JARS 49n3 - Californians Rate Their Rhodies

Californians Rate Their Rhodies
Pat Halligan
Freeland, Washington

Following is Pat Halligan's second article in a series on nominations for the Garden Gem Award. The first article, "Northwestemers Rate Their Rhodies," appeared in the Fall 1994 issue of the Journal.

In California rhodies have a tough act to follow, what with tropical hibiscus blossoms with their bright red and yellow waxy petals placed among dense dark green foliage. And what about those almost surreal dark blue princess flowers sparkling here and there amongst cute fuzzy leaves? But wait, I think I smell something...could it be?...yes, a gardenia, with its incredibly luscious tropical scent. So how can a rhody compete with these treasures of the tropical evening?
Easy. Wherever people in California can grow rhodies well, you'll find rhodoholics, including the intrepid people who answered my questionnaire: Parker Smith of the Redwood Chapter, Eleanor Philp of the Noyo Chapter, Paul Anderson of the Eureka Chapter, and Fred Renich of the Southern California Chapter. By now you've noticed that one of these rhody lovers lives where you can't grow rhodies without special help from heaven. They even have a chapter down there. But then, they grow weird rhodies down in Southern California, so I'll treat Southern California separately.
Since there were only three chapters that nominated regular rhodies, there were a lot of categories that had no clear winner. But that's no real problem, since generally all three plants nominated were winners anyway. So here goes...
The best red elepidotes were the old standard The Honourable Jean Marie de Montague', its child 'Taurus', and its grandchild 'Red Olympia'. What a family! Best yellow was divided between two old standards, 'Unique' and 'Crest', and the up and coming 'Nancy Evans'. Best white was uninspiring, with 'Catawbiense Album', the species R. yakushimanum and the old hybrid 'Gomer Waterer'. Does that say something or what? Hybridizers have been neglecting the whites, so here's opportunity for advancement. The best pinks were three fine old standards, 'Anna Rose Whitney', 'Lem's Monarch'* and 'Dame Nellie Melba'. Best purples were the ubiquitous 'Anah Kruschke' and the beautiful species R. niveum .
Among lepidotes R. spinuliferum won the prize for the best red lepidote...the only red lepidote? Well, finally! We get a winner! Yes, 'Owen Pearce' won the best yellow, and it deserves it. Its up-facing flowers give it an especially appealing look and make it one of my favorites. 'Mi Amor' won the best white. Although it is basically a typical R. nuttallii x R. lindleyi cross, it has the distinction of being the first one to really become popular. I grow a number of R. nuttallii-lindleyi-taggianum crosses and I love them all. The only problem is that R. lindleyi passes on a weak root system. Rhododendron taggianum has a much better root, and I have ended up grafting all my R. lindleyi crosses onto R. nuttallii x R. taggianum .
'Seta' won the nod for best pink, and certainly its artistic (one man's artistic is another man's scraggly) shape and flowers of an unusual shade of pink make it a most distinctive plant. The best "blue" lepidotes were 'Crater Lake', 'Bluebird' and the indestructible PJM Group. The best mixed color was shared by 'Mary Fleming', which makes this list all over the country, the California special 'Joy Ridge'*, which I personally like a lot, and the old English hybrid Royal Flush Group. I tried to grow it up here in the Northwest. I now own one very dead plant...and a deep and abiding jealousy for California's mild winters.

R. 'Joy Ridge'
'Joy Ridge'
Photo by Parker Smith

All-around best rhodies were heavy on the old reliables 'Anah Kruschke', 'Dame Nellie Melba', 'The Honourable Jean Marie de Montague', 'Unique', and 'Anna Rose Whitney'. One nomination that deserves special mention was the species R. arboreum 'Rubaiyat' RSF 74/2. This species really loves California, and ends up looking like a big oak tree with bright red flowers and bark with real character.

R. odoriferum
R. odoriferum
Photo by Eleanor Philp

Rhododendron yakushimanum got the most votes for best foliage...no surprise. But of special note were two California plants, 'Noyo Chief and its offspring, 'Noyo Brave'. Even we Northwesterners when suffering from delusions buy and grow 'Noyo Chief'...and revel in its stunning foliage between bad winters.
Odd, or maybe not so odd, was the fact that the list for toughest plants looks remarkably like the list for best plants, including 'Anah Kruschke', 'Anna Rose Whitney' and 'The Honourable Jean Marie de Montague'. It just goes to show that sometimes it's hard to grow rhodies in California, what with saline water, alkaline soil and hot dry summers. Also on this list was the Australian 'E. C. Sterling'* ('Mrs. E.C. Sterling'?). Any wonder? I guess it just likes eucalyptus.

R. 'California Gold'
'California Gold'
Photo by Eleanor Philp

California is a hotbed (no pun intended, honest!) of fragrant plants, and rhodies are no exception. While we Northwesterners must content ourselves with the scent of the Loderi Group, the Californians can run amok among odiferous hybrids of subsection Maddenia, such as 'Mi Amor', 'Fragrantissimum' and 'Else Frye'. Since I have a greenhouse, I can cheat and smell these subtropical wonders. My personal favorite is a R. nuttallii x R. lindleyi cross with a rather small flower (is 3" across small?) with the most luscious fruity tropical scent you could imagine, but with the capricious habit of emitting its aroma only at unpredictable times.
California's favorite tree? Could it be anything but R. arboreum ? Nobody could agree on which rhody had the best bark, so I'll give you my prejudice. The Maddenia species and hybrids tend to be scraggly, but look closer. Surprise! The red scaly bark on the branches and trunks of many of these plants makes up for all that legginess. Maybe we can call it artistic openness, revealing the pleasant surprise of the colorfully patterned trunk and branches.
'Seta' was one of the plants nominated as most unusual rhody. It's a hybrid of R. spinuliferum and gets its unusual flower shape and coloration from this species. I do most of my hybridizing with R. spinuliferum . Does this make me unusual?

Southern California
I'm listing the nominations from Southern California separately because they are all vireyas. I used to grow vireyas in my greenhouse, but I found that every time that the weather really gets cold, the arctic blast blows down the power lines. Ergo, rhodomush! That's the way all my vireyas went - to the great tropics in the sky.
In Southern California the tropics exist at ground level, so you grow vireyas. And what a menagerie they are, with ultra brightly colored flowers, and scent of carnations, with robust growers and persnickety weak sisters that would make any rock gardener's heart glow.
The best red was 'Ne Plus Ultra'. The best yellows were R. aurigeranum and the Valder form of R. javanicum . Best white was 'Semper Fidelis', and best pink was 'Marshall Pierce Madison'. Best mixed color was 'George Budgen'. All-around best vireyas were 'Strybing's Cairn'*, 'Cair Paravel' and #H024 offered by Vireya Specialties Nursery. Best foliage was 'Marshall Pierce Madison', which was also best pink. The toughest were R. christianae x R. macgregoriae , 'Taylori', and R. christianae x R. aequabile . Most fragrant were 'Dr. Herman Sleumer', 'Moonwood' and 'Calavar'. The best tree (is there such a thing as a tree vireya in cultivation...some grow to 40 feet in the wild?) was 'Mount Pire'. And the most unusual was a cross of zoelleri-macgregoriae-stenophyllum. Could this be the vireya equivalent to R. roxieanum Oreonastes Group?

R. 'Mi Amor'
"Mi Amor'
Photo by Eleanor Philp

The Garden Gem Award
Now that you've waded through all my descriptions of the various rhodies, I'll bet you're just champing at the bit to find out which plants won coveted nominations for the revered Garden Gem award. So, here goes. The first winner is a plant that has long been identified with California rhodies the world over. Could it be any plant but 'Mi Amor'? This plant certainly deserves this award, but rhodoholics in California have not been resting on their laurels. These busy little bees have been pollinating all sorts of Maddenias and coming up with deeper pinks, yellower yellows, and polychromier polychromes. But I'm no expert on the newest stuff from that part of the world, so I'll refer you to the Winter 1991 issue of the Journal and the article "Bob Scott: Magic with Maddeniis."
The other winner received the next most votes from the Californians and will come as a surprise to many people. This plant could only be described as unique, or at least it was until it gave rise to its bud sport 'Bruce Brechtbill'. Had enough clues? Of course, it's the architects' favorite, 'Unique'. This plant has proven itself to be a truly outstanding plant over the years. And now that its bud sport is available you can get it in two flavors, banana and raspberry peach.
Well, that wraps it up from California. I've had enough of that sunny, subtropical weather and I long for the frozen forests of the Eastern states to see what plants they came up with. Could it be sunstroke?

Pat Halligan is a member of the Whidbey Island Chapter and chairman of the Ratings Committee.

* Name not registered.