JARS v9n1 - A Winter's Tale: Interest in the Bleak Time of the Year

A Winter's Tale: Interest in the Bleak Time of the Year
Felice Blake
Kallista, Victoria, Australia

There is magic at every season and winter holds a special enchantment for the keen gardener. It is a challenging time in any garden, and we all strive to ensure that our gardens continue to hold our interest in the bleak time of year. Walking around my garden on a grey July day (remember I am writing in the southern hemisphere) what draws our attention particularly as far as rhododendrons are concerned?

First of all a sprinkling of blossoms, mainly 'Kirin' on the Kurume azaleas down the drive, and just inside the gate the bright pink flowers and a mass of buds on 'Seta'. Nearby the golden yellow flowers of 'Chrysomanicum' make a welcome splash of colour. This is not really my favourite early yellow (although I admit to growing four plants), as the flowers are apt to get spotted by winter rain, but nevertheless useful and great for indoors if picked just as the first flowers are breaking out. I do, however, prefer 'Talavera'* and 'R. W. Rye', both being early flowering and fairly weather hardy and to me of far superior quality. Next to 'Chrysomanicum' buds are swelling on Rhododendron dauricum , and these two will soon make a brilliant display of purple and gold, whilst the graceful lilac flowers on 'Emasculum' lighten the scene.

R. 'Werei'
Rhododendron 'Werei'
Photo by Felice Blake

In another part of my front garden two large plants of 'Christmas Cheer' are sheets of delicate pink flowing right down to the ground, a real joy for many weeks. Nearby is my greatest winter rhododendron treasure - 'Werei' with its brilliant frilly trusses of very deep rosy pink, almost red pale-throated flowers and backed by handsome dark green leaves with fine tawny indumentum. With me this makes a shrub seven feet high and wide and is a real eye-catcher. This rhododendron does not seem to be widely grown, probably as it is fairly slow to reach flowering, but it is well worth waiting for. Its origin is somewhat of a mystery, as the International Rhododendron Register discloses its parentage as ( R. arboreum [?] x R. barbatum [?]). It was raised by Samuel Smith, head gardener to Robert Barclay Fox, a renowned plantsman of Penjerrick in Cornwall. 'Werei' was apparently highly thought of, as it displays undeniable quality, receiving the coveted Award of Merit in 1921. Many notable rhododendrons were raised at Penjerrick 60 to 80 years ago.

At the other side of my front garden the very reliable 'Marion' is a delight, whilst nearby R. arboreum ssp. cinnamomeum Campbelliae Group with its rose-pink trusses is beginning to demand attention and other arboreums are following. Down in the rock garden the aptly named 'Ptarmigan' - the snow grouse - is covered with its little snowy flowers, and close by R. kiusianum in varied shades of pink. Every day sees murmurs of spring in the garden, buds are swelling on so many rhododendrons and the most exciting time of year will soon be with us.

R. arboreum cinnamomeum Campbelliae 
R. arboreum ssp. cinnamomeum Campbelliae Group
Photo by Felice Blake

A winter's tale would not be complete without considering the importance of companion plants. The little Cyclamen coum shining like jewels in a medieval embroidery are a winter's delight. Whilst many patches of snowdrops ( Calanthus sp.) with their charming little pristine white flowers touched with green are in perfect harmony with the winter scene, and let us not forget the irrepressible "Tommies" ( Crocus tomasinianus ) popping up everywhere, bravely flaunting their blooms on any sunny winter's day. The indispensable hellebores in a great variety of colours - green, white, all shades of pink up to wine red - make great companions. And looking upwards I find that already the flowering allspice ( Chimonanthus praecox ) has come and gone, but the witch hazels ( Hamamelis sp.), particularly H. pallida , are creating a scene of bewitching loveliness, so too many camellias and the early magnolias. My Magnolia campbellii with its glorious pink goblets etched against a pale blue wintry sky spells pure enchantment. So a winter's tale will soon be over and be replaced by opulence of spring, but in the meantime let us enjoy our winter wonderland!

*Name not registered.

Felice Blake has contributed numerous articles to the Journal from her Australian home for the enjoyment of readers. Her home in Kallista is approximately 20 miles from Melbourne.