Rhododendron Rebound

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Although I’ve never been able to grow them well, rhododendrons have always held a special place in my heart. I grew up visiting the gardens of Cornwall in the school holidays –  Trewidden, Glendurgan, Trengwainton, Lanhydrock, Trelissick and Penjerrick – long before the gates of Heligan and Trebah had swung open. As a small boy I was overwhelmed by the sight of these glamorous grande dames presiding over their fabulous woodland domains, their emerald-green skirts merging together to form dense trains of foliage studded with jewel-like blooms. I would collect the fallen flowers from the mossy ground and stack them on top of one another to create a kaleidoscopic tower of pink, red, purple and white. To me they were too beautiful to be left to rot: I wanted to give them a second chance.


white rhododendron, Sandling Park, May 2016


The practical needs of rhododendrons – their general requirement for acidic soil and generous space – has precluded me from growing these fine shrubs extensively in any of my gardens to date. However, Him Indoors has been briefed that our next home will have several acres of attendant sheltered woodland, situated on a deep bed of acidic leaf litter and watered by springs. I can dream! In the meantime I satisfy my springtime rhododendron craving by visiting the great woodland gardens of the south-east, including The Savill Garden, Hillier Arboretum and Sandling Park, where the photographs in this post were taken this May.


Pink azalea, Sandling Park, May 2016


The genus Rhododendron, which includes the shrubs commonly referred to as azaleas, fell out of favour at about the same time we ended our love affair with dahlias, chrysanthemums, gladioli, conifers and hybrid tea roses. Overgrown and gaudily coloured, they became synonymous with the gloomy shrubberies of commuter belt houses and stuffy National Trust properties. Then, to hammer a final nail in the coffin, along came the black sheep of the family, Rhododendron ponticum. It rampaged through forests, nature reserves and National Parks, displacing precious natives, making a general nuisance of itself. Tarred with the same brush, thousands of rhododendron species and named cultivars seemed doomed to linger in the backwaters of every garden centre in the land, waiting for the day when they would be consigned to the clearance bench or tortured by an inexperienced gardener.


pink rhododendron, Sandling Park, May 2016


Then the fortunes of rhodies, as some fashionable types now refer to them, began to change. It was at about the time that the National Trust started to tackle the restoration of the gardens at Stowe, and when The Lost Gardens of Heligan became unlost, that the tide finally began to turn in their favour. Visitors started to reappraise the these gentle giants, admiring their form, hardiness and myriad flower colours.


Yellow deciduous azalea, Sandling Park, May 2016


Before anyone rushes out to start a rhododendron collection it’s essential to understand what kind of plant you are dealing with. The requirement for an acid growing medium is almost universal and hence a significant limiting factor when most of us cannot naturally offer such conditions.  Cultivation in containers is entirely possible and helped by choosing a compact variety, but watering has to be fastidiously maintained, so rarely is this a long-term solution. In our London garden I grow R. “Sir Charles Butler” in a huge terracotta pot filled with ericaceous compost, sunk into damp ground. Still it requires watering as often as any other pot plant and then with rainwater not tap. Unless you are determined to grow rhododendrons this way, I would not especially recommend it.


orange azalea, Sandling Park, May 2016


Rhododendrons originate principally from the Himalayas where about 600 species can be found. I have been lucky enough to see a handful of them growing wild in India, Nepal and Bhutan. They range from frost tender plants, happy at lower elevations, to large-leaved species growing in conifer forests at around 3000 metres above sea level. As the tree line thins, small-leaved rhododendrons may be found sheltering amongst juniper scrub and alpine meadows, where there may be snow cover for much of the year. In size they range from the diminutive, tropical, tree-hugging vireyas of cool cloud forests to mountaineering, arboreal giants. A few species, such as the Japanese R. yakushimanum are very tolerant, surviving freezing winters and baking hot summers in exposed positions.


red azalea, Sandling Park, May 2016


Over the last century plant breeders have developed more and more exotic hybrids, with about 20,000 currently registered. To celebrate their 100th anniversary, the RHS Rhododendron, Magnolia and Camellia Group (originally The Rhododendron Society), canvassed members from all over the world to compile a list of the top 100 rhododendrons of the century. All of them can be enjoyed in this video presentation, with the top 10 listed below.



The RHS Rhododendron, Camellia & Magnolia Group Top 10 Rhododendrons

  1. R. yakushimanum ‘Koichiro Wada’ AGM
  2. R. macabeanum AGM
  3. R. ‘Loderi King George’ AGM
  4. R. augustinii AGM
  5. R. falconeri AGM
  6. R. cinnabarinum ssp. cinnabarinum
  7. R. bureavii AGM
  8. R. arboreum
  9. R. pachysanthum AGM
  10. R. sinogrande AGM


Mauve azalea, Sandling Park, May 2016


Whether you’re a rhodie roadie or a committed rhododedrophobe I’d love to hear your thoughts on these incredible shrubs. For me, nothing surpasses a woodland garden in May, the dark green hulks of rhododendrons dripping with flowers and the naked stems of deciduous azaleas alight with flaming, scented blooms – My idea of heaven.

Finally, for those of you who have read this far, it’s The Frustrated Gardener’s 4th Birthday today. Thank you to everyone who has been with me on the journey since the beginning or has caught up with my blog along the way.


Yellow deciduous azalea, Sandling Park, May 2016

Categories: Cornish Gardens, Cornwall, Flowers, Large Gardens, Photography, Plants, Trees and Shrubs

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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24 comments On "Rhododendron Rebound"

  1. First, Happy Birthday!
    It’s sad isn’t it. I can grow them, but I have to admit I’m not that fond. Our predecessor, who obviously thought the soil was not acid enough also planted them in pots sunk in the soil. But we’re not talking huge pots, we’re talking the pots they arrived in from the nursery. Some only a foot across. At least it made them easy to relocate. I now grow them (sans pot) where I can glimpse them through the trees. The colours don’t seem quite so in your face then. And they lend an air of mystery, encouraging one to explore further.

    1. I am impressed so many readers are getting to the end of this post! Thank you, it’s very encouraging to know :-). I guess I am a very unsubtle gardener. I don’t see bright and gaudy, I just see incredible colours that can’t be described in words. Those flaming oranges and reds, and the primrose yellows flushed with pink fascinate and excite me. You must like rhododendrons just enough, to be kind enough to give them a new home in the woods. Well done!

    1. I shall try. It has taken this long to gain momentum, so I shall keep going now. I can’t quite believe it’s happened at all. It wasn’t even planned. Somehow I just started ….. and now I can’t stop! I am so happy to hear you enjoy what I write and the pictures that I take. Bless you for saying so.

  2. First, happy blogiversary! That’s quite some staying (or should I say, blogging) power.

    Thanks for this post and the wonderful photos.
    I adore Rhododendrons and we have a lot in our garden. My favorite has bunches of ice pink bllooms that make it look, from a distance, like candyfloss All but one of the rest do really well. The one that doesn’t is fine – it’s a large shrub and its leaves are healthy – but it only gets two or three blooms a year. The rest are wonderful. I couldn’t tell you what they are as, even if I knew, as my memory rarely retains the information. Until this year we’ve never deadheaded any of them but when the flowers die they can be extremely unpleasant to look at as they go brown too quickly, so we’ve been doing it. As they were already here when we bought the house I can only assume that the main bed they are in was filled with acid soil from the start. We don’t water them, by the way, but perhaps because we live in Wales with its higher rainfall than the eastern part of the UK, they get more water.

    I hope to do a post with photos of them soon.

    1. I look forward to that Val. I am guessing you have the perfect conditions for them in Wales as they like plenty of water, provided they are not standing in it. It seems to be a common thing that the names of rhododendrons are lost, as they are long lived, unlike most plant labels! At Sandling and many other famous gardens the plants are rarely well labelled. I mind this less as I have no hope of growing them, but envy those who can!

      I shall go to sleep with a lovely image of a candyfloss pink flowers in my head. Dreamy!

      1. If you do try growing them again, one thing that occurred to me is that the ones that thrive are in a sloping bed. Our garden is on flat, even ground but the rhododendron bed is quite steep. As you say, they don’t like to be standing in water, so maybe the key to success is that they need good drainage in the form of runoff from where they grow? The one that doesn’t thrive is in a flat bed.
        Ah yes, those missing labels! 🙂

      2. When we went to Bhutan we never, surprisingly, saw a single rhododendron growing on flat ground. They were all clinging to cliffs or sunning themselves on slopes. I must go back through my photographs of the trip and write a post just about the ones we saw. It will be a nice trip down memory lane.

  3. Congratulations on 4 blogging years. I too have seen rhodo forests in Bhutan – fantastic. The huge trees at Heligans are also a standout memory of a visit a few years back.I’m not a gardener, but enjoy your blog nevertheless.

  4. Congratulations Dan and happy fourth birthday to The Frustrated Gardener, with wishes for many happy returns.
    I have only experienced rhododendrons growing happily in New Zealand and Victoria, Australia but never in full flower. Perth does not have a suitable environment for them although I have seen them in nurseries here (ridiculous!). I can imagine them to be quite amazing, lighting up a shaded green woodland with their abundant bright blooms.
    I really liked how you emphasised the need for appropriate conditions to grow rhododendrons, and indeed any plant, successfully. It’s taken me many years to learn this simple fact. If I had had access to your excellent common sense advice 40 years ago I would have saved a great deal of heartache, money and many, many tears. But I love the plants I CAN grow that others can’t and, like you, enjoy experiencing the plethora of plant forms of this planet through other means. Thanks Dan.

    1. No point torturing yourself, or the rhododendrons, if you can’t give them what they need. There were a few new varieties nominated for RHS Plant of the Year, which attracted some criticism because of their cultural limitations. However I am pleased to see that they are still being hybridised and new varieties created. Who knows, one day they might find a way of breeding them lime-tolerant …. or perhaps someone already has? Your sage advice to grow what you can grow is as good as any I could offer.

  5. Happy, happy birthday and many more. 🙂 I don’t have any myself, but they are in bloom right now all around so I’ve been admiring them from afar. Your photos are wonderful and certainly show off their beauty. The first and the third photos quickened my pulse. 🙂

  6. Congratulations on four year of blogging. I enjoy your posts immensely. I can’t grow rhododendrons here, but this reminded me that I love them and should get out there to see some.

  7. This post has many elements of a wonderful story — the innocence and caring of youth, popularity and favor, the falling out, the return. Very well written and a joy to read. Thank you!

  8. That first photo — wow. Great colors. I enjoyed rhodos in my NY garden, but now that I’m in zone 10, it’s just too hot of them. Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

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