Friday, 4 September 2009


Rhododendron 'Vuyk's Scarlet.' This plant comprises 33.3333% of my extensive collection.

Some days ago, I read that my crisply suited and suitably hatted friend, James A-S, had found himself planting rhododendrons in the Cotswolds. (The client is king, I suppose.) His post, you may recall, was here.

Inadvertently, he stirred up a little emotion about the genus. I thought that I'd been, on the whole, quite balanced with my comment. But on revisiting his blog, I think, perhaps, that my language was just edging the teeniest scriddick or so towards the intolerant. Maybe there was even the merest trace of a fascistic reaction.

So I thought I ought to revisit the topic and revise my view.

It's naughty and lazy to generalise, I know, but by and large, I hate the things. Not only because a dense forest of them surrounded my prep school - which was in Norfolk, rather than Surrey, and therefore very much colder - but because for so much of the year, so many of them are mind-shatteringly boring.

Hearing a steady rain, dripping on those lank, dangling, miserable leaves is enough to make one suicidal. Nothing can grow under a rhododendron bush. It's too dark and they exude some sort of toxin. So they hog the space to themselves, huddled in ungainly forms, often with naked legs, like despairing flocks of marabou storks who have been done out of their carrion by hyenas.

But like all plants - even dandelions and bindweed - they do have saving graces. Not all are garish, of course. Some have interestingly coloured bare legs and a few sport quite pretty foliage, even if you have to lie on your back underneath them, to enjoy the cinnamon dusting on the leaf-backs. One or two - R. macabeanum for instance - are magnificent monsters. When seen in the wild, on some desperate Himalayan outcrop, or for me last year, in the highlands of Peninsular Malaysia, native rhododendrons can be touchingly beautiful.

Rhododendron fortunei Quite pretty in subtle pink.

The little ones can be sweet, too, and are handy for landscaping. The Japanese, I believe, use them to excellent effect, clipping ferociously to form mounds and blobs of exactly the desired shape. They do that, too, in gardens of the Italian Lakes, particularly at the Villa Carlotta in Menaggio. They've carved a sort of faux landscape of hills and valleys, all with shorn azaleas.

And I was never more impressed by azaleas than when wandering around in the American Quarter of New Orleans a few years ago - pre-flood - where every magnificent front garden had them in spades. They coped remarkably well with the heat.

Rhododentron 'Pook' Ridiculous name, but not its fault. The red tips to the stigmas are charming.

Rhododendron flowers reward close inspection. I love the way the stamens and sometimes the stigmata are coloured differently from the other parts of the flower. A number of them show subtle deepening of their tints towards the petal edges, sharpening their outlines. Many have fragrance.

Then there are the freckles. To guide the bees, some rhododendron flowers exhibit freckling or stippling, often in ginger or buff tones, which are delectably charming.

Rododendron impeditum 'Blue Steel.' Another third of my comprehensive collection and bizarrely, flowering today.

I'm so forgiving, I've even got three rhodos in my garden. A Kurume azalea 'Vuyk's Scarlet,' inherited from my late Mother-in-Law; R. 'Blue Steel' which I bought at Wisley to prove we had neutral to acid soil in our new garden - I treated it as a miner would a canary– and a little pink job I bought on impulse at Stamford Market because it looked so windswept, sad and lonely. They are all thriving - even the canary.

I'm listening to the gale which has whiplashed the Lespedeza to pieces, before it has had a chance to flower. It has also blown the blasted beans over.

On this day in 2007 my mother-in-law's funeral took place. Her azalea, in its vast pot, is a fitting memorial to such a keen and capable gardener. I owe it to her, to look after it well.

For this week's viewing we've fished out Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. A truly perplexing but intriguing story with a faultless performance by Alec Guinness as George Smiley.

Bye bye for now.


  1. It's a very special thing, to keep a plant on behalf of someone who has died. Until recently, we had a spindly purple clematis which my husband nurtured very tenderly despite its un-interesting nature and wrong position - simply because he had been asked to by and elderly friend before she died. Now, it has died too - and we've planted another in precisely the same wrong place.

    I like rhododendrons - not in their flowering state but in their boring one. I like the way they sprawl without being bullies. They are like people who are so content and so happy to live in themselves that they don't realise other people might need the space they are stretching into. I like the un-relentingness of their leaves and the orange fibrousness of their dead branches.

    For a few winter months, I lived on the edge of Exmoor and spent a lot of time wandering in pine plantations and through (under!) acres of rhododendrons. Neither have good reputations - but those months were amongst the happiest of my life.

    I hope you have happy memories of your mother in law.


  2. Saw some very impressive rhoddies at Crug Farm today. They had amazing leaves so were interesting even though not in flower. Didnt make a note of the names as I have no room for another Rhoddie

  3. Apparently we rhodophiles have half an hour to look forward to tonight on BBC2 on the Bodnant programme.

    I love those adaptations with Alex Guinness as Smiley, they are so good.