In honour of our Taranaki Rhododendron and Garden Festival which starts today, I had to choose a rhododendron this week and could there be a more splendid choice than the elite nuttallii family? This is like the Rolls Royce of the rhododendron world – a spectacular statement of style. The flowers are the largest of any rhododendron – each flower being about 15cm long, tubular with frilly edges and very fragrant. The leaves are large and what is called bullate – heavily textured and veined, like stiff corduroy fabric. Even the massive flower buds are spectacular. The nuttalliis come from that northern band from Upper Burma across Tibet and India, the sinonuttalliis from China (sino means Chinese in the plant world). This form is a cross between the two, which means technically it still a species and it was done here by the late Felix Jury to get better garden forms. It is quite a legacy.
The nuttallii family have been used in breeding to give cultivars like White Waves, Lady Dorothy Ella, Mi Amor and Yvonne Scott although none of the hybrids I have seen keep the size of the parent flowers and leaves. Both the species and the hybrids have a tendency to rangy, open growth but the beautiful peeling bark and cinnamon colour compensate because this is yet another feature for this handsome family. We are completely besotted with them and luckily we have very good conditions for growing them. There are large parts of the world where it is just too cold to grow these handsome plants.