Rhododendron season

My favourite rhododendron – R. sino nuttallii

Occasionally, Mark and I torture ourselves remembering our years retailing plants. Do not get me wrong. The nursery served us well and enabled us to put our children through university and to retire early. We met many lovely people and to this day, former customers will tell us what they bought from us. Sadly, it is the obnoxious ones that stick most clearly in our memories. There can’t have been that many of them because, between us, we can come up with individual details and sometimes even names. I doubt that any read my posts.

The classic rhododendron look with ball trusses – left to right ‘Norrie King’, a red whose name neither of us could pull out of the memory banks and ‘Derrell’ King
One of Felix’s yakushimanum crosses – this type of rhododendron does not spark joy for me, personally speaking.

Mark built the nursery on rhododendrons in the first years and indeed, the garden here was primarily seen as a rhododendron garden. They were a hot ticket item and well over 100 000 were produced in Taranaki alone every year. Quite early on, Mark analysed the fact that many of our mailorder customers came from the upper half of the North Island and decided that if he was going to sell them rhododendrons, he would pick the varieties most likely to perform well in warmer climes. Most of the big, showy American hybrids that were flooding into NZ at the time – the likes of ‘Puget Sound’, ‘Lems Cameo’, ‘Anna Rose Whitney’ and so many more – needed colder winters and less humid summers than we can provide. We have lost many of those American and European hybrids in the garden here now and I am sure they never did well in Auckland.

One of Felix Jury’s cultivars – Rhododendron ‘Barbara Jury’ showing the tupical maddenii form

He targeted a range within the maddenii group which were usually characterised by looser trusses of bell-shaped flowers, fragrance, mostly paler colours and, most importantly, healthy foliage in warmer climates. Many were from his father, Felix’s breeding efforts and Mark added to them.

‘Moon Orchid’ – a sister seedling to Barbara above

This week when the R. sino nuttalliis are looking so glorious they can take my breath away and many of the maddeni hybrids are flowering, I thought back to those retailing days. It was a constant uphill battle to convince customers that these were splendid plants much better suited to their conditions when their mental image was entirely focused on the classic rhododendron look of big ball trusses sitting atop the foliage. In the 1990s, if they were male customers, they not only had to be big ball trusses, they had to be RED. It became a joke here that every time a nursery plant opened a big truss of red flowers, a man would buy it on the spot. If women bought a red rhododendron, it was almost always for their husband.  Maybe times have changed in the decades since.

One of the loderis – we think it is ‘Venus’. It is a bit of a ratty plant all year except when in bloom when it is glorious

A rhododendron friend who went around the garden last week commented on how lovely it was to see mature rhododendrons in a garden setting. I had forgotten that huge gulf between tidy, little nursery plants standing maybe 50cm high in their pot and the large specimens we have in the garden. I don’t miss those days of nursery production and sales one bit.

Just a random row in the trial area
Look at how clean the foliage is, given the total absence of any attention and very open conditions

Ironically, as rhododendrons fell from favour in the market, Mark started to get the breakthrough of big, ball trusses on plants that kept good foliage (not turning silver from thrips and getting crispy brown edges to the leaves). We have a long row of them quietly growing in full sun and open conditions in the trial grounds. They are not my favourite; big ball trusses are less appealing to me and they have no scent. Mark is a bit underwhelmed by the flower colours – he doesn’t see any colour breakthroughs in them. But what sets them apart is that growing over the years with no care, no spraying, no fertiliser, no pruning and in full sun, many of them have kept excellent, clean foliage and they cover themselves in blooms every year. That is the breeding step that he managed.

More seedlings but it is the foliage we are admiring

They were bred specifically for our conditions but the commercial market for rhododendrons in NZ is so small now that there is no incentive at all to release them. He just reached that breeding goal too late for our nursery days and for when rhododendrons were an elite and fashionable line. Such is the life of a plant breeder. They can just sit over in the trial grounds. We have the space and they are not doing any harm there.

Is there anything lovelier than a sino nuttallii?

I have long said that if I could only grow one rhododendron, it would be a R. sino nuttallii. I doubt that they are available commercially here these days when specialist growers have all but gone, although some of the nuttallii or madennii hybrids are still around. Most of you will just have to enjoy them vicariously and take my word for their bold beauty and delightful fragrance.

An unnamed seedling in the maddenii range
Another unnamed seedling which is a full sister to ‘Barbara Jury’ and ‘Moon Orchid’.

19 thoughts on “Rhododendron season

  1. Annette Gazley

    Thank you so much for your walk and talk around your garden at the Festival. Thougherly enjoyed our time with you.
    And I love the R. sino nuttallii picture in your newsletter.
    Thank you again.
    Kind Regards Annette

  2. Tim Dutton

    I did a quick stock take and have discovered that amongst our numerous Rhododendrons we have 7 reds…sorry Abbie. As the purchase of all our plants is a joint decision I am sure it wasn’t all my fault :-).
    We both like to see splashes of red in the garden on occasion, so the garden has big bowls of red tulips, red Rhododendrons and Acers with brilliant red autumn foliage. They are all pretty fleeting though and it is very rare for any two of the ‘big reds’ to be in flower at the same time of year and certainly never in the same part of the garden: one intense splash of red within the view is enough for us.
    Our R. maddenii virginalis won’t flower for a couple more weeks, but sadly our R. ‘Mi Amor’ (which had nuttallii parentage) died over the winter. I miss it.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Tim, I am not anti red rhododendrons, as such. I just got fed up with men down the years who would not look past red rhodos with bill ball trusses. Noyo Chief brings me pleasure every year, although it has been hit by the pine tree yesterday.
      Did you dead head Mi Amor? It is one that can seed itself to death if not regularly dead headed.

      1. Tim Dutton

        Did the pine do a lot of damage to Noyo Chief, or just break a bit off so it can recover? Mind you, that can take a while. We have a ‘Rainbow’ that had all but one small stem die back and we cut it all out apart from that. It recovered fully, sprouted new stems and is a bigger bush than ever now, but that was 16 years ago.
        No I didn’t dead head Mi Amor. I did see a lot of seed capsules on it the year before it died and collected some seed too (which didn’t germinate), but never thought we’d need to remove all the capsules to keep the shrub alive. If we buy another I will make sure to do that in future.

      2. Abbie Jury Post author

        Noyo Chief isn’t looking too bad but we are still dismantling the upper branches of the line so can’t see the full extent. The problem with rhodos that set large quantities of seed is that they tend to put so much energy into the seed that it can weaken the plant over time.

  3. Bev Rennie

    I enjoyed your blog on rhodo’s and the info about the varieties. I’ve just planted Winsome – not sure who produced her but she’s lovely. I work at a large retail garden place in Hawkes Bay and I think we have had more customers asking for rhodo’s this year than ever before. So maybe there could have been a resurgence and demand for those beauties of Marks. 😊

  4. Elizabeth Harwood

    Love reading your posts Abbie and the photos of the garden are inspiring! When I was growing up in Invercargill we had three large rhododendron on our property, classic pink (probably a very early variety it was huge and the same as the ones in Queens Park), a lovely purple and a dark reddish pink. They all had no scent. But outside the back gate on a neighbours property was a white flowered bush that had big loose clusters of flowers with pink throats and it did have a lovely scent. It was also a bumblebee magnet. I’ve always wished I had known to ask Mrs Cooper what it was called. No other white rodo I’ve seen comes close to it in my memory! Ah well, living in Canterbury now and our soil is nowhere near suitable for these lovely plants.

  5. Mandi Povey

    We have recently bought a property in Tikorangi that has some amazing rhodos and magnolias. I have your favourite Sinno Nutallii, with cut blooms on my table. Loving the discovery as I wander the property. My understanding is many were sourced from your nursery. The garden is decades old! Loved seeing your guys progress over the years. Happy retirement!
    Mandi Povey

  6. Katrina Wilson

    Thanks Abbie, I’m in Auckland and was recommended getting some larger Rhododendrons for structure. Thanks for the recommendation on the nuttallii. I managed to track it down and hopefully it is in stock and will be sent shortly to plant. I do thank you for your considered advice as I have inherited a loderri liliac rhodo and it was far from happy – filled with borer and mis-shapen limbs. I was underwhelmed on the suggestion to use rhodo’s in my garden based on the incumbent’s performance. But your suggestion on the nuttallii is excellent. Thanks also for the lovely recommendations on the Fairy Cream Magnolia’s that Mark has developed. I bought two of them and they are now happily planted in the back border with lots of sheep and chicken pellets and compost. Unfortunately I had already purchased Bubbles, gracipes and figo. I wish I had known about the fairy magnolia’s earlier. I would have used these exclusively.

  7. Alison

    Loved your article on rhododendron
    At present I have Rhodo Kaka out at present which is thriving.
    Do you know of others that would do well inAuckland Fortunately we live in Titirangi a native bush suburb so perhaps there is more scope for a variety of rhodos .The rhodo has responded well from the coffee grounds at the local cafe!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Titirangi does seems to do rhododendrons better than most other areas of Auckland but I am too far out of touch with what is available on the market now to be able to advise on which varieties may grow well for you.

  8. Lynlea Tucker

    I have a couple of Moon Orchid and a Barbara Jury here in Tauranga …getting on for 10yrs or so, they are glorious and the only rhodos that have really enjoyed
    our microclimate here. I really enjoy your blog, thank you for keeping real.

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