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