QBARS - v4n1 Rhododendron repens

Rhododendron repens
Mary Greig, Royston, V. I., B.C., Canada

R. repens is, undoubtedly, the most startlingly lovely of the prostrate species of the genus Rhododendron . Even out of flower, it always draws comments and when adorned with its relatively large scarlet trumpets, burning like mid-summer in the chilly Spring garden, it is a most beautiful sight.
One can well imagine the thrill of its first finders, for no other hardy garden plant in any way resemble., it. The late George Forrest first collected R. repens in the Salween-Mekong divide, N. W. Yunnan, in his 1912-14 expedition but it was not seen in flower. In 1917 flowers were collected and sent to Edinburgh Botanic Garden, along with specimens of most of the other species comprising the sub series Forrestii, of the series Neriiflorum.
Capt. Kingdon Ward says, in the Gardeners' Chronicle of October 5th, 1929: "Nothing has since been heard of R. forrestii or indeed, of the others (of the sub-series); and although Bayley Balfour (Sir Isaac, then Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh) and Forrest both regarded R. forrestii as a good species, in the writer's opinion it is no more than, at most, a form of repens ...Bayley Balfour believed it to be endemic in northwest Yunnan, where it was first discovered on the Mekong-Salween divide; nor has it ever been found east of the Mekong. In the opposite direction, however, its area has been gradually extended until it now embraces all far northern Burma, the Assam frontier mountains, and even the main Himalayas, where that great range crosses Kongbo province, in Tibet.
"In 1919, 5 years after its discovery, I found R. repens in fruit only, on Imaw Bum, so far south as 26"N on the Burma-Funnan frontier. Apparently *Farrer did not meet it on the Chimili Pass that year, since it is not mentioned in Mr. Euan Cox's excellent book, (Farrer's Fast Journey, by E. H. M. Cox; 1921). Farrer did, however, meet it further north on the Chawchi Pass (the same range) in 1920. I suspect it to occur on the Chimili also, although sparingly; it was very rare on Imaw Bum.
"In 1924 I discovered R. repens in Tibet on both sides of the Tsangpo immediately above the great gorge, 350 miles almost due east of Lhasa. Since it does not occur in Sikkim and has not been recorded from Bhutan, this locality must be close to its western limit. Its discovery on Namcha Barwa was almost revolutionary - the first record of a "Sanguineum" Rhododendron from the Himalayas; for there can, I think, be no reasonable doubt that Scarlet Runner (K. W. 5,815 R. repens var. chamaedoxa ) is R. repens or at most a geographical form of it. Namcha Barwa, it is worth noting, is 350 miles in an airline northwest of where R. repens was first found. In 1926 I found R. repens again at the headwaters of the Irrawaddy and in 1928 on the Mishmi Hills, Assam frontier; this establishing the connection between the Yunnan and Tibetan localities. We are thus enabled to plot its area of distribution quite definitely; and not only its distribution, but those of its nearest allies also. We find, in fact, that R. repens and Co. occur at the wet alpine ranges between the meridians of 94"E and 99" E; altitude 10-12,000 feet; climate, seven months under snow, 5 months rain and mist..."

This was written twenty years ago, and since that time Capt. Kingdon Ward collected R. repens (K. W. 9629) and its forms pink K. W. 9635 and sulphur yellow K. W. 9816 in his 1931 expedition to N. E. Upper Burma and the Tibetan frontier. Dr. Rock has also collected it and its forms in S.E. Tibet and N.W. Yunnan (1923-2-1); the late Geo. Forrest, N. W. Yunnan 1932; Professor Hu and Mr. Yu, also in N. W. Yunnan in 1937, and Messrs. Ludlow and Sheriff in S. Tibet at Lo La, 13,500 altitude, in 1936. Unfortunately, I have no record of the late E. H. Wilson's collections, and do not know if he too found it.
Forrest was very sparing in his written records. According to Mr. E. H. M. Cox (Plant-hunting in China: 1915): "...his published writings, apart from field notes, consist of one article in the Geographical Journal and two in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, several in the Gardeners' Chronicle, and a few oddments."

I, alas, have met none of them, so can tell you nothing about his reaction to R. repens even if he recorded it. The late Reginald Farrer and Capt. Kingdon Ward do give us glimpses, though. Quoted from the Gardeners' Chronicle of June 4th, 1921, in Mr. Cox's book, Farrer's Last Journey:

"It was not until the middle of May (1920) that it became possible to venture up on to the heights for a stay. (Chawchi Pass) Even then, of course, the highest heights of all were still under an unbroken mantle of white...I crossed the rib and found myself on a strip of shaley scree, still frost bound and like iron, above a snow slope falling away to depths unknown... And beyond there, across an intervening snow slope, lay huddled on the bare soil the fallen blooms of R. aemulorum, hanging from the cliff overhead. I looked again through the glass, and again and yet again. I could not feel quite happy about those fallen flowers, that did not seem to be lying as carelessly, somehow, as fallen flowers should; and they also seemed to my excited fancy to be of a slightly different scarlet. It is always worthwhile, with flowers, finding out-even if it be only to find out that one has been a sanguine fool. I made my way gingerly along. And there were the fallen flowers of R. aemulorum lying just so on the shale. I could have kicked myself for hoping otherwise! But I told the orderly to go on anyhow and just make sure; shrieks of triumph greeted my ears, and in a few moments he was hack, thrusting into my hands specimens of a rhododendron that runs absolutely flat along the ground, in Moss and Sphagnum, with foliage neater and brighter than that of Salix serphpyllifolium , and solitary terminal trumpets, almost as large as those of R. aemulorum's , indeed, and of a blazing pure vermilion."

And from Capt. Kingdon Ward's record of his 1924-25 expedition in Bhutan and Tibet, published in the Gardeners' Chronicle of June 20th, 1925:

"Towards the end of June we paid our first visit to the Himalayan range, which w as not very far away, though we had one range of mountains to cross, as well as a large river... We clambered up on to the steep surface of the avalanche and started up the valley...after climbing something less than a thousand feet we got out of the dense scrub on to the alpine turf slopes... Shortly after this the miracle happened. I was looking across the torrent to the steep turfy slope opposite, which faced the sun. "Just look at those bright scarlet leave" I said to Cawdor (Lord Cawdor, who accompanied him on that expedition) indicating a patch which covered a rock. "Why," said he, after gazing for half a minute, "it's a flower-it looks like a rhododendron." I took the glass from him, looked, and almost shouted. It was a rhododendron such a one as we had never seen before, laced to the rock, its big trumpet flowers, twice as big as the leaves, lying prone and of the most torrid scarlet imaginable. Here indeed was a rock plant! It plastered the cliffs, ate like fire all up the grassy slopes visible a mile away. In vain we tried to cross the torrent, but ascending on our side, seeking a passage, we soon came upon our prize again. It was a 'Sanguineum' with the tiny leaves of R. repens (though longer and narrower) and big trumpet flowers which are larger than the leaves. No part of the plant rises two inches above the surface of the rock, indeed the corolla itself, lying on its side, marks the height of  'Scarlet Runner' as we called it."

This was K. W. 5815, R. repens var. chamaedoxa . On the same expedition they collected two other varieties of R. repens , K. W. 584G, and K. W. 5817, R. repens var. chamaethauma , said to have carmine flowers.
It seems almost an impertinence to ask a plant to adapt itself to the utterly different conditions to be found in lowland gardens, even in the most happy climates, and of course, in many cases R. repens is a disappoint. Indeed, in his book "Rhododendrons" published earlier this year, Capt. Kingdon Ward does not include R. repens in his recommendations for gardens. How well it does in the British Isles I do not know. However, the late Lionel de Rothschild, writing in the New Flora and Silva of 1933, mentions the flowering of a pink form in the rows of red, so it evidently behaved reasonably at Exbury. On the other hand, the late Dr. Fred Stoker, in his book "A Gardener's Progress" complains that in his garden the flowers were "as rare as rubies. Eight years passed before we had a single bloom."

R. repens
Fig. 8. R. repens . Probably the largest plant of this
species on the North American Continent
Greig photo

In, I think, 1937, my husband and I imported a large plant from Forrest's collected seed, F 21718, also smaller plants of K. W. 5816, and K. W. 5845 and others. The big plant had probably already been flowering before we bought it, and continued to do so with us, sparingly at first and as the years passed more and more generously. This year I believe it, too, could have been seen a mile away. Now it is an almost perfect oval, 51 inches long by 38 across, Fig 8., quite prostrate for some inches in from the edge, but humped up to perhaps 6 inches in the center. When it arrived it must have been about half that size.
That number was collected in Forrest's 1921-22 expedition to N. W. Yunnan, so it must now be 27 years old, and has probably been flowering for at least 20 years. Also it should he remembered that for the 12 years we have had it, ,we have been taking cuttings from it season after season. Untouched, it would probably have been considerably bigger.
Perhaps a few words about the aspect of our garden and the climate of this part of Vancouver Island may be of interest. First our rainfall; the average is 48 inches, but the past two years have been very much wetter. Normally most of it falls between October and April. Summer temperatures rarely rise above 80° F in the shade, and winter ones sometimes drop to zero or near, though generally for very short periods at a time. However, frequently 10° F is our lowest temperature. Generally speaking, if snow falls, it is after the coldest weather so it cannot be counted upon to afford much protection. Snowfall is quite undependable-sometimes 3-t feet, oftener as many inches, and very occasionally, none. We have, however, never seen any sign of winter damage on our plants. We do keep a frame sash over them for protection from the heavy winter rain, and the early spring frosts, both for the sake of the new growth, which breaks too early to be safe here, and to protect the flowers. Our garden lies on a gentle slope down to the sea facing roughly N. N. E. and there is not a really protected spot in it, just very exposed, exposed, and less exposed! Our big repens was planted first in a pocket surrounded by large sandstone rocks, on the north side of the house, towards the sea. There it took the full brunt of the north winds, and the southeasters, and had only a few hours in the late afternoon shaded from the summer sun. It survived in that place for two or three years, until we reluctance decided that it was not doing as well as it should and that we must move it. With awful misgivings, and shaking hands, we prepared a litter of sacking, worked the now large and heavy repens thereunto, and slowly and solemnly bore it to its new home, prepared by my husband ahead of time, of course. That was in the corner of a raised bed, edged with heavy blocks of sandstone, with light overhead lath shading, and some shelter from cold winds by the house and garage, between the new bed and the yea. The soil mixture is of good loam, sand, peat and leaf mould, and here the plant seems very happy. It is yearly mulched with leaf mould and peat, which in a plant so solid and interwoven, is a difficult performance. When it was lifted, we found that it had layered itself considerably, and we revered some of the rooted pieces, which grew and flowered almost at once. However we have found that cuttings make much thriftier plans than the layers, even if they do take much longer to flower-perhaps because of it.
It will be interesting to see what re-arrangements Dr. J. M. Cowan may make in the classification of the subseries Forrestii, if and when he deals with it. The name Forrestii appears on some of the seed numbers of both Forrest, Rock and Yu, but one sees no reference to it in gardening journals or any recent nurserymen's lists, and it is said in cultivation to merge with repens . We had a plant here which had been imported from England as R. forrestii . and when we first had it, it did appear to have more purple in the underside of the leaves. However eventually there was no perceptible difference between it and other R. repens growing beside it, nor was there any real difference in flower colour. Laying flowers side by side to compare slightly different forms, there are minute differences in depth of colour, perhaps, but so little as to be impossible to describe, or to give colour. perhaps, but so little as to be preference to one or another.
R. repens chamaedoxa is rather less slow-growing than the type, also not quite so, completely prostrate. Only one form which we have had since 1937 is still a very shy bloomer. We never had the collector's number, but it has very small rough leaves, glaucous below, and very short yearly growths. It has never layered, and there is rarely material for cuttings, and it flowers (one or at most two flowers at a time) only every two or three years; interesting but of no garden value. It must have been several years old when we bought it and we have had it 12 years, and it is still only about 6 by 8 inches, possibly 3 inches high.
One can easily imagine that a gardener unfortunate enough to acquire this particular form would not be a R. repens "fan." However out of the six or seven slightly differing forms of repens , that is the only one we have met which merits any hard words. Our only complaint is that they are all so early flowering that, in our garden, almost no one but ourselves can enjoy their glory.

*Reginald Fairer died October 1920 at Nyitadi, near the Chawchi Pass. His records, paintings, seeds and specimens were unfortunately overlooked when his devoted servants brought out his body, though they carefully carried out all his heavy equipment, tents, etc. George Forrest, too, died in January, 1932. A great harvest of seed was shipped home, however.