arhs Yachts International
arhs Yachts International

The Story of Rhododendron Luteum

By Carol Dancer

Originally published 1993

I wonder how many of you are like me and wonder, as you look at the plants growing in your garden, how they found their way into the vast array of plant material we have available for our gardens today. Who discovered them and where? How did they make their way into the plant trade?

Although it was only in this century that the ‘yellow azalea’ received the attention it deserves, the story of R. luteum, in our literature, dates back to 400 B.C. in Greece and Babylon, and a family quarrel.

Darius II of Babylon had two sons, one of whom, Cyrus, was a great gardener, and was famous for planting trees. Cyrus had an older brother, Artarerxes, who accused Cyrus of plotting to overthrow him after their father died. Artarerxes had Cyrus banished to one of the provinces in Greece. From then on Cyrus was not concerned with gardening but with revenge.

Cyrus gathered together an army with which he planned to do battle against his brother. Among those who joined Cyrus’ army was a man called Xenophon. Xenophon joined the army not as a soldier but as a war correspondent. He wanted to observe and record the details of the war.

Cyrus, Xenophon, and the army moved out toward Babylon prepared to do battle against the army of Artarerxes. They met no opposition and security became lax. Suddenly they were attacked, and because their defenses were low, they were well and truly defeated by Artarerxes and his army. Cyrus was killed and the generals taken prisoner.

Xenophon reorganized the defeated army and led them on the long retreat back to Greece. They engaged in many battles on their journey home, but the battle that interests us the most is the one fought in the country of the Colchians.

The Colchian army was preventing Xenophon and the remanents of Cyrus’ army from reaching their means of escape, the sea. Xenophon devised a plan to attack the Colchian army by piercing the enemy line in narrow columns, and going straight toward their objective, the sea. The plan was a success and the army made its way to Trebizond, a port city in the district of Pontus. Remember, the old name for R. luteum was R. pontica.

On their way to Trebizond, and after the battle, the army gathered up provisions in the hills of Pontus, which included some honey. The soldiers ate the honey and during the night they became ill, acting as if they had been drugged. If the Colchians had attacked again at this time, the army would surely have been defeated.

Four hundred years later, after studying the writing of Xenophon, both Pliny and Dioscorides blamed the illness on the azalea, Rhododendron luteum. They both thought that the honey from the yellow flower with the beautiful scent was poisonous. This is how the legend began about the flower that almost defeated an army.

It isn’t until the seventeen hundreds that we again hear about R. luteum. Joseph Pitton de Tournefort was born and lived in Provence in France. As a child de Tournefort was interested in botany and determined to make the study of plants his life’s work. He travelled and studied extensively, building a good reputation. The King appointed him Professor of Botany in the Royal Gardens in Paris.

In 1700 de Tournefort travelled to the Levant to study the geography of the land and to follow up on his study of the writings of Dioscorides. Dioscorides’ writings led him to the plant we know as R. luteum. Tournefort wrote a botanical description of the plant, had a drawing made, and named the plant Chamaerbododendron Pontica Maxima mespilifolia flore lutea. However he didn’t bring back either plant or seeds of R. luteum to the Royal Gudens. Luteum remained on the hills of Pontus around Trebizond.

Again there is a long period of time before we hear about R. luteum. It was in 1793 that Peter Simon Pallas discovered Rhododendron luteum and sent seed to nurserymen in England.

Pallas was born in Germany with a great gift for learning languages and science. In 1761 he visited England where he made the acquaintance of several gardeners and nurserymen who were to become part of the great English tradition of collecting and introducing new and exciting plants from abroad.

It was after this visit that Empress Catherine II of Russia asked Pallas to become Professor of Natural History in the Imperial Academy of Science in St. Petersburg and he accepted. The Empress commissioned him to do a ‘Flora Russica’. Unfortunately he was unable to complete his work because of a change in government and a cut in his funding. (Does this sound familiar?) Pallas retired to the Crimea and continued to do some botanizing. It was in 1793 that Pallas discovered luteum and sent seeds back to the famous nurserymen, Lee and Kennedy of Hammersmith, whom he had met during his early visit to London. However, luteum made no impact on the great gardens of England at that time, and remained in obscurity, grown only in a very few gardens.

When the first seeds of R. luteum were sent to England, the best gardens were still designed in the French manner. Gardens were formed in geometrical patterns, and there was no place for azaleas whose form defied topiary. But change was in the air, and the English landscape garden was about to become the new style. Instead of the regimented, the natural was to become the fashion.

Carefully planned vistas would be created. Winding walks through exotic shrubbery and groves of trees would be included in garden designs. The rhododendron would begin to take its place in the garden and by the beginning of this century the great rhododendron gardens that we visit today were being made.

R. luteum would prove to be a fine garden shrub in the new gardens. It had flowers with good colour and scent. The plant was a good grower and the foliage, because of its autumn colour, gave it a second season of interest. The Royal Horticultural Society gave luteum the Award of Garden Merit in 1930. It is the parent of many hybrids. Last year (1992) we sold a selected form of R. luteum at our sale in May, a plant called ‘Batumi Gold’.

R.luteum is a deciduous shrub with an open, upright habit. Eventual height is about eight feet. The leaves grow about five inches long. Both sides of the leaves have stiff, flat hairs. The yellow flowers are tubular, funnel-shaped, about two inches across and very sticky. The flowers appear before the leaves and are highly scented.