by Norman Todd - January 2002
The easiest thing to do is make a lumpy white sauce. The second easiest thing to do is to grow Triflora rhododendrons. The third easiest thing to do is to ignore the Triflora rhododendrons.
The Triflora (three flowers) has been a neglected Section of the Rhododendron genus in most gardens on Vancouver Island. The best known of the group is R. augustinii. Still, it is not a plant that one can find in the average nursery. A potential buyer of a rhododendron will trip over a slew of ‘Unique’ and ‘Jean Marie’ without sighting one species of the Triflora.
The Triflora Subsection of the scaly leafed rhododendrons (Lepidotes) is a large and important group that is centered in Western China. Most get to be quite tall and, with their smaller narrow leaves, have a slender, willowy look. Many of them have flowers, not only at the end of the branches, but also in the axils of the topmost leaves, so they put on a big show when in bloom. Interestingly, many of the Triflora have more than the basic number of chromosomes. This is termed polyploidy. Some have twice the normal 26 chromosomes and some three times. Cox says this limits the amount of hybridization that can take place among those with different counts.
I warm to some plants in the garden in no small part because of their association with where I got the plant, or who gave it to me, or because of the plant’s history of discovery and introduction. R. augustinii commemorates Augustine Henry. There are reports that Dr. Henry may not have been the wittiest of plantsmen, (the spouse of one weekend host of Henry’s always found excuses to be absent from his endless, boring botanical litanies), but he knew his stuff. Trained as a medical doctor, initially in his native Ireland and then at Edinburgh, he joined the Chinese Maritime Customs. After a year at Shanghai, he was sent to Ichang (Yichang) on the Yangtze as assistant medical officer where for long periods of time he was bored out of his wits. “Oh, if you knew the weariness of the exile’s life. I have become a great collector of plants, and after exhausting the neighbourhood I thought of going into the mountains, so I spent six months in two journeys into the interior.”
Probably the greatest of Henry’s legacies was the introduction of the handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata). Henry didn’t collect plants; he preserved herbarium specimens (5000 species) and after following up the French missionary Pere David’s original discovery of the handkerchief tree, it was his specimens that stimulated the English nursery Veitch to send out Ernest Henry Wilson to bring it back to England and subsequently to North America.
Henry, on retiring from the Orient, took up the position of Professor of Forestry at Dublin and had a second career, which testifies to his intellect and industry. So I like R. augustinii. (There is also a R. henry which is said not to be in cultivation. It is related to latoucheae, which was recently introduced by Peter Wharton). To me, the plant augustinii fills ones senses with more than a flowing cascade of ‘blue’.
The colour of augustinii ranges from white to wine. The ‘blue’ forms of augustinii are not seen as frequently in gardens as they should be but the other shades are downright rare. I have a clone called ‘Burgundy’ and that will bloom for me for the first time this year. ‘Marine’ is the most popular of the augustiniis being quite deep coloured, almost purple but I like the paler ones every bit as much. There are a couple of very good specimens in the University Gardens.
There is no doubt that the colour of augustinii varies from garden to garden. Ernie Lythgoe experienced this sensitivity many years ago. He admired a plant of augustinii in Vern Ahyers’ garden. Carefully he nurtured a cutting to flowering size only to be disappointed in the muddiness of the blue. Soil has a big effect.
Similarly, the books say, has temperature. The colder the winter, it is claimed, the more red in the blue. After several years of casual, unscientific observation, I decided that the ‘blueness’ had more to do with then Prime Minister Mulroney’s standing in the opinion polls than winter temperature.
The first of the Triflora to bloom in spring - in February - is the yellow-flowered lutescens. Under-plant lutescens with the dark purple form of Helleborus orientalis and the green flowered Helleborus foetidus and some of the early flowering daffodils and perhaps a few primulas and call for Van Gogh. Then, next to lutescens, plant its cousin, the pink March blooming davidsonianum. The clone ‘Ruth Lyons’ has no markings in her throat. - regarded by some connoisseurs as a mark of purity - but I like the ones with the jewels on their throats just as well. Continuing this theme of tall, willowy exclamation marks, plant the April flowering augustinii and the white flowering rigidum side by side. There is a very good form of the latter that I got from Greers. This has a tennis ball sized truss of 6 or 8 snowy flowers, (thus stretching the name Triflora, even for a taxonomist) and dark chocolate anthers.
This resplendence of rhododendrons is not complete without the inclusion of the latest of the Triflora to bloom – tricanthum. I think the best forms of tricanthum are the deep purple ones. This extends the floral show to mid June. With five plants, one can have a five-month succession of colour. Since expense is not a consideration in this imagery, let’s add around the perimeter of the grouping a clump of each of the smallest of the Triflora – hanceanum and keiskei. Hanceanum makes a great border plant, seldom getting more than 30 cm in height but twice as wide. Its April creamy flowers are openly out-facing and numerous. These match the bronzy new foliage so well that even Oak Bay gardeners cannot complain of any tonal disharmony. The tiny form of keiskei ‘Yaku Fairy’ is the best known and is certainly a gem but there are other larger forms which might be more suited to our Triflora extravaganza. As an aside, I was told that the way to grow keiskei ‘Yaku Fairy’ is in a pot. Every year knock the plant out and put another 2cm of soil in the pot. “Yaku Fairy’ will spill over the rim of the pot cascading down to form a splendid wig.
For those with space and who like to develop a theme to its most replete, one of the easiest to please of all the Triflora is yunnanense. Reportedly it has a very wide geographical distribution and a large altitudinal range. It varies in flower from white through pink to pale purple. I think the form with white flowers and coral markings is probably the best. I find that yunnanense is one of these shrubs that is taken for granted like some conifers or spireas. It is an essential element in the landscape but assumes a kind of complementary demeanour.
The collector can add the whimsically named ambiguum – an easy doer with soft yellow flowers in April/May. There is also an interesting muli-coloured form of the type species triflorum. The cream flowers are suffused with red and pink and green. At this point I have to add that probably the least garden worthy of all rhododendrons in my garden is a triflorum. Its flowers are the same insipid colour as the leaves; it is an aesthetic disaster. The reason I keep this plant is not for any horticultural or botanical interest, but for human interest. If any visitor notices the flowers she is immediately elected to my Growers’Hall of Fame. However, this plant is the exception – most are fully worthy of the space they occupy.
For recreating the landscape, or for the new gardener, but especially for the gardener who has had some unsatisfactory experiences with rhododendrons, there are plants out there that deserve your attention, ‘Tis a lesson you should heed,
Try, try again.
If at first you don’t succeed,