Monday, 10 September 2012

Rhododendron Ruminations

Over the past decade’s drought years I’d thought all the Rhododendrons in Melbourne gone - death by a thousand dry days - but last week I noticed a few deep candy-pink flowering forms which seem to be the only survivors – or are they just the oldest (perhaps the first variety introduced) with roots so deep that they could withstand many consecutive, cruel drought years and even the furnace-heat of Black Saturday 3 years ago while others perished, limb by limb?
Unsurprisingly, they are on the cool south sides of houses and appear to be in old, well maintained gardens; I envision elderly owners surreptitiously hobbling out (looking about them for signs of neighbours they don’t like) to water them (the rhodos, not the neighbours) on cool evenings after the hottest days.
Similar in ubiquity are the funereal lilac ones (R. ponticum I believe) peskilly self-sowing and layering over many years along the morose London-encircling motorways, all too comfortable centuries after introduction from southern Europe, bathed in misty rain ever since. Other than high in the mountains of Tasmania, it’s impossible to imagine a rhodo becoming a weed here – even this species is static in a friend’s garden in chilly Ferny Creek (see last picture).
Queensland boasts one rhodo species (R. lochiae, a dwarf shrub at home, unsurprisingly, in the mountains), the Himalayas has many, and I’ve seen Alpenrose (R. ferrugineum, below) in the mountains of Switzerland, just opening on a cold misty day in June; exciting. In nature rhodos seem at home, more gentle on the eye, less glaringly there.

 Compared to nearby Melbourne, we have cooler and wetter weather in the Dandenong Ranges so it’s no surprise that rhodos have survived up here much better and they can be seen en masse (why is everyone literally using my phrase?) in the National Rhododendron Gardens near Olinda.
But apart from Rhododendron fragrantissimmum and a few others with soft-coloured flowers, they are a blobby lot. Big dumpy heads of often screaming-pink blooms hardly make for a subtle look, or so I think. Butter-yellow Rhododendron lutescens (see post 2nd August) is the exception – perhaps the dainty species versus the (too) showy hybrids bred by gardeners and nurserymen wishing to impress has gone too far. (Heck, yes.) An example is Rhododendron `Cilpinense’ (below) with thankfully soft coloured flowers on a mercifully dwarf – to 1m – shrub. It’s also saved somewhat by the profuse trusses – bunches – of blooms being in threes rather than a dozen or so bell-flowers per bunch.
After seeing Gladioli species and digesting their prettiness compared to – let’s face it, the over-the-top size and rigid presence of - the modern `improved’ hybrids, people can be heard to say: `why did they try to improve them?’ Admittedly I’m kicking a phenomenon already rather low (Thank you Dame Edna) and, I hope, dying out with other trends like 1950’s roses without scent (what were they thinking?) but it needs remembering that big is not always better. Most horticultural trends need careful thought and moderation. (One of my heroes is horticulturist Professor James Hitchmough who says that when he was a teenager in the 1960’s and planted nothing but fashionable conifers, his parents would occasionally, wistfully, enquire whether they could just have a few flowers as well. Please.) Fashion plus time equals…well, let’s not get rude.
Maybe we should go back to the meaning of the word derived from Ancient Greek: `rhodon’ (rose or red) and `dendron’ (tree) and plant only the depressed-looking dark red-flowered forms with class winning over vulgarity…I wish. Retina-piercing colours may be cheerful on gray winter days but on a 10m-high shrub it’s overwhelming. Maybe I’m just a girl who doesn’t appreciate pink.
My mother’s cosseted R. fragrantissimmum was always twiggy despite watering, deep mountain soil (I, alas, am sitting on Lysterfield clay; she was in nearby Emerald) and loads of attention; and if she couldn’t make it look good then I really don’t believe that anyone – on this continent, anyhow – can force it into becoming a garden-worthy shrub. A shame, it has a nice perfume from pale pink flowers opening from deeper pink buds.
All rhodos need frequent watering to `keep themselves nice’ so I can’t see myself planting a species (let alone a cultivar) (we have only water tanks and besides, I’m pretty forgetful); moreover, we are in the foothills, so we are much lower than the Rhododendron Gardens at its elevation of about 500m. And to paraphrase comedian Ed Byrne (as he says of breasts): I don’t want any myself but I’m happy to enjoy those belonging to other people.

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