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Festival shows rhododendrons have their place in any garden


By Jeanne Beattie


Big, blowsy, with cheerful, smack-you-in-the-face clashing colours, rhododendrons have long been out of fashion with designers.

Rhododendrons add a blast of dayglo florescence to shady areas.
Rhododendrons add a blast of dayglo florescence to shady areas.

When Chris Beardshaw used a rhododendron in his Morgan Stanley NSPCC Chelsea show garden last year – it caused a flurry of news stories. He admitted it was risky as ‘it’s a love/hate plant’. But deep rose-pink R. yakushimanum ‘Fantastica’ proved one of the standout specimens in his woodland wonderland garden – which won Best in Show.

I’ve heard complain that rhody colours are too strident and leaves dull out of season.

Look again.

There are more than 1000 natural species and more than 28,000 cultivars listed in the International Rhododendron Registry held by the Royal Horticultural Society.

This month, the Scottish Rhododendron Festival (running until May 31) celebrates this woody shrub’s diversity.

Found at sea level and at altitudes of 19,000ft (Ben Nevis is 4412ft), rhodys grow in diverse habitats from alpine conditions to woodland and tropical rainforests.

As low ground cover or large tree-size specimens, with different leaf shapes, bark colour and textures and a full rainbow of flower shades – from white and lemon-yellow, through pinks, reds and purples to approximate blue – the choice is staggering. And that’s without mentioning azaleas which belong to the same family...

There are even scented varieties which I discovered after being ambushed at Logie Steading by the musky jasmine-scent of R. luteum – also known as honeysuckle azalea.

Inverewe Garden founder Osgood Mackenzie set out to have a rhody flowering every month of the year and pretty much achieved it, with more than 400 varieties planted across the Wester Ross estate.

Inverewe has more than 400 varieties of rhododendron across the estate.
Inverewe has more than 400 varieties of rhododendron across the estate.

They love the Highland climate and natural acidity of our soil. So much so, R. ponticum is in danger of swamping our landscape and destroying our eco-system.

Introduced in the 1700s as an ornamental shrub, this thug is described by Forestry and Land Scotland (formerly Forestry Commission Scotland) as: “Scotland’s most threatening invasive non-native plant. If left uncontrolled, it will dominate the habitat to the virtual exclusion of all other plant life.”

In 2010 it was estimated 50,000 hectares of forest were affected and that it will take £15.5m and ten years to eradicate.

It shades out native plants and its extensive roots and leaf litter can prove toxic to some species.

It may look pretty, but Rhododendron ponticum is Scotland's most dangerous non-native invasive species and unchecked can destroy ecosystems.
It may look pretty, but Rhododendron ponticum is Scotland's most dangerous non-native invasive species and unchecked can destroy ecosystems.

Once used as a rootstock for grafts to create new hybrids, R. ponticum proved too vigorous, usually killing off the grafted variety, reverting to species and escaping gardens to romp away over hills and glen. But it’s the only rhody that does this.

Glendoick – the Scottish rhododendron specialist nursery in Perthshire – only use rootstocks which throw very few suckers and warns that if you do have a pre-1950s rhododendron, to remove any suckers as it's likely to be R. ponticum.

I admit it took me a while to come round to the charms of rhododendron.

A deep red rhododendron growing among the trees on Ness Islands always stops me in my tracks when backlit by the sun. I've admired them on the local large estates where they have the space to grow.

Then I was give a loud dayglo pink azalea. Initially I hid it away at the back, under larger shrubs.

Now it has been give pride of place in a large pot at the door. It packs a flower punch throughout May and June, and it's natural globe shape acts as a foil for other plants. It’s a dream for lazy topiary as it needs little to no pruning to keep in shape.

I’ve since added a sprawling R. loderi ‘King George’ with loose, calm white bells flushed pink and a heavy jasmine scent.

Rhododendrons on the whole need very little care, as the huge specimens on large garden estates prove.

You can prune most varieties lightly after flowering to keep in shape. They’ll grow well in large pots – ideal if your soil is not acidic enough. Just don't place in full sun, or they'll scorch. They prefer dappled shade. I've also discovered that if you take off the seedheads, they'll flower more profusely the following year. It takes time but the cloud of blooms is worth it.

In exposed Highland gardens, rhodys prove more reliable than hydrangeas – which have similar features but need more shelter.

So if hydrangeas never really take off in your Highland garden, try a rhody and add some super-charged colour to your space.

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A garden to visit – for rhododendrons, sculptures and design inspiration

Attadale Gardens, Lochcarron, open every day, 10am-5pm, until October 31

Attadale Gardens showcases its collection of rhododendrons as part of the Scottish Rhododendron Festival.
Attadale Gardens showcases its collection of rhododendrons as part of the Scottish Rhododendron Festival.

Attadale Gardens is taking part in the Scottish Rhododendron Festival this month (until May 31).

Above the shimmering pools of its water garden, flower-laden boughs of mature specimens adorn the Old Rhododendron Walk. These have been underplanted over the past couple of years with scores of dwarf rhododendrons, to form a stunning kaleidoscopic carpet of ground cover – that helps cut down on weeding.

Throughout the garden, azaleas and rhodys have been carefully placed to create inspiring bolts of colour.

In the Old Wood, a path leads past a bed of dwarf rhododendrons and lilies to a dark pool where a sandstone otter sculpture sits at the foot of a waterfall.

And in the Japanese Garden, pillows of azaleas nestle among cloud-pruned shrubs.

Attadale Gardens is open daily until October 31. www.attadalegardens.com

More than 50 events are taking place across Scotland as part of the festival with gardens, estates and woodlands showcasing rhododendron displays.

Local gardens include: Inverewe, Wester Ross; Cawdor Castle, Nairn; Brodie Castle, Forres; Gordon Castle Walled Garden, Fochabers, and Ballindalloch Castle, between Aberlour and Grantown. Most offer guided walks and talks.

For details and listings see: www.visitscotland.com/blog/scotland/rhododendron-festival/

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Other local events

Escape the lengthy garden to-do list this weekend – in pursuit of knowledge (and Easter eggs).

April 18-28: Inverewe Garden in Wester Ross hosts its Erythronium Festival celebrating its collection of the delicate bell-shaped spring bulb perennial, also known as woodland glory or dog tooth’s violet. Free guided talks and walks with garden entry. www.nts.org.uk/inverewe

April 19-22: The Daffodil Festival at Brodie Castle, near Forres, features more than 120 varieties in the Brodie National Daffodil Collection. Learn about the history, daffy care and more with guided walks and talks. www.nts.org.uk/brodiecastle
Both gardens are also holding Easter Egg Hunts over the Easter weekend.



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