Rediscover Rhododendrons

By Trevor Cameron CPH 

Springtime has arrived and the multitudes of Rhododendrons are blooming….. Our state flower shines in every color imaginable – but what I am here to remind you of is one old adage – flowers come and flowers go - so discover the different foliages of Rhododendrons!  We all salivate for spring flowers but after bloom we need attractive leaves as well.  Rhodies offer not only every shade of green in all kinds of shapes/sizes but also some variegated foliages and many with stunning color on new growth too.  There are thousands of nice bloomers but remember to look for a nice foliage as well! 

Like other creatures on earth Rhodies have found niches in most all environments in our gardens…. From full hot sun to deep shade and every spot in between.  Like with all landscape plants – it helps to put the right Rhododendron in the right spot.  Remember this Rhododendron rule that has few exceptions – the larger the foliage the less sun tolerant.  In my own garden along a south facing rockery numerous hybrids and several species Rhododendrons (including R. calostrotum, R. camplyogynum, and R. saluense) have been thriving in hot sun with little water summer after summer.  All are fabulous little growers with the typical showy flowers that we expect from Rhododendrons BUT most who see them would not think “Rhododendron”.  In full shade and equally as brilliant are other species like R. yaksuhimanum and R. bureauvii – both with nice flowers and outstanding indumented foliage in silver, white or cinnamon brown.  You will have to stop and touch – indumentum is a soft velvety covering on the new growth of some Rhodies – adding year round foliage color and interest.  Not only are we finding these indumented foliages are naturally resistant to bugs and especially diseases - in my 20 years in nurseries the flavors of Japanese “Yak” Rhododendrons are the most underutilized plants for shade/partial shade gardens! 

Now let’s talk hybrids….. at last count there were over 5,000 named hybrids.  All I can say is WOW and promise you if you visit a nursery or an online site you will salivate over all the pretty bloomers!  In this man’s opinion there are some oldies but still goodies and numerous “modern” hybrids that will knock your socks off.  There are far too many hybrids with lovely flowers to list but here a few that combine excellent growth habits and outstanding bloom.  For a larger yellow the old fashioned ‘Hotei’ is still the best canary yellow I’ve seen although many come close.  Dwarf yellow ones like “Chikor”, “Curlew”, and “Wren” are all really easy to grow.  Numerous newer hybrids in the orangey/peachy/yellow tones are becoming popular and two in my own garden have not disappointed – ‘Seaview Sunset’ and ‘Honey Butter’ have been compact little blooming machines.  There are a plethora of good old fashioned pinks to plant including “Anna Rose Whitney” and “Holden” as well as many newer ones – striking bloomers like “Cherry Cheesecake”, “Melrose Flash”, and “Pomegranate Splash”.  For red utilize the classics like “Jean Marie”, “Taurus”, and “Grace Seabrook” for larger growers but check out some great dwarfs like “Carmen”, “Peekaboo”, and “Baden Baden” for tidy compact plants.  I like “Chinoides” for a good classic white but there are certainly other worthy flavors.  For the purple and blue lovers there are many worthy choices including lots of great dwarfs like “Songbird”, “Purple Gem”, “Blue Baron”, and “Vibrant Violet”.  For a larger specimen try the classic “Lee’s Dark Purple” or the newer “Polarnacht” which is a bit more compact.  By choosing different hybrids you can potentially have every color blooming from early March through June! 

Go to the nurseries and check out these beauties while they are blooming, go ahead and admire their foliage.  Plant them, take care of them and watch them grow in your garden. I am here to speak on behalf of all Rhododendrons and asking you to rediscover them......you will not be disappointed! 

If this whets your appetite to learn more about Rhododendrons, then make sure to join us for our "Rhododendrons & Azaleas" class Saturday May 3rd at 10:00am, taught by Trevor Cameron C.P.H.!  Be sure to stop by that day, as we will also have The American Rhododendron Society (Pilchuck Chapter) at the nursery for their "2014 Rhododendron Truss Show" from 11am-3pm.  Stop by to see a fabulous display of Rhododendrons that are being grown locally!  They will have a table set up to answer any questions you have about Rhododendrons and they will also have experts on hand to help identify any unknown varieties you may have growing in your garden.  So mark it on your calendars to be with us, at Sunnyside Nursery, Saturday May 3rd starting at 10am.  See you there! 

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at the nursery at 425-334-2002 or email at info@sunnysidenursery.net