Rhododendron sargentianum

R. sargentianum, a dwarf rhododendron, was first introduced in 1903 by plant explorer Ernest Wilson who found it when he was hunting for plants in the mountains of western Szechwan, China. He found it a few other times growing in the same locality, in exposed areas, at elevations of nine to eleven thousand feet.

This is an ideal plant for a rock garden, or tucked into a little niche in your garden, because at maturity the plant is such a little gem. Plants grow to about 18 inches tall and about that wide; there may be some larger than that, but I've never seen one. They grow slowly but start blooming as small plants. Sometimes plants grown from cuttings will start blooming within two years. It is a twiggy compact plant with small aromatic leaves that are shiny green on top and densely covered with tiny rust colored or dark brown scales.

Typically this rhododendron species will bloom in April or early May. The flowers are small, narrowly tubular with spreading lobes that are held in little trusses of five to seven flowers. The flowers are either white, pale yellow, or lemon yellow. The yellow forms are in greatest demand, but many folks prefer the clones with white flowers.

R. sargentianum
Photo by Ken Cox

This is an alpine rhododendron and, like most alpine rhododendrons, it is absolutely essential that it is grown in a medium with good sharp drainage and in an open location. However, try to provide it with afternoon shade, as it doesn't seem to like the hot sun.

R. sargentianum is one of the finest dwarf rhododendrons you can have in your garden. In the spring it will cover itself with a profusion of flowers and when it is not in flower it is still an attractive little shrub. Don't forget that fragrant foliage! R. sargentianum does not look like a "typical" rhododendron and will be certain to add interest and variety to your garden.

Norfolk Botanical Garden Azaleas

The idea for the Norfolk Botanical Garden came from Thomas P. Thompson, Norfolk's first city manager, and Frederic Heutte, a young horticulturalist. Heutte had a fondness for azaleas and thought Norfolk had a climate uniquely suited for growing the plants. Thompson and Heutte believed that Norfolk could support an azalea garden to rival that found in Charleston, S.C., which even during the depression years drew thousands of tourists annually. The city of Norfolk provided Thompson and Heutte with a seventy-five acre section of high, wooded ground and another seventy-five acres of swampy land in the Little Creek Reservoir area to establish the garden.

Thompson, applied for a grant from the "Works Progress Administration" (WPA) to hire labor needed to turn a swamp full of loblolly pines and snakes into an azalea garden to border the new airport. Since most of the male labor force was at work with other projects for the city, a group of more than 200 African American women and 20 men were assigned to the Azalea Garden project. Laboring from dawn until dusk, the labor crew cleared dense vegetation and carried loads of dirt by hand to build a levee for the lake. The laborers were paid twenty-five cents an hour for their hard work. Within less than a year, a section of underbrush had been cleared and readied for planting. By March of 1939, four thousand azaleas, two thousand rhododendrons, several thousand miscellaneous shrubs and trees and one hundred bushels of daffodils had been planted.

To show the city's support for the Garden, the name was changed in 1955 from Azalea Garden to Norfolk Municipal Gardens. The city also selected Norfolk Municipal Gardens as the scenic backdrop for the International Azalea Festival, and for the annual festival that celebrates the member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In 1958 the Old Dominion Horticultural Society took over maintenance of Norfolk Municipal Gardens and changed the name to Norfolk Botanical Garden. Today a garden visitor will find a quarter of a million azaleas on display!

Companion plant: Hamamelis

Winter flowering shrubs in a garden can really help to lift your spirits on those dark, dreary...and often incessant rainy days from December to the end of February. Some of the very best winter flowering shrubs are the Hamamelis or witch hazel plants.

These plants start blooming after the leaves have dropped in the fall and carry right through into March. Many of you may be familiar with Hamamelis mollis which is yellow in color. The flowers have four petals which are very small short straps of color close to the stem. These flowers are remarkably weather hardy and withstand cold spells...even snow. They bounce back after mild frosts although long periods of exposure to frost can turn them to brown mush.

Many different varieties of Hamamelis are available at your local garden center. The best time to shop for these plants is during the winter months when the garden centers usually showcase what is in bloom. They will often have Hamamelis plants in full bloom at the entrances to the sales area in order to attract customers. Who wouldn't be tempted? Hamamelis plants are not cheap! One has to pay a fairly high price compared to other plants...but they are worth it. Hamamelis are easy to grow and reward you each year with an excellent display of winter color. Small one-gallon plants can cost about $10-$14, while a two-gallon about $20-$24. Plants that have been field grown and recently dug can cost about $35 to $60, depending on size.

The witch hazels come in a variety of flower colors...ranging from the pale yellows ('Pallida') through burnt ambers ('Jelena') to a deep red beauty ('Diane'). Many varieties have a strong and pleasant fragrance. 'Arnold Promise' performs well in the garden, flowers heavily, and its light yellow flowers are scented.

Witch hazels can be grown in most soils that are slightly acid or neutral. They should be grown in either full sun or light shade. They are a natural woodland plant, can grow to around 4m with age, and require very little attention by way of pruning. Witch hazels have gorgeous fall foliage color...ranging from yellow to orange and even red depending on the variety.

Hamamelis species come from North America (H. virginiana), from China (H. mollis), and from Japan (H. japonica). The Chinese and Japanese Witch Hazels are the parents of many hybrids that are available in the nursery trade today. Early settlers in America used the whippy stems of H. virginiana for water divining. Its powers are considered to be derived from its similarities to Corylus, the hazelnut.

Rhododendron arboreum

R. arboreum is possibly the most widespread rhododendron in the world.  The plants grow in the wild in southeast Asia occupying a wide arc on the southern slopes of the Himalaya Mountains, from Kashmir through Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Manipur, a distance of about 1,500 miles.  In its native habitat some arboretum forms can grow up to 60 feet tall, but in cultivation, it rarely grows over 40 feet.  Most experts say it will grow to be about 6 ft. tall in 10 years. So don't let its mature height keep you from planting one in your garden.

The leaves of R. arboreum are large; 4 to 8 in. long and up to 2 in. or more wide. They are thick and leathery. Arboreum leaves are glossy, deep green on top, with the underside covered with a thin plastered or woolly indumentum that varies in color between different subspecies. The color of the flowers varies considerably, from white to shades of pink or red. Some of the white and pink forms sometimes will have deeper colored spots which add to their interest and beauty. All have nectar pouches at the base of the flower. Flowers are bell-shaped and are held in trusses of 15 to 20 flowers. The blood-red forms are generally considered to be the most tender.

Since the British Empire previously occupied much of the area where R. arboreum grows, and much of the early rhododendron hybridizing occurred in the British Isles, the species has been often used as a hybrid plant parent. Arboreum seed was first sent back to Britain from Nepal almost 200 years ago. Some examples of hybrids where R. arboreum has been used as a parent include:

R. 'Bibiani', ('Moser's Maroon' x R. arboreum ssp. arboreum)

R. 'Cornubia', (R. arboreum ssp. arboreum, red form x Shilsonii Group)

R. 'Doncaster', (R. arboreum ssp. arboreum x unknown)

R. 'Loders White', (R. arboreum ssp. cinnamomeum var. album x R. griffithianum)

R. Nobleanum Group, (R. caucasicum x R. arboreum ssp. arboreum)

Rhododendron leucaspis

Last year while attending a local rock and alpine garden show, I saw Rhododendron leucaspis in bloom for the first time and it immediately went to the top of my wish list. I looked around for a plant locally without success and had to put it on the back burner. So time passes and a few months later, I'm on my way to the ARS western regional fall conference in Newport Oregon and on the way there I decided I wasn't going to buy any plants, (Yeah, right!) as I was going to be on the road for a few days before heading home, and didn't want to have to fuss with looking after plants and deal with the border crossing. But, wouldn't you know it, the first plant I spotted on the Rhododendron Species Foundation's sales table was R. leucaspis, and I just had to have it - so much for resolutions about not buying anymore plants!

The plant I saw at the rock and alpine show is wintered under cover. The grower, a fellow "rhodoholic", thinks it might be a bit tender here in Victoria and I didn't want to take any chances with my new plant, so I over-wintered it in my sunroom - probably a good idea as this past winter was longer and colder than we've had in awhile. I've since learned from others that they're able to grow R. leucaspis outside reliably, so it is probably totally hardy in zone 7. My new plant was loaded with flower buds and blooming started in mid-February. It finished blooming at the end of March and in addition to lovely white flowers, to my delight, the flowers had a light fragrance, most noticeable when the temperature rose.

R. leucaspis is a small plant with clear white flowers. The stamens are very dark and stand out against the white petals. The petals are slightly reflexed, giving the flowers a nice, open appearance. Flowers are about 2 inches across and are held two or three to a truss. The plant itself has "smallish", dark green, slightly hairy leaves which provide a wonderful background to the white flowers. The plant height is about 2 feet in ten years. Since it is a small plant, I intend to keep it in a container, at least for now.

There are lots of great reasons to attend the ARS conferences: nice people, good talks, wonderful gardens to visit and the plant sales. I have no regrets that I didn't stick to my resolution of not buying another plant! I've made the same resolution about not buying anything at the 2017 Eureka ARS Convention, but I wonder what treasures I'll find and just have to have?

Legal-tender Rhododendron Coin

In September 2012, the Royal Canadian Mint released the $20 Rhododendron Blossoms Pure Silver Proof as the third coin in the Crystal Dewdrops Series and Wildflower Series and the eighth release in the Swarovski Crystal Flora Program. The image is that of the Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) from the North American Pacific Coast, which is enjoyed in gardens across much of North America. The Water Lily Pure Silver Proof (2010) was the first in the Crystal Dewdrops Series and the third release in the Swarovski Crystal Flora Program, while the Wild Rose Blossoms Pure Silver Proof was the second in the Crystal Dewdrops Series and the fifth release in the Swarovski Crystal Flora Program.

Rhododendron coin

The coin's special features are an artistic rendering of two pink-coloured Pacific rhododendron flowers and a bud, three crystals nestled among the rhododendron's petals and leaves, a Finish Proof, a limited mintage (10,000), and a composition of fine silver (99.99% pure).

The coin comes enclosed in a maroon flock-lined clam-shell case, is protected by a black sleeve and has a serialized certificate to document its quality. The coin weighs 31.39 g (1.11 oz US) and has a diameter of 38 mm (1.5 in).