Pure form

It is ex­cit­ing to have a rhodo­den­dron that is grown from seed from a wild plant – from a species as it grew in na­ture.

NZ Gardener - - Dunedin Plants -

These plants are true aris­to­crats that evolved to cope with chal­leng­ing moun­tain con­di­tions. See­ing their grace, pu­rity of form and colour, their vigour and abun­dance in na­ture, is a salu­tary and hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence for a gar­dener.

On the road to pic­turesque Shimla in the In­dian Hi­malayas to visit the sum­mer re­treat of the Bri­tish Raj, I was over­come with won­der, as on the shady side of the road, we drove through a for­est of red tree rhodo­den­drons ( Rhodo­den­dron ar­boreum).

This for­est was dark and en­clos­ing. Trees were at least 20m tall with the red flow­ers held on the out­side in the sun­shine, glow­ing like stained glass in a medieval cathe­dral.

The next day, we again en­tered this for­est on an ex­cur­sion on the nar­row gauged Her­itage Train with its open doors flap­ping as we rat­tled over trash-filled ravines. Rhodo­den­drons bloomed on in splen­dour, dis­re­gard­ing this noisy in­cur­sion into their ter­ri­tory.

Ar­boreum means tree-like, and this rhodo­den­dron is known to reach 30m in the wild.

In the moun­tains of Asia, it is wide­spread from In­dia across many coun­tries in­clud­ing Bhutan, China, Myan­mar and Thai­land. In spring, it bears tight, ball-shaped trusses of flow­ers in pink, red or white. Red forms, which are from lower al­ti­tudes, are less hardy but use­ful for New Zealand’s warmer North Is­land gar­dens. Years ago, I bought a se­lected grafted

Rhodo­den­dron ar­boreum called ‘Red Daz­zle’. It now graces the drive into Lar­nach Cas­tle.

Re­cently I de­cided to plant an­other one be­cause you can’t have too much of such a good thing. This time, I chose a se­lected form called Rhodo­den­dron ar­boreum ‘Sir Ed­mund Hil­lary’, and it comes with a fas­ci­nat­ing story.

The Queen of Nepal came to New Zealand in the 1970s.

She gave seed of wild Rhodo­den­dron ar­boreum from her coun­try to the Prime Min­is­ter, Robert Mul­doon, who passed it on to Dr Yeates of Massey Univer­sity. He sowed the seed and grew the plants on.

Some years later, one of these seedlings was cho­sen and reg­is­tered by the Her­itage Rhodo­den­dron Park Char­i­ta­ble Trust, and was named, of course, for the New Zealand hero who was the first to climb Mt Ever­est in 1953 along with Sherpa Ten­z­ing Nor­gay. This plant was then prop­a­gated by Rod­ney Wil­son of Cross Hills Nurs­ery. Pro­ceeds from its sale as­sist the Nepalese peo­ple.

I climbed in the Cang­shan Moun­tains near Dali in China’s Yun­nan prov­ince some years ago, on an ad­ven­ture with Pukeiti Rhodo­den­dron Trust. Dif­fer­ent coloured rhodo­den­drons grew in al­ti­tu­di­nal bands spread across the moun­tains like a rain­bow. Rhodo­den­dron ner­i­iflo­rum were flow­er­ing, glow­ing amongst Chi­nese yews ( Taxus spp.) at 3000m, form­ing a red and green cur­tain on ver­ti­cal rock faces.

We tend to pam­per our plants in the gar­den but these rhodo­den­drons were thriv­ing in fis­sures in the rock.

See­ing it in the wild, I now truly un­der­stood the mean­ing of the rec­om­men­da­tion to “pro­vide good drainage”. When I came home, I shifted my

Rhodo­den­dron ner­i­iflo­rum to a pur­pose­built heap of rocks. It was bought 40 years ago from the late Bruce Camp­bell who grew rhodo­den­drons from seed, creat­ing a legacy for Dunedin. It is now 3m wide and tall, happy on its lit­tle cairn.

Rhodo­den­dron ner­i­iflo­rum.

‘Sir Ed­mund Hil­lary’.

Rhodo­den­dron ner­i­iflo­rum.

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