What three words are synonymous with May in our coastal hamlet? Yes, you guessed: rain, wind, and rhododendrons. This is the month that we celebrate the incredible beauty and diversity of the Rhododendron family. Sometimes it is easy to feel that rhodies (as we so affectionately call them in our town) are, gasp, boring. Or we may claim that they are frustrating to grow, that they defoliate or get disease. Or maybe we don’t like them because they only bloom for a short time and then they are just a big green bush.
I’m going to play rhodie therapist today, and explain to you why you should reconsider your relationship with these great plants that our city is named after. Let’s talk about boring. Check out these rhododendrons at a nursery near you. ‘Unique Marmalade’, with soft waves of apricot, fuchsia and yellow flowers, or ‘Creole Belle’, with flower trusses of bright showy pink with a touch of blue adding radiance to the petals. Did you know that many rhododendrons are fragrant? ‘Misty Moonlight’ is covered with orchid lavender flowers with a wonderful sweet fragrance. How about the ‘Loderi’ group of rhododendrons? Not for the faint of heart, these rhodies grow large with huge trusses of fragrant flowers ranging from white to pastel pink. Want a small rhododendron? Try ‘Nancy Evans’, with gorgeous apricot flowers on a compact bush or ‘Bob’s Blue’, a small variety with sky blue flowers.
All rhododendrons prefer good drainage; the best way to plant them is almost on top of the bed: Dig a hole that is about twice as wide as the root ball and twice as deep, removing the existing sand or clay. Add a mixture of soil, bark, and compost to the bottom, then place the root ball on top, pulling the soil to the sides of the roots. Cover the top of the rhodie lightly with bark or light compost.
Rhododendrons are like people: some prefer full sun, some do better in partial shade. Many varieties do not need a lot of water once they are established, but they will be healthier and less likely to have disease if they are watered occasionally during our summer dry spells. Remember, even though it is only 60 degrees outside, our summer winds make it feel like it is 95 degrees to a plant due to the dessication from the winds.
How do you add color when the rhodies are just green? Mix your plantings with winter blooming witch hazel. Add summer color with hydrangeas or kalmias. For fall, there are the vibrant colors of Japanese or vine maples.Try planting some Celadine poppies or Tiarella ‘Neon flash’ perennials for summer color under your rhododendrons.
Our local Siuslaw Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society will be holding their annual spring flower show during the Rhododendron Festival. Check out the colors, smells and wonders of the incredible variety of rhododendrons that we can grow here. You just might become a rhodie lover after all!