Tag Archives: vireya rhododendrons

Suddenly it is winter

The first blast of winter arrived yesterday. Camellia sasanqua ‘Crimson King’ in the foreground.

Fallen leaves and a leaden sky

While our climate is generally benign, the first serious winter chill arrived, appropriately enough, on the first calendar day of winter in New Zealand – June 1. The winter fronts come straight up from the Antarctic. Our mellow, extended autumn with calm, sunny weather and temperatures sitting around 18 or 19 degrees Celsius disappeared overnight.

This too will pass. Generally the worst of our winter weather hits after the winter solstice – June 22nd to be precise – and today, June 2, has dawned fine and sunny, albeit with a chilly temperature. Mark is taking heed of this sudden drop. Today’s task, he declared, is to cover the bananas. You can see the semi-permanent bamboo frame in the photo. He needs the extension ladder these days to get the windbreak sheltering cover in place for the bananas have grown to a substantial size. At least we get a crop from them these days but we wouldn’t if he didn’t spend a day shrouding them for winter. That is as far as battening down the hatches goes here. We don’t wrap anything else up for winter.

Camellia sasanqua ‘Elfin Rose’

with Nerine bowdenii at its feet

Winter it may now be, but this does not mean bare branches bereft of leaves and an absence of flowers. The sasanqua camellias are at their peak, many of the species camellias are opening along with the first flowers on the early japonicas and hybrids. ‘Elfin Rose’ has been a particular delight this week, with the colour-toned Nerine bowdenii below. We cloud prune ‘Elfin Rose’ into stacked layers, both to restrict its growth and to make it a feature shape all year round. This annual clipping takes place as it makes its new growth after flowering – so some time between mid winter and mid spring. Clipping later would remove next season’s flower buds and we want both the form and the flowers.

It is perhaps a good indication of our generally mild conditions that vireya rhododendrons also feature large in late autumn and early winter. These are, of course, frost tender. Many are very frost tender – especially the big, scented cultivars with heavy, felted foliage. The one above, where we have a bank of maybe five of them beneath the mandarin tree, is ‘Jiminy Cricket’. It was bred by the late Os Blumhardt and is a full sister seedling to the more widely marketed ‘Saxon Glow’ and ‘Saxon Blush’ (not marketed by us). In our opinion, it is also superior to those two but all of them show more hardiness than most vireyas on account of having the relatively hardy species R. saxifragoides as one breeder parent

Vireya rhododendron ‘Sweet Vanilla’ with ‘Golden Charm’ in the background

We place the more tender vireyas with greater care, on the margins where they get plenty of light but adjacent overhead cover will give them protection from most frost damage. This is one of Mark’s breeding  which we released as “Sweet Vanilla”. Big flowers and exotic fragrance to delight, even on the coldest days. We have no idea if it is still in production and commercially available – it is not a plant we kept under our management with intellectual property rights so anybody can produce it if they wish – but I hope it is because it has stood the test of time as a garden plant.

Daphne ‘Perfume Princess’

Also hitting its stride is Mark’s Daphne ‘Perfume Princess’, aka Mark’s Retirement Fund. It was opening its first flowers at the end of March but they were just a teaser. As we enter winter, it will bloom through until early spring and bring us scented pleasure all that time. It is not big and showy like most of his deciduous magnolias, but it is a cracker of a plant in the smaller world of daphnes.

A seedling clematis at our entrance way having a late season revival this week

While we are not expecting the full onslaught of winter until June 22 – give or take a few warning episodes prior to that – by late July, the first of the magnolias will be opening along with the snowdrops. Temperatures will start to rise in August. Our winters are not as long and bleak as experienced in many other places but human nature being what it is, we probably moan just as much about the cold and winter storms.

 

The April garden – vireya rhododendrons

Pink Jazz, one of Mark’s hybrids that is standing the test of time here as a healthy garden plant. It was named for our elder daughter, Jasmine, who had a passion for hot pink in her teen years.

Pink Jazz, one of Mark’s hybrids that is standing the test of time here as a healthy garden plant. It was named for our elder daughter, Jasmine, who had a passion for hot pink in her teen years.

Gardening is as driven by fashion and trends as many other pursuits. It is vireya rhododendrons that brought this to mind. Back in the late 1980s and 90s, they were a seriously hot ticket item. Because they are really easy to propagate, the market was saturated with small plants surrounded by big hype and an endless stream of new varieties being unleashed on an eager buying public. The big luscious looking ones with heavy, felted foliage and big, fragrant trumpets were the most sought after. Here was tropicalia at home even though New Zealand does not have a tropical climate.

Back then, we had a commercial nursery and vireyas were one of our big lines. We produced thousands of them every year and Mark had a full scale breeding programme running on them, naming new cultivars at a cracking rate. I can tell you that they were one of the easiest lines to propagate with the highest success rate from cutting, taking half the time to get to a large grade than the hardy rhododendrons and camellias. It was all downhill from then on. They needed the most intensive spray programme of any plant we produced and even so, there was a high death rate before we ever got them to the market. They are vulnerable to almost every disease that is going, they have pathetically small root systems to support quite abundant top growth, they are frost tender and needed full-scale frost protection in commercial production – even under shade cloth – and they can die almost overnight.

I recall the odd visitor asking the names of certain plants and Mark would toss off that it was a Vireya wiltanddieonyou. Because so many did just that – wilt and die. The species were particularly touchy along the big luscious ones that everybody wanted.

R. konorii is a species with the desirable traits of large flowers, strong fragrance and heavy foliage but the resulting hybrids are not always easy to keep growing well. This is an unnamed one of Mark’s that is still doing well in our garden.

R. konorii is a species with the desirable traits of large flowers, strong fragrance and heavy foliage but the resulting hybrids are not always easy to keep growing well. This is an unnamed one of Mark’s that is still doing well in our garden.

But we would not be without them in the garden. If you have enough of them, you can guarantee that there will be vireya rhododendrons in flower all year round. They don’t get large. They fit in well to subtropical woodland conditions and they don’t need a whole lot of attention. We accept that some will suddenly die, even after many years and we don’t expect every plant to thrive. Those that do, make a worthwhile contribution.

 The late Os Blumhardt had a major breeding programme on vireyas and gave us a number of his seedlings, including this good performing one in our swimming pool garden. It is reliable and healthy rather than outstandingly showy


The late Os Blumhardt had a major breeding programme on vireyas and gave us a number of his seedlings, including this good performing one in our swimming pool garden. It is reliable and healthy rather than outstandingly showy

Because vireyas originate from near the equator where day and night length remains pretty even all year round, their flowering is not triggered by changes in day length. This is why they tend to flower randomly and for extended periods, at times many months although we get the best blooming in autumn and spring and that will show up from this month on. With our free draining volcanic soils, we just grow them in the ground.

Common wisdom, particularly in Auckland, was that vireyas are epiphytic so best grown either as an epiphyte on established trees or in containers with their roots tightly confined. Ponga pots used to be rage, maybe still are in some circles. While it is true that in the wild, many species are ephiphytic, the vast majority that are sold are modern hybrids with a distant connection at best. What they want is excellent drainage without getting too dry. Only hard frost will kill a vireya faster than wet roots in a heavy, clay soil. But if you have the roots heavily confined, they can dry out too much and start to look hard done by and scruffy.

Jiminy Cricket is another of Os Blumhardt’s hybrids and is a sister plant to Saxon Glow and Saxon Blush which are widely available

Jiminy Cricket is another of Os Blumhardt’s hybrids and is a sister plant to Saxon Glow and Saxon Blush which are widely available

These days, we rank ongoing survival, good bushy growth and an abundance of bloom above other characteristics – often features of the smaller flowered, less extravagant looking cultivars. These are the ones that are standing the test of time as garden plants. The oldest vireya in our garden is the plant of R. macgregoriae that Mark’s father, Felix Jury, brought back from New Guinea in 1957, kickstarting the breeding programme. Astonishingly, it is still alive and healthy when many others have fallen by the wayside.

???????????????????????????????If you want to try growing plants from cuttings, vireyas can root without special facilities and equipment. You need to use green stems which are firm, not floppy. Cut off a sliver (called “wounding”) on two sides of the stem of the cutting, extending for 2 – 3 cm. Unlike most plants, the roots will form from the wound or callous, which is why you want two to get a balanced root system. Cut the leaves in half to reduce water loss and stick in potting mix. Keep the pot in shaded conditions until roots start to form – usually within about six weeks.

First published in the April issue of NZ Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.

R. macgregoriae is still going strong in our garden after 60 years

R. macgregoriae is still going strong in our garden after 60 years

Plant Collector: Vireya Rhododendron Rio Rita

Large, luscious and fragrant - vireya Rio Rita

Large, luscious and fragrant - vireya Rio Rita

Rio Rita was bred by the late Os Blumhardt, one of this country’s foremost plantsmen and plant breeders in his time. It was named for the irrepressible Rita Watson and it always makes us smile because the flower is so well suited to the bold personality and immaculate grooming of the namesake. Rita was very keen on vireya rhododendrons and her North Shore garden boasted some of the best grown plants we have ever seen in a garden situation though we were told she subsequently gave up growing vireyas and took up line dancing instead. Rio Rita is a leucogigas hybrid (crossed with Dr Sleumer) and the flowers are voluptuous and fragrant. There are five flowers to a truss and this photograph is of two trusses side by side, which is why it looks quite so full. Each flower is about 10 cm across, which is large.

Most vireyas don’t have a set flowering season because they come from the equatorial areas where day and night length is pretty much the same all year. This means you can have some in flower all the time if you have sufficient plants and different varieties. However, they won’t tolerate more than a degree or two of frost and wet feet will kill them very quickly. As a guide, the bigger and more lusciously fragrant the flowers are and the larger the leaves, the more susceptible they will be to cold temperatures and less than ideal conditions. This means that Rio Rita is by no means the easiest vireya to grow well, let alone keep alive at all, but if you have the right conditions, it certainly puts on a show.

Tried and True: vireya rhododendrons Jiminy Cricket, Saxon Glow and Saxon Blush

Jiminy Cricket - the hardiest of any vireya we know

Jiminy Cricket - the hardiest of any vireya we know

  • The hardiest of the vireya family.
  • Tidy, compact growth around 75cm high.
  • Widely available.
  • Flower freely over a long period of time.

Siblings, these three cultivars. The breeder, Os Blumhardt, gave us seed of the cross and one plant grew so well we put it into production with his agreement. We called it Jiminy Cricket because the flowers are held upright and as singles, reminding one of the original Jiminy Cricket’s eyes swivelling on stalks. The remaining plants with Os also grew well and in due course another nursery took two and named them Saxon Glow and Saxon Blush. Glow is a little redder, Blush is a little paler pink while Jiminy is more coral orange coloured but they all have similar habits of growth. They are funny dense little plants with stiff, upwardly pointed leaves. And hardiness in colder, wetter conditions where most vireyas would promptly curl up and die – that is their biggest attraction of all. This is not to say that they will take bog, repeated heavy frosts or snow. They are just hardier than any other vireya we know so are a good choice for very marginal conditions. They make a corker little hedge – we have a semi circle planted beneath a mandarin tree and after close to a decade, they are still bushy and only about 60cm high. Vireyas are easy to strike from cutting so patient gardeners may just buy one plant and build up the numbers for a hedge.

Tried and True – vireya rhododendrons

• Extended flowering, sometimes more than once a year.
• Once established, generally only need dead heading and an occasional prune.
• Available from garden centres in a range of colours.
• Easy to propagate at home from cutting.

The smaller leafed, smaller flowered vireya hybrids are often tougher and better performing as garden plants.

This small flowered yellow vireya has been a picture in full flower in recent weeks. Vireyas can be touchy as garden plants but get them well established in a frost free area with good drainage and they are most rewarding. Unfortunately people are often drawn to the exceptionally showy, fragrant varieties and bypass these less spectacular types. The big scented trumpet types with heavy felted foliage can be very touchy indeed and you often don’t get the flower power display of the smaller leafed, smaller flowered ones. This particular one is a sister seedling to one we have sold in the past under the name of Mellow Yellow but there is a whole range of different vireyas available with the same characteristics – in different colours too. They are hardier and tougher by nature and certainly justify a place in the garden. Flowering times are unpredictable with vireyas but many will repeat flower later in the year or gently open flower buds over an extended period of many months.