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Journal ARS Article

 Vol. 46: No. 3: Year 1992

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Taiwanese Treasures

Dave Dougan
Malahat, British Columbia, Canada

Western Gardeners benefited a great deal from the introduction in 1934 of the remarkable species Rhododendron yakushimanum, and although it took 20 years for it to become generally available, it has remained a highly prized rhododendron.  For obvious reasons its value as a parent has been utilized a great deal.  However, we sometimes wonder if we gardeners haven't been mesmerized by the yaks and have overlooked some equally remarkable rhododendrons.  A case in point are three rhododendrons from Taiwan, R. pseudochrysanthum, R. morii and R. pachysanthum.  With us, at least, they are equally hardy, equally beautiful in foliage and in the front rank of rhododendrons.

Our plant of R. pseudochrysanthum, which is the Exbury form, has had an interesting history.  Mary and Ted Greig imported it from the Sunningdale nursery in England and couldn't bear to part with it when their collection of rhododendrons was transferred to the University of British Columbia garden in Vancouver.  Sometime later, Mary decided that she could no longer look after her remaining treasures and generously asked us to take R. pseudochrysanthum and give it the home it deserved.  We are not sure that we have qualified for that trust, but the plant has prospered with us.  Whenever we think of it we think of Mary Greig.

We first grew it in our garden at Departure Bay in Nanaimo where it seemed happy enough, then over-wintered it at the Stone garden at Quamichan Lake and finally brought it home to our new garden on the Malahat.  The plant is now, after 10 years on our mountain, about 5 feet tall and 7 feet across.  With its silvery blue leaves and reddish resting flower buds, it is beautiful at any time of the year.  The opening buds are a deep pink, and the flowers open to an apple blossom pink with pinkish stripes on the outside of the corolla.  All in all we think R. pseudochrysanthum is among the finest plants we grow.

The second plant of the Taiwanese group is perhaps not quite as spectacular in foliage as R. pseudochrysanthum, but R. morii is equally lovely in flower.  In bloom, the plant has a very beautiful pink and white effect and, along with a fine habit and very interesting foliage, is amongst our most treasured plants.  We fail to understand why it is not more widely grown.  In our area at least R. morii is seen only in the gardens of collectors and enthusiasts.  Our garden is at an elevation of 900 feet.  Perhaps this has a bearing on the tidy growth of R. morii.  Our plant, after several years, is a tight mound about 4 feet tall.

Rhododendron pachysanthum was apparently introduced as R. venturi a good many years ago and then re-introduced as R. pachysanthum in 1972.  Why it should have remained in limbo for all those years is a great mystery to those of us who are acquainted with it.  With present advanced methods of propagation it will undoubtedly become more widely available and grown as widely as it should be.  We have seen slightly differing forms of this magnificent plant, but they all share what is perhaps one of the finest foliages in the genus.  The leaves carry indumentum in shades of brown with an unusual tomentum which gives a beautiful silvery brown look to the plant.  The flowers are not unlike those of R. pseudochrysanthum and R. morii.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about these unusual plants is their hardiness.  Coming as they do from about 22-23 degrees north latitude and elevations of not over 9,000 feet, it is not to be expected that they would be hardy in our mountain garden.  Last winter was an unusually cruel one on our mountain, but none of our Taiwanese plants suffered the slightest discomfort from the arctic blasts which sweep down the Fraser Valley in outflow conditions.

It is unlikely that any of these three plants will be as widely used as a parent as R. yakushimanum, but hopefully they will become more widely grown and appreciated down through the gardening years.  The great plant explorer and writer, Frank Kingdon Ward, once wrote that the genus Rhododendron carried the universal hallmark of excellence.  I think we all agree with that judgment, but even in this exalted group of plants these three Taiwanese rhododendrons stand in the front row.


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