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Species In Our Midst
Rhododendron fortunei

by Elizabeth Carlhian

Rhododendron fortunei 'Lu Shan'
Picture by Henk Borsje
Rhododendron fortunei 'Lu Shan' in Duxbury, MA

Rhododendron fortunei

R. fortunei is in Subsection Fortunea and is named after Robert Fortune, 1812-1880. Fortune was an extremely successful British plant collector with a very good eye for exceptional plant material.

Fortune, a skilled gardener, was the superintendent of the Hothouse department of the Horticultural Society's gardens at Chiswick, outside London. When hostilities between Britain and China ceased after the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, the opportunity to collect in China became possible and the Society decided to send a collector to Asia. Fortune applied for the position and was accepted. Between 1843 and 1862, he made four trips to China and Japan and wrote four books about his travels.

It was on his third expedition (1853-1856) that he found R. fortunei growing at 3,000 feet in Zhejiang in the mountains of eastern China. The plant was not in flower but was reported by the local Chinese to have beautiful large flowers. Fortune collected a considerable quantity of seed, which he sent back to Chiswick, where a number of vigorous plants were grown and distributed. It was the first of the Chinese rhododendrons to be introduced to Britain.

Later, other forms of R. fortunei were collected and it is from one of these, grown by Sir Edmund Loder at Leonardslee and crossed with pollen from R. griffithianum grown in the greenhouse of his friend, F. D. Goodman, that Rhododendron 'Loderi' resulted in 1901. 'Loderi' is considered one of the most beautiful of all rhododendron hybrids. R. fortunei is hardy to -15°F (Greer), H2 (Leach). I have had two plants growing in Concord for more than ten years and they have suffered only minor flower bud damage in our very cold years.

The plant is open, upright and tree-like, up to 20 feet tall. Leaves are 3-7 inches, oblong to oblong-elliptic; dark matte green and glabrous above, paler with scattered, minute hairs or glands below. The flowers occur in trusses of 6-12 flowers, 1-2 inches long, with seven lobes, broadly funnel-campanulate, rose, lilac pink or pink and deliciously fragrant.

R. fortunei is the hardiest in the Subsection Fortunea, a partial list of which includes: R. decorum, diaprepes,. griffithianum, orbiculare, oreodoxa, praevernum, sutchuenense and vernicosum. Street advises that R. fortunei be used as understock for grafting its own hybrids and those of R. griffithianum as he believes they would be much hardier than those grafted onto R. ponticum which is often used. There is evidence that the reputation for tenderness of some plants can be directly attributed to the use of R. ponticum rootstock.

So many crosses have been made using R. fortunei that we cannot possibly list them all. Bulgin in 1986 listed more than eighty. Some well-known hybrids are 'Pauline Bralit', 'Donna Hardgrove', 'Nestucca' and 'Little White Dove'. There are more than 30 named clones of the R. griffithianum x fortunei cross including 'Loderi King George', 'Loderi Venus' and 'Loderi Pink Diamond'.

Elizabeth Carlhian, Concord, MA

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