JARS v44n3 - The Challenging Rhododendron ludlowii

The Challenging Rhododendron ludlowii
Felice Blake
Kallista, Victoria, Australia

Although the majority of dwarf rhododendrons are very amenable to cultivation by the keen grower, there are some which will tax every skill the grower possesses. In this category I would put the exquisite little gem R. ludlowii which for most growers is an unwinnable challenge, this fascinating but infuriating child of the wild.

George Fraser and friends
Fraser with young friends in garden.
Photo by Felice Blake

Rhododendron ludlowii was discovered by Frank Ludlow on the Ludlow and Sherriff expedition in 1936 at Lo La in southeast Tibet (now the Chinese province of Xizang) at 13,500 ft. on moss covered rocky hillsides. It was discovered again at a different location, at Tsari Sama, but still in southeast Tibet in 1938, on the Ludlow, Sherriff and Taylor expedition.

This rhododendron has been classified into the lepidote subsection Uniflora although to most of us it is very distinct from the other species in the subsection. It has tiny green crenate leaves, and surprisingly large open cup-shaped flowers of primrose yellow, spotted, either solitary or occasionally in pairs, on a creeping plant or sometimes on a plant up to a foot high.

It is a highly desirable and much sought after plant but one not seen very often in gardens. I have imported R. ludlowii twice, but regrettably managed to lose it, although I did flower it just once. Of course, our quarantine regulations make the import of plants difficult, as all plants have to be bare-rooted, then on arrival here are fumigated with methyl bromide much to the detriment of many an import. Our climate too does not encourage this species to grow, it is just too hot in most summers, and not cold enough in winter.

However, on my visit last year to the Pacific Northwest, I was delighted to find a beautiful plant of this rhododendron in Warren Berg's remarkable garden, where so many rarities grow to perfection. This was the only specimen of this species in flower seen on this trip.

It does not seem to be widely grown, even in more favourable conditions than in my country. It would seem to do best in a peaty mix in a cool position, with a few stones around its neck, in an endeavour to more or less emulate its conditions in the wild. However, we cannot give it the long and deep snow covering provided in its natural habitat.

R. 'Honeybee'
Warren Berg's 'Honeybee'
Photo by Felice Blake

Rhododendron ludlowii has proved to be very valuable in hybridizing, particularly by Peter Cox at Glendoick in Scotland, and is the parent of such notable hybrids as 'Chikor', 'Curlew', 'Goosander', 'Woodchat' and 'Wren'. It was also used by Peter Cox's late father, the famed E.H.M. Cox in 'Euan Cox'. Warren Berg, too, has used R. ludlowii in the creation of the charming 'Honey Bee', and David Leach in 'Tow Head'. It is hoped that more growers in cool climates will take up the challenge, so that more enthusiasts will be able to enjoy this distinctive species which adds an air of enchantment to rhododendron collections.

Felice Blake's discerning eye draws our attention to yet another outstanding rhododendron. Felice Blake is a regular contributor to the ARS Journal.