Here in maritime Northwest rhododendrons are ubiquitous this time of year. The tiniest little ramshackle house, hidden behind a huge plain green bush eleven months of the year, barely noticed, suddenly is eye-poppingly beautiful when covered with huge bright red or pink blooms. I didn’t intend to be a “Rhody” person. A fan of pollinators, I find rhododendrons are not that useful to most pollinators – hummingbirds and butterflies have no interest in them and bees seem picky, liking some varieties but not others. Highly hybridized, most plants have one big showy spring bloom then sit quietly in their evergreen garb the rest of the year, blending into the landscape. But over the years I’ve grown to appreciate their abundance of color and have loved individual plants as though they were pets. It must be a family trait, both my parents loved rhododendrons, and one of my brothers has planted many here on family property, late-blooming varieties and ones known for their unique foliage.
This year, a more typical northwest spring than we’ve had for several years, has made apparent one primary value of rhododendrons – in spite of cold, gray, wet weather, front yards and public parks everywhere are lit with the bright hues of rhodies. People make their annual pilgrimages to the many public rhododendron gardens to enjoy this rhododendron festival of color.
That’s how we (Mike is especially enamored by their colors) became rhody people. Living 15 minutes from Whitney Gardens, a second generation family rhododendron garden and nursery, we go to soak up the color of the giant, tree size blooming bushes. Caught up in the color bonanza, we buy one, or maybe two, with little thought as to where we will plant them. Alone I can resist, but Mike is powerless when surrounded by all those shades of purple, lavender, salmon, pinks, red, oranges, yellows – a rainbow of rhodies. And if they are a scented variety, he swoons. Ok, I swoon too. (note: we have not made that pilgrimage this year, and if we do, we’ll have more self control as we just planted 5 small Pacific Rhododendron starts, Washington’s state flower.)
Rhododendrons were first “discovered” by Europeans in the Himalayan Mountains and other mountainous regions of Southeast Asia , where hundreds of varieties are native. They are the national flower of Nepal, where they grow abundantly. Archibald Menzies “discovered” the Pacific rhododendron in 1792, though they were certainly already known to native people. (An interesting paper on the history of the Pacific Rhododendron is found here.) Rhododendron leaves are highly toxic (though I had a Jersey cow, Daisy, who ate some and seemed unaffected, but I wouldn’t recommend it). In traditional cultures wherever they grow wild, rhododendron leaves have been used as poultices for arthritis pain and headaches.
Rhododendrons have been hybridized to have many colors, scents, leaf color and shape variations, to grow to different heights, and bloom at different times, from the winter blooming Christmas Rhody to ones that bloom in June. The ones we grow bloom early to mid-spring. Except for a rare bug nibble, the primary pest problem we’ve had are mountain beavers who chew off branches and carry them to their dens, where we find piles of branches. This has done serious damage some years, one young bush completely ‘harvested’ to the ground. Larger bushes are “pruned”, not at all aesthetically, destroying many buds. We’ve also lost a few bushes to drought. But in our woodsy environment most thrive and have long lives. Shallow rooted, though we give them big planting holes with lots of “good” soil, as long as they get some leaf mulch, they seem to tolerate our clay soil.
Rhododendrons come in all sizes, some can be pot grown, some like more sun, others more shade, many different bloom “styles” appeal to people’s personal sense of what makes a pretty flower, and you can probably find one in your favorite color. I highly recommend, if your climate is right, growing rhodies for the pure benefit of color therapy, especially wonderful on a gray spring day.
The rest of the year rhododendron’s shiny forever-green leaves remind us of eternal life. I’m quite sure whatever corner of heaven my parents are hanging out in, they have planted rhododendrons!