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Species In Our Midst
Rhododendron oreodoxa
Rhododendron oreodoxa var. fargesii

by Susan Clark

Rhododendron oreodoxa var. fargesii
Picture by S & J Perkins
Rhododendron oreodoxa var. fargesii in Concord, MA

Rhododendron oreodoxa and Rhododendron oreodoxa var.  fargesii.

These elepidote (unscaled) rhododendrons are members of Section Pontica, Subsection Fortunea. 'Oreodoxa' means 'glory of the mountains' and was first described by Franchet in 1886. R. fargesii was named as a species in honor of its western discoverer Pére Farges, 1844 -1912, French Foreign Missions in NW. Sichuan. D.F. Chamberlain in his revision of the taxonomy of rhododendrons has declared R. fargesii to be a variety of R. oreodoxa. Both grow wild in the mountains (7,000-13,000 feet) in Chinese provinces of Hubei, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan and are found both as understory plants in mixed woods and on bare slopes above tree line.

Both R. oreodoxa and R. oreodoxa var. fargesii are 5 to 17 feet when mature. They are upright, well-branched and nicely shaped. Their bark is a roughish grey-brown. The leaves are comparatively small, up to 4 inches long and up to 1 3/4 inches wide; they are oblong to elliptic, dark green above and pale, often with a bluish, waxy cast below; they are leathery in texture. The leaf petiole is purple or sometimes pale green. Flowers are tubular-campanulate, that is they are the shape of a long bell, and range from white or pink to rose or purple-rose; sometimes they have purplish spots. There are from 6 to 8 blooms per truss. Var. fargesii differs from R. oreodoxa in having a densely glandular ovary; R. oreodoxa has a smooth ovary. Var. fargesii usually has rounder or more ovate (egg-shaped) leaves and flowers that are wider. Cox, in his The Larger Rhododendron Species, says the distinctions between these two plants are more botanical in nature (a matter of appearance) and as such do not constitute grounds for being different species.

Both R. oreodoxa and var. fargesii are early, heavy bloomers and, as such, are vulnerable to late frosts; they benefit from being planted in a location that will shelter them. Some growers complain about their habit of curling their leaves tightly in cold weather (quicker than any other species, according to Cox). Greer lists R. oreodoxa as hardy to -5°F. Var. fargesii is listed as plant hardy to -10°F, but I know of an unprotected plant in Concord, MA that never fails to bloom! They are both said to be easy plants to grow. In England forms of both have received Awards of Merit. Lansing Bulgin's book on plant hybrids and their parents lists only three crosses with R. oreodoxa: 'Westfalenpark' from a cross with 'Doncaster', 'Pink Crest' from a cross with R. thompsonii, and 'Rombergpark' from an unknown cross. He lists two crosses with R. fargesii: 'Farther' from a cross with R. morii and 'Earlybird' from a cross with R. williamsianum. This is a lovely, vigorous species that deserves to be tried more in New England; it should be used as a parent in hybridizing, especially for its early-blooming characteristic.

Susan Clark, Concord, MA

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