Bill Stipe - A Lifetime of Creativity

There are some who are content to merely live life as it is. To glide through endlessly, simply being. But for others there is an innate drive to create, to build, and to construct. Of those, there are some we revere as great artists, Picasso and Rembrandt, who spend their life in fame for their great works. And there are those who quietly hold the task of keeping the world moving forward, one silent but significant project at a time.

Wilbert Stipe, or "Bill" as he assures me I may call him, is the perfect example of an innovator. From his first horticultural experiments on his parent's farm to his increasing talent as a nurseryman and hybridizer, his life has been a constant source of creativity and exploration.

Growing up on a wheat farm, Stipe had ample time to experience both the practical and mysterious side of the plant world. "A lot of the time I was the truck driver" he tells me, "...and I would notice that every once in a while there was a stalk of wheat that was about this much higher than all the rest of them...So I started collecting those. And when I grew those, they all grew tall." Stipe's first experience with genetics was later to turn into an avid interest and skill for hybridizing, but his initial experiments weren't extremely successful. "We had some fruit trees, so I learned about grafting them...I even tried grafting prunes on apples," he tells me with a laugh"...and that didn't work." Around this same time, his father gave Stipe a small plot of land to grow whatever he liked on. "I'm the thirteenth child in the family and there was always four or five sisters at home, and they all had their own gardens and I had my own garden, and I started growing vegetables. My dad always encouraged me and gave me a piece of land...and I lived there."

Stipe continued living on the farm after his marriage to his wife Mary at the age of nineteen. After five years however, his keen mind led him to a new frontier of exploration; electronics. "Television hadn't come to Eastern Washington yet," he begins, "and I was one of the first in the area who knew anything [about TV]... I probably had the first television there." After building his own business, Stipe TV, from the ground up, he found that running any enterprise in the farming community was far from easy. "Famers want to pay their bills once a year - after the harvest - and if the harvest is bad you don't get paid at all. There's still some farmers over there that owe me money," he jokes.

Stipe's love of electronics and enterprising spirit led him to receive an excellent offer of employment from Boeing, at that time a burgeoning company in need of many electronic technicians. While working there, Stipe also attended the University of Washington, which eventually steered him into the field of electrical engineering. After a few years employed at Boeing, Stipe and his family were relocated to Fort Walton Beach, Florida. There he spent time on an Air Force base testing missiles.

While his day job centered mostly on technological innovation, the world of horticulture was never far from Stipe's mind. "While I was there [Florida], I rented a place and started planting things. I got some books and learned about bananas, and what to fertilize and what not. My postman came by one day and said, "That's the first time I've seen a banana tree in Fort Walton Beach!" I even put one in a pot and brought it home [to Washington]", but it didn't live here."

From Florida, Stipe spend time in the military, and then moved back to Washington, this time to the west. It was there, in the heart of rhododendron country, his fascination with the brilliant blooms began. "I'd never seen rhododendrons in Eastern Washington; they don't grow there. It's too cold and too hot. So when I moved to Seattle, I saw all these rhododendrons growing about and I had to learn something about it, so I joined the Rhododendron Society and the next thing you know, I was planting rhododendrons everywhere."

Mentored by big names in the field, Stipe soon became involved in much more than plant growing and society meetings. In fact, under the encouragement and direction of Warren Berg, he found himself nearly ten thousand miles around the world, hiking and seed collecting through treacherous terrain in the mountainous regions of China. "We went into places where there wasn't any road..." Stipe tells me, his description a far cry from the comfort of his beautifully crafted Whidbey Island home. "We would go hike another five or ten miles, sometimes up in really rugged territory...we even had to go up on a glacier." The team was comprised of international hybridizers, some local guides, and a few army men carrying rifles with bayonets attached. "I don't know if they were trying to protect us, or protect the Chinese," Stipe jests.

For a trip of thirty days, each man carried only a pack containing basic supplies like a compass, iodine for water purification, and bags to collect plant samples. While Stipe recalled that one friend, Peter Cox, carried a little foldable microscope, he himself chose something a little more creative. "Before I left, I went to my doctor to have a physical...And I said, "Doc, what should I take along as survival food in case I need it?" And he says, "Take nuts." And so I took a big bag a cashew nuts and I took a big package of M&Ms. He said, "You can survive a long time on that."

Stipe also carried supplies for gathering samples, collecting mostly just the pepper-like rhododendron seeds, due to a ban on exporting full plants. Despite having a permit to transport seeds out of the country, he came up with an ingenious plan to avoid the stringent regulations. "Some people who brought stuff out had been caught by Chinese and had some terrible times..." he told me, "so what'd we do? I mailed them." Later, as I ask Stipe if he had kept the infamous envelopes, he quickly had me chuckling as he explains why they didn't arrive in the best of shape. "One of the problems that I had was the Chinese stamps didn't have sticky on the back of them. Now I don't know what their idea was: I guess they wanted you to buy glue. So I got some jam and smeared on the back of the stamp. And I'm not sure they all showed up here, because that wasn't the best way to secure stamps to the envelopes. But some of them did, anyhow."

The trek through China was incredible, and enormously taxing. Stipe takes me on a walk through his garden and points out the massive and hardy rhododendrons that he has cultivated from the trip's seeds. "We saw plants that were a hundred feet tall," he tells me, "rhododendrons that had big trunks on them..." The rhodies in Stipe' yard, while not quite this big, are equally impressive in vigor and variety. As we stroll through the acres, I ask Stipe about how he became more involved as a grower. "I joined the American Rhododendron Society shortly after I moved to Seattle," he begins, "I knew about Mrs. Meerkerk...she and her husband owned property here...and he had 51 acres out here on Whidbey Island." The land, bequeathed after the Meerkerk's death to the Seattle Rhododendron Society, was finally dedicated as hybridizers test garden. As plant samples from all around the world began arriving, the team including Stipe worked hard to clear and cultivate the land. "We got quite a few: from Germany, Scotland, quite a few from the US. So we'd plant three of each variety. And the idea was to test them to see how they'd do on Whidbey Island... every summer we would ask members to come up and evaluate these hybrids and rate them... once a year, I would put that data all together and publish it. And the results would show up in the Rhododendron Society Journal."

Stipe stayed at the forefront of Meerkerk garden creation until he finally became the manager. In this position he labored many hours to ensure that more than just hybridizers would enjoy the beauty of Meerkerk. "I worked to open the garden to the public. Before then there was no way to have people come in and enjoy the garden." While manager, Stipe kept areas in constant change, moving plants and landscaping entirely new sections to keep guests coming back again and again. Innovative as always, he described to me how he had enlarged the garden substantially. "Even over at Meerkerk, I started clearing land that had never been cleared before because I always wanted to plant a new garden."

Rhododendrons were a continuing passion for Stipe as he evolved from his station at Meerkerk to begin clearing and planting his own fifteen acre jungle. As he did this, a simultaneous project arose of a beautiful two-story house, built from the ground up. Beginning in 2000, Stipe and his wife moved into a small apartment on the property, and began construction that took over four years. There was obvious and legitimate pride in his voice as Stipe spoke to me about his now entirely completed home. "This is probably my best accomplishment. I designed this house from scratch, built it and lived in it, and I can't find anything wrong with it." Stipe's garden posed, and still poses, another enormous challenge with acres of land to cultivate and upkeep. His natural innovative spirit has come to his aid many times in problem solving on the property. In one case, he designed and developed a brand new tractor attachment in order to carefully remove plants from the ground and move them about.

This same creativity, focused now on genetics, has allowed Stipe to become one of the best known hybridizers in the Northwest. "I'm most proud of my 'Amiblue'," he tells me. "I've propagated, and I sell a lot of them. As a matter of fact, I just got word from a friend down in Oklahoma...And he said, "Bill, it's grown for five years!" And Oklahoma gets terribly hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and he said, "I lose a lot of plants every year that I try, but 'Amiblue' is still alive." Stipe's network of friends through the society reaches beyond the United States however, something he is very appreciative of. "I've loved meeting people from all over the world in the Society. I guess I could count a thousand least. And getting together at the conventions, we share friends' stories and memories and achievements... I belong to a lot of different organizations, but the Rhododendron Society is probably the friendliest."

Stipe's natural inclination to create has had to come with a healthy dose of patience. In describing the lengthy process of making crosses, I can see his keen interest is willing to wait the years it takes to gain success. "So it takes you four or five years," he says about certain hybrids, "but I'll do that every year, so every year I've got new ones. And I anticipate what they're going to look like. And that keeps me interested."

Sitting in the glowing warmth of his timbered home, the view of his gorgeous multi-acre garden out the window, I ask Stipe from where his inspiration to create beauty developed. "Well, I think it's a very interesting thing..." he tells me, instantly serious. "I mean, just the very fact that you can take a seed, which looks so insignificant, and contain all of the elements of a fantastic plant.... It's hard to classify. My passion is growing things. Let's put it that way."

"A" is for Rhododendron albrechtii

I keep a wish list of rhododendrons I want, and at the moment, the species R. albrechtii is included in the top three of my list.  I grew it in my old garden, but sadly, when I moved, it was one of the plants I had to leave behind.  I haven't found a replacement plant for sale yet, but I keep looking, and after all, the hunt is almost as much fun as growing the plant.  I may have to break down and order some seed of this species as it's not commonly available in the trade as established plants.

R. albrechtii
photo by Tijs Huisman

Why do I like it so much?  Well, in bloom it's such a sweetheart!  The plant I grew had deep cerise-pink flowers, two or three to a cluster, and each flower was almost 2 inches across in size.  In doing a bit of internet searching, I see other growers report floral colours ranging from the deep rosy pinks into the purple reds, and up to 5 flowers per cluster.  In the Pacific Northwest, R. albrechtii usually blooms in mid to late April.

The plant, native to Japan, is a deciduous azalea, and the leaves on my "old" plant turned a lovely yellow before they dropped in the fall.  I'm not sure if fall leaf colour is a constant for all albrechtii plants, but it's nice when it happens.  I had my plant situated on the north side of the house, but it got good light from mid-afternoon on into the evening.  It prefers areas with cooler summer temperatures, so avoid planting sites that receive hot temperatures and mid-day sun.  The usual recommendation of even soil moisture applies.  Plants grow to a height of about 4 feet, so R. albrechtii is a good choice for the small garden, or even a large container.  It's also a good choice for woodland plantings. Do keep an eye out for this great little plant – it should be on everyone's wish list.

"A" is for 'Alison Johnstone'

I first saw Rhododendron 'Alison Johnstone' in a garden in the Oakland California area on a tour organized by the local chapter hosting the ARS conference. I can't remember the year, but I think it was in the late 80's or early 90's. I simply fell in love with "Alison" and started a hunt for a plant upon my return home. I was lucky enough to find one, but at the time, I was living in an apartment so I had to grow it in a container on the balcony. Some 20 plus years, and three moves later, it is still in a container, albeit a much larger one (a 90 liter pot) than when I started.

R. 'Alison Johnstone'
photo by Stuart Imrie

"Alison" blooms reliably every spring, and it's the flower colour that continues to attract me as it is such a curious colour. The flowers are not a true pink, but have almost an amber undertone which makes the colour hard to describe. I don't know of any other rhododendron that has quite the same flower colour. In addition, the foliage has a definite bluish cast which provides interesting foliage throughout the year.

Since my original plant is so big, I find the thought of trying to plant it in the ground too daunting, so this plant will spend its entire life in a container. Using a slow-release fertilizer, I fertilize at least twice a year: early April and again in late June and the plant gets lots and lots of water. Other than deadheading and maybe a bit of judicious pruning, this is all the care this big plant gets, but it seems happy and puts on new growth and flowers well each year. Others have told me that their 'Alison Johnstone' plants occasionally suffer from mildew, but I haven't found this to be a problem. However, I have a windy garden so my plant gets lots of air flow. I now have a second plant (won it in a raffle at one of our club meetings this spring), and this plant will get planted in the ground this fall.

Now, here's a curious problem I've never encountered before. I noticed earlier this week that there were suddenly dozens of healthy new leaves of my 'Alison Johnstone' lying on the ground around the plant. My other rhodies nearby were fine and I couldn't find any evidence of disease or insect pests that might be responsible. We haven't had any big wind storms recently, so that wouldn't have caused the problem either. I kept on going out and checking, and all I could find were yet more young leaves on the ground. Then, last evening, I noticed the leaves and branches were moving slightly, and sure enough, leaves fell off. I'm thinking, EEK, A RAT! - or something equally awful, but after watching for awhile, out popped a small wren. Since then, I've seen the wren flying in and out of the plant, and every time, more leaves appear on the ground. The bird doesn't appear to be eating anything, nor does it seem to be making a nest or using the leaves for anything. I know birds often break off small branches for nests, but this behaviour baffles me: I've never seen anything like it before, nor heard about this kind of behaviour. So if any of you bird watchers know why the wren is doing this, I'd love to hear the explanation. The only thing I can think of is that the wren shares my love of 'Alison Johnstone', but really, enough pruning already!

The Search For Gold -
A Lifetime of Organic Artistry

To craft something "better" has always been man's aim. Horticulturalists have, throughout time, taken this to heart as the attempt to combine beauty and form, sculpting nature to create the previously impossible. Around 1968, rhododendron hybridizers were faced with a challenge to not simply combine species, but to give life to something that had never before existed in nature: the golden rhododendron.

"There was a breakthrough in yellows…" says Frank Fujioka to me as we sit in the warm light of his kitchen, sun setting on the beautiful view of Puget Sound out his bay windows. “…Everyone had to work for yellows, and we didn’t think much about what the plant looks like. Some…were really sprawled ugly things, but if you had yellow, wow! That was what was really important."

Fujioka continues on to explain that the closer a rhododendron was to deep, pure daffodil yellow, the better. Many hybridizers simply combined white flowers with cream in hopes of drawing out the elusive shade, a system which Fujioka himself employed in the beginning days. "You get tired of getting poor results!" he confided in me, "so you think, there must be a better way". Thus, a more scientific approach was discussed. "You achieve your goals faster, I think, if you studied the genetics." You can't just combine this with that and hope for a miracle. "Sometimes you get pink!"

Fujioka stud book

When asked if he recorded all of the genetic data by hand, Fujioka laughed. "No… just the names of the parents," he told me, flipping through page after page of meticulously typed and hand written records in a binder. You first consider that "this parent used this species" and then you follow through many generations, studying it. "That became the fun part," he quipped with a revealing grin. The binder Fujioka shared with me listed hundreds of "nicknames" for crosses that he had created and were still in the testing stage. These nicknames were not to become the final registered titles of plants, but instead held a personal flair, ranging from Hawaiian Islands to family members. "Waikiki" and "Clarice" served only to keep complicated multi-generational hybrids straight. When I questioned Fujioka as to what percent of his experiments had become registered hybrids, his answer was a astonishing “not many.” I listened, impressed, as he explained to me his demanding process for testing all of his hybrids before submitting them to the registry. “[I] feel that if there is going to be a plant floating around… then the homeowner who buys that plant should be able to succeed…if this spring I come out with a plant I really like, I’ll …grow them out in the field. There it is exposed to full sun and minimal care, and I’ll evaluate how well they do. I’ll also dig them up to see what kind of root structure they have because that’s the key to a good plant.” This time-consuming method was not just for Fujioka’s benefit however; he also implied that it was in the best interest of the society. If a new grower attempts “to grow [a rhodie] and it dies…pretty soon you’re saying ‘oh, rhodos are no good.’ So it’s not good for our reputation.”

Fujioka hybrids

Beyond the complicated genetic tracing, growing new varieties of rhododendrons is no easy task, and certainly not one for those interested in instant gratification. “It’s a long process,” said Fujioka about hybridizing. Often he spends up to six years growing a plant that is simply one more step in the direction of his end goal. More often than not however, he has a strategic plan. “Sometimes you’re thinking three generations ahead,” he tells me. This was certainly the case in his work towards the ground-breaking discovery of a golden rhododendron. For Fujioka, resounding success came after many years in the form of a stunning bloom called ‘Seaview Sunset’ who’s beautiful coloring seems to “glow” in certain lighting. The popularity of this hybrid, registered in 1988, has increased exponentially, and has become a favorite in the Northwest and beyond.

But Fujioka shared with me that he hadn’t always been so scientific in his approach. As a child his only gardening experience had been pulling out his mother’s carrot plants and shoving back any that were too small, in fruitless hope they might continue growing. Later as a high school psychologist in Edmonds, Washington, he found his interest in gardening blossomed from practicality after purchasing his first home. “It was a small little old house, but it just didn’t have anything. Just green grass, that’s all it was.” So off he went to the nearest nursery, and asked for some plants to fill the empty space. What caught his eye, of course, were the laden blooms of the brightly colored rhododendrons. Disappointed by the fact that there were no, in particular, red rhodies for sale, Fujioka asked the nurseryman for recommendations and went off on a quest. He described in detail his impressions after entering one specific nursery; “I went in there and (this was in the spring) it was like magic. There were acres and acres of these big plants full of flowers…and then the old man came out.” This ‘old man’ he would later discover to be Halfdan Lem, one of the premiere pioneer rhododendron hybridizers in the Northwest, and a true friend. Back in his kitchen, Fujioka’s smile widened as he told of asking Lem for ‘The Honourable Jean Marie De Montague’, the most generic red rhododendron, and being refused. “He said to me…‘I have finer things.’”

Halfdan Lem was only the first of many inspirational and lasting friendships Fujioka made through his love of horticulture, many of which took root through his association with the American Rhododendron Society. Fujioka shared with me that although he had originally joined the Society to learn (there was a dearth of accurate rhododendron information at the time), he instantly found that that ‘plants people’ were some of the nicest you’d meet. I could barely keep from crying from laughter as he animatedly described an experience that illustrated a community as unique and wonderful as the plants they propagated… “One of the most fascinating things to me was how uninhibited everyone was in terms of enjoying what we were enjoying. I wish I had a camera at that time! There were three hefty guys, kind of fat, you know? And there were two of them talking, and a third one appears…with a rose! He said, “look at this! Smell this!” So here are three hefty guys sniffing a rose. That’s the kind of people I like, just comfortable with themselves. That made a big impression on me. I thought, “ok, that’s it. These are the kind of people I want to hang around with.”

Although Fujioka’s race to hybridize a golden rhododendron is now long over, the excitement of producing an original creation is still very much alive. This excitement is what he longs to share with the next generation. “I keep looking for young people to recruit so we can pass on our information, but there aren’t many...I think they’re too busy doing other things. So horticulture in general is suffering because we’re not able to get young people interested in horticulture. Maybe they’ll get tired of whatever they prefer doing and decide that working with dirt is more fun, more fulfilling.” Fujioka suggests what we must tap into is the part of ourselves that loves to create. He tells me of the artistry of gardening and relates it to classic painters and sculptors. While strolling slowly through his garden later, he points out the importance of the variation of greenery in a garden layout, relating it to the artistic movement monochromatism. “We have within us this innate creativity, but many of us were never allowed or encouraged to explore it…so I try to look for that in young people and if I sense that they have that, then I go from there…You know, you don’t need a magic wand!”

Despite being a true artist, friend to many, innovator, and one of the most influential hybridizers of his time, Fujioka has a surprising answer when I ask him what he would most like to be remembered for. “That I was a nice guy. You know, to me, that’s the bottom line.”

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.

R. 'Seta'

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.

R. 'Cilpinense'

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.