Tuesday, July 7, 2020 24 comments

Seeing rhododendrons through rose-colored glasses

Roses give you more bang for your buck than most any other plant in the garden.  I have been preaching this fact for many years. That’s why very few “seasonal” plants reside at Chez Hunt. Even my daylilies and clematis repeat bloom. 

Purpureum Elegans
So in the past, my head has not been turned by peonies, azaleas, iris or rhododendrons.

This year, I’ve been giving the rhodys a second look. Maybe it’s because we had a very strange winter with the lockdown and I was dying to see something in bloom. Or maybe it’s because until now, I hadn’t appreciated the variety of colors available.

Catawbiense Album
Rhododendron is a genus of over 1,000 species of woody plants in the heath family. Although they are native to many areas of the world, most of the rhododendrons grown in gardens today are hybrids. 

 According to the Royal Horticultural Society there are more than 28,000 cultivars in the international registry, most bred for the showy flowers.

I saw a bright yellow one outside the grocery store a few weeks ago and almost bought it, thinking how it would be a perfect companion for my native flame azalea. But alas, by the time I made up my mind, it was gone.

Percy Wiseman

My friend Margaret refers to the hybrid rhododendrons (like the yellow beauty) as the “tame” ones in contrast to the native varieties that are just now starting to show color here in the mountains.

The Rosebay is the most common rhododendron in the Smokies. It is one of the largest and hardiest of shrubs, believed to be able to tolerate temperatures of 40 below zero. (Although the leaves do “collapse” and look wilted on super cold days.)

Nova Zembia
 Rosebay thrives near streams and ravines at elevations below 5,000 feet. The flowers range from white to purplish-pink and the wood has been used to make tool handles. I noticed the first few blooms last week.

Native rhodys can vary in color

Last year, there were very few flowers, and I wondered if it was due to the unusual June heat. Now I’ve learned that this variety only puts out a “big bloom” every two to four years. No one knows when the extravaganza will happen, or why.

The name rhododendron comes from the Greek and means rose tree. Rosebay is the variety that is growing all around me.

Rosebay native rhody

Maybe the "rose trees" and the Rosebay are trying to tell this rose lover something.

This year, I am paying attention.