by Norman Todd February 2004
Every time I walk past anhwiense I stop and admire it and say some nice words to it hoping to boost its self esteem. It does not look to be in any great need of counselling but I’m sure it must know what people are saying about it. David Leach in Rhododendrons of the World doesn’t say anything at all. He doesn’t even list it in his index. Under the British Quality ratings it gets no stars – not one. Whether this is because they feel it does not merit any or just because nobody knows it is a mystery. Davidian in his stolid, robotic, standardized, unemotional style admits anhwiense gives a ‘fine display’ but is uncommon in cultivation. In the Cox’s Encyclopedia, anhwiense is summarily dismissed with “…a very free-flowering and tough species but the foliage is rather uninteresting and tends to look pale and yellowish.”
Well, on the basis of the two plants in my garden I wish I could invite all these experts to come and, without prejudice, record their impressions. Then I would like them to hold a branch of the plant and read their thoughts aloud. Harold Greer evidently grows and knows it better than the previously mentioned authorities, as he says the “…medium sized oblong or ovate leaves are bright, shiny and waxy.” So it would be nice to have Harold here to lead off with the recitations.
I have just been out looking at the older plant. It is nearly three meters across and two high. Previously, when taking some cuttings it was hard to find a shoot without a flower bud. I am sure if it were in bloom at the time of the annual Victoria flower count – which it isn’t – it would give a space-shot boost to this spurious statistic. So I am quite glad it does not bloom until April.
Now here’s a contentious comparison I’m prepared to defend. The floral impact of anhwiense is greater than that of yakushimanum. It has the same – perhaps not quite so intense, two-tone apple blossom pink and white elegance as yakushimanum but the flowers are longer lasting and as the plant is bigger it is more of a cloud than an igloo.
The province of Anwei (Anhui), in Eastern China is one of the smaller provinces and until fairly recent times was one of the least developed and poorest. It seems to have been largely bypassed by western collectors. Even in contemporary times it receives little mention. Roy Lancaster in his compendious and florally fascinating book Travels in Chian, A Plantsman’s Paradise does not include plants from Anwei and yet the name means ‘beautiful place’.
The introduction of R. anhwiense to western horticulture seems not to have been well recorded. Davidian notes that it was first collected by H.K. Ip in August 1923 but I can’t find out anything about Mr. Ip. I wonder: had it been collected by Forrest or Wilson or Rock or Kingdon Ward, would it be more highly thought of? It did get an Award of Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1976. Not to detract from this distinction, a sizeable proportion of all rhododendron species has been similarly beknighted.
Anhwiense is currently placed in the Maculifera Subsection. This Subsection contains such prized species as morii, pachysanthum, pseudochrysanthum. and strigillosum. Davidian had placed it in his Irroratum Series. Chamberlain, in his 1982 revision of the classification of the genus, did not even rate it as a full species – only a subspecies of maculiferum. This latter species is found in Sichuan, Guizhou and Hubei provinces, so there is at least 10 degrees of separation of longitude between the habitats of maculiferum and anhwiense. The province of Anwei does not have a large number of endemic rhododendrons. Notable neighbours, however, are fortunei and discolor. It is unfortunate that the fossil record of rhododendrons is so sparse – mainly due to the small size of the seed and the fact that there are only very small differences in seed morphology. No doubt DNA work will shed more light on how close the relationships are between those plants to which we currently assign specific or subspecific rank.
I would not make a good taxonomist. Because I like anhwiense, I want it to be a full species. The plant of maculiferum that we have is quite large, probably four meters by four meters. It blooms in March and is useful for that early bloom. Still, it does not inspire the gasps of admiration that anhwiense does. If the differences between anhwiense and maculiferum are as insignificant as Chamberlain details them to be, then for my druthers, I would make maculiferum a subspecies of anhwiense.
One of the nice aspects of writing about rhododendrons is that one is afforded much more liberty to be prejudiced than if one were writing, for example, about affairs of state. That said, I would still like all the experts, past and present to meet in my garden, assess anhwiense, dismiss their prejudices and record their thoughts on what they observe.