Maintaining social status if not economic value – the rhododendron in Taranaki

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The generic pink rhododendron photo - in fact an unnamed seedling from our park

2009 may not go down in history as having the best ever display of rhododendrons in Taranaki because spring came somewhat early this year and festival dates are somewhat late. But it is rather a happy collision of different occurrences that sees us wearing a rhododendron crown in the first place. It is not that we grow them hugely better than everywhere else. We just happen to have Pukeiti here and that organisation and identity has given an enduring regional focus to the plant genus, along with our longstanding annual garden festival. In fact going back in history, that garden festival was first floated by Pukeiti and owned and run in the early years by the Taranaki Rhododendron Group.

Why rhododendrons? Just as tulips commanded prestige and price well beyond their actual worth in Holland in centuries past, rhododendrons were the high status and high prestige plant for the post World War 11 gardeners and we had a cluster of serious gardeners in Taranaki at the time.

Douglas Cook, the father of Pukeiti, bought land here primarily for rhododendrons because it was clear to him that these aristocrats from lower mountain slopes in Asia would never be an option for his first choice location near Gisborne, where he set up Eastwood Hill with its heavy focus on drought tolerant deciduous trees.

Around the same time, a number of Taranaki gardeners and plantspeople were creating their gardening masterpieces. These included Bernard and Rose Hollard near Kaponga, Russell and Mary Matthews on Mangorei Road (Tupare), Les Jury at Sunnybank on Tukapa Street, Harold Marchant and Les Taylor near Stratford, Jack Goodwin at Pukekura Park and Pukeiti – and Felix and Mimosa Jury in the garden here at Tikorangi. The rhododendron family featured large in their plans and individual collections were highly prized.

Historically, back in those mists of time around the late forties and fifties, Duncan and Davies were becoming the major force in commercial production and that happened in Taranaki partly because all plants were field grown in those days (in other words in the ground in real soil, rather than in containers and planter bags in modern nurseries). With its friable, volcanic soils, high sunshine and regular rainfall for 12 months, Taranaki just happened to have the best conditions in the country for field production. It needs also to be said that the charisma and dynamism of V.C. Davies was a major influence.

Times keep changing. These days the market value of a rhododendron plant has plummeted so far that you can go to any plant shop and buy one for around the same price as a perennial, a clipped bay tree, even a semi-clipped buxus or a large succulent. I can tell you, dear Reader, that there is a vast amount more skill and time required to get that rhododendron onto the shop floor than the other plants and that they are dreadfully underpriced, almost without exception. I am frankly astonished that rhododendrons have to some extent kept their elevated status in theory, even though reality has them relegated well down the plant equivalent of the social scale. It is a conundrum.

But then we still lay claim to the rhododendron in Taranaki even though the local nursery industry continues to dwindle away (we certainly can’t claim to be the Southern hemisphere power house of plant production these days!) and even though most home gardeners would rather plant a fruit tree than a rhodo. The rhododendron gives a focus, an icon, to our garden festival which sets it a little apart from others all round the country – except for Dunedin who shamelessly (though quite justifiably) continue to challenge our claim to having the Rhododendron Festival.

As our festival starts today, never underestimate the importance of this annual event on our regional garden calendar. It is the single event which keeps Taranaki right up at the top nationally in the garden scene. The 10 days of festival deliver more visitors into most of our open gardens than will be seen on the other 355 days of the year. It is the single event which makes it worthwhile to maintain gardens to the high standards we currently reach. Without festival, there would be no incentive to keep lifting gardening standards and setting the benchmarks.