Thursday, April 12, 2012

Rare Beauty - The Rhododendron

This is a guest blog by Susan Wheeler. Susan is a well-known garden designer in the White Rock/South Surrey area. The photos of her own gardens show many of the plants that are available here at West Coast Gardens.  We thank Susan for sharing her expertise with us!

I saw my first Rhododendron many years ago, when we lived in Ontario. It was one of the pink/purple colours similar to the ones, here, which are Rhododendron ‘Ken Janeck’,  and I was just amazed at the beauty of the flower. However, when the nursery owner explained the extraordinary care that I would have to give it, in order for it to survive our eastern winters, I had to give up any hope of ever owning one.

 Now, fast forward to about ten years later....we are now living on the West Coast, near Vancouver, and I see these gorgeous plants growing anywhere and everywhere! Wow! I could hardly believe it! Here were the Rhododendrons! Well, as you can imagine, it did not take me long to get as many as my town garden could hold, and I never cease to be bowled over by their amazing beauty.

And, so, you can imagine my shock when I heard someone here say, “ I hate Rhodos!” I could not understand this. However, after being in the business of Garden Design for a number of years now, I am beginning to understand. At least a little. I myself can see that so many Rhodos, can look really horrible when their needs are not met. (They would be absolutely wonderful if given half a chance, with the proper light, drainage and water.)  And so, people who have never lived in the east, and who see so many, I have to say it....ugly Rhodos, can get very disenchanted with them. But it is really just because they have not been treated well, at all!

And so, today, I would like all you gardeners, especially those of you who think that Rhodos are, well, just plain common and boring,  to please reconsider. If you choose the right- sized one for your garden situation, give it the proper light and the cultivation that it requires, you will see these plants in a new light!

My own gardens  would be so lacking without my lovely Rhododendrons!  I can’t imagine my back terraces without the many different Rhodos that grow there. These two are ‘Van Ness Sensation’.

Another great Rhodo to try is ‘ Rhododendron Keleticum’ and it is a very good size for smaller town gardens, as well as being a slow-grower.

One important point to keep in mind when choosing a Rhodo, is that while the flowers can be so enticingly beautiful, you need to consider if this evergreen will look good even when it is not flowering. My deep purple Rhododendron ‘Daphnoides’, seen here, is an exceptional plant, all year 'round'. The leaves are somewhat curved and the overall form is just the best! I have three, in different parts of my gardens. Another good thing is that they bloom a bit later than many, and so you have a beautiful flowering shrub when the others have finished.

 And so, here are a few gardening tips for growing Rhododendrons...
1. Remember that the bigger the leaf, the more shade the plant requires. ( It just makes sense....the larger- leaved plants are used to growing in their native areas where they don’t get that much sun, hence the larger leaves, in order to catch as many rays as possible. )
2. Check the size that the plant will eventually achieve. I have some that I have been growing for over 10 years and they are still only about 3 feet by 2 feet. I have others that will get to be small trees, if I wait long enough. This first one, Rhododendron ‘Princess Anne’ is only about 2.5 feet high and wide, after 12 years! It first opens with flowers that are green,  ( and you know how rare green flowers are... ) and in the winter, its leaves take on a beautiful burgundy colour.The other Rhodo, a white one, is quite hard to find and it is R. ‘Creamy Chiffon’. I bought it about 14 years ago, and then, dug it up when we moved here, and now it lives in our Woodland Garden. It is unusual because it is ‘hose in hose’ which gives the flowers that double look.

 'Princess Anne'

'Creamy Chiffon'

Remember, whenever you are thinking about adding new plants to your garden, you should provide a quiet resting spot for the eyes. This can be managed by planting some interesting green plants, just to add texture. This one, below, is Polygonatum (Solomon’s Seal). If at all possible, get the variegated one with the white edges and plant it where you will be able to look underneath it and see these wonderful little ‘bells’. It is one of the nicest plants for the shady garden. If you choose the one that is variegated, you will enjoy it throughout the season. Also, it adds some movement to the space and does not grow as vigorously as the plain green one. The small Iris cristata, which is a shade lover, would also be equally good. Its spikey leaves are a contrast to the usual ‘roundy moundy’ of so many plants.

3. Do think about when your Rhododendrons will flower and plan to have their colours work with other nearby plantings. Remember,  ‘ eye goes to colour’, and so, in my gardens, I do not have all colours going on everywhere... I wouldn’t know where to look first! I suggest that you have all of the plants in one area harmonize, colour-wise, with their ‘neighbours’. For example, this cool pink Rhododendron, ‘ Van Ness Sensation’, which grows on one of our back terraces,  would look great with this spring blooming Hepatica, growing in the background shade. Our most helpful Jean Kuwabara, right here at West Coast Gardens, tells me that there are some Hepaticas for sale now. Get them while you can , I say!

'Van Ness Sensation'


This deeper toned Rhododendron,  is Rhododendron ‘Minnetonka’  and, as mentioned above, it has a lovely shape and beautiful leaves.  I have planted a harmonizing sedum underneath it which is blooming right when the Rhododendron is blooming, as well. This large Iris, a purple/pink shade also, would blend very well. You could add many other perennials that would complement this vignette.

‘Minnetonka’ with flowering sedum


These Rhododendrons are all in the cool ‘blue/pink’ range of colour but if you prefer the warmer tones, the yellows, golds and peachy ones, try Rhododendron ‘Monarch Horizon’. It is an exceptionally pretty one, as it has in its parentage the wonderfully colourful ‘Nancy Evans’ as well as ‘Point Defiance’. ( And, yes with a name like that, it will be large.....)

Nancy Evans
Watch for a future article from Susan about warm tone rhodos

One last Rhododendron that I would like to mention is  Rhododendron ‘Eruption’. Its flower reminds me of a lovely Rhododendron that I used to grow many years ago, called Rhododendron ‘President Roosevelt’. However, R. ‘President Roosevelt’ has variegated leaves but also has that very pretty two-toned flower in an almost red shade when it first comes out. 

Photo provided by Erica Enterprises

‘President Roosevelt'’s leaves

If you would like to learn more about some of the best Rhododendrons that I have grown and highly recommend, just go to my website, at  where you will see  preview pages of my new book, “ The Best Trees, Shrubs and Perennials...” for the gardens of White Rock and South Surrey. I have listed about 25 Rhododendrons that I have grown and can ‘vouch for’.

Cheers, And Happy Gardening!
Susan Wheeler

Please note: Photos or articles written by Susan Wheeler of 'Green Design Gardens' are copyrighted material and can not be reproduced without written permission from Susan. You can contact Susan via her website.