In praise of vulgar flower power

With the excess of open gardens and garden events this weekend, we thought of putting up a poster: “Caution. Endangered species. Garden Visitor.”

Some of us remember the heydays of the late 1980s and early 90s when garden visiting ranked very high as a preferred leisure activity. While other garden festivals throughout the country have flowed but mostly ebbed in the time since, our annual Rhododendron and Garden Festival has managed to hold on and to gain a pre-eminent position as a premier garden event despite the overall decline in visitor numbers.

While applauding the initiative and determination of the organisers of other garden events (notably the Fringe Festival and the Stratford event), one could wish that they would find their own time in the year and not directly compete for the endangered species of the garden visitor. The effect of excessive options might be that we shoot ourselves in the foot and end up with visitors being spread too thinly to make any of the events viable. There is not a lot of Big Picture thinking going on in some quarters, in my opinion at least.

Having been writing this column for about ten years now, I have an admission to make. I am not sure that there is anything left for me to say about the genus of rhododendron that I have not said before. In fact I probably tabled everything I know about them in the first three or four years and as I feel under some obligation to write a rhododendron column at this time of the year, I have been reworking the information ever since. I have only met one person who filed all my columns but I still live in dread of the cracked record syndrome.

But I don’t think I have ever written about deciduous azaleas, although they are a branch of the rhododendron family. They are not as widely available commercially. In the nursery we have found it more difficult to get good plants of deciduous azaleas than rhododendrons. And they only have a short selling time when they are in full flower and with fresh new growth. To be honest, for much of the rest of the year they are twiggy, leggy plants of no huge merit, often suffering from mildewed foliage in humid climates and about as attractive as a rose bush in autumn and winter.

But at this time of the year, they are wonderful. Often loud, brash and vulgar they outflower their more aristocratic cousins, the rhododendrons. Because they mass flower without their leaves, their display is spectacular. And there is an intensity of colour in many which is not for the fainthearted. I refer to the bright oranges, yellows and reds.

A few years ago, a garden visitor asked me what the bright orange rhododendron was behind our house. Aside from the fact that we have about four acres of garden behind our house so the location was a little vague, I could not think of any rhododendrons which could be described as bright orange (with the exception of vireyas and there were none of those behind the house at the time). I suggested he go back and pick up a flower from underneath it but he returned bearing a full truss of an orange azalea which he had snapped off the plant. It is a good thing not too many garden visitors indulge in that practice.

Marks father planted all the brights, but his preference was for more subdued colouring and fragrance (strong scent is often allied to paler colours – all to do with attracting pollinating insects). Over the years he did a bit of crossing of favoured plants and he named about half a dozen, mostly in the pastel shades. My personal favourite is one he called “Almond Icing” which is in the pink to apricot tones. We have a large plant along our driveway which never fails to delight me. It is a about three metres high now and has achieved small tree stature and each year it flowers at the same time as the only old fashioned lilac which has survived our conditions. Lilacs, by the way, prefer colder, drier winters so do better inland or in the South Island. It makes a very pretty combination.

Azaleas are more forgiving of less than ideal conditions than the more elite rhododendrons. They prefer full sun and they will also take remarkably wet feet in heavy soils or even dry, sandy soils. While these are not the best locations, it does mean they will survive in conditions which will kill off rhododendrons. In a small garden, deciduous azaleas are perhaps best integrated into the mixed border where other plants will mask their scruffy or dull times. Mark describes it as hiding their legs. Azaleas lack a skirt to cover their many legs. In a large garden, a swathe of deciduous azaleas can be a showstopper.

For about fifteen years, Mark has been chipping away at planting our last three acres or so of unused land, formerly known as “the cow paddock” – his father used to keep a house cow in it. While we open much of our garden to the public, this has remained a private domain as the plantings grow and achieve some maturity. So few have yet seen his swathe of deciduous azaleas. He raised seed until the plants were large enough to put into fairly rough ground and a couple of years ago went in with about 500 plants. The planting runs from the bright reds through oranges to yellows to pastels and whites (the one orange one amongst the white division is still waiting to be transferred but they weren’t in flower when they were planted so he managed the forward planning remarkably well).

You can tell we are of the Flower Power generation. Not for us the restraint of foliage gardening in shades of green and stylish black. We glory in the sheer vulgarity and heady fragrance of the unfashionable deciduous azalea.