Tag Archives: Rhododendron Floral Sun

Mark’s story

* as told to The NZ Rhododendron, the annual journal of NZRA Council and Pukeiti Trust Boad. December 2017. Photos are mine. 

Mark could perhaps be described as having chlorophyll running in his veins. He was the afterthought child in his family, quite a bit younger than his brothers. He remembers tagging along with his parents and visitors, listening in as they discussed plants around the Tikorangi garden in North Taranaki. “It was quite a lonely and isolated life in the country and I really wanted the social contact, even if it was with older people. It was only later that I realised what I learned in those early years.”

Mark was determined to head off to university, the first in his farming family to do so. It was not an easy path but he graduated with Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences, majoring in Psychology. He enrolled in a post-graduate diploma in guidance and counselling but withdrew half way through the year. “I was the youngest on the course and all the others were teachers with regrets. One would have liked to be a potter, another dreamed of running a country pub. I didn’t want to get to my late 40s and look back with regret. By that stage, Abbie and I had already been married a couple of years and I went home and told her I wanted to withdraw from the course and follow some dreams.”

From there, he taught himself to draw from a book by John Ruskin, taught himself to turn wood to a high quality and then set out to learn how to propagate and, from there, to build a nursery.

“When I started here, there was no nursery. Dad was a just a farmer and a gardener who liked to breed plants. He had taught himself the rudiments of propagation. I started to build the nursery from one wheelbarrow up and I set out to learn how to propagate and to grow plants commercially. It was a case of learning through trial and error. It has always surprised me how successful the nursery was.” Mark credits the access to his father’s plant hybrids for giving him new material to mark out his nursery as different to the rest. “Dad had pretty much stopped hybridising by then. It was only ever a hobby for him. I started more systematically to see how far I could push plant breeding. And as the plant breeding grew in range and scale, I had the nursery to cope with growing on the material.” He started with saturation coverage of a large plant of Camellia pitardii in a Urenui garden.

From an early stage, Felix made it clear that the garden he and his wife Mimosa had built would pass to Mark and his family. Mark and Abbie are demonstrably aware of what it means to be on a family property that is already on its fourth generation.

Arisaema seedlings are for the garden at Tikorangi, not commercial release

Mark is clear in his mind about the hybridising he does which has commercial potential and that which is solely to try and get better plants for their own garden. He is currently working with galanthus, aiming for later flowering cultivars which perform as well in Tikorangi conditions as Galanthus nivalus ‘S. Arnott’. He is continuing the efforts of his late father with cyclamineus narcissi, looking for sterile selections that bloom from every bulb, as Felix Jury’s ‘Twilight’ does. In the hellebores, improving garden performance and getting cultivars which hold their blooms above the foliage are the aims, as well as looking for sterility if possible. In the arisaemas, he wanted to extend the colour range and the season and to get some hybrid vigour into A. sikokianum types. He is often to be found out and about with his magnifying glass and paintbrush.

The garden is always the star in Mark’s mind. “This is a poor man’s garden,” he says. “It was never made with a big budget and if we had to buy in all the plants we want, we could never afford to keep it going, let alone expand as we are. To get masses of snowdrops to the point where they naturalise themselves to or to get a new 40 metre of border of auratum lilies, we have to raise our own from seed. And when raising from seed, I often like to start with controlled crosses to see if I can get better outcomes, rather than just using open pollinated material.”

The garden is a treasure trove of plant material, some of which may or may not go into commercial production at some stage in the future but which currently has no market. “We have some thrip-resistant rhododendrons with full trusses if that plant genus comes back into fashion. At the moment, the market is so small that there is no commercial advantage in releasing them.” The same is true of coloured and variegated cordylines and a range of camellias.

Magnolia Felix Jury

The creation of new cultivars with international potential has been a major focus. In the deciduous magnolias, Mark has named and released four out of many hundreds that he has raised. But he says he has the next three possibles under trial. Of those released, the magnolia that he named for his father is his greatest pride. “It is what Felix was trying to get to – good colour in a large cup and saucer bloom, so I called it ‘Felix Jury’. This one is doing really well internationally which is particularly pleasing. It has already been given an award of garden merit from the RHS.”

A range of michelia seedling blooms

Fairy Magnolia White, with bonus kereru

The michelias are a source of frequent disappointment to Mark. “We have raised so many of them now and have a good range of new colours. But it is so difficult to get everything in one plant – clean colour, good size of bloom and plenty of them over an extended period, compact, bushy growth, easy to propagate and scented. Keeping the scent is the most elusive attribute of all.” Mark has named three so far, marketed under the ‘Fairy Magnolia’ brand, but there is a long way to go yet and he keeps persevering, often with several hundred new seedlings a year.

Camellia Fairy Blush, Rhododendron Floral Sun and Magnolia Honey Tulip

Amongst the camellias, Mark names his selection of ‘Fairy Blush’ as his personal favourite. He and Abbie have chosen to use it extensively for clipped hedging in their garden because of its long flowering season and its good habit of growth. ‘Floral Sun’ remains his pick amongst the rhododendrons.

Daphne Perfume Princess

Ironically, it is a daphne, a one-off plant from a speculative breeding effort, that may prove to be the most lucrative cultivar internationally. ‘Perfume Princess’ basically looks like an odora although it often flowers down the stem like bholua. It is the size of the flower, the vigour of the plant and the length of the flowering season that sets this plant apart from other daphnes. “It is just a brilliant plant to grow and a terrific nursery plant to produce,” Mark says. “That is not true of most daphnes which can be very difficult to produce in containers.” Both the local and international markets for a daphne eclipse the market for magnolias, even if the plant itself is less spectacular.

“We stopped doing mailorder in 2003, stopped wholesale in 2008 and phased out retail after that. The phone calls and emails in search of plants haven’t stopped in the time since but we were really glad to shut all that down. Abbie always described nursery work as being like factory work but in better surroundings. There was no fun in it but it enabled us to get to where we are today.” Mark is quietly proud of the fact that royalties on plant sales, particularly overseas, are what enabled them to retire from the nursery trade and pursue their interests in the garden.

The garden is still expanding. They closed to the public 3 years ago and have been enjoying the freedom to experiment.  “We’ll open again at some stage, maybe 2019. For the annual garden festival, at least. Though we are unlikely to ever open again for extended periods during the year.”

Mark and the Magnolia Felix Jury tree at Wisley on the left. Mark with a collection of blooms from different seedlings at home in Tikorangi

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Meet the maddenii rhododendrons

The Rolls Royce of rhododendrons - sino nuttallii

The Rolls Royce of rhododendrons – sino nuttallii

Allow me to introduce you to maddenii rhododendrons. We are pretty keen on them here, although you may not share our enthusiasm if you think all rhododendrons should have the tight ball truss of blooms which is usually regarded as typical of the family. Maddenias don’t hold their flowers in that style.

But the family does include the spectacular nuttalliis with their huge trumpets. I rate these as the most stunning rhododendrons of all with their flowers which look as if they have been cast out of wax and their wonderful, big leaves which are heavily veined – described as bullate foliage. There is nothing quite like them but they are not generally available on the market. They don’t produce much cutting material and they are not easy to propagate but many will set seed so, if you are really keen, you could try raising seed. Some of the hybrids can be found from time to time – Mi Amor and Floral Sun in particular.

There are two huge pluses for the maddeniis. Most are scented, some strongly so. R. polyandrum can waft out for a metre or two which is an indication of a strong scent. Many will pass the 30cm sniff test which is good. And if you are willing to risk the pollen on the nose, most have a sweet scent when you bury your face in the flower.

The second big bonus is that the maddeniis show much better resistance to thrips than most other rhododendrons. Thrips are nasty sucking insects that hide away beneath the leaves, sucking out the chlorophyll. This turns the leaves silver and once that has happened, they can never be turned green again though the new season’s growth will be green, at least until the thrips get hold. Over time, serious infestations can weaken a plant past the point of return. Very cold winters will kill the bugs off, but we don’t get cold enough here so there is not a whole lot one can do beyond spraying with insecticide or neem oil, or trying a cloth collar soaked in systemic insecticide wrapped around the main trunk. Or you can choose varieties which are more resistant.

Bernice, as red as the maddeniis get

Bernice, as red as the maddeniis get

There is a preponderance of whites and pastels in the maddeniis and where there are coloured ones, they lean to the subtler, softer shades. In other words, there are no pure reds, purples, blues or oranges. We don’t mind because we can get the stronger colours in azaleas and other types of rhododendrons. Some of the hybrids flower so heavily that it can be like viewing a wall of bloom with barely any foliage visible at all.

Wonderful peeling bark and bullate foliage

Wonderful peeling bark and bullate foliage

I should perhaps mention also that most of Maddenia types don’t make tidy compact little buns of bushes either. They are inclined to be more open in their growth – though by no means are all of them giants. Some can only be described as leggy, but all is forgiven when they flower. Besides, another attractive feature of these rhododendrons is the lovely peeling cinnamon bark many have. If they were bushy, dense plants, you would never see it.

Google tells me that this group were first introduced to the West in 1849 by famous plant collector Joseph Hooker – he who also visited New Zealand. For reasons which are not entirely clear, he named them after Lieutenant Colonel E Madden of the Bengal Civil Service. How random is that? Given that these rhododendrons are found in northern India, Burma, southern China and the milder areas of Tibet, maybe Lt.-Col. Madden was particularly helpful to Hooker’s expeditions.

Internationally the maddeniis are rated as subtropical and somewhat tender so they are the envy of gardeners from cold climates. Our climate in New Zealand is so temperate that you are able to grow most of the maddeniis in all but the coldest, inland conditions. They form the backbone of the rhododendron collection in our garden and, being later flowering than many others, are coming into bloom right now.

There is no simple way to determine which rhododendrons fall into the maddenii group. That is what books and Google are for. But ones you may find, or know of, include Fragrantissima, Elsie Frye, Princess Alice, Bernice, Moon Orchid, the aforementioned Mi Amor and the plant confusingly known simply as Rhododendron maddenii.

The problem is sourcing these rhododendrons. In fact the problem is sourcing any interesting rhododendrons at all in these days when specialist nurseries have fallen like flies. The best option for Waikato readers may be Rhodohill or Tikitere Nurseries in Rotorua. Failing that, try Trade Me where there is a South Island grower, RhodoDirect, producing and selling by mail order. I have seen them listing the lovely Floral Sun and there are other maddeniis in their range.

Our very own Floral Sun

Our very own Floral Sun

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Tikorangi Notes: Tuesday 11 October, 2011

Notable, perhaps, for a total absence of any PC thinking here!

Notable, perhaps, for a total absence of any PC thinking here!

Tikorangi Notes: Tuesday 11 October, 2011

I am a little late with the links to latest posts this week. They were available on Friday as usual but I was in Hamilton speaking at the Waikato Home and Garden Show – where I found a wonderful example of absolute lack of any hint of political correctness. Golliwog scarecrows – gollycrows, perhaps. I am guessing that the creator had simply no concept whatever of the debate two decades ago about Little Black Sambo, the Black and White Minstrels and golliwogs which forever labelled these as monuments to racial stereotyping.

Latest posts:

1) Cyrtanthus falcatus – a first flowering for us of this interesting large bulb and member of the amaryllis family. We must have waited well over a decade for this event.
2) Kicking off the debate here on the difference between maintenance and sustainability in the garden – Abbie’s column.
3) Grow it Yourself looks at potatoes this week.

Rhododenrons Floral Sun and Rubicon

Rhododenrons Floral Sun and Rubicon

Tikorangi Notes: Tuesday 11 October, 2011

Arisaema sikkokianum

Arisaema sikkokianum

As the magnolias pass over, it is the time for rhododendrons and the mid season bulbs to come into their own. While the soft golden tones of Rhododendron Floral Sun and the pure red of Rubicon side by side may lack subtlety, they present an eye catching combination in our carpark. Rhododendrons often have a relatively short time in full bloom but the anticipation of fat buds showing colour and starting to open extends the flowering season substantially. It is also arisaema time for us. A. sikkokianum is not the easiest variety to keep going as a garden subject and it needs to be increased by seed as a rule, but it is one of showiest species in flower with its pure white spadix and its bloom held above the foliage. A. speciosum is not as showy but is trouble-free to grow and settles in most comfortably for the long haul. It has very curious burgundy snake’s head flowers held just below the tall, open foliage.

With our annual garden festival now just two and a half weeks away, the pressure is on the groom the garden to pristine standard for the 10 days which is our peak time for garden visitors. Formerly referred to Rhodo Festival, this year its full name is the Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular (!). More details at www. gardenfestnz.co.nz.

Rhododendron Floral Sun

Floral Sun - frilly, scented and yellow in the nuttallii range

Floral Sun - frilly, scented and yellow in the nuttallii range

Spring continues apace and as camellias and magnolias wane, it is rhododendron time starting. Floral Sun has opened her first flowers. I say her, because being frilly, scented and soft coloured, this plant looks more Venusian than Martian. It is one of ours. When Mark came home and commented that he had crossed sino nuttallii (which has big white scented trumpets) with R. W. Rye (small yellow flowers) in an attempt to get colour into the nuttalliis, I predicted he would end up with a whole lot of plants with very small white flowers and no scent. I was wrong. He ended up with a run of plants with the lovely heavy textured leaves and peeling bark of sino nutt, with frillier trumpets and yellow. Soft yellow tones, not the harder acid yellow of R. W. Rye but Floral Sun also has the more compact habit of her father Rye which is an added advantage. We are still pretty pleased with this rhododendron even if the flowering will be over long before visitors arrive for Rhododendron Festival.