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Species In Our Midst
Rhododendron smirnowii

by Elizabeth Carlhian

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

Rhododendron smirnowii

Rhododendron smirnowii  was named in 1885 by its discoverer Baron Ungern-Sternberg, a professor at Dorpat (in modern day Tartu, Estonia), after a friend, M.Smirnov. It is distributed over N.E. Turkey and adjacent Georgia. In the Caucasus Mountains it is  found under pine and rhododendron scrub  at 1500-2300 meters on igneous and limestone outcrops often at the edge of spruce forest or just above the tree line. R. smirnowii is found with  R. luteum, R. caucasicum, R. ponticum and R. ungernii, with which it sometimes hybridizes naturally. Andrew Byfield, Fauna and Flora International's Plant Conservation Officer in Turkey says,"[B]ut in a narrow band at the tree line R. ponticum and R.luteum are joined by the handsome pink R. smirnowii and R. ungernii."

Greer rates R. smirnowii hardy to -15°F and Leach to H2 but my two plants in Concord, MA have never suffered bud injury during the more than 30 years I have grown them.

The plant is upright and open, growing to 12 feet. Leaves are 2-6 inches long, oblong or oblanceolate, dark green above with thick woolly indumentum below, with recurved margins. The flowers, which blooming in my garden around June 1st at the same time as R. catawbiense album (probably the hybrid 'Catawbiense Album'), are found in trusses of 10-12. The 1 inch long funnel-campanulate corollas have frilled edges and range from pale pink to deep, rose-purple. The calyx is minute, tomentose, and glandular and the ovary is white and tomentose.

R. smirnowii is probably the hardiest of the heavily indumented species which we can grow in New England. Many hybridizers have used R. smirnowii as a parent to produce hardiness, indumented foliage, and flowers with frilled corollas. If the plant is grown in a somewhat open area with adequate sunshine, it is less likely to become leggy. The leaves are held for 4 to 5 years and the oldest leaves begin to turn yellow and drop in August and September. The buds have a unique characteristic which helps in identification: the sepals of both the vegetative and flower buds have reflexed sepals and are heavily indumented.

Blugin lists the following hybrids: 'Betty Breene' (smirnowii x Dexter Hybrid), 'Gabriel' (smirnowii x 'Dr. H. C.Dresselhuys'), 'Hello Dolly' (smirnowii x 'Fabia'), 'Bellefontaine' (smirnowii x fortunei ssp. fortunei), 'Fundy' (smirnowii x fortunei ssp. fortunei), 'Kathrine Dalton' (smirnowii x fortunei ssp. fortunei), 'Crete' (smirnowii x yakushimanum), 'Schamenek's Glow' (smirnowii x yakushimanum) and 'Yaku Frills' (smirnowii x yakushimanum K. Wada). Greer lists the following hybrids of R. smirnowii:

'Dorothy Swift' (smirnowii x yakushimanum), 'Hellikki' (smirnowii OP ), 'Holy Moses' (smirnowii x 'King of Shrubs'),'Jane Grant ' (yakushimanum x smirnowii), 'King Tut' ([smirnowii x 'America'] x red catawbiense seedling),'Lajka' (smirnowii x 'C.S. Sargent'), 'Silver Lady' (yakushimanum x smirnowii) and 'Today and Tomorrow' (smirnowii x yakushimanum).

Elizabeth Carlhian, Concord, MA

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