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Big Old Rhododendron

There's nothing that says Pacific Northwest like a big old rhododendron, leaves shiny and dripping with raindrops. (Photo: Tom Roe)

By Linda Roe
Certified Professional Horticulturist, Wight’s Home and Garden

There’s nothing that says Pacific Northwest like a big old rhododendron, leaves shiny and dripping with raindrops. Sometimes we don’t appreciate the beauty we have until we’ve lived somewhere else. Oh how I missed the big green rhodies and golden daffodils when I looked out at old snow in Spokane!

I often hear people say they don’t like rhodies because, they need too much care or they get too big. I think it may be not so much disliking rhodies, but more disliking where they are placed. So many times, rhodies are “crew cut” under the eaves of the house with nothing but spindly trunk, sad leaves and nary a flower to be seen. Others block the entire living room window and half the house. Some poor things are a hedge on the south side of a driveway, baking in the sun, their small withered flowers gasping for water.

In order to enjoy a rhododendron in your yard, consider where it would thrive. Size, foliage and flower color all work together to make a rhody a welcome addition to the landscape. First let’s take the rhodies under the front window. There are compact and dwarf cultivars that will be shorter than the window sills for a long time. Try the classic Ramapo, growing wider than tall and covered with little purple flowers in early spring. This one will also tolerate sun and heat well. Need something smaller? Little pink flowering Ginny Gee, yellow Peter Bee, or lavender Ernie Dee (one does wonder what’s up with the cutesy names) are shaped like tidy little mounds, never outgrowing their allotted space.

Rhodies have beautiful leaves, none better than the so called Yak hybrids (R. yakushimanum). Their new growth is covered with soft, white, felt-like hairs called indumentum. The mature leaves are dark green and glossy and felty brown undersides. The flowers are a bonus! Find a spot for the compact apricot flowering Cupcake or the pink Ken Janeck.

The newer rhodies are just as beautiful as the old classic ones. Would you like a big red one? Consider Taurus, which has huge, dark red trusses and reddish new growth that suggests the horns of a bull. I love this rhody, but give it some space. Pink lovers should take a look at Fantastica, which is dark pink on the outside and lighter in the center. Ellie Green is a bright magenta pink with reddish new growth. Fans of the old purple ones might like the newer one called Lees Dark, which has flowers that are dark purple with a darker eye.

Yellow rhodies have become more popular in the last few years and more new cultivars are becoming available. Seaview Sunset is one of the most popular, with orange buds opening to bright yellow flowers. Hotei is an old favorite with buttery yellow flowers. My favorite is Starbright Champagne, a beige yellow with a magenta center. The name is cool, too! Site your new rhody in a place where it will be able to assume its natural, beautiful shape.

Rhodies thrive in acidic, humus-rich soil, with a regular source of water and cool sun or part shade. They dislike being buried with too much mulch around the trunk. Although rhodies prefer regular watering they do not like sitting in wet, boggy soil! When the water pools around the roots, a rhody is prone to water borne fungal diseases. Drooping curled leaves are a classic symptom.

Berming your rhody up when planting in wet clay can go a long way to prevent this. Fertilize your rhodies with a special fertilizer formulated for acid loving plants, labeled as such. It is important to prune your plant right after they bloom, as they form the buds for next spring in the summer. Treat your rhodies with the respect these grand evergreens deserve and they will be beautiful even in the rain!

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