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The crown jewels of the garden (rhododendrons)

Even among our showiest flowering trees and shrubs, few ornamentals command as large and enthusiastic a following as do the rhododendrons. However, not all areas of our country are created equal when it comes to growing these fine plants. Anyone who has ever lived in, or at least visited, the natural habitat of our native rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) at peak flowering time will attest to its incredible beauty. Its growth is especially lush along the slopes and sheltered stream valleys of much of our mountainous Southeast. A few thousand miles away in the Pacific Northwest, cool, moist conditions allow an array of species and cultivars to thrive. In contrast, the hot, dry summers of our Midwestern states are hardly optimum for growing these garden favorites.

Almost any garden can benefit from adding a rhododendron or two. Offering the homeowner an almost countless number of species and cultivars, rhododendrons can complement the design of nearly any landscape. One of the most treasured features of these plants is the undeniable beauty of their flowers. What's more, their vibrantly colored flowers can also vary greatly in size and time of bloom. Some are even delightfully fragrant and are thus pleasant planted near doors, walkways, and other high-traffic areas.

Rhododendrons can be purchased in a large complement of reds and pinks, as well as in yellow, white, lavender, and even deep purple. Whatever the colors of the rhododendrons chosen, coordinating the nowers with each other and with the other plants throughout the landscape is important. The colors of surrounding buildings and other nearby features should be considered as well: no matter how beautiful a red-nowened rhododendron may be, placing it in front of a redbrick wall provides very little contrast indeed. It would certainly be more suitably placed where its attractive blooms could be better appreciated and enjoyed.

Because of the great diversity within the Rhododendron genus, gardeners can choose varieties with a fairly long blooming season. Thus, coordinating the various colors in the garden in no small way depends on knowing when each rhododendron will be in nower. This problem may be compounded in a garden with many other flowering trees, shrubs, and herbaceous perennials. But without a doubt, time devoted to coordinating the colors of a garden is well-spent.

Although rhododendrons are loved and cherished for their spectacular blooms, this genus offers many other firstrate features. Whether the leaves are small, as in the case of some rock-garden types, or large and robust, the evergreen nature of many rhododendrons can be a great benefit as nearby deciduous trees and shrubs start to lose their leaves each fall, The differing green shades of rhododendron foliage can also be an attractive feature: the forest-green hue of one species can contrast with the emerald cast of another.

Finally, rhododendrons vary greatly in mature size, a feature that makes them suitable for many gardens. Several smaller types are natural selections for a rock garden, especially arranged in small groups to maximize their visual impact. Areas of the landscape that call for larger and more robust growers can be planted with taller varieties. Either way, few other ornamentals can offer homeowners as many quality features as do the rhododendrons.

In addition to use in the more intensely managed areas of the landscape, many rhododendrons flourish in woodlands. Despite the absence of hard-and-fast rules for establishing or maintaining such an area, a few simple guidelines are important to follow:

* Many trees may need to be cut. Although the number will certainly vary from woodlot to woodlot, the beginning gardener may remove too many.

* A priority is planning the placement of footpaths or trails. The footpaths should be allowed to meander through the natural landscape. Keep in mind that a trail becomes boring and redundant without curves to excite a traveler's curiosity about what may be around the next bend.

* Some woodlands' appealing natural features should be incorporated into the overall design. Interestingly shaped boulders fairly close to a proposed trail, or a creek traversing the property, will make welcome sights. However, the more subtle beauty of an area should not be ignored. From moss-covered logs to colorful lichens, many features make the woodland garden more inviting.

* Of course, more than rhododendrons can be included in such a garden. In addition to compatible trees and shrubs, from the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and redbud (Cercis canadensis) to some of the native viburnums, springblooming wild flowers-such as the bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and large-nowered trillium (Triffium grandiflorum)-are suitable. Existing ferns can also help any woodlot come alive. The fragile-looking fronds of the northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pendatum) and the more robust appearance of the interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana) both contrast with rhododendrons.

Unlike many other outdoor projects, woodland gardens can be worked on as time allows. A healthy supply of rhododendrons and companion plants can make such an undertaking exciting indeed. Few landscapes can be as breathtaking as a woodland garden arrayed in full bloom.
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Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Jackson, Donald W.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1988
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