JARS v63n3 - Regional Musings: E-I-E-I-O!
Regional Musings: E-I-E-I-O!
Modified from the April 2009 Willamette Chapter Newsletter.
It is a well-known musical fact that Old MacDonald had a farm, but too little attention has been given to the equally well-documented fact that he also grew species rhododendrons. Sure, there was the cow and the pig, but they don't get any more sing-along time than those wonderful rhody species. Farmer MacDonald, being a man of few words, wanted his little ditty to reflect his love of flora and fauna while at the same time keeping it both simple and memorable to the Future Farmers of America. We know this because he referred to all of his critters by their common names, not by their more correct Latin based taxonomic name.
The problem here was that species rhodys generally don't have common names, so the wise old farmer abbreviated. MacDonald referred to his special rhody species by the last two single letter syllables of their names, "i and i", which of course are pronounced "e and i". The "O" is the abbreviated form for "Oh my Goodness!" Thus, for example, Rhododendron davidii and R. wardii become "E-I-E-I-O" in song.
The McDonald acreage is a third generation family farm here in the Willamette Valley, climate zone 7B or 8A (Sunset Books and Magazine Editors 1995). They follow organic sustainable agriculture methods and do not rely on government subsidies. We can't be sure which of the many available species rhododendrons they choose to grow, but here are a few likely suspects that Pat and I at least enjoy in our own garden.
Photo by Dave Eckerdt
R. schlippenbachii would have been quite a mouthful for little singers and a real "ursus arctos horribilis" to rhyme. R. schlippenbachii is a deciduous azalea, and azaleas also fall within the genus Rhododendron . The foliage is displayed in whorls of five at the branch ends and opens with a bronze hue, maturing to green, and aging to yellows and crimsons in fall. The pink or white slightly fragrant flowers open just before the oncoming leaves. Schlippenbachii prefers woodland or partial shade and likes a less acid soil than most rhododendrons. It is a slow grower to about the height of a horse's back.
Farmer MacDonald was of course a Scot, and was certainly familiar with many of the noted Scottish plant explorers whose names have been honored in rhododendron nomenclature. Scottish explorer George Forrest is the namesake of R. forrestii , an amazing creeping dwarf shrub that grows to only 15 cm (six inches). Like many Scots, R. forrestii tends to be a wee bit temperamental, demanding great drainage, plenty of open air, and protection from the sun. But give it too much shade and you lose the intense red flowers that dot the carpet of small rounded leaves.
Photo by Dave Eckerdt
R. edgeworthii was "officially" discovered by Joseph Hooker, a graduate of Glasgow University, Scotland. We have to raise a dubious eyebrow whenever a non-native claims to discover something while stomping through someone else's neighborhood. I find it difficult to imagine that a plant this wondrous was overlooked by countless Burmese, Chinese, Indians, and Tibetans in their own backyards. R. edgeworthii is a personal favorite. It is unlikely to be confused with any other species rhododendron. The upper leaf surface is bullate, puckered between the veins, green with a satiny sheen. The under-leaf is very visibly veined as well and completely covered with a thin golden indumentum. When it blooms, R. edgeworthii yields trusses of pink flushed white flowers that scent our entire garden. Edgeworthii in its native state grows in the open on steep rocky slopes or epiphytically in trees, so it demands sharp drainage here to survive. Our two R. edgeworthii made it through the recent brutal winter though they are considered marginally hardy in our zone.
R. fortunei ssp. fortunei was named for Scottish explorer Robert Fortune. One of the hardiest scented species, it will withstand significant direct sun. Former national President of the American Rhododendron Society and Eugene nurseryman Harold Greer writes of fortunei . "[it] must be included among the finest in the Genus Rhododendron ...largely pest-free...grows with great zest and vigor. The flowers are beautifully formed, falling and brimming over the entire plant, making a springtime display that is unequaled. An exceptional plant, an aristocrat enjoying well earned popularity and a reputation for excellence, great beauty, and extreme hardiness." I think Harold likes it!
Photo by Dave Eckerdt
R. flinckii is a high hope - rare in the wild, uncommon in the garden, flinckii is one of the great indumentum rhodies. The new growth is covered on both surfaces with fine hairs of cinnamon-orange with the show continuing on into autumn. The flowers are a creamy yellow with a hint of rose. R. flinckii wants to be tall, but so far has reached only 46 cm (18 inches) in our garden. Another high hope is that if there is a species with an odd name like flinckii , then perhaps one day a species with a derivative of my name, i.e. "eckerdtii", will also be within the realm of possibility.
Ironically, the best known Scottish plantsman was David Douglas, who explored the Pacific Northwest and named what we now commonly call the Doug fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii . Douglas-fir's brittle limbs were responsible for death by sudden impact of several of my species rhododendrons during this past winter's ice storm. Healthy rhododendrons don't usually need fertilizer in fall, but with free piles of poop, thrifty Old MacDonald may have top dressed his plants in October with rotted manure, and hopefully a good fence kept the goats out of the rhody garden.
Sunset Books and Magazine Editors. 1995. Western Garden Book . Sunset Pub. Corp., Menlo Park, CA: 624 pp.
Dave Eckerdt is a member of the Willamette Chapter.