Tuesday, May 12, 2009

It's Rhody Time in the Northwest

Rhododendrons are coming into full bloom in the Northwest, and throughout the US over the next couple weeks. The show is nothing short of spectacular.

Seattle, Portland, and many other towns in the region have wonderful, huge, mature plantings of the spectacular Coast Rhododendrons (the state flower of Washington) that are just covered with their magnificent clusters of flower trusses. A drive through established neighborhoods will reveal amazing specimens in head turning colors. When gardeners have planted different varieties massed together, it is truly spectacular.

In MrMartha's garden there is a juxtaposition of a classic red, tall Rhody, with a smaller hybrid which has a cream and pink coloration that is very suggestive of apple blossoms -- they make a lovely duet.

The name Rhododendron comes from the Greek "Rhodos" (Rose) and "Dendron" (Tree). The genus also includes shrubs classified as Azaleas. By far the highest concentration of native species are found in the Himalayas and throughout Asia. Both natives and hybrids will grow throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere, except for the driest and coldest regions. So, most gardens in the US can enjoy their beautiful attributes.

This is an excellent time to select Rhodys for your garden, by visiting nurseries where you can actually view and choose the different plants while in their bloom phase. If you are lucky enough to have a good botanical garden in your area, you can also view amazing mature plants, and check the identification plaques of those you like, making notes of named varieties to seek out later from online nurseries and specialty growers.
In Seattle there is the incredible Rhododendron Glen at the University of Washington Arboretum,
Federal Way, Wa has the Weyerhauser Rhododendron Garden,
Tacoma has Point Defiance Park,
and Portland has the incomparable Washington Park.
Even if you are not looking to plant any Rhodys right now, a visit to any of these gardens, or one in your own area, is well worth the effort.

Pay close attention to the growth habits of a particular variety. They can range in size from small dwarfs, to medium shrubs, to 30 foot tall behemoths. Colors range from deep reds to pinks, magentas, lavenders to deep purples, whites, yellows, and creamy tones. Many have a deeper toned throat or a bi-color effect.

Rhodys are not terribly fussy when it comes to care. They prefer a somewhat acid soil pH, they like composty, rich, but well drained soil, and moderate and constant moisture. They benefit from regular fertilization.

Bloom bracts should be pinched off at the end of flowering season, being sure not to snap off next years growth buds which appear just below the current seasons flower truss. Rhody plants can be regularly and lightly pruned for shape, and to keep them in bounds in their planting location. Pruning right after bloom is usually best. For older plants that have gotten too large or too leggy, a severe pruning will not kill the plant, though it will take some time for it to reestablish and fill out again. Even large Rhododendrons can be successfully transplanted and relocated, because of their relatively shallow root structure. This does require care, and a bit of research before undertaking.
One other interesting note, the nectar of the Rhody flowers contains a toxin, so if honey from bees feeding primarily on Rhodys is ingested by humans, it can cause illness.