JARS v51n1 - In Praise of Rhododendron lutescens

In Praise of Rhododendron lutescens
Felice Blake
Kallistra, Victoria Australia

Among the most charming and graceful rhododendrons, not only in Subsection Triflora but also in the whole genus, surely Rhododendron lutescens must stand high. This rhododendron was first discovered by Abbé David and described by Franchet in 1886, although it was collected as long ago as 1870. It was introduced by E.H. Wilson in 1904 when he was collecting for the famous nursery of Veitch. It is native to the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan (Szechwan) and has been collected many times over the years. In the wild this rhododendron is found in a variety of habitats - in woodlands and thickets on hillsides ranging from about 2,600 feet (800 m) to 9,800 feet (3,000 m).

As the winter days retreat and spring sunshine begins to warm our gardens, one of my great garden joys comes with the delightful R. lutescens with its wide open primrose yellow blossoms and fascinating long upswept stamens. To me this is the very epitome of spring, and is even more delightful when enhanced by companion planting of blue and yellow primroses and early spring flowering dwarf bulbs.

Rhododendron lutescens
Rhododendron lutescens
Photo by Felice Blake

As spring blossoms fade away we can then look forward to its other delights as manifested by the striking new bronzy slender lanceolate leaves which remain arresting for many months. Rhododendron lutescens in my garden grows into an airy fairy shrub of about 9 feet (3 m) high and is quite broad. It is hardy in our climate in the Dandenong Ranges outside Melbourne - a great rhododendron growing area - and is easy to propagate. I have four plants and I would like to find room for more. But alas! My one acre garden just isn't big enough although I seem to be nibbling away at the lawns from time to time to make room for the latest irresistible treasure.

One word of warning, as with many species this should be acquired in flower as some forms are definitely superior both in colour and in flower size. It has been used for hybridising and I do grow a few of the hybrids including 'Fine Feathers Primrose', a quite pleasant plant, and 'Bo-peep', but I would not give garden space to 'Crossbill' (Crossbill Group) or 'Remo' (Remo Group)! No doubt some readers would not agree, but to me R. lutescens is far superior and preferable to its hybrids. The old adage comes to mind again: "A hybrid is two species spoiled," and although I don't always agree, I think in this instance it is true!

Felice Blake is a frequent contributor to the Journal and often writes about plants in her own garden.