JARS v48n3 - Tips for Beginners: Getting Started With Rhododendrons

Tips for Beginners: Getting Started With Rhododendrons
Karen Shuster
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Reprinted from the Vancouver Chapter newsletter, April 1992

Rhododendron - a plant for all seasons, a plant for all locations. But which plant? When you are at the in-between stage in life, when you are no longer satisfied with buying something on the basis of big red flowers, when you have joined the American Rhododendron Society, and when you feel that it's time to start selecting your plant based on discriminating criteria, which you haven't had time to develop, you might be tempted to throw in the trowel. But do not despair, dear reader, consider instead the following helpful hints to start you on the way towards developing a collection that in a few short years will be the subject of a slide show at a rhody society meeting!

Rule Number 1 : Flowers last only a few short days, but you will be looking at the plant itself for many, many more. Go for a good looking plant. You can't go wrong with Rhododendron yakushimanum or any of the hybrids in its family - 'Pirouette', the Seven Dwarfs ('Dopey', etc. - I kid you not!), 'Coral Velvet'. What's more, they all have pretty terrific flowers as well. The noble 'Sir Charles Lemon' has beautiful foliage and eventually becomes a lovely small tree. Others worth looking for are 'Unique', R. pseudochrysanthum (Harold Greer describes it as "the Rolls Royce of foliage") and R. campanulatum ssp. aeruginosum (see photo).

R. campanulatum var. aeruginosum foilage
R. campanulatum ssp. aeruginosum ,
a plant often grown for its beautiful foliage.
Photo courtesy of the Rhododendron Species Foundation

Rule Number 2 : Keep it simple. Don't set your heart on a plant that isn't available locally or is a known prima donna. There are so many others which would make you even happier. Plants from the PJM Group are doers - medium sized plants with aromatic foliage and bright flowers; they always look good. Another easy-to-grow plant is 'Dora Amateis' - a vision in white. If you'd like a larger growing plant, 'The Honorable Jean Marie de Montague' is a good solid red. For something smaller, try R. impeditum , a tight bush of vibrant blue.

Rule Number 3 : Do some research; it's fun! A combination of walks in a well labeled garden and browsing through books will do the trick. Then get yourself, at the very least, a Greer catalogue, preferably Greer's Guide . The Cox books are the next step up and well worth it, being more scholarly and providing carefully considered evaluations.

Rule Number 4 : Choose a plant which is at its best when you are in the garden. If you spend every June in Provence, there is no sense filling your garden with late blooming R. auriculatum hybrids and Exbury azaleas. You'll miss them just when they are in their glory. But if you don't venture outdoors until bathing suit weather, then these are the plants for you. The hardy souls who use their gardens for a quick winter pick-me-up (or who would place these plants right outside their windows) might consider some early bloomers. 'Snow Lady', 'Mary Fleming' and R. moupinense are all pale beauties. Try 'Olive' if you like sizzling colors, or 'Christmas Cheer', R. dauricum , or R. pemakoense for something in between.

Rule Number 5 : Ask the experts. ARS members like to talk about their plants even more than they like growing them, so use the social time at the meetings to get advice. Volunteer to do something about which you know next to nothing so that you can hang out with those who do and learn from them.

Rule Number 6 : Indulge your fancy. Don't think that there's some ultimate criterion determining the "right" plants to grow. If you like purple (I'm wild about it!) grow every shade of it. There are many named varieties of R. augustinii which offer every shade of blue/purple. My very first plants were 'Fastuosum Flore Pleno', 'Bob's Blue', and R. impeditum . They're still flourishing, and they blend quite nicely together. Or go for fragrance - 'Loderi King George' and other Loderi hybrids, 'Exbury Naomi', 'Angelo', etc., are fragrant as are azaleas 'Daviesi', 'Orchid Lights' and the rest of the Northern Lights series, 'Jolie Madame', 'Oxydol' and 'Arp├Ęge' (obviously). Don't forget 'Windbeam' or the PJM Group for aromatic foliage.

Rule Number 7 : If something does well in your garden, get more like it. If you have nothing but sun, go for azaleas rather than the broad-leaf rhododendrons which prefer some protection. If a R. williamsianum hybrid flourishes in your soil, it has enough friends and relations ('Wilbrit'*, 'Linda', 'Bow Bells', 'Karin', 'Moonstone', etc.) that you can appear to have lots of variety while staying within a narrow range.

Rule Number 8 : Don't ever get discouraged by adversity. The experts lose plants occasionally; you will, too. Look upon these losses as opportunities to acquire replacement plants. That leads to...

Rule Number 9 : Don't throw good money after bad. If 'Purple Splendour' dies on you twice, forget it. Some plants are just not meant to be grown in certain gardens. Try 'Anah Kruschke' instead; it's much easier to grow and is a better looking plant.

Rule Number 10 : Take a chance. Use the opportunity to get young, inexpensive plants at the sales and grow them along. They'll have a better chance of making it if they do their growing up in your garden. If they don't turn out to be what you had in mind, they're easily disposed of. And some 'Unknown Warrior' might turn out to be the love of your (gardening) life!

Editor's Note: * Name not registered.