So twenty years of Rhododendron and Garden Festival (or Rhodo Fest as participants tend to refer to it) has been and gone. Blink your eyes and it is over for another year. We could all have done without the unrelenting rain on the last Sunday but them’s the breaks. It is certainly not the first time that the weather has not cooperated and it won’t be the last.
And another year of eager beavers searching out particular rhododendron cultivars has gone. We assume R.elliottii was not flowering at Pukeiti this year because nobody asked for it. And we could tell that BriRee was not open this year because they used to have a spectacular rhododendron whose name escapes me offhand, that many people asked for. The trouble was that nobody but the good gardeners at BriRee could do much with this particular variety so it was not readily available.
No, it was Lemon Lodge that was at its peak flowering this year around the province and therefore much sought after. Lemon Lodge was selected and named by Pukeiti and it has big trusses of sublime lemon coloured flowers. The problem with Lemon Lodge is that it prefers a cooler climate and certainly will never be happy in Auckland or Whangarei. Even for us, with a warmer climate than Pukeiti, Lemon Lodge looks superb for its two weeks in full flower and pretty tatty for the rest of the year. It also has a fairly poor success rate from cuttings so is not easy to propagate.
Curiously, we were also asked for Lems Cameo several times this year so there must be at least one garden left with a good flowering specimen. Lems Cameo was the must-have plant of the late eighties and early nineties. It has a gorgeous flower in a colour range not really available in anything else of similar shape – big frilly flowers in apricot cream and pink. The trouble with Lems Cameo was that it was very difficult to propagate – had to be grafted and even then with poor success rate – and that it really wanted to live in a cold climate like Taupo or maybe Tekapo. Over the years most of the plants around this province have died, even the large specimen in our park which held on longer than most.
The big, fragrant pure white trumpets of the nuttalliis and nuttallii hybrids were also much admired and these are plants which are not readily available commercially, either. They rarely appear in garden centres because they don’t set flower buds on two and three year old plants and they don’t give much in the way of cutting material so they are not a starter for mass production.
The problem is that there are few, precious few, specialist rhododendron growers left in the country so we are seeing the range get smaller and smaller. The interesting species have all but disappeared from production. Varieties which require grafting or are difficult to propagate and grow in the nursery have also pretty well disappeared. Similarly, azalea mollis do not fit modern methods of mass production and are hard to find. The longstanding specialist nursery, Crosshills in Kimbolton is still flying the flag in the rhododendron world and probably the only source left for a number of cultivars. As far as I know, they still do mailorder too so are worth seeking out if you are after something special.
Mark is of the view that we may see a return to home propagation skills in the face of a declining plant range. For the past three decades, gardeners have expected to be able to source just about any plant they want, as long as it is in the country. Some are still of the view that the advent of the internet should make sourcing even easier but the bottom line is that you can only source a plant if it is actually being produced. With a contracting range, gardeners may have to return to learning how to propagate at home if they are to be able to grow the special plants they covet.
Sadly, dear Reader, there are easier plants to produce at home than most rhododendrons. The vireya rhododendron group are simple and many will root without special facilities. Similarly, evergreen azaleas are pretty easy. But the deciduous azaleas and the classic rhodos require more skill and better facilities. For the home gardener who lacks a hot bed with bottom heat and protection, layering is possibly the easiest method. Layering is simple, as long as you have a long enough branch. It involves pegging a branch to the ground (you can use a wire hoop or even a stone or brick) and being patient for two years or more, in the hope that where the stem is in contact with the ground, it will put out roots (like a sucker). When it has formed roots, you cut the branch from its parent and dig it up and move it. There is no substitute for patience here and you don’t always get the best shaped plant.
We may be seeing a return to the times of Bernie Hollard where you gave your layers away in exchange for other people’s special layers. Layering, of course, only works for plants which grow well on their own roots so it is not suitable for most grafted plants. Plants are often grafted because they don’t grow well on their own roots so grafting is a means of giving them a transplant of other root systems.
There is no hocus pocus to grafting or to propagation at home. It used to widely practiced by gardeners of previous generations and even Mark set up a little outdoor hotbox unit for cuttings in our first home, long before he went into a career in horticulture. If you anticipate wanting special plants, you might usefully employ your time looking through old books to see how it used to be done. It is not an expensive operation but it does require an outdoor power source and some heating cable. Now the internet might be the place where you can find step by step guides to home propagation, including grafting.
The alternative is that you will only ever get to admire many of the special plants seen in our region’s gardens in the last weeks.