1865, he was Professor of Botany and Secretary to the R.H.S. The famed R.H.S. Lindley Library is named after him. As a matter of interest, my oldest horticultural book is Lindley's An Introduction to Botany published by Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans in 1839. Rhododendron dalhousiae is named after Christina, Countess of Dalhousie, 1786 to 1839, who at one time was vice-reine of India. Here we note that the present Earl of Dalhousie is a current member of our Society. Rhododendron nuttallii is named after Thomas Nuttall, 1786 to 1859, of Rainhill, Lancashire, botanist and traveler. He is possibly more noted for collecting many American plants than for collecting rhododendrons. Rhododendron taggianum brings to our attention Mr. Harry Frank Tagg, 1874 to 1933, botanist at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, who was much involved in the classification of new found species.

R. lindleyi
R. lindleyi
Photo by Felice Blake

Rhododendron lindleyi , named in 1864, has been in cultivation for a long time. It has been introduced many times and comes from a widespread area ranging from Nepal, the Indian states of West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, Bhutan and the Chinese state of South Xizang (Tibet). This species is inclined to be straggly, probably reflecting its epiphytic nature. This is the first of the quartet to flower with me. Each year I eagerly await the glorious white trumpets, yellow-throated and deliciously scented, in a few flowered truss, with a prominent large calyx.

R. dalhousiae
R. dalhousiae
Photo by Felice Blake

Whilst R. lindleyi is still in flower, R. dalhousiae is quick to follow in my garden. This species is also widespread coming from Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and China (S. Xizang). First described in 1849, it, like other Maddenias, has been in cultivation for a long time. Again this is a straggler, being mainly epiphytic in nature. The form I grow first comes into bloom with its four-inch trumpets colored a fascinating green, changing to butter-yellow. Cullen's classification now treats R. rhabdotum as a variety of R. dalhousiae . It seems to us gardeners rather a pity that such a unique rhododendron should lose its specific status. All of us who grow R. dalhousiae var. rhabdotum would agree that it is an arresting plant in flower with its bold red stripes on its creamy white yellow-throated flowers. This variety flowers very much later than R. dalhousiae . It comes from Bhutan, India (Arunachal Pradesh) and China (S. Xizang), being first described in 1917.
Rhododendron taggianum is more or less similar to R. lindleyi , but personally I do not consider it as fine a plant as R. lindleyi . This species hails from Northeast Burma and the Chinese province of Yunnan and was first described in 1931. Its white trumpets are yellow-throated and scented.
I think most readers would agree that a well grown plant of R. nuttallii in full flower presents one of the most magnificent spectacles in the rhododendron world. This species again comes from India (Arunachal Pradesh), and China (Northwest Yunnan and Southeast Xizang) and was described in 1853. Rhododendron nuttallii has enormous fragrant flowers, large bullate leaves and in some forms deep purplish new growth. The lily-like flowers, white flushed yellow, sometimes flushed pink, up to nine in the truss, have an unmatched splendour. Rhododendron nuttallii var. stellatum has slightly smaller flowers. I first grew this species more than thirty years ago, in a large tub when I was living in suburban Melbourne at the time I first became aware of the wonderful world of species. It makes a spectacular tub plant for a few years, but then usually needs to be planted out in the garden. Mine was planted out when we moved to Mt. Dandenong twenty-two years ago. By the time we moved to Kallista ten years later, it has grown far too large to be easily moved, so there it stayed!
As expected, this quartet has been the target for hybridisers and many of these hybrids are widely grown today. One particularly glamorous hybrid which I grow is R. nuttallii x R. lindleyi combining the best of both species. This one was hybridized many years ago by one of our then leading nurserymen. Alas, he is no longer with us.
Why pick these species as the "glorious four"? Well, of course it must be a matter of personal taste, but they seem to compliment each other with the magnificence of their blooms and the sheer delight they provide for the garden. But if I could grow only one species in subsection Maddenia, which one would I choose? A difficult choice, but glorious as these four are, I would have a sneaking preference for the delicate beauty of R. ciliicalyx - but that is another story!

ARS members had the pleasure of meeting Felice Blake this spring in the Pacific Northwest. She attended the ARS Convention and spoke at many ARS chapter meetings about her garden and rhododendron growing and hybridizing in Australia. Several Lily Society and Alpine Garden Society groups were also privileged to hear Felice and see her fine slides.