JARS v58n3 - Species on the Wild West Coast

Species on the Wild West Coast
Dora Kreiss
Victoria, British Columbia

In 1973, my husband and I retired and moved from the East Coast of the United States to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. This introduced us to a new world of mild coastal climate and lovely gardens with many, many rhododendrons. Within a few years, we learned about rhododendron species and found ourselves especially intrigued by the large-leafed species. These became our focus and a source of much enjoyment.

My one-acre garden, about 65 km (40 mi.) west of Victoria, borders the Juan de Fuca Strait separating Vancouver Island from the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. When my husband and I first started growing rhododendrons, we only planted a few around our house. The three-acre property was thick with young alder trees - typically the first plants to grow in logged areas - so we removed them and planted more rhododendrons. We now have almost 400 rhododendrons, most of them species rather than hybrids. I am particularly fond of my many large-leafed species, with leaves up to 50 cm (20 in.) long.

To suit our location, we developed an informal woodland garden. The property had been heavily forested with evergreen trees. These were logged, leaving stumps and a few large logs on the ground, although considerably rotted by this time. The rhododendrons flourish under the remaining towering evergreen western red cedar, western hemlock and Douglas fir, and a few deciduous trees, mostly alder. Unlike some formal and orderly gardens, mine might almost be described as unkempt. Paths meander among the plants, stumps and logs, and the many evergreen sword ferns, with fronds as long as 1.5 m (5 ft.), that grow readily here.

Dora Kreiss in her garden
Dora Kreiss in her garden next to giant first-growth cedar stump.
Photo by Joe Harvey

Like many others, we admire rhododendrons for their wonderful flowers, but we've also learned to appreciate their foliage. Indeed, with many of our species, foliage is all that we've had to enjoy for the last twenty years or more because they still haven't bloomed. However, there is so much variety in the leaves: big, small, narrow, broad, dark green, light green to yellowish-green, no indumentum, and rich brown or yellowish indumentum. What also delights me is that I can enjoy the foliage year-round.

There is also a great variety in the shapes of these plants. Many are tall and tree-like, growing up to 7.5 m (25 ft.), some are compact plants at just 15 cm (6 in.), and others are bushes of various heights. Some have thousands of leaves that completely shade the ground; other more leggy ones have fewer leaves, allowing a view through the plant to the rest of the garden.

R. roxieanum var. cucullatum
R. roxieanum var. cucullatum
Photo by Joe Harvey

We didn't know much about rhododendrons when we first arrived on the West Coast, but little by little we learned more. After taking a class from Norm Todd through the University of Victoria, we helped form the Victoria Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society in the mid 1970s.

Initially, we bought mostly hybrid rhododendrons. As we learned more, we became interested in the wide variety of species, especially the large-leafed ones. Thirty years ago, I would have been amazed to discover that there were so many. Now my garden has more than 300, some of them acquired from the Rhododendron Species Foundation. And there are many others that I don't have, so there is always something new to learn about rhododendrons.

R. lacteum
R. lacteum
Photo by Joe Harvey

Our temperate coastal climate with its misty air is wonderful for growing rhododendrons. Summer temperatures only reach about 24°C (75°F), and winter temperatures rarely go below -10°C (15°F). We get 100 to 150 cm (40 to 60 in.) of rain a year, mostly as a gentle rain from November through April. The natural vegetation in the region is that of a temperate rain forest. Following the rain is a dry season during which a drip irrigation system waters my rhododendrons - much easier than my former system of hoses and buckets.

Of my many favourite rhododendrons, here are a few of the large-leafed species:

R. praestans : This is my most impressive rhododendron. It stands about 3.6 m (12 ft.) tall with huge dark green leaves, 53 by 20 cm (21 by 8 in.), and light tan indumentum. Unlike the many rhododendrons whose prolific leaves conceal the trunks, it has fewer leaves, allowing you to readily see every branch. This makes it look much more tree-like than most rhododendrons. Although we planted ours about 30 years ago, it hadn't bloomed at all until one white bloom appeared in 2003.

R. hodgsonii : At 5 m (16 ft.), this is one of my tallest plants, more like a small tree. The leaves, 45 by 18 cm (18 by 7 in.), are shiny green with light tan indumentum. This slow-growing plant has yet to bloom although I've had it over 25 years.

R. macabeanum : This hardy species, about 5 m (16 ft.) high, is also like a small tree. The leaves are wide and long, 38 by 20 cm (15 by 8 in.). An early bloomer, its prolific yellow flowers appear in February and March.

R. thomsonii : Another small tree-like rhododendron, this plant is covered with leaves (unlike R. praestans ). The trunk has peeling red bark. In May or June, it boasts a profusion of deep red blooms.

R. basilicum : This has droopy dense foliage, long dark green leaves, 40 cm (16 in.), with light brown indumentum, and peeling reddish bark. This stately small tree hasn't bloomed yet in my garden.

R. mallotum : This is another tree-like species, with fine chocolate brown indumentum under the large dark green leaves, 25 cm (10 in.).

Some of my other favorite large-leafed species are R. sinogrande , R. grande , R. rothschildii , R. arizelum , R. rex , R. montroseanum , R. parmulatum , R. barbatum and R. arboreum . My latest addition is R. sinofalconeri , a relatively new and unusual species on Vancouver Island.

Dora Kreiss is a member of the Victoria Chapter. Her garden will be on tour during the 2005 ARS Annual Convention in Victoria.