‘Blewbury’

by M.J. Harvey – May 2002

 

In her kind review of my March talk on my hairy hybrids, Margaret deWeese attributed the origin of R. ‘Blewbury’ to me.  I would love this to be true but it isn’t.  What I was attempting to say was that in the UK this dwarf hybrid has gained acceptance because of its compact habit, small shiny leaves and tiny golf-ball sized trusses.  These characteristics fit it perfectly to the British pocket-handkerchief front-garden.  It is an example of a deliberate cross between two dwarf species to produce a slow-growing plant whose foliage is as important as its flowers.  This is also the aim of my own breeding programme.  I was trying to say that I am not entirely crazy.

 

The name ‘Blewbury’, as I said, is designed to drive North Americans crazy since the word sounds like the fruit blueberry but it isn’t.  The equivalent wild fruit in Britain is called bilberry or blaeberry.  Blewbury is a village about 20 km NW of Reading in Berkshire (pronounced ‘bark-sh’, the English are very vowel challenged).  I suspect that the breeder came from there but have no evidence to prove the idea.

 

The ancestry of ‘Blewbury’ is roxieanum x anhweiense.  These are both small-leaved, slow-growing, compact species and the hybrid inherits these characteristics with just a kick of hybrid vigour which makes it easy to propagate and hence commercially attractive.

 

R. anhweiense is a member of Subsection Maculifera and I don’t use it in my breeding programme because it is only slightly indumented.  But it is a dwarf species with frost-resistant flowers.  I just arbitrarily cut it off – I had enough on my plate as it was.

 

R. roxieanum is an even more compact species with narrow or very narrow (var oreonastes) leaves which have a thick brownish indumentum persisting underneath.  There is a hint in the literature that the extreme elepidote R. proteoides is just an extreme dwarf form of roxieanum, or is very closely related to it. The truss of roxieanum is very small, about 3-4 cm diameter.  Thus the whole truss can be placed inside a single flower  of, say, one of the Loderi hybrids.  Hence, what I call normal hybridisers have never considered it for use in any commercial hybrid in North America where bigger is better.

 

‘Blewbury’ was probably made some time in the 1950s because it was shown at an RHS show in 1968 where it received an AM.  The exhibitor was Crown Estates, Windsor.  I should explain the etiquette associated with royal estates.  The name of the person who actually raised or showed the plant is never given, those in the know, know, but the public doesn’t.  I suspect that Eric Saville, later Sir Eric, then in charge of the world’s most fabulous rhododendron species collection at Windsor Great Park, may have had something to do with it.

 

Greer, in Greer’s Guide to available Rhododendrons, rates ‘Blewbury’ at 3/4/3.  That is 3 out of 5 for the small, pinkish-white flowers; 4 out of 5 for foliage which is small-leaved and healthy-looking; and 3 out of 5 for general performance.  The ratings given to plants are a bit arbitrary and, like beauty, very much in the eye of the beholder.  Anyone who prizes rapid growth and big flowers is going to downrate its flowers and performance.

 

Other hybrids bred for indumentum include:

 

‘Teddy Bear’

degronianum yakushimanum x bureavii

‘Golfer’

degronianum yakushimanum x pseudochrysanthum

‘Ken Janeck’

degronianum yakushimanum x  (smirnovii?)

‘The Porcupine’

degronianum heptamerum x makinoi

 

All of the above have larger flowers than ‘Blewbury’ and are more acceptable in a north American context.  I am trying to get away from using yakushimanum because of its fade-to-white flower-colour gene.  I find that its related subspecies heptamerum is producing some very promising offspring especially with roxieanum, pachysanthum and pseudochrysanthum.

 

As I keep saying, this is just a quirky hobby of mine.  Some people don’t like their Rhododendrons hairy at all.  I was humbled many years ago when I was showing a group of seniors around the Dalhousie University greenhouse.  Going up to a particularly nice plant of yak showing its young leaves white with hairs, one gentleman raised a trembling finger “we’ve got a problem here, mildew!”  I attempted to explain the concept ‘indumentum’; I failed.  He was unmoved.  “I know mildew when I see it.”