Monday, January 21, 2013


Rhododendrons are amongst the most beautiful of all flowering plants. There are more than 800 species and thousands of cultivated varieties. The range of flower colours and shapes is truly astonishing. They are nothing more than spectacular trusses of bells, some of them almost waxy, and they are remarkably easy to grow under the right conditions.

The lower slopes of Mount Wellington provide some of the best growing conditions for rhododendrons. In this garden there are over 600 different varieties growing and thriving amongst other plants. The reason they are doing so well here is because the atmosphere is moist with a good rainfall, and the soil is quite acidic. The individual flowers are bell shaped, flared at the ends and often frilled, and are grouped together in clusters. Rhododendron ‘Taurus’ has masses of large clear red trusses covering the bush with large leathery leaves that will tolerate some extreme garden conditions. Azaleas have similar characteristics and also belong to the rhododendron family, including mollis azaleas and the tropical vireya azaleas.

Planting a new rhododendron like Rhododendron ‘Bruce Brechtbill’ is extremely easy. Rhododendrons have a very fine fibrous root system that is quite compact and does not need disturbing before planting. Tease the base gently if necessary. No fertiliser should be used in the planting hole and the root ball should be placed in the hole so that the surrounding soil is level with the soil at the base of the stem. If the stem is buried beneath the soil it can go mouldy and rot. Once planted the soil should be covered with mulch, once again keeping it away from the stem. Spread a handful of blood and bone around the plant, covering it with a layer of coir to seal it and water in well. Seeing how luxuriantly these plants are growing, it is surprising to learn how low their nutritional needs are.

Before Joy Stones and Ted Cutlan established this garden 25 years ago, the land was just a bare paddock. There was one gum tree, one rhododendron and a lot of weeds. The soil has been improved over the years by adding organic matter, fertilising and mulching. All sorts of changes were made to create the garden - plants were dug up, moved, transplanted and more - until a satisfactory arrangement had been achieved. The qualities they are looking for in plants now are more than just the feature of the flowers. They are looking for foliage that is not the normal rhododendron foliage, usually small foliage or with indumentum, which is the coating of felt like hairs found on the bottom or top of the leaf.

Something that is different and interesting that adds to the whole garden experience, not just the colour of spring is what they are looking for in a plant now. They consider that a plant should look good at all times of the year. A plant has to have more than one quality that makes it worth growing. It might be the flowers, it might be the leaves, but if it has more than one attribute - flowers, leaves and maybe fragrance - then it is going to be a better plant in the garden, rather than just having the feature of flowers without having any other outstanding characteristics.

1 comment:

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