by Norman Todd  December 2002


“Until you understand a writer’s ignorance, presume yourself understanding of his ignorance.”  Wise words.  The ones that follow come from a not well-experienced grower of the group of rhododendrons known as Maddeniis.  Nevertheless, I will now go charging off in all directions.


There does not appear to be much known about Lt. Col. E. Madden, apart from dying in 1856.  He was what Davidian calls “a traveller in India.”  However, he has left his name to, perhaps, the most taxonomically confusing tribe of rhododendrons in the whole genus.  For example, when botanists made the first stab at classification (Hutchison at Kew in the 1920s), there were 30 species in one of the Maddenii groups.  That was reduced to 12 in 1980 and it looks like it may be decided in the next little while that there are only two or three species.  These wild plants vary considerably but in a seemingly even and continuous flux.


The Maddeniis are mostly open, rangy, straggly shrubs that grow quite often epiphytically on other rhododendrons or associated trees.  As a group they prefer semi-tropical areas.  The only one I ever saw growing wild was right on the north-eastern border of Thailand and Myanmar at 1800 metres where the lowest temperature ever recorded was 5°C.   They are not very cold hardy but there are a few that we can grow almost with impunity in the Victoria area.  Let’s list these first and then mention some of the more flamboyant, tenderer ones.


Burmanicum, ciliatum, fletcherianum, johnstoneanum,and valentinianum.  All of these, I grow outside without any real difficulty, although I have lost plants in exposed situations and in long cold windy periods (1989).  Good drainage is vital.


Cox now says that what we have been growing as burmanicum ‘Glendoick’ (named for his nursery/estate in Scotland) is a hybrid.  For the purist this is not a very good start, but ‘Glendoick’ is said to be a better yellow and a hardier plant than the true species so I choose not to examine its passport too closely.


In appearance ciliatum looks a lot like Moupinense - with hairier leaves.  They are closely related but moupinense is in its own subsection.  I would not be surprised that when DNA profiling is done, ciliatum will prove to be closer to moupinense than to some of the larger plants in the Maddenia.  In any event it is a choice, small, softly pink early bloomer that needs a nice sheltered spot.  Fletcherianum is a low grower with thick bristly leaves and significant yellow flowers and appears in the lineage of many hybrids. I still call it fletcheriannum.  Some drop the ‘i’ but I first knew it with that vowel included and old habits die hard and besides it’s most likely correct.  Johnstoneanum can get quite large.  There is a double form called ‘Double Diamond’, that is in the connoisseur’s class, with flowers like gardenias but it is considerably less hardy than the white to cream trumpeted one we see more commonly in local gardens.   Valentinianum has interesting peeling bark and pleasing yellow flowers.  It blooms in January/February so it must not be in a frost pocket.  It also has lots of progeny.


Now, we come to the show-offs – a characterization that some envious onlookers often ascribe to their growers.  These have large trumpets of lily-like flowers, often only two or three in the truss.  The ones with whitish flowers are usually powerfully fragrant.  The ones with yellowish flowers are usually scentless. 


On the subject of scent, I recall a caution that I have long wanted to put to the test.  Unfortunately, I have never had more than two in bloom at any one time.  The cautioner had a very refined nose and warned that the combined aroma of many different varieties blooming simultaneously resulted in the ‘smell of horse piss’.


Maddenii ssp. Maddenii, in the best forms has a pink/purple base to the trumpets on the outside and a yellow throat on the inside.  The spectacular flowers are up to 12 cm. (5 in.) long.  The hardier subspecies crassum, we can grow outside, and being a June bloomer it is a good choice for even the small garden.  It will get to be quite tall but can be kept to an upright shape so the area it needs is relatively small.  Odoriferum  and manipurense were species under the old classification but are now reduced in rank to forms of crassum.  I still like to keep the old names and grow plants with these labels on them.  They have not bloomed for me yet.

One of the most surprising and crowd stopping flowers on a rhododendron belongs to rhabotum, now classified as a variety of dalhousiae.  This plant should be the mascot of a military regiment or a police force as the flowers have a broad red stripe running down the middle of each corolla lobe from petal tip to calyx – or from belt to boot strap.  And it blooms in July!  We once had a plant of this gem.   It got to be over two metres (6 feet) high and moving its huge pot to shelter every winter became a very onerous business.  One winter it died from hypothermia.


I always have a smile to myself when lindleyi is mentioned.  About 20 years ago, on a pilgrimage that is now ritual, a group from the club was in Daphne Gibson’s (Ken’s mother) garden in Tofino.  One of our senior members – senior both in age and professional reputation – was Ernie Lythgoe.  Ernie was crouched down, lecturing in his best Oak Bay High teacher manner, on the finer points of R. lindleyi.  In particular we were to note the ‘potter’s thumb marks’ at the base of the corolla.  Maybe the fragrance really went to his head but he pulled the flower right off the plant.  Silence.  In any event lindleyi is a fine thing to have – even if only for a short while.


A close relative of lindleyi is nuttallii.  Here the flowers are not only 12 cm long but equally wide.  R. ‘Hamish Robertson’ is a nuttallii cross and was registered under that name by our late member, Hamish Robertson.  It is a spectacular plant.  The flowers are huge with a blending of white, purple, yellow and pink.  The new foliage is violet. Some of our members are trying to increase its availability.


One of the most satisfactory plants I grow as a pot plant is taronense. This name is now sunk under the name dendricola.  Gary Hadfield gave me this plant six or seven years ago.  As I write, I can look out the window and see it boasting a flower bud at every tip. The plant is a about a metre wide and high.  The leaves are ‘bullate’, i.e. having a puckered appearance. The flowers are pleasantly smelly, white, of respectable size but not huge.  You may recall that our latest winter occurred last March.  We had several nights of below freezing temperatures, one night going to -6°C.  Taronense came through this with only a few flower buds damaged.


A larger plant, with even more bullate foliage and with one of the most pleasing smells of all the Maddenia  is edgeworthii.  I am back in my childhood days spooning my mother’s nutmeg redolent egg custard when in the presence of the flowering edgeworthii. I think if I were on a desert island and could have only one rhododendron it would be edgeworthii


There are others worthy of mention but both the reader’s patience and mine are reaching exhaustion.  I should, however, mention that the Maddeniis were popular with the Victorian gentry in Britain where they were grown as conservatory plants.  Many hybrids were created.  Some are lost but some are still grown and have become widely sought after.  Many will know or recognize ‘Fragrantissimum’, ‘Lady Alice Fitzwilliams’, ‘Countess of Haddington’, ‘Forsterianum’. These can all be used to contribute to the aromatic mélange.  You have been warned.  And there are newer ones of great merit – ‘Else Frye’ and ‘Mi Amor’, for example, and watch for some of the New Zealand plants that are becoming available.  One of the most interesting blooms in our garden last year was ‘Felicity Fair’- probably only half a maddenii - but its peach trumpets and bold shiny foliage make it ‘a good thing’. 


Our new $1000 per month Poet Laureate, George Bowering may be thought by some to be irreverent, by others irrelevant, but I am looking forward to what he has to say.  He already said something that encouraged me to write this.  He observed that those who stick to only what they know never learn anything.