JARS v59n3 - Lendonwood Gardens: Where East Meets West

Lendonwood Gardens: Where East Meets West
Leonard Miller
Grove, Oklahoma

Lendonwood Gardens in northeast Oklahoma will celebrate its tenth birthday on April 15th, 2005. Blessed with 150-year-old oak and hickory trees, the eight acres has made major changes in its last ten years. The ground was rocky acid soil only fit for firewood cutting and a few pigs that graced the old farm. The oaks were just sprouts when the oppressed Cherokee Indians arrived in the 1850s from North Carolina. Later, Oklahoma was open to white settlers. Mainly they came from Missouri and Arkansas looking for homesteads and better land than the Ozark hills. I came in the early '70s to clear the land of the tough Bois DArc trees that had formed under the oaks thorny thickets on the neglected land.
I had a dream to build a public garden here on three of the eight acres. Working for thirty years on five acres, I planted azaleas. These gardens were mono-gardens with a flash of color in the spring and pretty dull during the rest of the year. Later, feeling bolder, I planted rhododendrons. Growing rhododendrons was a humbling experience in those early years. I planted yearlings in the fall and that winter the temperature hit a thirty-year low of 15F (-26C) two times. The ground stayed frozen for two months. All of the sixty plants died. In the spring, I planted sixty more in my backyard. That summer we had our worse drought since the 30s. We had fifty days of over 100F (38C). Our only water source was a five-gallon-a-minute well. With over one thousand azaleas to water the rhododendrons were left to die. So in one year I lost 120 rhododendrons. I could have given up on rhododendrons but I was determined to make them grow. If I lived in Seattle, I would want to grow cactus. I could have joined the daylily society and dropped out of the ARS. Now, some twenty-five years later, we have one of the largest collections of elepidote rhododendrons in the Midwest. We have nearly 725 varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas. We call it the largest in the Southwest, which is mostly semi-arid.

The Teahouse at Lendonwood Gardens The Entrance Building at Lendonwood Gardens.
The Teahouse at Lendonwood Gardens
framed by a crabapple.
Photo by Lenard Miller
The Entrance Building a
Lendonwood Gardens.
Photo by Lenard Miller

In addition to rhododendrons, Lendonwood Gardens has a number of collections that were planted in 1995. Our major collections are dogwoods - 25 varieties, Japanese maples 75 varieties, Chamaecyparis 84 varieties, viburnums - 25 varieties, hosta - 100 varieties, and daylilies - 500 varieties. In addition we have many rare trees and shrubs. When working with this large amount of plant material it was not easy for a novice to create a garden that draws artists to paint and photographers to burn polychrome. If I succeed, luck played a large part.
Over these ten years Lendonwoods plants have created rooms of foliage, structure and color. I was inspired by Bellingraph Gardens during the '70s before it was hit by a hurricane. It had walls of shrubs and a ceiling of tall pines. A garden needs time without natural calamities. Beautiful gardens are held together by the design and plant selections.
My trips to the Orient (Vietnam) turned my attention to Japanese and Chinese architecture and from there to a world of books on these gardens which broadened my interest in Japanese garden styles. My design or plan for Lendonwood was born out close observation of both Occidental and Oriental gardens. I wanted to be able to walk among outstanding plants and have wide paths that two people could walk abreast. A plan was never drawn, yet by studying plants needs including light requirements, I was able to construct a garden of mystery and beauty. Many paths turn to reveal vistas, but you are never lost or confused because all paths return to familiar places. It is important to a public garden that the paths allow people to move freely from one area or garden to another. This requires space but it also allows light to flowering plants. Very few steps were placed even in elevation gain or loss to help wheelchair visitors. The gardens highest compliment is when artists select our garden to paint.
Growth rates have been remarkable. We have an early spring when our Rhododendron hyperythrum hybrids start to bloom. Rhododendron degronianum ssp. yakushimanum varieties and hybrids follow in late April and other hybrids bloom in early May. Our summer is hot with most plants going dormant when the night temperature is in the mid eighties and day temperature in the hundreds. Plants recover when fall comes with cooler nights and ample rainfall. We have over forty-two inches of rain per year mostly in the spring and fall. Our winters can be dry with just brief snow cover.

The Wide Brim Garden
The Wide Brim Garden on a September day with hostas in the foreground.
Photo by Lenard Miller

In thirty years of growing rhododendrons I have trialed a variety of plants. Many plants have been successful in our Zone 6 garden especially when planted in pine bark. Rhododendrons that are resistant to Phytophthora cinnamoni (root rot) have three common species in their parentage, Rhododendron hyperythrum (3 selections) from Taiwan, R. degronianum from Japan (10 selections) and R. fortunei from China. Hybrids of these species have the vigor to survive in my difficult climate. Most of these species will grow with a protected site too. Rhododendron hybrids of R. maximum and R. smirnowii have also been successful especially when combined with one of the other three. Ninety percent of my rhododendrons are hardy to 15F (-26C). This insures me of having bloom at least four out of five years or more.
Our soil pH is 5.5, so when the roots reach the native soil they find a friendly home. We keep the roots moist with an automatic sprinkler system. We use one gallon a minute overhead sprinklers for long time periods, usually one hour. This is done at night but when the temperature reaches 95F (35C) we irrigate also during the heat of the day. In a normal summer we would use our irrigation for four months. September is often hot and is considered a summer month.
Rhododendron degronianum hybrids that have excelled at Lendonwood are 'Percy Wiseman, 'Mardi Gras, 'Hachmanns Polaris, 'Kalinka, 'Sonatine, 'Tiana, 'Ingrid Mehlquist, 'Gordon Jones, 'Solidarity, 'Anita Gehnrich, and 'Fantastica. Rhododendron fortunei hybrids are a long list but a few of my favorites are 'Cadis, 'Brown Eyes, 'Cynosure, 'Accomplishment, 'Dexters Appleblossom, 'Consolinis Windmill and 'Scintillation. Rhododendron maximum or R. smirnowii hybrids are 'Summer Summit and R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum x R. smirnowii (unnamed cross).

R. hyperythrum x R. degronianum ssp. 
heptamerum. R. 'Michele Smith
R. hyperythrum x R. degronianum ssp. heptamerum .
Photo by Lenard Miller
R. 'Michele Smith.
Photo by Lenard Miller

I grow just three selections of Rhododendron hyperythrum : R. hyperythrum Caperci form which has a narrow leaf; R. hyperythrum ; and Ben Nelson form of R. hyperythrum which is a very dwarf plant. After twenty years the Ben Nelson form is only 2 feet tall and 3 feet across. John Thornton, V. M., of Franklinton, Louisiana, has made many crosses with R. hyperythrum and other species in a hybridizing program to find rhododendrons for the lower South. His objective was to flower an elepidote in the cool weather of spring making the flowers last longer. In the South rhododendron flowers may last only a week because of hot weather. Rhododendron hyperythrum hybrids have good foliage and in general are smaller than R. fortunei hybrids. The fi rst generation are often light pink fading to white, much the same as R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum hybrids. Some of the named plants of John Thorntons growing at Lendonwood are: 'Charles Loomis ('English Roseum x R. hyperythrum ), very hardy and vigorous growing 10 feet x 12 feet in 15 years; 'Elizabeth Ard, a sister seedling to 'Charles Loomis and very similar; 'Opal Thornton*, silvery pink flowers with a yellow flare; 'Michele Smith* with white flowers with a wine colored blotch and shiny foliage; 'Peppermint Twist looks like peppermint candy with three colors of dark red, pink and white.
I grow fifty others of his seedlings and after ten years some of these plants may make it to general public. These are being grown and evaluated on the east and west coasts. In Lendonwoods rhododendron garden these plants grace the landscape. In ten years I have not lost one to Phytophthora , so R. hyperythrum seems to pass on genetic resistance to root rot caused by Phytophthora cinnamoni .

R. 'Lendonwood R. 'Breezy
R. 'Lendonwood.
Photo by Lenard Miller
R. 'Breezy.
Photo by Lenard Miller

Of those seedlings here are some hybrids with that have shown promise for hot climates. 'Breezy is a R. hyperythrum cross with 'Janet Blair with large soft pink flowers and a nice flare. 'Lendonwood ('Scintillation x R. hyperythrum 'Doctor John L Creech*) has a large truss of electric pink flowers similar to 'Wheatley. 'Wheatley is susceptible to Phytophthora in our hot climate. 'Sooner* is more compact with pink flower with a strong flare. This was named for the University of Oklahoma's football team. It is a cross of 'Westbury' x R. hyperythrum . 'Cowboys* is a complex cross, ( R. hyperythrum X R. aberconwayi ) x ( R. pseudochrysanthum x R. aberconwayi ) with white flowers and lancelike foliage. It has great form being only 4 feet X 4 feet in twelve years. It is named after the mascot of Oklahoma State University.

Angel Garden with azalea 
'Girards Hot Shot R. 'Sooner
The Angel Garden with azalea 'Girards Hot Shot.
Photo by Lenard Miller
R. 'Sooner.
Photo by Lenard Miller

Lendonwood Gardens is where the East meets West. Plants from China and Japan cover 8 acres. Thousands of plants grow happily in our Zone 6b. There are seven collections of plants: rhododendrons, dogwoods, viburnums, Chamaecyparis , daylily, Acer palmatum and hosta. We have a good rare tree collection that grows well under our oaks. We are open year-round and ask a fivedollar donation for admission. To quote one of our guests, "Words cannot describe, it is a true labor of love."

* Name is not registered.

Len Miller a member of the Ozark Chapter,is president of the ARS.