JARS v50n4 - Rhododendrons for Winter Pleasure

Rhododendrons for Winter Pleasure
Wade Waddell
Salem, Oregon

Reprinted from the Willamette Chapter newsletter

This is the time of year that rhododendrons prove the other half of their great worth. I seem a bit crazy to write such a thing, but it is true. The rhody part - not the crazy part!
Many plants have flowers, albeit not as spectacular as those that rhodies produce, and even the lowly hollyhock can be attractive if you like that sort of thing. But few plants can match the textures and forms that rhododendrons provide for our winter entertainment.
Right outside my kitchen window is Rhododendron 'Tessa' with its twiggy branch patterns, light green leaves and cinnamon brown exfoliating bark. This particular plant provides extra interest with the contrasting presence of two dead limbs. Hey, sometimes you have to turn a negative into a positive.
Another favorite of mine is R. orbiculare , which is eye-catching any time of the year with its flat, thin, round leaves. During sub-freezing weather its leaves curl up like little cigars, and it takes only a glance out the window to judge how many cups of hot coffee and extra pairs of socks I'll need that day.
Rhododendron 'Aladdin' provides an excellent winter show. It has long sharp leaves and tall spire-like flower buds with red tints. Not only is it beautiful, but I consider it the most dangerous rhody in the yard, as anyone falling on this beauty would surely be impaled on those spike-like buds.
The vastly under-used rhody 'Winsome' is truly a winter treat. The plant is dense, dense and dense, and the mahogany winter foliage coupled with the red buds really make this one stand out when planted amid other greenery. This variety never seems to be all one color, no matter what time of year you view it.
Another personal favorite is R. 'Hlne Schiffner' (justly praised as the best white in the recent Garden Gem survey). The olive green leaves have a "different" quality that I am unable to describe, and the buds are so dark red that they may be closer to black. The combination is so stunning that it warms the cockles of the heart. Please don't ask me what a cockle is. I haven't a clue.
The PJM Group is another excellent winter beauty. It's often passed over in discussion because it is so common, but it has become so with a dense coat of small leaves. Its special gift, however, is that the leaves turn an amazingly dark color in the winter. This trait is shared to a lesser degree by its fine relatives 'Olga Mezitt' and 'Aglo'.
I enjoy texture and form and as a result I enjoy nearly all the R. yakushimanum selections and hybrids. The long, narrow leaves of R. yakushimanum 'Angel' always cause me to look twice, and the shorter leaves and denser habit of R. yakushimanum 'Koichiro Wada' make it one of my favorites.
A special place in my heart (and in my yard) is reserved for 'Taurus' SPA NW. Its medium-to-large, dagger shaped leaves are very dark green and provide perfect serving trays for the big, red flower buds.
I can see there is no way I can cover all my favorite rhododendrons, so I'll stop here and hope everyone continues the list with their own wintertime perk-me-up selections. However, just so some of my other favorites don't feel slighted, here's a too-short list of other rhodies that bring pleasure all year: 'Golden Gate', 'Kimbeth', 'Arthur Bedford', 'Markeeta's Prize', 'Ginny Gee' SPA NW, 'Bow Bells', 'Cinnamon Bear', 'Golfer', 'Molly Ann', 'Goldflimmer' and species R. bureavii , spiciferum , macrosepalum , and pseudochrysanthum .