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Species In Our Midst
Rhododendron vaseyi

by Ed Bensley

Rhododendron vaseyi
Picture by S & J Perkins
Rhododendron vaseyi in Framingham, MA

Rhododendron vaseyi

This species is a deciduous azalea, Subgenus Pentanthera, and is placed in Section Rhodora, which it shares with R. canadense. It shares with R. canadense the unusual (for a rhododendron) characteristic that the petals are joined at the base, forming, as it were, two lips, one with two petals, the other with three. These two species are sufficiently different from other rhododendrons (and even from each other) that they were each assigned to their own genus at some point in the past.

The species was discovered by George Vasey, the botanist in charge of the United States National Herbarium, in 1878 in North Carolina and was named after him by the botanist Asa Gray. R. vaseyi is found in nature only in six counties in the mountains of western North Carolina. It was introduced into cultivation by the Arnold Arboretum and is now widely grown as it is quite hardy (to -15°F) and is much easier to grow than its cousin, R. canadense. It is also a much larger plant than R. canadense, attaining heights of as much as 15 feet.

Its common name is Pinkshell Azalea, from the shape and color of the flower, which is typically a pink but can vary from white to red in different individuals. Some forms are propagated as named clones, such as 'White Find' with white flowers and 'Suva' with red-purple flowers with a white throat. As in R. canadense, the flowers appear before the leaves (in May around here) and have 5 to 7 stamens (as opposed to the 10 of R canadense). The upper lobes can be spotted red, pink, green, or brown. The leaves are elliptic to elliptic oblong and are ciliate (they have small hairs around the edges of the leaf). As an added bonus, when grown in sufficient sunlight, the leaves turn a handsome red color in the fall.

To my knowledge, R. vaseyi has not been successfully crossed with any other species, so it is of no use in hybridization. However, it is a magnificent plant in its own right, lovely in the garden, and well worth growing by any lover of rhododendrons.

Ed Bensley, Bedford, MA

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