JARS v63n4 - Regional Musings: Some Early Rhodo Species in a BC Garden

Regional Musings: Some Early Rhodo Species in a BC Garden
Harold Fearing
Abbotsford, BC

Reprinted from the April 2009 issue of "The Yak," the newsletter of the Fraser South Rhododendron Society

As I write this (April 5, 2009), we here in south-west British Columbia (BC) have finally had a couple of days of warm sunny weather, so that it has been possible to get out in the garden. With the long cold spell this past winter, things have been very much delayed. For example R. 'Olive', which in our garden usually blooms around Valentine's Day (Feb 14), really didn't get started until about ten days ago, making it more than a month late. I was surprised today, however, at how many plants were in bloom or getting started. I have noticed in the past that when we have a late spring, things catch up, and once it does warm up, we get early and not-so-early plants blooming simultaneously.

My intention here is to write about a couple of fairly early, but relatively uncommon, species, but first let me describe the momentous event of the afternoon.

Some years ago, nineteen to be exact, I bought a plant labeled as R. hookeri from Milton Wildfong. It grew into a nice 2.4 m (8 foot) high plant with dark green leaves and beautiful smooth, peeling, purple-maroon bark, but it never bloomed. Each year I would check for buds, and I think I did that this year, but no joy. This afternoon as I was weeding in the vicinity I looked up to find a single bloom! The flower is a nice rose color with some darker streaking and spots. It is fairly small but it does correspond pretty much to the description of the pink form of R. hookeri . However the ovary is clearly covered with stalked glands, which is not supposed to be the case for R. hookeri .

I was always a bit suspicious of the identification because a characteristic of R. hookeri is a series of tufted hairs evenly spaced out on the veins on the underside of the leaves. When I was young and stupid, I thought that these tufts or "hooks" were the reason for the name. Now that I am old and not so stupid (though some might debate that), I know that actually the name refers to J. D. Hooker, an early plant explorer. On a smaller R. hookeri plant I have, this one from a Steve Hootman collection, these tufts are obvious on all the leaves even without a magnifying glass. On the large plant the tufts are hard to find. Today I could find none, though what I remember was that they were more evident on young leaves, which aren't there yet.

Underside of an R. hookeri leaf
Underside of an R. hookeri leaf, showing
the tufts of hairs along the veins.
Photo by Harold Fearing

So what is it? It could be a R. hookeri hybrid I suppose. It might be the closely related R. faucium , which has no tufts and a glandular ovary, or I guess it could be something totally different. In any case, it is disappointing to wait so many years to get a bloom, and then be unsure as to what the plant's name is.

However, another plant in full bloom this afternoon was R. elegantulum . These become nice compact plants, maybe 1.5 m (5 feet) tall in 10 years or so. They seem to be pretty adaptable, as one I have gets full sun from noon on, while the other gets lots of light, but direct sun only maybe two hours of the day. Both do fine, though the one in more shade tends to bloom a week or so later. The most striking thing about these plants are the leaves. They are relatively narrow, dark green and shiny on top, but covered on the bottom with beautiful fawn or cinnamon red, thick woolly indumentum. The flowers are a very pale pink, shaded with darker pink and are nice, but similar to many others.

R. elgantulum Underside of an R. elegantulum leaf.
R. elgantulum .
Photo by Harold Fearing
Underside of an R. elegantulum leaf, showing
the thick, woolly, fawn coloured indumentum.
Photo by Harold Fearing

A much newer introduction, also blooming now, is R. coeloneuron . This was not in cultivation until recently and is thus not listed in Greer (1996). I think all of the plants in the lower mainland of BC probably originated from seed brought back by Peter Wharton from a China expedition of the mid 1990s. In the ground it also forms a nice compact plant, 1.5 m tall or so, which seems to take either full sun or a lot of shade, and which covers itself at this time of year with rose pink flowers. There is some variation in flower color, from pale pink with some streaking to a deep rose pink. The leaves are also interesting. On top they are a medium green, while the underside is covered with rusty indumentum. The leaves tend to have an unusual twist, which while hard to describe, makes the species easy to recognize once you have seen it.

Rose-pink form of R. coeloneuron
A rose-pink form of R. coeloneuron .
Photo by Harold Fearing

A third species now in full bloom is R. principis , formerly known as R. vellereum . In this species the buds start out white, tipped with rose pink. They open to pale pink flowers, with some darker markings. As the flowers age they turn white, so a well-grown plant can be covered with flowers in various stages, which gives the plant a variegated appearance. The leaves are relatively narrow, light green and covered on the underside with a marvelously soft, velvety light-colored indumentum.

R. principis
R. principis .
Photo by Harold Fearing

All of these three are easy to grow in southwestern BC, and unlike my ersatz R. hookeri , bloom at a few years of age. Thus, they make nice additions to an early garden.

Greer, H.E. 1996. Greer's Guidebook to Available Rhododendrons, Species and Hybrids, 3rd Edition. Offshoot Pub., Eugene, OR: 228 pp.

Harold Fearing
Harold Fearing is current president of the Fraser South ARS Chapter.