The Beautiful 'Polar Bear'
Sidney, British Columbia, Canada
When asked, during the blooming season, to name my favorite rhododendron, I usually answer by giving the name of the one which has most recently bloomed. However, when they have all displayed their beauty and have faded for another season there is one I recall with more pleasure than all the others - a 'Polar Bear' which I have grown as a standard.
About eight or nine years ago, I received a package of open pollinated seed from Lynn Watts of Bellevue, Wash. As there were no other rhododendrons in bloom at the same time, he figured that it would come true to form and he was correct. I germinated the seeds in a pot on the top of the hot water tank in the basement. I believe that every seed sprouted, and later on that spring I planted them out in a separate bed in the garden. They all grew vigorously, and by the second year I was able to supply friends with healthy plants, the result of my first attempt to grow rhododendrons from seed.
As I had three or four growing well in the garden, I decided to try to grow one as a standard, and in each of the first five years I nipped off all of the side buds, leaving only the one at the top of the plant. At the end of five years I had a plant slightly over 5 feet tall with no side branches. At that point I decided to let it branch out in its normal manner. It has branched out well during the past three years, during which time these branches grew 40 inches.
'Polar Bear' as a standard
Photo by Bill Dale
The main stem, just over 5 feet, does not appear to be strong enough to support this large top structure, especially in wind, so I have supported it with a strong wooden post. The new growth this past year was only 7 inches so I am hoping that the main stem will catch up with the top growth and support it without outside help.
'Polar Bear,' which is a cross of Rhododendron diaprepes x R. auriculatum , seems to have inherited many of the main features of its parents and even to have improved on some of them. It is a vigorous grower with long, good sized leaves very similar to those of R. auriculatum . Much to my surprise, my 'Polar Bear' bloomed first in its sixth year - in August, a good three weeks later than my R. diaprepes .
'Polar Bear' leaf scales
Photo by Bill Dale
One of the unusually attractive attributes of 'Polar Bear' is the display of colorful leaf scales which enclose the new growth buds. As the new growth develops, these plum red, ribbon-like scales turn back and add greatly to the beauty of the snow white blossoms with their pale green centers. The 3-inch flowers have an especially pleasant fragrance, somewhat like cinnamon, and can easily be enjoyed on a still evening from a distance of at least 50 feet.
Photo by Bill Dale
My standard 'Polar Bear' is located in an open space at the center of the garden and shows no ill effects from the freezing north winds which last winter did considerable damage to some of my other rhodos. All winter long, I look forward to spring and the opportunity to see again the many beautiful plants that we are fortunate to be able to grow in this part of the world, but I look forward to seeing the beautiful fragrant blooms of 'Polar Bear' more than all others.
Bill Dale is a former president of the Victoria Rhododendron Society. He has written extensively on the pioneer hybridizer George Fraser for the Journal.
Editor's Notes: 'Polar Bear', a Stevenson hybrid, received the F.C.C. in 1946. The plant in this article was grown from open pollinated seed and, therefore, is not a true 'Polar Bear' though it may appear identical. Hybrids must be propagated vegetatively for them to carry the hybrid name.