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More Garden Notes: Rhododendron Cultivar Performance

By Don Craig

Originally published October 1993

The more than 100 rhododendron cultivars planted in the Craig and Gunn Gardens at Upper Dyke, Kings County, Nova Scotia, have grown well since the first were planted in 1987. Many of the first plants have already shown their beauty of flower and plant form. Many are new cultivars to me, but not necessarily new in the true sense of the word. I call them new because they were not present in the Kentvlle Research Station plantings during my 30 years of accumulating rhododendrons for the Station. Some of these so-called ‘news’ came to us via the RSCAR plant sales and it is for this reason I thought you might be interested in my assessment of a few of them.

First the lepidotes – so well suited to all gardens, but especially to the small garden:

Manitou (Conestoga hybrid) – a Nearing introduction, and therefore anything but new. Planted on our garden in 1990, it has much to recommend it. Dwarf (now 18-20 inches high), compact, small leaves, very floriferous. The light pink flower clusters that appear early in May are a delight.

April Dawn (R. minus carolinianum group X R. dauricum) – introduced by Melquist in 1989. Our plant is now 3 feet high, Melquist says 4 feet in 10 years. During late May its display of white suffused pink flowers is superb. A good hardy plant, a must.

Hudson Bay (R. Carolinianum X. R. dauricum) – introduced by Leach in 1982. Another excellent hardy semi-dwarf late flowering lepidote. Very floriferous; flowers white, lightly suffused pink – a favourite in our garden.

Olga (R. carolinianum X. R. minus) – introduced by Mezitt in 1983. I am not aware of a finer and purer pink rhododendron that will not exceed 4 feet in height. Presents a profusion of pink flowers in early May. Leaves that are bright green turn a bronzy-copper as Winter approaches. The plant form is upright so a little shearing is necessary to keep it neat and tidy.

The elepidotes:

Our collection of elepidote cultivars includes 22 of Leach’s many introductions. David Leach is considered, at the present time, to be the foremost rhododendron breeder in America. His material is of special interest to the Atlantic region because bud and plant hardiness and plant form are priorities for his breeding program. For the present, I would like to note four cultivars that we are more than pleased with — Burma, Golden Gala, Normandy and Swansdown. Time will tell how I would rate the remaining 18 but, from what I have observed to date, many will rate well with my early favourites.

Burma (Mars X Fanfare): A good hardy red, flowering the third week in June. A sturdy plant recorded by Leach to be 6 feet tall and 9 feet wide in 19 years. The red florets have heavy dorsal black spotting. I believe Burma will prove to be superior to Nova Zembla, the red so commonly grown.

Golden Gala (Great Lakes X Good Hope): In plant form and quality and foliage one of the very best. Hardy, flowers mid-June, flower buds cream suffused, pink opening to soft yellow, dorsal petal lightly flecked with gold. Ultimate height not expected to exceed 5-6 feet.

Normandy (Newburyport Beauty X Newburyport Bell): An excellent cultivar possessing superb plant quality, plus a grand show of pink flowers in mid- June. Perfect flower heads held high above the foliage. A must for every garden. A hardy plant that Leach records as 5 feet tall and 6.5 feet wide in 15 years.

Swansdown (R. catabiense var. album X Belle Heller): Recipient of the 1982 Award of Excellence from the American Rhododendron Society. A profusion of white flowers, dorsal petal heavily gold flecked, blooms mid-June; plant rather upright, mature height probably 6 feet. Every rhododendron garden needs a good white, Swansdown fills the bill. Our plants are still very young, and as you know, first impressions are not always right. But I have a feeling that the plants discussed above are winners for Atlantic Canada. So, if you haven’t already done so, give them a try.