(Before I start – I’ve added a poppy gallery in the top menu bar. Please take a look if you want some blue in your life)
I’ve never really become enthused by rhododendrons. They don’t grow especially well on my heavy clay, and are horribly prone to having their flower buds and young growth wiped out by late frost. Plus, they are an even more complicated genus than primula – and I can’t cope with more than one enthusiasm. Even so, I seem to have acquired thirty-one of them, if you include azaleas (which I suppose you have to these days).
This orange azalea was planted as an end-stop to the garden, about 200 yards from the house and well away from anything else. Even so, it’s a colour hazard. But it plays its part in combining with the yellow rh. luteum – whose heavy musky scent means June has arrived.
Numerous hybrid rhododendrons are pink or strawberry-coloured with huge ornamental trusses of flowers, and I avoid them like the plague. Our ancestors loved them, planting them all over the place, but I stick to the species, where there is far more subtlety to be found: This is a flower from rh. cerasinum:
The flowers hang like bells, and it is not until you pick one up and peer inside that you find those five deep black reflecting spots, like drops of molten metal, with the veining creeping out all over the petals. There’s something threateningly volcanic about this flower.
Rh. Wardii (white variant) is less harmful. In fact, it has a contrasting innocence.
Many rhododendrons grow into small trees in their native habitat. They do this frequently on Scotland’s west coast, or in Cornwall, but not here – except for one, the endlessly amenable rh. yunannense. Even so, it has taken fifty years to reach this height. Most years it is frosted, but if it survives, and if it has produced any flower buds, it is magnificent, as it has been this year.
I remain in two minds, but I have to conclude that for all the irritating colour problems and the anguish of losing the flowers to frost year after year, I can’t do without rhododendrons. The garden would be a lesser place in their absence.