October is the peak time for rhododendrons and while this group of plants has seen a considerable slide in popularity in recent years, there is delicious anticipation in watching buds fatten, show colour and then gradually open. We would not want to be without plenty of them in our garden and this week it is “Ken Burns” that is looking delightful. It is hard to describe the colour. I would call it honey buff, others describe it as champagne. The buds are buffy yellow with a pink flush and the fully open flowers fade out to a cream with a yellow throat. It is even lightly scented. The leaves are quite small and slightly hairy and the plant stays well furnished and compact to about 1.2 metres high and a similar width. But for those of us living in warmer parts of the country, one of the real stand-out features of “Ken Burns” is that it stays healthy and rarely gets affected by nasty thrips (which turn the leaves silver and weaken the plant) or by sun scorch.
I had always thought that this is just a superior selection of the species R. johnstoneanum (which is as it occurs in the wild – raising species from seed gives variation within the seedlings), but it appears that there is a school of thought that it may be a natural hybrid (in other words, R. johnstoneaum crossed with something else unknown). The story goes that the original plant was growing in the garden of Mr Ken Burns who lived near Timaru and it was nearly lost when a bullock leaned too heavily on the fence and inflicted major damage on it. Somebody salvaged the plant and named it for Mr Burns. It is not at all the done thing to name plants after oneself. Since then, all plants bearing this name have been propagated by cutting which keeps the plant true to name. To raise it from seed would be to give rise to more seedling variation so it would no longer be “Ken Burns”.