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"Rediscover Rhododendrons," by the Whistling Gardener

Springtime has arrived and with it multitudes of Rhododendron blooms - our state flower that shines in every color imaginable! Along with their beautiful flowers comes interesting and attractive foliage too. Rhododendron foliage offers every shade of green, in all kinds of shapes and sizes.
Rhododendron blooms. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This week’s column was written by Trevor Cameron CPH. Trevor is a Certified Professional Horticulturist, a long-time rhododendron grower and expert, and General Manager of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

Springtime has arrived and with it multitudes of Rhododendron blooms - our state flower that shines in every color imaginable! 

Along with their beautiful flowers comes interesting and attractive foliage too. Rhododendron foliage offers every shade of green, in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and some are even variegated with stunning color too. To get the complete package, look for a nice bloomer with great foliage too.

Due to their adaptive nature, Rhodies have found their niche in almost every environment in our outdoor spaces - from full hot sun to deep shade and every spot in between. Like with all landscape plants, it helps to make sure you put the right Rhododendron in the right spot.

Remember this Rhododendron rule that has few exceptions… “The larger the foliage, the less sun tolerant it is.”

 In my own garden along a south facing rockery, several species and numerous hybrids of Rhododendrons have been thriving in hot sun with little water, summer after summer. All are fabulous little growers with the typical showy flowers that we expect from Rhodies, but most who see them would not immediately think “Rhododendron.

In full shade, and equally as brilliant, are species like R. yaksuhimanum and R. bureauvii – both with nice flowers and outstanding indumented foliage in silver, white or cinnamon brown. If you come across an indementum species, you should stop and touch the soft velvety covering on the leaves - they are truly unique. 

Not only are we finding these indumented foliages are naturally resistant to bugs and especially diseases, but they add year ‘round foliage color and interest. In my 20 years working in nurseries, the flavors of these species Japanese “Yak” Rhododendrons are the most underutilized plants for partial shade and full shade gardens!

Now let’s talk hybrids….. At last count, there were over 5,000 named hybrids. All I can say is WOW and promise that if you visit a nursery or an online site, you will salivate over all the pretty bloomers! 

There are some oldies but still goodies and numerous “modern” hybrids that will knock your socks off. There are far too many hybrids with lovely flowers to list, but here are a few that combine excellent growth habits and outstanding blooms… 

For a larger yellow, the old fashioned “Hotei” is still the best canary yellow I’ve seen, although many come close. Dwarf yellow ones like “Chikor” “Curlew” and “Wren” are all really easy to grow and great for small spaces or containers. 

Numerous newer hybrids in the orangey/peachy tones are becoming popular and two in my own garden have not disappointed – “Seaview Sunset” and “Honey Butter” have been compact little blooming machines!

Anna Rose Whitney” is a good old-fashioned pink and “Cherry Cheesecake” and “Pomegranate Splash” are newer, striking pink bloomers. 

For large growing reds, utilize the classics like “Jean Marie” and “Grace Seabrook” but check out some great dwarfs like “Carmen” and “Baden Baden” for tidy compact plants. I like “Chinoides” for a good classic white, but there are certainly other worthy flavors. 

For the fans of purples and blues, there are lots of great dwarfs like “Songbird,” “Purple Gem,” and “Blue Baron,” - for a larger specimen try the classic “Lee’s Dark Purple.” 

As you can see, pretty much every color of the rainbow is represented in the rhodie world.

By choosing different varieties, you can potentially have every color blooming in your yard from now through summer!

Whether you want to keep it old-school with a traditional species variety or shake things up with a new hybrid, there is definitely a rhododendron out there to fit your open landscape space and your personality. 

They are starting to bloom now and can be seen all over town, in your neighborhood or in your favorite garden center. Enjoy their beautiful, vibrant colors and be inspired to grow your own!

Trevor Cameron is the General Manager of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA, and can be reached at info@sunnysidenursery.net.

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