Species In Our
This species is classified in Subgenus Rhododendron (scaly or lepidote rhododendrons), Subsection Lapponica. It has a wide distribution in Yunnan province, China, and also occurs in southwestern Sichuan province, at elevations from 7,900 to 15,800 feet. Habitats include "boggy, peaty meadows, open situations in alpine scrub, moist stony pastures, open grassy marshes (and) bogs in pine forests" (Davidian), which suggests that this species is a good deal more tolerant of wet soil conditions than most rhododendrons. It was introduced by George Forrest in 1903; subsequent collections were made by Kingdon-Ward in 1913.
R. hippophaeoides forms a small shrub, up to 4 feet tall at maturity. The growth habit can be fairly upright and dense, to somewhat open. Leaves are up to 1 1/2 inches long, gray-green above and densely scaly, with overlapping yellowish-buff scales below. The small flowers are borne in miniature trusses of 4 to 7; their color varies from lavender-blue through purple and mauve shades to pink and rose. Leach describes the blossoms as "particularly charming . . . tiny nosegays of color at the end of almost every twig".
Although rated by some sources as hardy only to -10° or -15°F (-23° to -26°C), Leach claims his plants have endured -25°F (-32°C). My plant, a good near-blue form, has never failed to bloom in almost twenty years of Zone 5 winters. However, published descriptions seem reluctant to mention that the leaves turn brown and roll up tightly at the approach of winter. Looking at the plant in January one would not need much convincing to believe it dead. But the warmth of spring resurrects the seemingly lifeless: the leaves uncurl, turn green, and carry on as if nothing had happened!
Oddly, hybridizers have made little use of this excellent species. Some hybrids with R. hippophaeoides as a parent are 'April Chimes', 'Blue Haze' and 'Mother Greer'.
Dick Brooks, Concord, MA