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Species In Our Midst
Rhododendron myrtifolium

by Sally Perkins

Rhododendron myrtifolium
Picture by S & J Perkins
Rhododendron myrtifolium in Salem, NH

Rhododendron myrtifolium Schott and Kotschy 1851 (R. kotschyi Simonkai)

Rhododendron myrtifolium is a lepidote (with scales) in subgenus Rhododendron, subsection Rhododendron. This is a distinct subsection that has been isolated in the central European high mountain ranges.

R. myrtifolium is found in the Carpathian and Balkan mountains of Bulgaria, Slovenia, Romania, and S. W. Russia at 5,000-8,000 feet (1,500-2,400 meters) in forest floor, pine scrub to open moorland on acid and limestone. It can form large stands in the alpine heaths growing along with Juniperus nana.

Theodor Kotschy (1813-1866) an Austrian botanist noted for his plant exploration of Turkey and Egypt is attributed with first describing the plant. The species epithet refers to leaves like Myrtle. The now obsolete synonym R. kotschyi still is commonly used.

R. myrtifolium is a compact to creeping shrub usually under 0.6m (2 feet) in height. The scaley branchlets may have some short soft (puberulous) but not bristly hairs. The evergreen leaves are elliptic to oblanceolate, less than 2.3 cm (1 inch) long and held 2 years. The upper leaf surface is a dark, shining green without scales in contrast to the lower surface of dense scales that are almost touching one another or about half their diameter apart.

The inflorescence is terminal in 3-7 flowered clusters that have a short rhachis or flowering stem. The corolla is narrowly tubular 1.2 -2 cm (.5 to .8 in) long with 5 spreading lobes, rosy to purple-pink. A rare white form exists. The corolla has dense pubescence (soft short hairs) in the tube and maybe puberulent on the outside of the tube. The 10 stamens are uneven in length and shorter than the corolla tube with soft hairs at the base of the filaments. The style is shorter or as short as the ovary. The calyx is minute, 5-lobed. Bloom time is late mid-season to late season.

R. myrtifolium is not as well known or as frequently grown as the other two members of the subsection Rhododendron, RR. ferrugineum and hirsutum. R. ferrugineum is often compared to it as being larger in stature and having leaves with denser scales on the lower surface. The narrower corolla tube and the shorter ovary style along with the lack of bristly hairs on the branchlets distinguish it from R. hirsutum.

Hybrids with R. myrtifolium are few, and include 'Meliz' myrtifolium x unknown and 'Silverburn' myrtifolium x telmateium both of which I have never seen. Closer to New England, the Mezitt hybrids 'Weston's Mayflower' and 'Lucy' have R. myrtifolium in their parentage.

Confusion often develops because of the old hybrid 'Myrtifolium' a hybrid of R. minus x R. hirsutum dating from 1917 when the older name R. kotschyi was in use. Capitalization and the enclosed single quotes of the hybrid name helps to clarify its status in the written word but in verbal use the term hybrid needs to be stated.

I obtained my R. myrtifolium as R. kotschyi from P4M donated by Jim Craddock in 1991. I grow my R. myrtifolium, in a sheltered location right next to a large white pine (Pinus strobus). It is now 15 inches (38 cm) tall and bloomed for the first time in 1999 in the first week of June. I need to examine the flower more closely and confirm that it truly is R. myrtifolium.

The handsome foliage of R. myrtifolium and its compact habit alone make it a worthwhile addition to the small garden assuming a moist site with excellent drainage. Sun to light shade is required for best habit. Hardiness is rated to -10°F (-23°C) by Greer and to -5°F (-20°C) by the Rhododendron Species Foundation which also sells both the pink and the white form.

Sally Perkins, Salem, NH.

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