JARS v64n3 - Celebrating 12 Years of the 'Vireya Rhododendrons' Website

Celebrating 12 Years of the "Vireya Rhododendrons" Website
Chris Callard
London, England

March 2010 marked the 12th anniversary of the first appearance on the internet of the "Vireya Rhododendrons" website at www.vireya.net. Since 1988, it has grown from just a single webpage displaying a small selection of photographs to what is hopefully now a useful point of reference for anyone interested in finding out more about this fascinating group of plants in the genus Rhododendron .

The original webpage arose out of curiosity - I was interested in finding out how to use the hosting space that came as part of my first e-mail and internet package. It did not take long to decide what the subject should be for this project as my passion for vireyas had been steadily growing during the previous few years. It was to be another three or four years before the digital camera really went mass-market, but I had already amassed a small batch of photographic prints which I was able to scan onto the computer to get the project underway.

After a few weeks reading up on the mysteries of HTML coding and a lot of experimentation, the page was published online. By today's standards it was very basic and lacked much aesthetic appeal...but it worked!

I did not expect the website to attract much attention and hoped, at best, I might be contacted by one or two other vireya enthusiasts with whom I could swap experiences of growing these plants. In the first year the website was online, around 250 people visited the site - a relatively small number, but nonetheless encouraging, as several people made contact via the site to "talk vireyas" and offer support. As time went by and the number of visitors steadily increased, I started to receive photographs submitted by other vireya enthusiasts to post on the site. Species lists were added, together with lists of cultivars, cultivation advice, a bibliography and a list of plant suppliers, and it soon became apparent that the original site was in need of re-design.

This, combined with the rise in visitor numbers to over 3,500 for the year 2000, prompted the decision to register the domain name "vireya.net" and to seek a professional hosting service. A top-level domain name is needed to get a good search engine ranking, which in turn makes it easier for people to find your website. The decision was made to go with a .net domain, rather than .com, in order to emphasize the idea that the site was produced by, and for, a network of vireya enthusiasts around the world, rather than as a commercial venture.

The new, expanded site was launched in April 2001 and, by then, included information on the history of vireya culture, as well as the classification and distribution of vireya species. The Photogallery had grown to include images of over 100 species - largely a product of several visits to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh to view their superb vireya collection - and around 200 images of vireya cultivars, many of these contributed by growers from around the world. An example from the website is given for R. rhodopus below.

Another new introduction to the website at that time was the "Archive" - a collection of 12 vireya-related articles reproduced from a variety of journals and periodicals (with permission from both author and publisher). Much of the best vireya literature of the last 50 years has appeared in limited circulation publications that are often difficult to obtain. After reproducing this initial selection of papers, the goal was to build up a useful reference library by gradually adding further articles over time.

The expanded content, new domain name and improved hosting service led to a significant increase in the number of visitors to the website, with over 8,000 in 2001 and 14,000 in 2002 (see Fig. 1).

Site visits by year
Figure 1. Site visits produced using Webalizer (http://www.mrunix.net/webalizer/).

In mid-2002, agreement was reached with the American Rhododendron Society, whose own website was undergoing an upgrade at the time, that they would include a link to the vireya.net website from their own website menu. This allowed them to concentrate on the temperate rhododendrons, whilst still offering support for those interested in vireyas.

A major development in 2002 was the incorporation of all the vireya cultivars contained in the Rhododendron Register into the existing listings on the website. This was made possible by Dr. Alan Leslie, the Rhododendron Registrar based at the Royal Horticultural Society in London, who kindly provided an extract of all registered vireya names from their records. By combining the registered cultivars with the multitude of un-registered cultivar names - gleaned from the catalogues of the principal vireya nurseries and by contacting many of the leading hybridizers around the world - a comprehensive list of over 750 known cultivars was drawn up.

This exercise highlighted the benefits of registration as a way of ensuring that the parentage and other pertinent information relating to a hybrid will be recorded for future reference. It is regrettable that such information is no longer available for a significant proportion of un-registered varieties.

As internet technology and web design rapidly moved on, the website underwent a further makeover in late 2004. New content continued to be added, including a Species Database. The Photogallery and Archive pages, the most popular destinations on the website, also continued to grow - as did the number of visitors, which climbed to almost 18,000 that year.

The most recent upgrade of the website took place in 2008 with the introduction of a new contemporary design and layout along with a complete overhaul of all content. Coincident with this, efforts were made to promote the website to a wider audience by registering it with all the major search engines. This resulted in visitor numbers almost doubling that year to over 35,000.

Vireya Rhododendrons home page
Figure 2. The homepage of the website "Vireya Rhododendrons."
(A clearer version can be seen at www.vireya.net)

Today, the website holds images of more than 180 vireya species, representing almost all species currently in cultivation, plus a few photographed in the wild that have yet to be successfully introduced. The list of cultivars has grown to over 1000 names, of which over half are represented in the Photogallery. The Archive holds over 50 selected works covering a range of topics from plant portraits to propagation to plant-hunting. A "News" page has been introduced to keep visitors up to date with developments in the vireya world, such as new publications and descriptions of new species.

Following a move to a new server early in 2010, further expansion of the website is now planned for the near future with the addition of complete sets of back issues of the two vireya newsletters, Vireya Vine (89 issues) and The Vireya Venture (70 issues). Both newsletters contain vast amounts of useful advice, observations and information submitted by their readers, and it is hoped online publication will make these valuable reference materials more widely accessible.

examples from the website for 
Rhododendron rhodopus
examples from the website for 
Rhododendron rhodopus
Figure 3. Two examples from the website for Rhododendron rhodopus .

It should perhaps be mentioned that the visitor statistics quoted throughout this article have been produced using the popular Webalizer program, which disregards visits by automated robots and other non-viewing traffic, to give more accurate results.

The majority of visitors to the website come from the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Europe, i.e., the main centres of vireya cultivation in the temperate world, but it is pleasing to note interest from many of the South-East Asian countries where these plants form part of the native flora.

Little did I know when I published that first webpage twelve years ago what was in store! Since that time, the website has changed from a single hobby page to an educational resource of over 300 pages, occupying 190 Mb of server space and dispensing 20 Gb of data to nearly 58,000 visitors in 2009. The aim of the website is to act as a showcase for vireya rhododendrons and hopefully foster interest in this often overlooked group of plants.

From a personal perspective, I have made many friends around the world with whom I regularly correspond by email, and have even had the good fortune of meeting some of them. Building and running the website has enabled me to combine my interest in vireyas with another hobby of mine, photography, and has also prompted me to learn about web design. It has been many years since I looked on vireya.net as "my" website; with so many people having generously contributed to it, through submitting photographs, information or offering words of support, it truly now is a vireya network!

Chris Callard
Chris Callard is a member of the Scottish ARS Chapter, and is the originator and webmaster of www.vireya.net. Chris was awarded the ARS Silver Medal at the 2010 ARS convention on Long Island.