Jun 19, 2010

A Rose By Another Name: Rhododendron

Rhododendron comes from the Greek Rhodo, rose and Dendron, tree.
I grew up with Rhodododendrons.  They lived in front of my suburban house and no one, including me, thought much about them.  Suddenly, unexpectedly, these plants will become my focus.
For the first part of my fellowship with National Trust, I will be studying two different RhododendronsR. Magnificum and R.macabeanum.

According to Ed Ikin, Head Gardener at Nymans, "The last 3 decades have marked a slow, but consistent decline in the health of the collection with significant taxa being lost regularly.  Many factors are involved in this decline:  the loss of tree cover after the 1987 great storm and the massive operation that followed it, intense summer heat; the water logging linked to climate change and old age."

Knowing nothing about rhodos, I decided to research a little about their history. The wild rhododendron first appeared in the historical record when Xenophon's army retreated to Babylon in 401 B.C. and camped in the Armenian hills on the Black Sea coast of Turkey.  Starving soliders gobbled honey made from the poisonous nectar of the rhododendron: nausea and vomiting caused their death. 

The first Rhododendron to be classified was discovered in the 16th by a Flemish botanist, Charles l'Ecluse.  It was introduced to Britain in 1656 from the European Alps, R.hirsutum (the Alpine Rose).  Liannaeus used the term rhododendron in 1753 for only a few species.  Many plant explorers followed, but Ernest Henry Wilson led the way to Asia.  Many plantsman followed including Frank Kingdom Ward, who was responsible for finding R.macabeanum and R. Magnificum.

According to the American Rhododendron Society website, the concentration of rhododendron species in southeast Asia happened because Asians developed favorable habitats for them to flourish while the rest of the world eroded their habitats.

It will be my task to figure out if the habitat at Nymans can sustain R. Magnificum and R. macabeanum.

Years ago, Mobee Weinstein of The New York Botanical Garden told our class it was impossible to dislike a plant.  For most people, rhododendrons fall into the category of like or dislike.  For me, these shrubs have always been anchors in the garden.  The following article by Stephen Lacey of the Telegraph gives a good insight into Rhododendrons and why we should think twice before dismissing them.

Reconsider the rhododendron
Snobbery about rhododendrons often means gardeners are the losers.
by Stephen Lacey

"When my plane from Edinburgh was cancelled and I had to divert to the train, I realised there was a silver lining to the Icelandic ash cloud:  I could bring more plants back as hand luggage.  And my bags were bulging with rhododendrons, I wasn't half as grumpy as the other passengers who, like me, had to spend most of the four-and-a-half-hour journey standing up.

Shrubs are out of fashion, with designers and the media relentlessly promoting new-wave meadow perennials.  But go to a garden like Glendoick, where I was staying with Himalayan explorer and plant-hunter Ken Cox and his wife Jane, and you see what is missing from the perennials bandwagon:  great towers and domes of flowers, scent, flaking barks, year-round sculptures...

If shrubs are unfashionable, rhododendrons are for many people beyond the pale.  But they are not all vulgar footballs of Barbara Cartland pink.  Many ambush you with their style.  I remember a very snooty gardener showing me the handsome pink "daphne" she had found in a nursery.  I immediately recognised it as a rhodo (R. trichostomum), but she recoiled in horror and refused to believe me.  In retrospect, I could have given her the social reassurance that even eminent gardeners such as Vita Sackville-West, Lawrence Johnston and Christopher Lloyd made space for a few rhodos...

I am off to Cornwall this weekend for more immersion in rhododendrons and woodland shrubs.  Driving there will mean I have a boot's worth of space for acquisitions.  And I will take a flowering R.edgeworthii with me in the passenger footrest, as scented companion."