A Rhododendron Who’s Who

by Norman Todd - January 1999

Recently CBC Radio ran a contest where listeners were asked to match people to plants. I think the text had to be less than twenty-five words but we will extend this to a hundred words. Here is a start in what I hope will provoke some entries from newsletter readers. For societal reasons, we will limit the choice of plants to rhododendrons – species or hybrids.

Martha Stewart Rhododendron ‘Unique’

A perfectly manicured hybrid with too perfect pink and cream flowers regurgitatively evocative of icing on a six-year-old’s birthday cake. Trusses can be used to decorate wedding vehicles or floated in the dog’s water dish. Foliage is thick and stiff and makes a good besom. Does not get mildew in Martha’s garden.

Bill Clinton Rhododendron nudiflorum

It comes from Eastern US. It is very hardy and easily layered in cultivation. One authority says it is stoloniferous; another says it is not, indicating the presence or absence of this characteristic seems to depend on the affiliation of the observer. It is not easy to propagate vegetatively although the capsules ripen early and split open easily. The stigma are very long being three times the length of the corolla. It does best in full exposure, in fact languishes if not in full light. Some hybrids of nudiflorum and alabamense (geographically close to Arkansas) have a yellow streak in the white flowers.

Margaret Thatcher Rhododendron ‘Point defiance’

This is a plant of ‘major’ stature and very strong habit, renowned for making its point defiantly. It has tough leathery foliage not readily attacked by pests. It is quite compatible with ‘Independence Day’ but not with ‘Party Pink’. One observer says it is surviving in the Falkland Islands. Reports of it being carnivorous are probably incorrect although I certainly have noted many dead bees in its flowers.

Glen Clark Rhododendron ‘Solidarity’

A fairly recent plant of super hardy parents. It thrives in abusive conditions but resents competition from other plants, especially magnolea campelli but will accept grass root encroachment from red fescue. The flowers are red at first but fade with age especially if stressed. It loves aged horse manure.

Judy Tyabji Rhododendron ‘Airy Fairy’

This is an early bloomer. It looks delicate but is really quite resistant to the vicissitudes of garden culture. It is showy when in flower but can be overlooked when not. Half of its lineage – lutescens – was a Wilson introduction. It tends to be leggy.

Bill Gates Rhododendron ponticum

Now a very widespread and domineering plant. It will support almost any kind of elepidote to overcome its ‘parasite’. This species was the basis of the recent huge expansion in the popularity of the genus rhododendron. Now considered a threat to other plants, especially apples, in some gardens. Some forms are protected by patent.

Kim Campbell Rhododendron ‘Canadian Sunset’

This is a B.C. hybrid which is reportedly doing well in California. It was so named because the flowers have a different colour every day. Greer describes it as being ‘quite different’. It was once thought to be the best yak hybrid ever but has now been largely replaced by those with more liberal flowering habits.

Lucien Bouchard Rhododendron ‘Schizopeplum’

A rare plant in gardens, preferring its native conditions. The name means with a split covering’. It has recently been demoted and is now classified as a variety. It has had a number of name changes. Hybrids are rare and seed usually come true although it has bred with one form of californicum. The genes of schizopeplum, however, are dominant. It prefers significant separation from other plants but has been known to accept occasional hybrids of foreign origin espceially those with soulei, delavayi, fargesii, or davidii in their parentage.

Pavel Bure Rhododendron caucasicum

This species comes from a tough environment but is inclined to be difficult in our climate. Reports are that it really likes a harsher winter and thrives in soils low in organic matter. Keep it if you are a fussy grower but if looking for flower power in the garden perhaps you should trade it for a newer hybrid.

Monica Lewinsky Rhododendron ‘Sappho’

Monica is not related to ‘Mrs. T.H. Lowinsky’ which is a fine plant but has suddenly fallen out of favour. The name ‘sappho’ evokes different images with different people. For some it is poetic – for others it has a more salacious connotation. It has a beautiful flower but a terrible growth habit and if grown should be placed at the back of the border. I now prefer the more compact ‘Peeping Tom’.

Conrad Black  Rhododendron 'Black Magic'

A vigorous, aggressive grower, demanding full sun.  Of all rhodos, this one is known for a strong flowery statement but colour is rather dark and gloomy, best seen back-lit near sundown.  Noted for its tough fibre, suitable for paper production.  Flourishes in Canada, and the UK, but languishes, rather, in Australia.  Certainly a plant with an opinion on its own worth.

David Black  Rhododendron 'White Gold'  aka Nisga'a Nemesis.

The polarity of the names of plant and person is not without significance.  The paper-white flowers are fully recurved to reveal a golden flair.  Though a genuine North American hybrid highly adaptable to most urban environments, its constitution may be challenged unless grafted to aboriginal roots in the interior.  Widely accepted throughout BC but its relative lack of cold-hardiness, cf Black Magic, will limit its spread to eastern gardens.