Selecting Rhododendrons For Your Garden

Over 30 years ago I purchased my first rhododendron for a Mother's Day present.  I still have a vivid picture of proudly presenting it to my mother on Sunday morning, after selecting it the day before from a local nursery.

Like most beginners I was looking for a big plant with lots of blooms that didn't cost any more than a 16-year-old boy could afford.  However, with the passing of time I now realize I was fortunate to have purchased a quality plant without really knowing what I was doing.  Today, when I purchase a new variety, several criteria come to mind before I make my purchase.  The following general topics are not necessarily in any specific order...but seem to be worth consideration prior to selecting a plant.

Learn about climate. Get knowledge of local climatic conditions, with special attention to the most extreme winter temperature in the past five years.  This extreme cold temperature is critical as most rhododendrons sold are rated for hardiness.  The hardiness rating is a generally accepted temperature that the plant will endure and survive.  Notice: I said the plant...and not the flower buds.  The rationale behind plant hardiness is that you can afford to lose the buds on a given year, but not the plant.

Talk to local gardeners.  Talk with neighbors and rhododendron club members about varieties that they have had for several years.  Discuss with them how frequently the plant flowers, when it blooms, and where in their yard they have it located, i.e., in partal shade, in full sun.

Read about rhodies.  Background reading about rhododendrons on the world-wide web or in one of the reference books is helpful.  Several of the books have many excellent color pictures.  Would recommend any of the following authors as good resources: Van Veen, Greer, and Cox.  Each of the authors provides good description of flowers, plant habit, bloom period, and hardiness in a very understandable form.

Visit nurseries.  Visit several local nurseries, if available, to view their selection of rhododendrons.  Find a rhododendron knowledgeable sales person and seek opinions about varieties that do well locally.  Generally, retail nurseries tend to sell "tried and true" varieties that have stood the test of local time.  Frequently, your choice will be quite limited in the number of different varieties that are available.

When you have all of the general information identified and are ready to make your selection...that one plant to be located in that special place in your yard...suggest you have the following in mind:

Ultimate Size.  How large will the plant be at 10 years of age.  Standard varieties are about 6 ft. at 10 years.  Semi-dwarfs are about 2 to 4 ft. at 10 years, and dwarfs are about 1.5 ft. at 10 years of age.

Plant Age.  Know the plant size you want to purchase.  Are you after instant landscape...or are you willing to strat small and allow the plant to go over time.

Location.  Know the variety you want meets the conditions of your location, i.e., full sun, semi-shade, etc.

Plant Health.  When you make the final choice, the foliage of the plant you select should be green and healthy looking.  It should not have burned or spotted leaves.  Burned leaves generally result from inadequate water in the summer, or excessive cold in the winter.  Leaf spotting typically results from some disease condition.  Stay away from lopsided or crooked plants.  The leaves should be free of insect damage.  Notching around the border of the leaves generally indicates weevil activity.  Other insect damage is evidenced by irregular holes in the leaves.  If you want the plant to bloom in the coming season, look for large flower buds on some of the branch ends.

Personally, I realize that initially all of the above takes a great deal of time...but your labors dramatically increase the chance of purchasing an excellent rhododendron.  All too often we buy the plant with the big open flowers, only later to realize, it was a mistake.

 
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