By W. E. Bowers, Stone Mountain, Ga.
An unusual form of azalea which I have been growing for the last 12 years is It. Ovatum, a species from China. Some characteristics of this azalea are unlike any other azalea that I know.
R. ovatum is a twiggy, evergreen plant, and the foliage has a distinctive, smooth leathery appearance. In fact, I refer to it as the "leather-leaved azalea." The leaves are oval-shaped and the older ones are somewhat wavy. They are 1 to 2 inches long and ½ to 1 inch across, and are green on both sides. The young growth is particularly attractive, being pinkish at first but changing to purplish with age. The plant is not a very vigorous grower but it develops sturdily.
The flowers of R. ovatum flare wide open, having a flatish, saucer-like form, 1½ to 2 inches across. Only one flower develops from the bud. The buds form on the end and along the stem of the previous season's growth. Fully expanded, the flowers produce a more or less loose head, 3 to 3½ inches in diameter, which gives the appearance of a true-rhododendron truss. The color of the inflorescence is a soft light lilac. The mass of bloom gives off a delicate fragrance which is very pleasing. Many of the flowers are heavily spotted. It blooms the last of April and the first of May.
R. ovatum has withstood, without injury, our extremes of heat and cold, - our severest winter in 70 years, in 1950-51, - when the temperature reached zero, and some hot dry summers, when the temperature remained at 90 to 100 degrees for weeks.
Millais (England) in his "Rhododendrons and the Various Hybrids," Volume 1, describes R. ovatum , in part, as follows: "An evergreen shrub of bushy habit up to 6 feet high; leaves ovate, pointed, dark green, glossy, 1 inch to 2½ inches long, 1 to 1½ inches across. Flowers solitary, produced from buds near end of previous season's growth, pale and purple pink or nearly white, spotted on upper lobe of corolla, 1 inch across, flat and widely open...
Dr. Clement G. Bowers, in his book "Rhododendrons and Azaleas," says, in part, of this species "Flowers white or white and pink-spotted (sometimes lilac?), about 1½ inches across." He mentions that the specie has an E hardiness - that is, usually a cool greenhouse subject. However. Dr. Bowers goes on to explain: "Millais and others mention that this is a difficult subject, being a shy bloomer and not too hardy. This is doubtless a matter of several ecological conditions and not merely a question of temperature; in fact, the species might be better adapted to certain parts of America than to conditions in the British Isles where the observations relative to hardiness were made."
My experience with the species, as to hardiness, strongly supports Dr. Bowers' contention that the English observations do not necessarily hold with us. I have found, as already indicated, that the subject accepts our conditions readily, and is not at all difficult to grow.
R. ovatum is easily rooted from cuttings of new wood, and the plant is handled and grown in keeping with the practices followed in propagating and growing other azaleas. However, the plant is ashy bloomer, but only when young. My oldest plants, now about 4 feet high, bloom in profusion and have for years, and receive the acclaim of all who observe them in flower. The flower sets seed freely, forming short seed pods, shaped a little like an acorn, about ¼ inch in diameter or less.
Another attribute of this plant which I like very much, besides its unusual appearance, is that it is repulsive to insect pests. No lacewing fly or other insect which has to be kept under strict control from infesting other azaleas and rhododendrons, nor any disease for that matter, has ever attacked R. ovatum that I am aware of.