by Norman Todd September 2003
I’ve been watching on television the cycling classic – the Tour de France. This is a voluntary masochistic ordeal in which about 200 males profess to enjoy having their feet constantly orbit at about 100 times every minute so that they can leave a long trail of sweat on the encircling roads of France. The participants do this for four or five or six hours a day for three weeks and after traveling about 3400 kilometers, the fastest one arrives in Paris at the finishing line a few seconds before the disappointed runner-up.
The average rider loses around 9% of his body weight on each stage of the race despite imbibing about 20 liters of liquid while streaking unseeing through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. For the cyclists, it’s not the scenery that takes the breath away. For them, the touring experience consists simply of flat bits, bits that go up and bits that go down, all of which have fiendishly contrived twists and bends along the way so the pedalers’ eyes never see the ripening wheat, the sloping vineyards, the snowy peaks or the turquoise waters. The winner’s rewards are a few Euros, three pecks on the cheek from each of a couple of statuesque demoiselles, a bunch of flowers and a stuffed lion (a big boy’s teddy bear).
After watching this madness on television I go outside into my rocks and slopes and trees and soil and what I see is a troupe of rhododendrons, called a peloton in the lingo of the Tour de France. These, in the blazing July sun, have also lost 9% of their body weight from dehydration. So I have to give each of them 20 liters of water. Unfortunately, I miss out on the smooches from the misses but there are lots of bunches of flowers to fill my arms and my ‘Leo’ and ‘Teddy Bear’ are real, actively alive and thankful for my ministrations.
The competitors in the Tour de France are supported by brilliant experts in human physiology who know all about calorific intake, blood sugar levels and all the complex chemical and physical reactions that go in to driving the species homo sapiens at a sustained speed of nearly 50 kilometres an hour. Incidentally, the daily calorific intake of a competitor in the Tour de France is about 8000. For comparison, if my assumptions and arithmetic are now correct (they were checked and amended by a friend), to drive a car at the same speed over the same distance takes up to twice as many calories per unit of weight.
I know as little of these human machinations as I do about the ones taking place in our rhododendrons. What I do know, however, is that rhodos quickly show signs of stress if their roots either don’t get enough, or can’t pump enough, water to keep the cells turgid so that photosynthesis and all the related and necessary cellular and intercellular combinations and divisions can carry on.
Of course, in their own habitat, the wild ones are more or less quite well looked after by nature. I lecture people that if we do only one thing to keep our plants happy, it should be to ensure that they never dry out. If I suspect the lecturee might enjoy the odd tipple, my sermon goes, “If rhodos were alcoholics and water were booze, then they would be in a dipsomaniac’s paradise as they would never need to worry about where the next drink was coming from.” That said, they are not really water hogs. Give a one-metre tall rhodo two to three centimetres (1 inch) of water per week and it will flourish. If you water by hand from a regular garden hose this translates to about one minute per week. It really is much easier to keep a rhododendron in top form than it is to keep a cyclist competing in the Tour de France. By and large, most of my plants probably do not get quite as much as they would like. Despite automated irrigation systems, a lot of plants still need to be watered by hand and as the summer goes on I seem to spend more time (resentfully) at the end of a hose.
One only needs to visit the Gibsons’ garden at Tofino to appreciate what lots of water will do for growth and bloom. At the wholesale nursery where I buy plants the water table is about three metres below ground. They have recently dug another large well and give their plants more water than in the past. The owners claim the growth is appreciably stronger. Some people claim to give very little supplemental water and mysteriously their plants survive. There is no doubt rhododendrons will suffer a lot of stress from water deprivation before dying of dehydration. But in these situations I really think it would be more satisfactory, and kinder, to grow cistus or ceanothus.
I saw some seriously chlorotic, stunted rhododendrons in a garden that was very well cared for in the sense of fertilizer application, weed control – good husbandry all around – except for supplemental water. Had the use of fertilizer been less, the plants would have fared better. What was happening was that because there was more moisture in the plants than in the soil and a higher content of salts (nutrients) in the soil than in the plants, osmosis was drawing water from the plants back into the soil. The plants were trying to water the soil.
The winner of this year’s Tour de France had already won the race four times previously. He clearly is a very fine athlete. However, a few years ago he had a serious cancer that was rampant and spreading. He was given a 40% chance of survival. What a survivor!
I was recently given a lovely big specimen of ‘Mi Amor’. This rhododendron is only marginally cold hardy in Victoria gardens. Cold, however, was not the problem. The plant had been given a hot treatment by being taken for an automobile drive in temperatures of over 30 °C. The leaves looked like cured tobacco. The branches were cut back, then cut back again, and cut back once more. All that was left were two green leaves at the base. I did not give it a 20% chance of survival. Nevertheless, with these poor odds I gave the stump lots to drink.
Within a month the dormant buds showed a hint of green. Currently, there are 23 small branches on this floral Phoenix and I am going to have the bushiest, best-shaped ‘Mi Amor’ ever seen. It is being coddled and I plan to exhibit it in due course at our annual show. Who knows, it may even win the best in the show. It may even do that five times. Even if it doesn’t I will give it three pecks on each of its topmost leaves.