Tag Archives: Rhododendron Floral Gift

Spring pinks

Pink froth of Prunus Awanui  currently at its peak

I am a big fan of pink and not just in flowers, but my theme this week came because of two pink plants in bloom.

The balls of viburnum are at the front of the vase

The first is one of the Virburnum × burkwoodii cultivars. I am not sure which one it is but we have it planted beside the drive where it is largely anonymous for 51 weeks of the year. In the 52nd week, it opens its flowers to rounded balls of exquisite fragrance – strong enough to hang in the air several metres away. We would be lucky to get a full 7 days out of it but I am sure it does better in other climates – it probably wants it drier and colder. I picked a few balls to put in a vase with pink bluebells and late flowers of Mark’s Daphne ‘Perfume Princess’ (which still has flowers and has had since late March). It was lovely but the viburnum flowers promptly died overnight. They last longer than that on the bush, though not by much.

The view with our morning cuppa

Magnolia Serene

A prodigious carpet of petals beneath

The second pink to give me daily delight is Magnolia ‘Serene’ – bred by Felix and the marker of the end of the deciduous magnolia season for us. As we sit having our morning cup of tea, it is framed in the corner window of our bedroom. Not this morning, though. With daylight saving, it was a bit dark at 7am to see it so that may herald the end of that particular seasonal pleasure, too.

Rhododendron Coconut Ice

I am not the world’s biggest fan of the ball truss type of rhododendron but ‘Coconut Ice’ was looking particularly pretty earlier this week. Sadly, it is browning off already. Flowering is an ephemeral pleasure. Mark observes that the delight of rhododendrons lies in watching the buds for a long period of time before finally opening over a period of a couple of weeks. There is then a week, maybe 10 days, of full glory – sometimes cut shorter by an ill-timed storm – and then it is time to dead head it. In practice, we don’t dead head all our rhododendrons – just those that set large amounts of seed which can weaken the plant over time.

My rhododendron preference is for those with looser trusses that are sometimes so abundant that they can cover the plant.

Rhododendron Anne Teese

It took a couple of goes for Mark to remember the name of this beauty – Rhododendron Anne Teese. It is an Australian-bred hybrid coming from the Teese family (in this case the father, Arnold) who are well known through their nursery, Yamina Rare Plants in Monbulk, Victoria. Mark thinks it was named for the mother, presumably married to Arnold. Whatever, it is very lovely and I would be happy to have it named for me. It is a Maddenia hybrid (R.ciliicalyx x R.formosum) so scented and with a heavier petal, more weather resistant than ‘Charisma’, a similar R.ciliicalyx selection that used to be widely available here.

Rhododendron Floral Gift in a swathe of bluebells

With one notable exception – Magnolia ‘Felix Jury’ – Mark doesn’t name his cultivars for people. Or when he does, it is by oblique reference at best so an in-house tribute only. So this, his most fragrant rhododendron is ‘Floral Gift’, not ‘Abbie Jury’. It takes a while to get established but it is lovely and can be seen performing really well at Pukeiti Rhododendron Gardens. There are a whole lot of hybrids in this genre of scented, white flushed pink loose trusses; the best known is ‘Fragrantissimum’.  What sets ‘Floral Gift’ apart is the large flower and the very heavy petal texture giving it good weather resistance.

The reason I often reference weather resistance is because our spring flowering coincides with the spring equinox when we get the most unsettled weather, as evidenced this weekend – which, for us, means very heavy rain and wind which can wipe out fragile flowers in a matter of hours. And a few more pinks to finish off – this is one of the Dendrobium ‘Bardo Rose’ group of orchids which thrive in our open woodland areas. They flower for a long time and the scale is right for detailed woodland plantings – by which I mean, not as big and dominant as the cymbidiums.

Fairy Magnolia Blush

Fairy Magnolia Blush has a good, long flowering season, currently at its most charming stage of peak bloom. More lilac than pink, it is pleione orchid time. This is another group from the orchid family that thrives in pretty laissez-faire woodland conditions (in other words, benign neglect) but the flowering season is much shorter than the dendrobium ‘Bardo Roses’.

And the final bar of pink can be left to the evergreen azaleas. We have so many different ones that we get many months in flower but they are currently at their showiest.

Rhododendron season – two generations of breeding

Mark’s ‘Floral Sun’ is a great performer for in our conditions

Rhododendrons have long been a part of our lives. The first ornamental plants we bought in our twenties for our first home in Dunedin were three rhododendrons, chosen with great care from a local specialist grower. They were ‘Mayday’, ‘Princess Alice’ and, obscurely, R. oreotrephes.

Mark is not exaggerating when he says he started the nursery here from one wheelbarrow up. We will give credit to his parents, Felix and Mimosa, for many things but starting the nursery was not one of them and attempts by others to credit Felix as a nurseryman never fail to irritate. The first mail order list we ever posted out in 1982 comprised fifteen rhododendrons and Magnolia Iolanthe. Five of those fifteen were first releases from his father’s breeding and the others were mostly species, including the rare R.bachii. Rhododendrons remained a key part of our mail order offering for the next 22 years, with a wide range of both species and hybrids.

Mark gathered up all the new hybrids he could find which meant a fair swag of material out of USA, very little of which thrived in our conditions. In our time, we grew all those popular varieties of their day – ‘Lems Monarch’, ‘Lems Cameo’, ‘Ostbo’s Low Yellow’, ‘Markeeta’s Prize’ and ‘Percy Wiseman’ amongst many, probably scores, of others. Very few of them are in the garden now. Most needed a colder winter and somewhat drier conditions than we could give them. They were particularly vulnerable to thrip, giving them silver leaves and weakening the plant over time because we were not prepared to routinely spray plants in the garden.

Felix’s maddeni hybrid ‘Barbara Jury’

Just another unnamed seedling from Felix’s breeding but it wasn’t that easy to sell these types of rhododendrons to customers who expected tight, ball trusses

Felix had dabbled in breeding for years and his interest in the maddeniis was because of their excellent foliage, high health performance and fragrance. He named about twelve which we released onto the market but they were always a bit of a hard item to sell because they didn’t have the full truss that most people associate with rhododendrons. No matter that they put up a wall – or maybe curtain – of gorgeous blooms, often well scented, and kept healthy foliage all year round, it took a more sophisticated gardener to appreciate their charm.

Mark’s ‘Floral Gift’ is proving to be a bit of a star over time in local gardens at least

In his turn, Mark took his paintbrush to the task of pollinating rhododendrons. He has only named four so far, three from the maddeni group and one, ‘Meadow Lemon’, with a full truss. There are more, quite a few more here but the rhododendron lost its elevated social status in the New Zealand garden. Sales declined and the earlier abundance of specialist rhododendron nurseries either changed tack or closed down. A highly competitive market became instead one of very limited supply and little specialist knowledge.

The row of latest hybrids ‘across the road’, as we say

A fair number of readers will know Our Mark. He has never let the changing market deter him and he has continued to potter away breeding rhododendrons, albeit without the sense of urgency because we don’t see any immediate commercial potential in them. He does it very quietly so when he asked me if I had seen the rhododendrons across the road (we have another block of land that is more Mark’s domain than mine), I knew he must be pleased. These were the latest lot of crosses that had hung about the nursery for a while and were finally planted out – a ragtag collection that had not received any tender, loving care and were put out into full sun in the field a year ago. They have never been sprayed or had added fertiliser so it is a regime which separates the good performers from the strugglers.

Just a few of the promising seedlings

I was impressed. I admit that I am not a huge fan of the full trusses. They are not my personal preference. But I could see the commercial appeal of these, were they presented in their pots in the garden centre, tidy little mounds in full bud and bloom. What impressed me most was the foliage. We are too well acquainted with grungy rhododendron foliage and, as our winters have become milder, the issue with thrip infestation is getting ever worse. I photographed a fine specimen at the cemetery last week – so badly thrip damaged that it was silver all over. Not a green leaf in sight. But it wasn’t a good enough photo to use.

We know plenty about grungy foliage

Look past the flower – that foliage! Grown in hard conditions and never sprayed. That foliage is a breakthrough.

To see plants growing in what are not coddled and managed conditions with perfect foliage is a joy to a gardener’s eyes. For readers with a technical interest, these are highly complex hybrids. Mark started many years ago with the red R. arboreum, ‘Sir Charles Lemon’ (for its indumentum), ‘Pink Delight’ and ‘Helene Schiffner’ and he introduced other genes from good coloured rhododendrons that did not thrive in our conditions. Because he has kept breeding with each generation of seedlings, the finer details of the genetic make-up of this latest lot is largely a mystery, even to him.

We have no plans to release any of these. Mark will no doubt carry out some propagation trials to narrow the selections down to those that root easily from cutting. Over time, we will replace some of the under-performing rhododendrons in the garden with better selections. The hybrids may just be a little legacy that he leaves to whichever child of ours eventually comes home – a collection of market-ready, high health, proven performers with commercial potential. By that stage, the rhododendron may have returned to popularity in good gardens again.  And who knows? His next generation of seedlings may be better yet.

The gorgeous nuttalliis are a favourite of mine though not a commercial viability

The big full trusses are not so much to my taste, even when it is R. macabeanum to the left. The giant pink ‘College Pink’.