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Why Grow Species Rhododendrons?

by Dick Brooks

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

If you are like me, you have a garden full of rhododendron hybrids like 'Scintillation' and 'Yaku Prince' and 'April Snow'. I look at these in the spring and think, "these put on a gorgeous spectacle like this every year; why bother growing something that's any less showy?" Let's face it: few wild rhododendrons can match for sheer impact the floral display of the popular modern hybrids. Yet I firmly believe that the species have a place in our gardens (and in our hearts and minds) for several reasons.

First, the first hand opportunity to become familiar with the many members of a vast, diverse and complex genus. While text and pictures may convey some sense of the habits and appearance of the species, there is nothing like live material to observe and study. By actually growing a species you will gain a deeper appreciation of the characters that define and separate it from its relatives, and of the ways in which that plant has adapted to its ecological niche.

Second, an intimate knowledge of a species will give you a greater understanding of the characteristics of its hybrid descendants. This is especially important if you are a hybridizer, of course. But it's also useful in assessing a new or unfamiliar hybrid; if you are familiar with the species from which the hybrid was developed, you are a long way towards knowing the characteristics of the hybrid.

Third, the challenge of growing some of the less adaptable species can have its own rewards. Let's face it, while there are many "easy" species, especially the natives, and those from parts of the world with climate and soil similar to our own, there are others whose cultivation poses a real challenge to the gardener. Success with some of these more difficult subjects can be a real ego-booster.

Lastly, the undeniable garden value of the species. While they may lack the ostentatious, steroid-inflated display of many hybrids, the species offer a quiet elegance and charm, plus an amazing diversity of form, foliage and flower. This alone is reason enough to delve into the wonderful world of wild rhododendrons.

Enjoy our presentation on why we grow species rhododendrons which illustrates the flower, foliage, and habit of the following species:

Now, enjoy a presentation of more Rhododendron species for New England.

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