With the promise a good spring, gardening writer CEDRIC BRYANT writes in praise of rhododendrons and azaleas.
WINTER is a good time to start thinking about spring planting and, with all the regular rain soaking deep into the soil in recent months, it promises to be one of the best springs ever.
Some gardeners suggest planting only native plants for their drought tolerance, but not all native plants will go for extended periods of drought. A healthy mixture is the ideal for year-round interest.
Rhododendrons and azaleas grow very well in our part of the world and provide a wonderful display for spring gardens.
They complement all the bulb planting and other spring flowering plants whether they are exotic or native. Certainly, they blend in perfectly with magnolias, camellias and daphne.
A few centuries back, rhododendrons and azaleas were favourites of the European aristocracy, with their huge country houses and estates. They sponsored plant-hunting expeditions with British, French and Dutch botanists scouring the world, including names such as botanist Joseph Banks, who introduced Australian plants to such places as London’s Kew Gardens.
Plants from the Far East were especially in demand and can still be seen today at the world-famous, 500-hectare Exbury Gardens in Hampshire, England, which contains an amazing collection of rhododendrons and azaleas.
Quoting the famous Hillier’s “Manual of Trees and Shrubs”: “Rhododendrons, of which azaleas are part of the same species, number over 1000 species. They are one of the most important and diverse groups of ornamental plants in cultivation with one of the largest range of the most spectacular flowering trees and shrubs in existence in the world.
“For landscaping, these are unsurpassed, when massed no other shrub gives such a wealth of colour”.
What more is there to say? They range from dwarf and miniatures perfect for the smallest garden or container growing to giants many metres high. They are remarkably sun tolerant with up to six hours full sun a day although do equally well in open shade.
If you want to rival your neighbouring balcony gardens for a colourful spring display, dwarf rhododendrons and azaleas will do the job perfectly.
Looking around some of our local garden outlets I have named just a few of the possibly hundreds to choose from. I love the tantalising names for these dwarf rhodos growing to about one metre tall. Keep in mind, they take to a light trim after flowering.
Certainly, I would recommend a container no less than 40cm across for rhododendrons such as “Winsome”, “Lemon Mist”, “Snowlady” and “Grace Seabrook”.
One of the best sources of information on rhododendrons and azaleas is Peter Valder’s “The Garden Plants of China”. These wonderful plants grow throughout the Chinese region and just one comment from this book to illustrate how long they have been in cultivation in the west: “Rhododendron indicum (Indian azalea) had been introduced into Holland about 1680 from the East Indies; although most certainly it originally came from Nagasaki”.
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