by Norman Todd November 2002
If I were choosing twelve rhododendrons for a city-sized new garden blessed with a couple of established trees to give summer shade, what would they be? With a choice from over 2000 or 3000 obtainable hybrids and from the 400 or so species that can be grown here, the selection is indeed difficult. There are a lot of variables to sift through; yet it does not involve a huge amount of risk, as there are so many good doers. In the end, it just comes down to personal taste – or prejudice.
The tallest rhododendron that one can get is about 2 meters high when ten years old. One must remember that rhododendrons live longer than we do and they keep growing. However, for most gardeners their vision does not stretch beyond ten years and neither does their patience. My first choice therefore is guaranteed not to bloom until at least it is twenty. We probably have room for only one or two tree-like rhododendrons (actually I end up with three biggies and that is why gardeners are usually classed as collectors rather than landscapers), so we have to pick ones that we will want to look at each and every day and ones that will impress the sophisticatedly superior visitors to our garden. So to start, I would opt for macabeanum. Its leaves are 20/25 cm long and half as wide and they have whitish indumentum on the undersides. It is effective, therefore, to plant it where, in time, we can walk under the foliage. The tops of the leaves are dark green and shiny. The flowers vary from cream to a strong yellow. In one of Peter Cox’s books he advises that the paler forms should be avoided. This is, by and large, a gratuitously useless bit of advice as most plants of macabeanum that are available in nurseries are grown from seed and it is very seldom that a blooming sized plant is available. If such a plant were available, it would be a sizeable one and would involve the physical difficulty of moving the plant and the painful financial difficulty of moving the buyer’s funds to the grower’s. The best one can do is to get a known clone that is cutting grown or grafted or, more likely, seedlings that have been hand pollinated. Macabeanum blooms in March and we must remember that when choosing the next eleven.
I really do think we have to have two more big rhododendrons. Having three statuesque specimens gives us vertical structure in the landscape and leaves room for incorporating all the choice underplanting that will give complementary colour and texture all year round. In this idyllic setting there are no deer, or if there are, they are either concrete or have been to Jenny Craig’s.
The other two Rhodos that I would pick would be ‘Lem’s Monarch’ and the pink form of auriculatum. This latter plant has large long somewhat fuzzy leaves that in themselves make a statement. Auriculatum blooms in August. Our garden will be without rhododendron bloom for a maximum of only three months if we make the appropriate choices, as we will see. “Lem’s Monarch’ is a May/June bloomer. The large flowers are soft pink with a darker pink picotee rim. We have to have a bloom in July and I would pick the red hybrid ‘Good News’. It is not too large, will take some sun and will look good with light coloured annuals.
To start the rhododendron season I don’t think you can better ‘Lee’s Scarlet’. The most popular early bloomer is ‘Rosamundi’. Why ‘Lee’s Scarlet’ does not hold this honour I have never understood. It probably has the same parents as ‘Rosamundi’ but has a deeper coloured flower and better meets our cultural need for Ho Ho Ho hues at Christmas. ‘Lee’s Scarlet will give us that – not in great amount as it blooms for close to four months –from November to March – with a succession of opening blossoms rather than in one big splurge.
Our garden during the short sombre days of the early year will be brimming with colour. There will be snowdrops and daffodils and tulips (no deer), hellebores and primroses and witch hazel and cyclamen. In one of the sunnier spots, one that we see or pass by every day, I would place a ‘Snow Lady’. In the shade it will be leggy but with good light it becomes an igloo - a white mound on which nary a leaf will be seen. ‘Snow Lady’, being a lepidote, does not have large trusses but often has three or even four flower clusters at each branch terminal. The chocolate coloured anthers give a startling contrast. Close to ‘Snow Lady’ I would put a ‘Razorbill’ – my wife’s favourite rhododendron. In fact, I would put three ‘Razorbills’; it is small. It has the most unusual tubular pink firecrackers, borne in profusion. This is a special plant for me as I brought it back from Scotland many years ago and propagated a few that fortunately went to better homes. I lost the original plant but got a little one back, an offspring of my offspring.
Now we are at the spring solstice and the choices are exorbitant. I think we have to go with the masses and choose the most popular of the reds – ‘Taurus’. Great dark shiny tough foliage, beetroot buds and a pure primary red flowers with not the slightest hint of blue. But because it is a big plant and we are running out of space, I may have to veto it and go for the more modest sized ‘Rubicon’. It has the same flower colour and has the kind of dark rugose foliage that meets the criteria of the growers of perennial herbaceous plants.
You will note that this chosen baker’s dozen has no evergreen or deciduous azaleas. I’m afraid that this exercise is just like a Prime Minister choosing a cabinet; someone has to be left out and the political wrath of those not represented will have to be faced, although never mollified. Probably over represented (cf Prince Edward Island) are the lepidotes and my next five choices are of this ilk. These are ‘Ginny Gee’, ‘Blaney’s Blue’, rigidum, hanceanum, and campylogynum.‘Ginny Gee’ is certainly one of the best small rhododendrons to grace our gardens. Draped over a big rock or wedged between two big rocks, it is a complete synthesis of realism and abstraction. Pink and white, inside and out, it is a profusion of contentment. Hanceanum is more subdued but if anything a neater plant then ‘Ginny Gee’ and after its show of smallish pansy like cream flowers it gives a rich ambience to its locale with its bronzy new leaves.
We bemoan the lack of a true gentian blue in the genus rhododendron but we will cavil less when we see a four or five foot ‘Blaney’s Blue’ in flower – a potential deadheading nightmare. Alongside this place the blue leafed form of rigidum is selected – the one with globs of white flowers and chocolate anthers; in contemporary landscaping parlance, ‘colour echoing’ our earlier ‘Snow Lady’.
The last little gem of a lepidote is campylogynum. This species comes in the tiniest of forms and ranges to those that may get to a meter tall. I don’t care which form is chosen. They are all choice. Just make sure it has perfect drainage, never dries out and never even catches a glimpse of granular fertilizer.
I suppose it would be like having a missing front tooth if we did not have a stereotypical medium sized May blooming full trussed pink show off. There are hundreds that would fill the bill. I give my vote to ‘Fantastica’. There is colour gradation in the flower; it is a dependable bloomer; is not weevil fodder and does not fade too badly. I could be easily persuaded to go for other varieties and I may pass this one on when it reaches its late teens to another compulsive fanatic who has more space.
We also must have a really good yellow and without question my choice is ‘Nancy Evans’. Not too big, wider than tall and as reliable a bloomer as Herb Robert. Its buds are brick red opening to a hot yellow. Nancy is a rent payer if ever there was one.
There we are – selection is made. Only the companions – the lilies and the hostas and the roses and clematis need to be chosen. Our dozen has stretched to 14 but is that not the way of the world? We always have to squeeze in just a couple more than we originally planned for and no doubt a home will still have to be found for the odd impulse purchase and all those countless indigents we win in raffles. I hate it when the server in a restaurant admonishes me to ‘Enjoy’. But how else can I conclude than with that admonition?