What happens after a frost-free spring

I thought I was only taking six months away from blogging, but it seems to have become spun out into seven…

It has been the usual long, dark, wet winter – but in contrast to last year virtually no snow has fallen, and the temperature has seldom dropped beneath -3 degrees celsius. So, for once, the rhododendron and early azaleo buds have survived. In fact, I’ve seldom seen the early rhoddies cover themselves in blossom to this extent:

This is rh loderi ‘King George’ -a blowsy pink number with a remarkably strong scent (which you only get to experience on the rare windless day).  I planted this in entirely the wrong place where it doesn’t get enough shelter from the north, so not only is it growing more like a creeping shrub than a stately tree of 25 feet, which it can manage in more favourable climes, but its buds are normally shrivelled by sleet-laden gales. On the rare occasions it escapes, it does provide something of a wow factor at the entrance to the house.

The flowers turn from their carmine beginnings to a pink-tinged white as they open out – just the kind of colour that interior designers commend for ‘feminine’ bedrooms. The frangrance is also somewhat ‘feminine’, reminding me of expensive bath soap.

This is a bog-standard early purple – so bog-standard that I have forgotten its name (if I ever knew it). It usually survives the frost about one year in three, but when it covers itself like this, the weight of the blossom drags the branches almost to the ground.


Finally, the only respectable tree rhododendron I posess (again, no name, sorry). It has taken the better part of forty years to reach this height, but reliably rewards me with a block of colour before the blue poppies behind it come into bloom.

Even on a dull evening such as tonight, the view from the terrace is really rather exotic!

A few rhododendron thoughts

(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).

The thing about these shrubs is that they light up a garden like fireworks when in flower, and you can’t miss themP1010737. This is not always a good thing. You need to be very careful.

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 arrivedP1010742.

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:P1010690

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 harmfulP1010740. 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.P1010590

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.

The foundlings

It’s all very well messing around calculating perfect compost for difficult seed, but sometimes you have to wonder, what’s the point? Back in Spring I was poking around in the undergrowth, as you do, and ran across a pile of old spruce stumps, which were abandoned around fifteen years ago as too difficult to split for firewood. Self-sown into this half-rotten mess – rhododendron yunnanense seedlings:

I had no idea that yunnanense even set viable seed in this climate, still less that its ideal germination medium was spongy rotten wood. But apparently so. Now the time has come to try and move them and pot them up. This is easier said than done, because I have no idea how far down into the rotten stump they have sent their roots. I start by using the chainsaw to hack the stump to a manageable size:

Shifting into the greenhouse, I assemble an unusual selection of garden tools, including a floorboard saw, a paint scraper and a spiky kind of fork I usually use for splitting primulas.

It turns out, luckily, that the rhododendron roots mostly have penetrated only the top half inch of the stump, although some have run down the edge and need to be picked out carefully. There’s a lot of wildlife in the stump: tiny worms, slugs, woodlice. Rotten wood is a good habitat.  There are ten separate seedlings. Some have done well, in a Darwinian sense, and are well away. Others are spindly and feeble, but perhaps once they are given their own soil and space, they will learn how to compete.

I’ll leave them in the greenhouse over winter, where I can keep an eye on them, and plant them out in the Spring. I don’t know where, though – rh. yunnanense is very beautiful (see here) but I don’t know that I find room for ten. Anyone want one?