Saturday, March 27, 2010

Remarkable Rhododendrons

I know that Rhododendrons can be overdone, especially here in the beautiful Pacific NW. I remember when I first planned to move here from Texas, Neil Sperry, friend of the family and plantsman extraordinaire, regaled me with stories of shrubs the size of dining rooms and blooms the size of basketballs. (Remember, we’re talking Texans here.) Now, in the Seattle area, I meet people who will say, “I love plants, but don’t put any rhododendrons in. Those I don’t like.” GASP! What infamy!

Yet who can argue that certain varieties are used over and over so that it seems all rhodies look alike. Too many rhodies are planted in the wrong place, burned by the sun, dying of thirst in the summer, starved by bark mulch into sere, yellowed, puny specimens. A group of these look like the three witches of MacBeth, frozen in time. Who would want something like that in their yard? (Let’s not go there.)

I want to dispel those images with a few remarkable rhodies that I have come to love. I’ve already introduced you to the earliest blooming duo. Rhododendron mucronulatum blooms in February on bare wood. The blooms are small but plentiful and a good, clear pink. The next bloomer up to bat is the Rhododendron racemosum ‘Rock Rose.’ I love the maroon stems and Photo0176 upright habit of this early bloomer. This is one of the few rhodies I prune, to keep it compact and encourage more colorful stems. Right next to this in my garden is Rhododendron ‘Songbird’ with eye popping blue-violet blooms. This compact evergreen-to 3’ in 10 years-tends to bloom in spring AND fall. I am not kidding. The spring bloom is much more floriferous, but still…

Just as ‘Songbird’ reaches its vernal finale, R. ‘Taurus’ is bursting into bloom. This is the closest I have to the ubiquitous giant rhodies of the PNW. ‘Taurus’ eventually reaches 6’, with dark red buds in winter that continue to grow to improbable size. In late March or early April, depending on the weather pattern, those buds break into enormous glowing scarlet red blooms, up to 16 per spherical truss. It appreciates afternoon shade.

From the biggest to one of the smallest; R. ‘Patty Bee’ may reach 12” high by 24” wide in 10 years and is sun and heat tolerant. The blooms, in April, are a lovely butter yellow and large for the size of the plant. The foliage is evergreen, but may turn a bronze/plum in winter. I have it planted next to R. ‘Nelson’s Purple’ which blooms concurrently with small dark purple blossoms and can also take the sun.

Picture 001
The last of my favorites to bloom include a new acquisition, R. ‘Nancy Evans’. This beautiful selection is a Great Plant Pick;  it matures at about 3’ by 3’. The spectacular blooms start out as dark orange buds that open to amber yellow flowers with orange margins. Yellow rhodies require especially good drainage because most are bred from a species  susceptible to root rot.

I am a sucker for ‘blue’ rhododendrons, so I must mention two old but valuable varieties. Picture 030R. impeditum is a species rhodie discovered in China in 1911. This little guy only gets 2’ tall and wide-maybe-with tiny but abundant vivid violet blooms.  R. ‘Ramapo’ is a  widely available variety which was hybridized in the 1940’s by New Jersey plantsman Guy Nearing. In April-May, it is covered with profuse mauve to purple blooms. Its size is variable: 1-3’ tall by 2-4’ wide. Both of these tiny Titans can take full sun in the PNW and have silver to gray blue foliage which is aromatic when bruised.

Obviously, rhododendrons are generally sturdy plants plus they are extremely well suited to the Pacific NW. In fact, the native “coast Rhododendron” was selected as the state “floral emblem” in 1893. This was made official in 1949 by the state legislature and in a 1959 amendment, the R. macrophylum was specifically named the state flower. Rhododendron Park, near Coupeville on Whidbey Island, offers 140 acres laced with trails through wild rhododendron.

So, how hard can it be to make rhodies happy here? Really-they tolerate shade, poor climate and city pollution. They are easy to grow and do not require annual pruning. They do have shallow roots, so they require a humus-rich soil and sufficient moisture. They don’t like to dry out, so protect them with a generous layer of compost mulch. Rhododendrons require acidic soil. Most rhododendrons prefer some afternoon shade, but too much shade may inhibit bloom.

Rhodies are one of the plants that I actually do fertilize, in addition to my regular compost mulch. I use a rhododendron specific fertilizer that includes iron and apply a small amount several times during the summer as the shrubs are setting bloom for the following year. Be judicious; excess nutrients may promote larger than normal pest populations. Apply a very light scattering around the edge of the root zone. Never apply more than a few tablespoons at any one time; excess fertilizer can easily burn the delicate roots since they are so close to the soil surface.

So, do your homework. Check out proven, exceptional varieties selected for our area by the American Rhododendron Society . Find out the cultural conditions for your specific choices, prepare the site and then put the right plant in the right place! Your rhodies will be reliable and undemanding performers in your garden.

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