In late January while Maggie and I were in Palm Desert, California, I received an e-mail from Jim Marchand asking if I would write an article on rhododendrons in our garden. This garden is located in Westport Point on the south coast of Massachusetts in an area that sometimes is referred to by others as the 'Banana Belt' of New England. Although during the last four or five winters in Westport Point the minimum temperatures have stayed well above the +5°F mark, the day I received the e-mail the temperature in Westport Point had dropped down to just above the 0°F mark, and for two or three weeks afterwards the ground remained continuously frozen. This may not seem cold for a gardener in Zone 5 or Zone 6, but it unquestionably is for one on the border line between Zone 6 and Zone 7. We later returned to Westport Point the last week in February, and expected the worst.
Before continuing, a little background might be helpful. Our garden and home are on a three-acre piece of land that once was a cow pasture and small orchard fenced off by stone walls built by the descendents of some of our Pilgrim forefathers. However, in the last forty or so years the junipers, holly, and oak have begun to move in along with a lot of rhododendrons that I have planted. There is very little of the high shade so beloved by rhododendron fanciers; periodic hurricanes have taken care of that. The land slopes down about ten feet from west to east. The soil is acid, and there is a reasonable amount of topsoil which overlays the glacial till left by the last ice age. The coldest, windiest and driest part of the garden is on the higher, western side along Main Road, so named because it is the main road.
The second day back in Westport I took a walk through the garden, starting on the high, cold and windy western side where in the early 1970's I had planted a large number of H2 and H3 hardy rhododendrons bought from a local nursery that was having a going-out-of-business sale. As expected, there was no apparent cold-weather damage to elepidotes such as 'Scintillation', 'Vulcan', 'Roslyn', 'Bob Bovee', 'Minnetonka', 'David Gable', and 'Old Port'; nor lepidotes as 'Emasculum', 'Tiffany', 'Gertrude Saxe', 'Anna Baldsiefen', and the dwarf 'Vinestar'. The species R. keiskei and R. dauricum also were unaffected by the cold, the latter already having a few half-opened buds. On the other hand, the North Tisbury azaleas used as part of the foundation planting on the west side of the house did not look all that great, and I have since decided that R. nakaharae probably would have been a much more satisfactory plant for this area.
Farther to the east in a somewhat more protected area, the Cowles hybrids from the Heritage Plantation, and a number of R.degronianum ssp. yakushimanum var. yakushimanum hybrids had not suffered in the least from the cold. 'Judy Spillane' and late blooming 'Daphnoides' were OK; so was 'Ginny Gee' and 'Patty Bee'. Nearby are the Robin Hill, Back Acres and Glen Dale azaleas, none of which looked too happy, quite normal for evergreen azaleas in this area where they are apt to be more deciduous than evergreen. So far their only salvation in our garden is the generous display of flowers which usually can be depended on during most of the month of June.
It was here I noticed that deer had been back in the garden, apparently in greater numbers than ever before. For the first time they had nipped most of the buds off a number of the Glen Dale azaleas, whereas last year the only plants damaged were two R. auriculatum plants, 161sd95 and HB, located a good seventy five yards apart. In addition to the azaleas, I later found they had made a full meal off the leaves of a seven-foot R. fortunei CH, and those of a number of other species. So far they apparently don't like our hybrids, other than the azaleas. I fail to understand why in our society it is permissible to swat a fly, but not to eliminate a deer. Don't let those big eyes fool you. They are a pest that not only eat our rhododendrons, but are covered with tiny ticks that are a host to Lyme disease.
The next stop was the lath house where the rhododendrons, almost entirely species from the Rhododendron Species Foundation, spend a couple of years before being moved out into the garden to face reality. The lath house is 14 X 28 feet, Snow fencing is used for lath. Over the snow fencing on the roof is shade cloth made of interwoven plastic and treated aluminum strips. This cloth reflects the light and gives the effect of high shade. During winter the sides are wrapped in plastic sheeting which offers additional protection; and the plants are mulched with two inches of chopped leaves.
In the lath house are about one hundred plants, a few of which are hardy to, or just below 0°F, and I was interested in seeing how they made out through the winter. A preliminary survey was encouraging. Of the less hardy species, R. rex ssp. rex 93sd333, which I got in 1996, showed no ill effects from the cold weather of this winter; R. sanguineum 88/054, R. thomsonii ssp. thomsonii 304sd95, R. haematodes 82/176, and R. fulvum 95sd332 also appeared ready to take their chances out in the garden. An unknown species, ss.Triflora 228sd95, which had survived a previous, milder winter, suffered considerable leaf burn, and probably will not be hardy here. R. selense 93sd324, planted in the lath house in 1997, also was affected by the cold, and for a time will be on the doubtful list.
Just below the lath house is a group of Kurume azaleas which have sailed through ten or so winters, and can always be depended on to give a beautiful display; without question they are among our favorites. And further towards the east in the lower part of the garden is a jungle of about seventy five Dexter hybrids, all happily planted too close together, offering each other protection from the wind, and shade for their roots, in much the same way their ancestors survived for countless years in the wild.
Moving northward through the lower third of the garden, a check on a number of yellow rhododendrons, 'Crest', 'Hotei', 'Goldstrike' and 'Prelude', all older plants that have seen many winters, showed they were healthy and with many firm flower buds. Fiery-red 'Spitfire' and the bright red 'The Honorable Jean Marie de Montague', as well as the pink 'Anna Rose Whitney', are ready for their fine show of trusses come the last week in May.
Throughout the rest of the garden among the hundreds of protective older and hardier hybrids are a number of areas that are actually small test gardens for rhododendron species. In these I was not surprised to find that a small number of young specimens, such as R. augustinii ssp. chasmanthum 69/092, R. hanceanum 70/008, R. cinnabarinum ssp. xanthocodon 82/161 and R. rigidum 69/742 had lost some of their previous years leaves. This is not necessarily fatal, as many of the healthy, so-called evergreen lepidotes as R. yunnanense and R. oreothrepes are semi-deciduous in our climate, and regularly drop most of their leaves in winter. Never-the-less, it is not likely that R. cerasinum 537sd95 and 83/014, and R. selense 93sd324, the leaves of which were badly burned, will prove to be hardy in their present location.
On the brighter side, in addition to a hundred other species, R. tosaense 79/087, R. minus var. chapmanii 82/187, R. strigillosum 76/081, R. ungernii BN, R. decorum 64/062, and R. floribundum 94/283 are sure winners. All the deciduous azalea species appear to be OK, and for the first time a number of healthy flower buds were seen on R. calophytum BN. Among the hybrids, older less-hardy hybrids like 'Markeeta's Prize' and 'Lem's Monarch' were unaffected by the cold, and have many firm flower buds; as also have 'Grace Seabrook' and 'Taurus' which always put on a welcome, early show the first week in May.
Like elsewhere, gardening in the 'Banana Belt' is not a bed of roses in paradise. The last four or five summers have been unusually dry; last summer in particular when we had only one and one-half inches of rain during a three-month period. A few of the lepidote species suffered badly. The elepidotes warned of their need for water with drooping leaves, but a lack of water among the lepidotes, such as R. rubiginosum and R. concinnum, was noticed only after the sudden loss of an entire branch. Although irrigated by hand on a regular basis, it was only after a coiled drip hose was laid around the base of these lepidotes, and water run for hours at a time was it possible to save them. On the other hand, ninety percent of the older, more mature rhododendrons, both species and hybrids, survived without apparent damage, and later in the fall there was enough rain to carry them safely through the winter.
As in most gardens, there are always one or more plants that appear healthy enough the first few years, but then go into a steady decline. In ours it is R. argyrophyllum ssp. nankingense 64/014, of which we have three specimens planted in three separate locations. With this plant, reported to be hardy to -5°F, most of the previous year's leaves usually are dropped in early spring. Later, new leaves appear, the plant growing at about an inch or so each year. Another disappointing plant is R. wardii var. wardii. There are a number of these plants that have been in the garden for many years which appear healthy enough, but after reaching around two feet in height, their annual growth has been almost imperceptible. As a gardener on Long Island once aptly observed, "they grew for five years, and since then they haven't done nothing". Ours have never bloomed, and certainly cannot be considered as prize foliage plants. I have not given up, but it cannot be said that time is on their side in this 'Banana Belt' garden.