In which a Rhododendron addict overdoses, Part I: The Rutherford Conservatory

The Sunday before Memorial Day we decided to take a trip to the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Federal Way, WA, home of the Rhododendron Species Foundation. This garden holds one of the largest, if not the largest, collections of Rhododendron species in the world.

After our two heatwaves over 80 degrees, I knew most of the flowers would be past, but I enjoy being able to see the foliage and form of the plants without mooning over the flowers. I almost always love the flowers, but they are only present a few weeks out of the year for each species, though careful selection can provide a garden with rhody flowers from as early as December or January to as late as July or August. But what do the plants look like when they aren't in bloom? Do they have attractive leaves, bark, or growth habits? The leaves, especially, of so many hybrids are blase at best, and their growth habits may not be much better. Luckily some of the more recent hybrids, perhaps most notably those involving Rhododendron yakushimanum, are truly attractive plants 365 days of the year. So much more potential exists in the other species to produce plants with multi-season interest. Today I'm going to be showing a slightly different side of rhododendrons from what most people are familiar with, along with some choice companion plants growing in the garden that I just can't help but to share. The focus here is definitely on foliage, but I've never been much for extremes so a few flowers might sneak in to moderate the fabulous foliage.

Since I simply could not whittle down the number of pictures I took into one post, I'm turning this into another series. First stop, the Rutherford Conservatory, a 5,000 square-foot facility which opened in 2010. This conservatory houses vireya rhododendrons along with a few other tender rhododendrons such as species in subsections Maddenia and Edgeworthia. Also growing in the conservatory are tree ferns, orchids, a schefflera with IMMENSE leaves, and other fascinating tropical plants. There is something in bloom in the conservatory virtually every day of the year.

To save myself some typing, I've abbreviated Rhododendron as "R" in scientific names. Scientific names of non-rhododendrons are spelled out completely.

Pyrrosia shearei sits just outside the conservatory in a large container. Ok, I need this.

Part of the conservatory. So lush and green!

One of my favorite vireyas, R. alborugosum, which I just recently purchased from Bovees. Aren't those leaves fantastic? I can't wait for mine to grow up!

Another favorite, R. rubineiflorum, has leaves only about a quarter of an inch long and relatively large flowers. This minute species is easier to grow than many of the other small, alpine species.

R. rubineiflorum creeps slowly over the ground and also sends longer stems running under the loose moss and detritus on the ground.
R. rugosum, similar to alborugosum except that the leaf margins are rolled under (revolute) and the flowers are pink to red (as opposed to white and fragrant in R. alborugosum).

I couldn't see the tag for this one, but isn't that golden new growth simply glorious?

R. fleuryi, a tender species in subsection Maddenia, has some of the most fantastically peeling bark in the genus. It looks like a fine form of Acer griseum.

The leaves of R. pudorinum have a metallic sheen like coins.

Cheerful yellow vireya flowers.

R. edgeworthii grows without fear of frost in the conservatory, though there are hardy forms growing in the garden outside.

R. edgeworthii again. Oh, that new growth!

R. seinghkuense, a dwarf member of section Edgeworthia, grows to only about 3 feet high and bears yellow flowers. The 1-2 inch-long leaves have a generous layer of rich cinnamon-colored indumentum on the undersides and along the stems. Hardy to about 10F.

If memory serves (since I didn't take a photo of the label) this is R. nuttallii, subsection Maddenia, whose fragrant flowers are some of the largest in the genus. Sadly only hardy to 15-20F.

This little fern caught my attention because it resembles strongly a plant my undergraduate adviser had and was trying to identify. I'll have to contact the RSF to see if they know what it is.

The conservatory is currently hosting the Hilltop Artists Glass Exhibit. Some of the pieces were interesting, but personally I was more interested in the plants.

Plants like this huge schefflera!

My hand for comparison. That leaflet is about 2 feet long!
One of my favorite plants in the conservatory is this Gaultheria pseudonotabilis. I love the fuzzy red hairs and zig-zag new growth! Only hardy to about 15F, but I'm more than willing to accommodate it indoors over the winter.

Another of my favorites, foliage-wise. I couldn't find the label for it, but next time I visit I'll ask someone what it is.

Probably my favorite plant in the conservatory is this R. himantodes. Long, thin leaves have a metallic sheen and small brown scales dotting the surface at all stages as they mature from an old gold, through shades of green, to a deep blue-green.

If the RSF ever offers this gorgeous vireya in their seed or plant catalogs you can bet I'll be buying it!
Hope you enjoyed visiting the conservatory. Next it's out to the gardens!


  1. Lot's of good stuff there! The last one is especially nice and love that schefflera (of course).

    1. That schefflera is mindbogglingly huge! And I want that last vireya so bad!

  2. That conservatory is beautiful; a very satisfying visit. The R. himantodes is so unique with it's skinny leafs it hardly looks like a Rhodi as we are used to seeing. I love the trailing habit of the R. rubineiflorum and it's big bold flowers. Too bad they can only grow in a protected area. I definitely see a large glass shed in your future.

    1. Oh yes, I definitely plan on having a greenhouse in the future. For now my small vireya collection fits comfortably indoors over the winter.

  3. Spectacular! I love Rhododendrons but they don't like it here. I understand that the vireyas can be grown in Southern California (are you the one person who pointed that out to me, Evan?) and I may try those here if/when our hideous drought passes.

    1. I think I was the person who pointed that out to you, Kris. Yes, vireyas grow well in Southern California as long as the water quality is decent, which means they grow well between droughts. Sorry, I don't know exactly where you live, but I know there are vireyas in several California gardens. If you can visit one of them and ask which ones made it through past droughts the best, maybe try them first. I hope your drought does pass, and sooner rather than later. Here's a website that lists gardens with vireyas. U.S. gardens are at the bottom of this page:

  4. From one R. addict to another, it takes an awful lot to overdose. You can keep the Rhody posts coming as far as I'm concerned. The sensuous leaves on that Pyrrosia get to me.

    1. Right on! I'm glad I've got a fellow addict here. That Pyrrosia really is fabulous.

  5. Thoroughly enjoyed it Evan, so many gorgeous foliage!

  6. Do you know a source for Rhododendron adinophyllum?

    John Perkins

    1. I don't think anyone outside of Edinburgh has that species in cultivation. Have you asked the RSBG or Bovees if either of them know of a source?

  7. Great Job Evan!
    really interesting and terrific photos...
    I love Vireyas too!
    Keep it up!

    1. Thanks, Tom! Do you have any vireyas? I have a small collection of 13.


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