JARS v51n4 - Rhododendrons in the Superlative: Two Unique Collections

Rhododendrons in the Superlative: Two Unique Collections
Peter Kendall
Portland, Oregon

In its myriad forms, the genus Rhododendron has held plant lovers in its thrall for the better part of the last century and a half. It so happened that Great Britain, by virtue of its far flung empire in the early part of the 19th century, found itself uniquely positioned to take full advantage of the world's offering of this captivating genus. From the beginning and by a considerable margin, the Sino-Himalayan region of the Far East revealed itself as the thriving center of a populous and diverse array of rhododendron species. Plant hunters were soon dispatched to ferret out the best forms of what they uncovered and to convey these finds to the British Isles for addition to some of the finest gardens in the world.
One repository for the ever expanding collection of rhododendrons was no less than the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland. Established in 1670 as a medicinal or physic garden at Holyrood Palace, it is today at its fourth location at Inverleith where it has come to comprise some 65 meticulously groomed acres. Although magnificent rhododendrons prevail in many areas of the garden, the existing Rock Garden with its many fine specimens, represents the highest standard of aesthetic achievement. It was under the lengthy stewardship of Issac Bayley Balfour (1885-1922) that the garden as a whole and most especially the Rock Garden, was revolutionized to garner international acclaim. Under Balfour, the Rock. Garden (which had been roundly and deservedly criticized by Reginald Farrer and others for its jumbled artificiality) was completely rebuilt (1908-1914) to conform to more natural formations. Just prior to this (in 1902) Balfour's fortuitous appointment of one George Forrest was to result in his dispatch to China in 1904, where he discovered some 300 new species of rhododendrons. Many of these newly discovered plants came to reside in this exquisitely recreated garden.

R. obtusum R. recurvoides
R. obtusum in bud.
Photo by Peter Kendall
R. recurvoides with
Betula utilis var. jacquemontii.
Photo by Peter Kendall

The staging of the 1996 annual convention of the American Rhododendron Society became, for me, an unparalleled opportunity to visit this heralded garden to see what had developed over the years. In its current form, the Rock Garden consists of approximately three acres and is structured out of immense boulders of conglomerate from Perthshire and red sandstone from the Dumfries area. These so-called "bones" of the garden are sited and set in such an artful fashion, it is difficult to imagine they were not there all along. The contour of the garden is such that, as you wander the swales between hillocks of stone and earth, each rise, fall and turn reveals new and sumptuous vistas. Along the way all sorts of small trees and shrublets soften and enrich your explorations into every niche of the garden. Choice perennials, among which are high caliber alpines, further speak to an excellence of execution. Most of your garden peregrinations are conducted on swards of turf which are closely cropped and impeccably groomed.

The Rock Garden, Royal 
Botanic Garden, Edinburgh.
The Rock Garden, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh.
Photo by Peter Kendall

As words fall far short in attempting to convey a sense of the garden experience, I hope a few of my photographs come closer to the mark.

The Vireya Collection
Some distance from the Rock Garden, and among a wonderful series of large glass houses, is the Peat House which has come to hold what is the largest, most widespread collection of tropical rhododendrons in the world; these are the Malaysian or vireya rhododendrons, most of which are epiphytic in their native haunts. The present collection numbers some 100 wild collected species. Many are new to cultivation.
The intense color of many of the blooms in the orange, red, yellow and pink ranges is breathtaking. These colors serve to bring in birds as pollinators during the day, while at night those flowers that are white, and generally harbor robust scents, draw in moths for the same function. Beyond the eye catching colors, the various shapes of the flowers from flat to tubular are an added curiosity.

R. javanicum R. polyanthemum
R. javanicum , in cultivation
for over 100 years.
Photo by Peter Kendall
R. polyanthemum , from northern Sarawak,
first collected in 1978.
Photo by Peter Kendall

As items of interest, the leaves of the vireyas are equally intriguing. Although a good number have rhododendron-like leaves, some possess a distinctly un-rhododendron-like appearance with foliage so narrow they resemble heaths or conifers when not in bloom. Sparking further investigation, many species sport a protective layer of scales on their developing leaves which provide the young leaves with a remarkably different coloration from those that have matured.

R. taxifolium
R. taxifolium , rare, narrow leaved species.
Photo by Peter Kendall

Again, I rely on accompanying photographs to better capture the majesty of my observations under glass.

Peter Kendall, a member of the Portland Chapter, recently authored the article on the Japanese Garden of Oregon in Portland in the Fall 1996 issue of the Journal.