I know a little bit about Rhododendrons, and my experience with the "Rose Trees" (from Greek) comes from various angles. As a youth I dead-headed them from around the yard, then I went on to work for six years at a large wholesale nursery. The nursery owner grew them by the many thousands per year, but interestingly he was fairly ignorant about the genus. He was adept to grow and market Rhododendrons, but he dealt exclusively with the hardy hybrids, and I really doubt that he could give even one example of a Rhododendron species.
Then, in my strengthful twenties, I estimate that I dug about 5,000 plants per winter season. I kept a crew of three fellow employees busy tying up the branches ahead of me, then they hauled out the dug plants to the tractor. Periodically I would put on a greater burst of speed, and delight to see the men scramble frantically to keep up -- a little game I played to help deal with the monotony of the task. The Rhododendrons weren't really plants for me, rather they were objects -- a money crop -- and I received no botanical thrill to plant, water, prune then dig the 'Vulcans', the 'Jean Marie de Montagues', the 'Cunningham Whites' etc.
I was an ideal employee though, for I was a single workaholic who loved to devote all of my energy to my outdoor job, and I don't recall ever being cold or hot or tired as I am now. While it seemed as if I could continue with that nursery life forever, I was being pulled in another direction. Eventually I resigned, for I had an urge to travel. Previously I had been to South America twice, but this time I wanted to devote unlimited time to explore in the Himalaya. This impulse for adventure was due to years of reading articles in the National Geographic and to the harrowing accounts in Himalayan mountain climbing books. I had no desire to risk for the top -- for deep down I am a coward who loves to live -- but at least I wanted to take a closer look at the people and topography of the Range. What impressed me greatly, in addition, was the flora of the region, especially Rhododendrons.
|Mt. Everest from Thangboche, Nepal|
...so, I found myself on a dream trek (in the 1970's) to the Mt. Everest base camp and up from there to Kala Patar -- the "black rock" at 18,514 feet in elevation that afforded excellent views of Everest and surrounding mountains. At Namche Bazar I hired a Sherpa* guide who enlisted his 15-year-old daughter and one other lean -- but strong -- relative to carry our food, tents etc. The stocky, erstwhile daughter is no doubt by now a grandmother, and her father Sonam is probably no longer alive. Naturally I was embarrassed that the young girl was pulling more weight than myself; but after all, she was making -- or rather saving -- her father about two dollars per day as a porter. From a Sherpa family I was able to obtain a mortar from Rhododendron wood, and the cooking item was infused with the odors of Asian spices.
*The Sherpas come from the Everest region and a couple of other nearby locations in Nepal. In Tibetan they are referred to as the "eastern people," from shar for "east" and pa for "people." Often westerners consider any native to the Himalaya, especially guides and porters, as "sherpa" -- and the name should be rendered with a small "s" in that case, for they are likely of other tribes.
After my Everest adventure I got married, purchased land and started a nursery, and I supposed I would not have time to travel again, especially due to three young children. But in 1988 I met a customer, plantsman Reuben Hatch, and somehow the conversation turned to the flora of Asia, and we discovered that each of us had some experience. Next thing I signed on for his upcoming plant trip to Yunnan, China (in the 1980's, pre-Tiananmen). In subsequent years I took more trips to Asia, and it's not so far-fetched to say that I know the Himalaya better than my own country. All of the trips were tax write-offs since I was "plant hunting," at least with my camera.
I realized that I was following in the footsteps of "real" plant hunters, such as George Forrest, Ernest Wilson and Frank Kingdon-Ward, and I amassed a collection of their books, their first-hand accounts, or biographies of these hard-working men. I doubt, however, that I could personally endure the hardships, filth, weather and danger encountered by these great men, let alone to be away from my family for extended periods.
The last time I saw R. Hatch -- two weeks ago -- he handed to me an over-sized, sumptuous two-volume book set called The Rhododendron (Urquhart Press), a 1958 and 1962 publication with beautiful Rhododendron flower paintings by Carlos Riefel. I'm not sure why Hatch gave these to me to keep, perhaps his book shelf was sagging. Only a fraction of the world's Rhododendron species is included, but the text for the inclusions is easy to read and informative, and always delivers a sentence or two about the discoverer of the species. Over and over, the most common names are Forrest, Wilson and Kingdon-Ward. A lot of information below was gleaned from my gift books, although I have some personal experience with many of them also. And full disclosure here: some of the photos were taken at the Rhododendron Species Foundation in Federal Way, Washington.
|June Sinclair posing with a Rhododendron sinogrande|
R. sinogrande is a fantastic tree-like species with the largest leaves of all. It is native to Yunnan, Tibet and Burma, but I've never seen it in the wild. George Forrest discovered it in 1921, growing at 11,000' elevation, and he must have been floored when he first saw it. Though it blooms in April, it is mainly grown by enthusiasts for its huge oval leaves, and its only downside is that the species is only hardy to USDA zone 8, or 10 degrees above zero. I have only one plant, in a container, which is hauled into the greenhouse every winter.
|Rhododendron roxieanum var. oreonastes|
Rhododendron roxieanum var. oreonastes
|Rhododendron x 'Blewbury'|
|Rhododendron x 'Blewbury'|
A far cry from the huge leaves of sinogrande is R. roxieanum, a species known for its extremely narrow leaves. It can vary in the wild, but the variety oreonastes* is known for very narrow lobes, and on some plants the leaves are fifteen times as long as wide. Forrest discovered roxieanum in northwest Yunnan and it was introduced in 1913. He named it for Mrs. Roxie Hanna, a missionary friend from Tali -- now Dali -- who was most helpful in his travels. A wonderful hybrid is x 'Blewbury' (R. roxieanum x R. anwheiense) which resembles roxieanum but is said to have better heat tolerance and is hardy to USDA zone 6, -10 degrees F.
*Oreonastes means "compressed mountain dweller," and its elevation ranges from 11,000' to 14,000'.
|Rhododendron x 'Elizabeth'|
A creeping form of Rhododendron is forrestii, which was first discovered by Forrest in 1905 at an altitude of 10,000'. Most of his collections from that year were destroyed by hostile, murderous Tibetan Lamas, and Forrest, shoeless, barely escaped with his life. Only one plant reached England under the number Forrest 699, but later in 1914 he revisited the locale and collected seed. In 1917 he wrote of it as having "the habit of ivy; attached by roots, on the under-surface of its stems, it covers almost perpendicular cliffs and boulders with its bullate, glossy foliage." R. forrestii crossed with R. griersonianum has resulted in the excellent hybrid 'Elizabeth'.
Speaking of R. griersonianum, Forrest discovered it at 9,000 feet elevation in western Yunnan. He described the flowers as "bright rose, fragrant," and "named in compliment to R.C. Grierson, Esq., of the Chinese Maritime Customs at Tengyueh, whose help I gratefully acknowledge." It is worth noting that griersonianum does not flower until June, and is in full bloom when most of the other Rhododendrons are finished. Unfortunately it is not considered very winter hardy -- perhaps to 10 degrees F -- but a fine specimen grows at the Rhododendron Species Garden, which is only three hours north of me.
|The Tiger Leaping Gorge on the Yangtze|
Also from northwest Yunnan is R. bureavii. It was first discovered by Pere Delavay about 1885 and was named for Professor Edouard Bureau (1830-1918), a prominent French botanist. Its introduction to cultivation was made by Forrest in 1908, who found it at 10,000'-12,000' in the mountains northeast of the Yangtze River bend. I was near this area in the 1980's, but never saw it in the wild. R. bureavii is a sturdy mounding species, and I would grow it even if it never flowered due to the brilliant indumentation. It received the prestigious Award of Garden Merit in 1939. It is plenty hardy for me, but I must site it with afternoon shade or it will burn.
Rhododendron orbiculare 'Exbury'
|Rhododendron orbiculare 'Edinburgh'|
Sometimes I think my most favorite of all Rhododendron species is orbiculare, named for its rounded leaves, but which features the prettiest bell-shaped pink blossoms. If I had found it I would have named it Rhododendron lovelii. Instead it was discovered by the Abbe David in 1869 near his missionary station in Mupin, China, and he named it R. rotundifolium. In spite of that, the first description was written and published in 1877 by Professor Descaine, and he chose the present name of orbiculare. The species was introduced by J. Veitch & Sons from seed collected by E.H. Wilson in 1904 in Sichuan*, China. It received the Award of Garden Merit in 1922, but keep in mind that it can vary in the wild, and so some forms are more esteemed than others. We grow two: 'Exbury' and 'Edinburgh', and even though I indicate these as cultivars they really are not, but rather are two outstanding forms of orbiculare.
*Sichuan is the modern spelling for this Chinese province. My Rhododendron book uses the old spelling of Szechwan. I notice that Hillier's first editions of Manual of Trees and Shrubs used the old Szechwan spelling, but the 2014 edition goes with the modern spelling. The word "China" is derived from the Persian word "Chin," which was from the Sanskrit word "Cina." The current People's Republic of China is 'Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo," but to the Chinese that would be 中华人民共和国.
|Rhododendron orbiculare ssp. cardiobasis|
In southern China is a closely allied species, R. cardiobasis, which I do not grow. The Rhododendron Species Garden classifies it as a subspecies of orbiculare, and the photograph above is from this garden. Cardiobasis is a Greek word meaning "heart-shaped.”
Also discovered by the Abbe David near his French Mission station (the same location where he found Davidia involucrata) is R. calophytum (meaning “beautiful plant”). As with R. orbiculare it was not introduced until Wilson collected seed during his first expedition to China in 1904. Flowers can vary from white to pink, but this most noble species is highly regarded for its erect flower trusses. Foliage is a handsome dark-green, and I like the way the leaves droop from the shoots. I actually have never grown a calophytum, but I hope to one day remedy that situation. I think the above photos were taken at the wonderful garden at Hendricks Park in Eugene, Oregon.
R. insigne (meaning “remarkable”) was first seen on Wa Shan (Wa Mountain) in western Sichuan by Dr. Augustine Henry in 1888. Wilson was advised by Henry to climb the mountain, where Wilson found a great variety of Rhododendrons and other flowering shrubs. He collected the first herbarium specimen of R. insigne, then returned in 1908 to collect seed from plants between 7,000’ and 10,000’ in elevation. Wilson was then working for the Arnold Arboretum, and his collection was the origin of most of the stock in cultivation today. According to my Rhododendron book, “A notable characteristic of this species is the peculiar and beautiful coppery luster on the undersurface of the leaves. The back of the leaf is perhaps more beautiful than that of any other Rhododendron, giving the effect of bright silver washed over with a transparent gold varnish...” Indeed R. insigne is a remarkable plant.
Other fine Wilson Rhododendron introductions include: souliei, also from Sichuan; strigillosum from Sichuan and Yunnan; lutescens from Guizhou, Sichuan and Yunnan; and williamsianum from Sichuan. Ernest Henry Wilson was perhaps the greatest of all plant collectors, and was certainly deserving of the nickname “Chinese” Wilson.
Of course Frank Kingdon-Ward (1885-1958) probably thought he was the greatest of all collectors. He was a popular author, and I love his book titles, with names such as In the Land of the Blue Poppies, Burma’s Icy Mountains, Himalayan Enchantment, The Mystery Rivers of Tibet and Plant Hunting on the Edge of the World, to name a few. I have first-editions of these and others, bought back when they were not really very expensive.
Kingdon-Ward was not content to just discover a species, but he was known to search for the best possible form to introduce into cultivation. And none of this came easily, for he survived many accidents on his expeditions. Once he was impaled on a bamboo spike, and in another incident he fell off a cliff, but was fortunately stopped by a tree growing on the cliff. Another time he was lost for two days with no food, had his tent crushed by a tree in a storm, and on August 15, 1950 he was close to the epicenter of a 9.6 earthquake during an expedition in Assam. Kingdon-Ward also doubled as a spy for the British India Office, and was once arrested by Tibetans for illegally entering their territory.
The Rhododendron I immediately associate with Kingdon-Ward is R. wardii, a variable species (in leaf and flower color and time of bloom). Blossoms can be deep yellow to pale yellow, or even a lemon-yellow with a crimson or purple blotch at the base. The species was discovered by Pere Soulie in western Yunnan near the Tibetan border, but was first collected by Ward in 1913 on the alpine pass, Doker La, at 13,000’ - 14,000’ in elevation. The photograph above was taken from the Rhododendron Species Garden, a garden that certainly has access to anything it wants, but I don’t know the details of their particular accession.
R. leucaspis (meaning “white shield”) was discovered and introduced by Kingdon-Ward from an expedition in 1924 in the Tsangpo Gorge. He discovered it at 10,000’ elevation where it was more or less prostrate, growing “among bamboo and other rhododendrons [sic] on steep grassy slopes or on cliffs,” and again at 8,000’-9,000’ -- “Epiphytic, hanging in long loose festoons from the mossy trunks of big trees in the middle forest.” Even Kingdon-Ward’s field notes evoke a wonderful sense of adventure for the arm-chair traveler, and thank goodness we don’t have to be impaled on a bamboo spike or fall from a cliff ourselves, but rather we can re-live his experiences from the safety of our own home.
I’ll mention one final Kingdon-Ward discovery and introduction, R. pemakoense, which hails from the province of Pemako. He discovered it on his Tsangpo Gorge expedition of 1924-1925, and the species is similar to another of his discoveries, R. uniflorum, which was found on the Doshong La at 11,000’ - 12,000’. R. pemakoense is an attractive dwarf that blooms in late March to early April, and while it can be colorful and cheerful in early spring, the flowers can also turn to brown mush with a hard frost.
|Reuben Hatch, Plantsman|
I was greatly pleased to receive this wonderful two-volume Rhododendron set from Mr. Hatch, and now that I have milked it for a blog I will ask him if he meant to give the books to me for real keeps. I will give him the opportunity to change his mind, but if he doesn’t you are welcome to come visit and page through the books, as long as your hands are clean. I have said it before, that I have a modest collection of Rhododendrons, but thanks to R. Hatch I have a collection that is world-class.