Rhododendron enthusiasts are often asked what they mean when they refer to a rhododendron as a "lepidote". The confusion is compounded when one sees quite a bit of space devoted to lepidotes in flower shows.
A nurseryman may tell you casually that it refers to the small-leaved evergreen rhododendron. This can be used as a generality...but not as a hard and fast rule...as there is a fair amount of overlap between lepidotes and the "large-leaved" elepidotes.
Real traits that make it a useful distinction is lepidote rhododendrons have scales on the underside of the leaf which protect the plant's stomata (leaf pores) through which oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water vapor pass. The scales evolved originally to regulate moisture, to help keep water in the cells in dry times, and help shed it in times of surfeit . This allowed plants evolving in the tropics to live in the quick-drying forest duff on the very thin soils of the tropics, or even epiphytically on rocks or tree trunks. Turn a leaf of the lepidote over and look for the tiny scales; some are big enough to see with the naked eye, but a hand lens will reveal a world of otherwise hidden detail. Elepidotes, on the other hand, are without scales to cover their stomata.
But winter brings many of the same demands as the tropics on a plant...encasing it in wet snow or desiccating it with cold dry winds, and the scales evolved to become adept at dealing with harsh winters as well. As a result, lepidote rhododendrons have adopted and spread to nearly all environments, from tropical jungles and Siberian woodlands to mountain meadows and alpine tundra. Because of this wide tolerance of soils, temperatures and exposures, they are especially useful to gardeners in the Northeast United States. Other adaptations, such as fast regrowth after predation from grazing animals, and early bloom to deal with short growing seasons in cold climates, give us a plant that is easily pruned to shape and early to give the gardener a boost after a long winter.
Most lepidotes have axillary buds...extra flower buds under the terminal flower bud or along the branch...and in bloom often smother the foliage until all you can see are the flowers. Lepidote species range from tiny creeping alpines suitable for the rock garden to tall forest and meadow plants for woodland wildflower gardens and formal borders.
Best of all, the hybrids developed by plant breeders bring hybrid vigor to the party, giving us a huge range of plants, among them some of the easiest and the hardiest rhododendrons to grow in cold climates. A commonly grown lepidote cultivar is "Rhododendron 'PJM', which was hybridized by the Mezitts, and is now grown and admired all around the gardening world.
The large-leaved fancy varieties of rhododendrons may get all the big press...but for vigor, hardiness, adaptability, easy of culture, and sheer traffic-stopping, eye-popping show of flowers in the spring...my money is on the lepidotes!
From the Massachusetts Chapter Newsletter, September 2006.
Oh dear, oh deer!
Like many American Rhododendron Society members, I share my garden with various "critters", including deer. Fortunately, the local deer don't like most rhododendrons, although they do like azaleas and evergreen azaleas, in particular, are akin to deer candy. I'm not able to fence the front yard (local by-lines and all that), so I've basically surrendered my front garden to the deer. As time has gone on, I've gradually switched many companion plants to things the deer don't seem to like. So, instead of Hostas, I now plant Brunnera - a lovely foliage plant with small blue flowers; the only tulips in the front are now in a pot on the porch, but I can plant snowdrops and daffodils. So, far, the deer have left the Crocus alone, so each fall, I add more of these. As well, for fall bulb colour, I find the deer haven't yet eaten Nerine or Schizostylus, but since these tend to be a bit pricey here, I've only planted a few of each so far, and I'm watching to see whether or not Bambi and his pals will eat them. Time will tell if these will work for me. Ferns seem to be generally deer resistant as do hellebores of all types. Hellebores make great companion plants for rhododendrons, having the added bonus of starting to bloom around mid-January in our area, with many new varieties having attractive foliage. The deer don't like anything with highly aromatic foliage, so in the sunniest areas, I've planted lots of lavender and I could put in some rosemary too. These may not be what generally come to mind as good companion plants for rhododendrons, but they seem to get along fairly well in my garden.
I've seen a couple of techniques that other local gardeners use to encourage the deer to move along. Two of my neighbours use motion activated sprinklers that are placed near their most precious hydrangeas (deer just love hydrangeas!). These seem to work well here, and I'm told that just the noise of the sprinklers starting is enough to get them to move. Other neighbours enclose small trees and shrubs with flexible plastic fencing material as a temporary barrier. And, some of the locals use various deer repellants (Bombax is very popular here). They spray their plants regularly in the spring to train the deer to keep moving by their property in search of something less stinky. Sporadic spraying is needed as a gentle reminder that the plants smell bad.
A great idea I saw recently was to put down wooden pallets on pathways leading from an unprotected garden area to the protected area. In this case, the plants in the back garden were much loved by the deer, but they could only access the area by going along a narrow pathway beside the house. The pallets act like a cattle guard and the deer just don't want to walk across the wooden slats. The gardener in question did say that the wooden pallets get very slippery when wet, but he can just up-end them while he is working, then pop them back on the ground as deer deterrents. Of course, the best deterrent of all is a good fence. Local recommendations say fences should be at least 8 ft high. However, most of us are able to keep the deer out with a standard 6 ft fence as long as shrubs are planted in beds beside the fence line. The theory is that deer need to be able to see an open space where they can land safely upon completing their jump. This certainly seems to work in our area: those of us with dense shrub plantings in a wide bed near our fences haven't had any problems with back yard gardens, but the neighbours with lots of lawns see the deer regularly.
It seems deer will eat anything if they get hungry enough, the trick is to make your garden less inviting than your neighbours. So, since deer don't like rhododendrons, you might as well plant lots! As if any ARS member needed an excuse to plant more rhodies!
Those Pesky Labels!
When I first started growing Rhododendrons, I just had a few plants so it was easy to remember their names, but as my collection has grown, I find myself trying to remember which plant is which, and this has started my love/hate relationship with labels.
I think all gardeners want labels that are inexpensive, that last forever, stay in place and do not harm our plants. And, since we don't want to see little white stakes all over the garden, which is just too reminiscent of a cemetery, we want something that is unobtrusive as well. Finding something that fulfills all these wishes is hard and I don't think anyone has designed the perfect label yet.
The plastic, ribbon-like tags that come with most garden centre plants these days last a long time, but the print fades fairly fast and they can girdle the plant stem they're attached to if you happen to forget to loosen them periodically Anyway, they don't look very nice in a garden setting
There are several problems in using plastic, stick-type labels. First, you have to find something to mark them with that doesn't fade over time. Permanent marking pens like the Sharpie pens school children use are o.k., but the ink eventually fades. I find a lead pencil works just as well as a marking pen and usually outlasts the "permanent ink" writing. In addition to looking a bit like grave markers, the stick-type tags don't work very well for long-term use because they become brittle and snap after a couple of years. I've had to piece together old broken tags to decipher plant names on several occasions. And, finally, tags just stuck in the ground are tempting targets for pranksters to pick up and move around. This is a problem in one of our local public gardens. Pranksters don't have to be human either - one Spring, I used stick tags to label a new collection of daylilies. The crows just loved the tags and pulled them out of the ground. I found tags all over the place - repeatedly! Fortunately, I'd made a map of where various daylilies were planted so I was able to re-tag the plants correctly. Wooden tags (some gardeners use popsicle sticks) have all the same problems as plastic ones, plus the wood rots or splits, so this isn't a good permanent solution to the tag problem
My own favourite labels are the soft aluminum tags where an old ball point pen is used to "engrave" the plant name into the metal. These are attached to plants with a twisting wire. They aren't too bad, except the wires can girdle plant stems if not loosened periodically. If you use these, make sure you press hard when writing on the plant name because in time, it can be hard to read the "engraving".
One couple in our local ARS chapter have beautiful tags made of cut up aluminum gutters. They use a Brothers P Touch machine to create labels that have a glue-backing that sticks well to the aluminum. The tags are long lasting and easy to read, but I don't have a supply of aluminum gutters around, nor do I have the right kind of saw to do the cutting, and even if I had both, I think I'd be too lazy to make them. I do like getting plants from them though because in addition to growing lovely plants, their labels last for years.
Some people advocate putting a label underneath any plant that is going in the ground at planting time. Either plastic or metal would be o.k. for this. The idea is that if the above ground tag is lost and you can't remember what the plant is, you could, at least in theory, dig up the plant and check the label. I do know people who "plant labels", but to me, this is one of those suggestions that sounds o.k. in theory, but is impractical in the real world. Can you see yourself trying to dig up some big Rhodendron Loderi to find the label? However, I do slide an extra label down the side of all of my potted plants as these tags are fairly accessible in a pinch
As a failsafe method, I try to keep a map of my garden beds showing roughly where I’ve planted things. This is useful as long as I take the time to update the map periodically. For some reason, I find it easier to move a plant than to change the map record. A couple of friends who are rock garden enthusiasts showed me their most recent method of keeping track of their plants. They take digital photos of a bed, then using Power Point, they label all the plants in the image. This seems like a good idea although there is still the issue of actually getting around to updating any changes.
One thing for sure though is to watch out that tags that are wrapped around Rhododendron stems do not get too tight. Every now and then, take a tour around the garden and loosen up wires or ribbon-like tags. Happy labeling!
Early Blooming Rhododendrons
While it's still early January, I've started to watch for Rhododendrons in bloom. Here in the Pacific Northwest, there aren't many yet, but I've seen a few brave trusses of what I think are 'Christmas Cheer' and 'Nobleanum'. Since the plants I see belong to someone else, I have to guess at the varieties.
The pale pink flowers of 'Christmas Cheer' look so delicate, but this is a tough hybrid. With mild winter temperatures, the flowers last for weeks although one hard frost will damage them. On the plant that I think is 'Nobleanum', the flowers are rounded balls of deep rose pink. I can't get close enough to the plant to see if there's a flush of white in the flower centers, but this would be typical of the variety. 'Bo Peep', another very early hybrid I see, is also just about to bloom. This small yellow flowered plant won't win prizes for showiness, but how can you not like anything that is in flower now.
In my own garden, 'Seta' is the earliest of my rhododendrons to bloom. I just love this hybrid. The flowers are tubular: light pink inside with dark pink backs. 'Seta' is loaded with flowers every year, and blooms reliably for me by mid-March. I have one 'Seta' in a large container that I move onto the deck when it's in bloom and I like this variety so much that this past fall, I planted another one in the garden.
'Snow Lady' is another of my early favorites, and it also blooms for me in mid-March. In addition to lovely white flowers, the leaves are hairy, adding another interesting dimension to the plant. The leaves are particularly pretty when there's a bit of dew on them. I grow 'Snow Lady' in a container, and it looks great when placed next to 'Seta'.
Both 'Seta' and 'Snow Lady' tend to get leggy, but who cares! They're great harbingers of spring. I could pinch them back a bit after blooming, but I like their open habit.
If you like the look of these varieties, another variety to look for is 'Cilpinense' (photo right). Another of my favorite early bloomers is R. mucronulatum 'Cornell Pink'. I like the pale pink flower color, but many people in our area prefer the more intense fuchsia-pink flower of 'Crater's Edge'.
Some of the species that bloom early for us in our area are super plants. R. dauricum, R. moupinense, and R. strigillosum all bloom in late winter or very early spring. R. dauricum covers itself in small flowers of either intense fuchsia-purple/pink or pure white flowers.
R. moupinense is a hardy pink flowering rhodie. The species has white flowers with small, red blotches. If you like red, then R. strigillosum is for you. This is a stunning early bloomer. In addition to the lovely flowers, R. strigillosum has hairy bristles along young stems, which are very pretty, especially when backlit.
To give yourself the longest possible chance for blooms to persist, you need to locate early blooming plants in an area where they receive some overhead protection from frost. My neighbors actually cover their 'Christmas Cheer' at night with a blanket if hard frost is expected during blooming time. By doing this, most years they are able to keep the plant in bloom until mid to late March.
We are all looking for that blue rhododendron, but last time I looked all of the ones with "blue" in their name had purple flowers. 'Blue Admiral', 'Blue and Gold', 'Blue Angel', 'Blue Baron', 'Blue Bird', 'Bluebell', 'Bluebird', 'Blue Blood', 'Blue Boy', 'Blue Chip', 'Blue Cloud', 'Blue Crown', 'Blue Danube', 'Blue Dawn', 'Blue Diamond', 'Blue Effect', 'Blue Ensign', 'Blue Flame', 'Blue Frost', 'Blue Girl', 'Blue Hawaii', 'Blue Haze', 'Blue Heaven', 'Blue Horizon', 'Blue Ice', 'Blue Jay', 'Blue Lady', 'Blue Lagoon', 'Blue Light', 'Blue Mist', 'Blue Monday', 'Blue Moon', the list goes on and on. It is obvious that the hybridizers wanted blue, but alas, the blue gene is not to be found in the genus Rhododendron.
Mind you, some of these rhododendrons are nice plants, but their flowers are definitely not blue colored. I am even responsible by naming a hybrid 'Amiblue'.
So, let's look beyond the flowers, they are only visible for a short time anyway. How about foliage? There are many rhododendrons with blue leaves, well almost blue, closer to dark greenish blue, but quite evident in the garden among the other shades of green.
My favorite blue rhododendron species are: R. campanulatum ssp. aeruginosum, R. clementinae, and R. lepidostylum. I am sure there are many other also, but those are the ones I have in my garden. These are generally not found in your local garden center, but are available from many specialty rhododendron growers, such as the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden.
I am sure some of you may have other blue rhododendron ideas, and I welcome your comments on this blog.
Rhododendron Blog Created
Welcome to a new blog devoted to the topic of Rhododendrons. The blog is sponsored by the American Rhododendron Society, a non-profit organization whose purpose is to encourage interest in and to disseminate information about the genus Rhododendron. Whether a seasoned-pro or growing a rhododendron for the first time you will find many articles of interest presented in this blog. Reader comments are solicited.
Flower Show Tips
Lots of flower shows are coming up, and it's fun to enter Rhododendron trusses and plants. If you're after winning, there are some "tricks of the trade" that help. First of all, you have to read the instructions for the show. That's where you find information about the time to place your exhibits, how they are to be presented and the different show categories available. Once you've got that information, start watching your plants for likely candidates. I like to keep an eye on things starting about two weeks ahead of a show, but in the end, it comes down to what looks good on the day entries are picked to be entered. Often, the "perfect" truss is not quite ready or too far gone. C'est la vie in the world of flower shows.
With trusses, if at all possible, choose one from the top of the plant so that the truss is full and balanced on all sides. Sometimes there isn't any choice available and you have to take one from the side of the plant, but if this is the case, take the fullest truss you can find and the one with the most flowers possible. Most of the flowers should be open, but if the topmost buds have good bud colour even though they haven't quite opened, that's o.k., and in some cases can work to your advantage. Usually you have to place your entries in a show anywhere from 6 to 12 hours before the actual judging happens, so the topmost buds might open while sitting on the show table. Hopefully the show hall will be cool, but sometimes it isn't, and then you're faced with having a truss that's too far past its peak by the time the judges come along.
To prepare, each truss needs careful grooming. I use forceps to remove any bits of bract that may have fallen in between the flowers. When it comes to leaves, it's really nice to have a ring of leaves up near the flowers, sort of like a green collar. But, sometimes the leaves are ratty looking and then there's the conundrum of whether to remove them or not. Before snipping, I like to check the show catalogue to see if there's any statement about leaves needed in the presentation or not. Then, depending on what's permissable, sometimes I leave them on, sometimes I remove them.... it usually comes down to a gut feeling at the moment as to what will make the truss look its best, but generally, judges like to see some leaves. The base of the stems get cut on a sharp angle and immediately inserted into tepid water. Fresh cut stems absorb warm water faster than cold water.
Different groups use different containers for their shows, so... read the show instructions. You at least need to balance the vase size with the truss size and you also have to come up with some way of getting the flowers to sit up-right in the vase and not flop all over. Locally, lots of us use clean beer bottles, labels removed of course, (and if you need bottles, it gives you a good excuse to drink beer). These work well for fairly large trusses since the bottles are heavy enough to sit securely on the bench and the narrow neck holds the stems up-right. Sometimes though, the trusses need a bit of help and something has to be inserted into the neck of the bottle to hold the stem in position. Anything you can think of that is unobtrusive is good. Some people use small bits of florist oasis, others use wine corks that are sliced in half (an excuse to drink wine) - use whatever you can think of. Trusses of the small rhodies can get lost in a beer bottle, so look around for little bottles (old spice bottles aren't bad), and again, get the trusses inserted into water quickly.
Trusses need to be labelled and put into the correct class. Fill in the information needed for each entry and hopefully you know the correct variety name. However, if you don't, just make sure the truss goes into the right category, like red flowered, or trusses under 6 ", where ever it fits. Sometimes someone will recognise your unknown variety and identify it for you. As well, there are usually people around to help you figure out where to put things - just ask. That's all there is to it. The judges do the rest of the work and you get to come back later to see a hall filled with colour, and maybe you'll come home with a ribbon or two.
How I Became a Rhodoholic
I guess I'm a rhodoholic, at least that's what my friends say. I became afflicted when I moved to the Seattle area back in 1956. I came from the dry, cold side of Washington State where I had never seen anything like Rhododendrons. It seemed like every home in Seattle had at least one if not more Rhododendrons. I was fascinated with the bright, showy flowers of these evergreen shrubs.
The most popular Rhododendron was 'The Honorable Jean Marie de Montague' (most people just called it Jean Marie). I couldn't stop there, I got a 'Blue Peter', then 'Taurus', and 'Nancy Evans' and 'Trude Webster' and the varieties seemed endless and I wanted them all. Then I noticed that the species Rhododendrons had interesting leaf shapes and a fuzzy coating underleaf called indumentum and sometimes a coating on the top side called tomentum. So I had to have R. pachysanthum and R. bureavii, and R. pseudochrysanthum.
I was obviously hooked! I joined the American Rhododendron Society and started attending the meetings of the local chapter in Seattle. That just added to my affliction as I got to know others with like interests. Ther was so much to learn, so I had to get books about Rhododendron culture. The book that was recommended was Harold Greer’s Guidebook to Available Rhododendrons. Then I discovered Peter Cox had published a whole series of books on cultivation of Rhododendrons and I got them all.
My association with The Seattle Rhododendron Society (SRS) included volunteering to help maintain their Rhododendron Garden on Whidbey Island, Meerkerk Rhododendron Garden. This is a 51 acre garden that was bequeathed to the SRS with the purpose of allowing the public to observe and learn about Rhododendrons and companion plants. I eventually quit my job at Boeing to become the fulltime manager of Meerkerk. Mrs. Meerkerk had planted many hybrid and species Rhododendrons, but the gardens had not been adequately maintained for many years and needed some tender loving care. The goal was to make it a test and display garden to attract people interested in Rhododendrons, both local and tourists. My wife Mary and I set about clearing the wild brambles and weeds that had all but taken over.
My interests gravitated toward hybridizing and my job at Meerkerk provided the many sources of pollen to accomplish that role. I started growing my own hybrids and evaluating them for quality, hardiness, and susceptibly as a garden plant.
After 6 years at Meerkerk, Mary and I decided we needed a place of our own and found and purchased a 15 acre wooded lot not far from Meerkerk. We now have a home and garden of our own where we can continue exploring the virtues of the genus Rhododendron. I hope this affliction never ends because there is so much to learn.
Spring Has Arrived
It's late March, and finally, spring has arrived in local gardens. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we've had a troublesome winter - not difficult compared to much of North America - but with a couple of episodes of sudden cold spells that have led to some winter injury. The really damaging cold came in late November, when temperatures dropped suddenly to -8 C after a mild, wet fall. Lots of plants were still actively growing at the time, so hadn't hardened off properly. We had a second cold snap here in late February (again to -8 C), but since plants were still dormant, this didn't cause many problems. It was the early cold that hit things hard.
As spring arrives, I'm relieved to see that most of my rhododendrons will be o.k. although there is some flower bud damage here and there. Most surprizing to me is the bud injury on my R. 'Nancy Evans', a variety usually considered to be an easy grower here. There will be flowers, but perhaps not the usual "knock em dead" display.
The plant I'm most worried about is my R. lyi, which has lost a lot of leaves as well as its flower buds. However, R.lyi isn't really hardy here, so growing it for me has been a case of zone denial. I'm hoping for regrowth from the lower part of the main stem and of course, if it does die, there's always the thought that there's now space for a new plant. Hmmm, we'll see.... So much for the sad news, we gardeners are really optimists, and most things will be fine and the spring displays great.
Rhododendron lutescens, one of my favourite species, is out full today, adding a soft, cheerful note to the garden. If you like pale yellow, this early-blooming species is reliable, easy to grow and readily available, at least in our neck of the woods. I've planted a fair number of daffodils in the same area, and there's tons of Muscari (grape hyacinth) coming up too, so the yellows and deep blue/purple really draw the eye to that part of the garden.