In which a Rhododendron addict overdoses: In the land of the big leaves

In this final installation of my recent visit to the Rhododendron Species Botanic Garden we begin in the land of giants before venturing on to see many more wonders, including a Lilliputian legion, a tender silver temptress, and a fool-proof blue poppy anyone can grow!

The Big-leaf Rhododendron Garden is full of members of subsections Grandia and Falcata, commonly referred to as the Big-leaf rhododendrons. Many of these species are trees growing to 40 feet or more in their native habitats, with leaves ranging from a mere 6 inches to nearly 3 feet in length. Without their mild montane slopes and summer monsoons, they tend to be much smaller and slower-growing, though when well-sited and given adequate moisture in Pacific Northwest summers they can be quite impressive. Most of the specimens in the Big-leaf garden are still relatively young and none have achieved tree-like proportions yet. But this just means that the fantastic foliage is still within easy viewing height.

Flowers? Who needs flowers when you have new growth like this? The pale leaves and bright red bracts are reason enough to grow rhododendrons. 

The exquisitely-shaped leaves of R. rex ssp. fictolacteum are held upright when young, showing off the pale indumentum that darkens with age.

Looking like some exotic ginger flower, the vegetative buds of R. basilicum are ready to burst into big-leaved glory.

Once the buds burst, pale seafoam green new growth is set off from the older leaves by glowing red bracts.

Smooth, glossy, deeply-veined leaves of R. monstroseanum 'Benmore' look positively tropical.

Most big-leaf rhodies have a coating of tomentum on their new leaves. As the tomentum wears away, it creates fascinating patterns against the underlying green of the leaves, with some reddish tint in this instance.

Oh, look, the rare camellia-flowered podophyllum! Not buying it? I'm hurt! Ok, fine, it's Podophyllum pleianthum and someone decided it needed some floral arranging. 

And what a patch of Podophyllum! This has to be the largest mass of any species of Podophyllum (besides the run-amok Podophyllum peltatum) I've ever seen!

R. kesangiae has some of the most beautiful new growth of the big-leaves, with tints of purplish-red subtly shadowing the new growth.

For those who want the big-leaf look but are short on space, allow me the pleasure of presenting to you the newly introduced R. macabeanum (alpine form). From the Rhododendron Species Foundation catalog: This exciting new discovery was collected nearly 3,000 feet higher than this species has previously been found. Slower-growing than typical for R. macabeanum, to only 4 feet in 10 years, this alpine form may be hardy to as low as -5F and has survived the past few hard winters better than almost any other big-leaf in the garden. The leaves max out at about 6 inches long, but still have that great big-leaf look and texture, with darker indumentum than typical for the species. The large flowers are yellow, usually with a purple blotch. Anything that brings hardier genes into the big-leaf rhodies is really exciting to me!

Big, round leaves of R. falconeri ssp. falconeri sweep out from the stems like wings.

I had been wondering if Lonicera crassifolia will climb if given the opportunity. Now I have my answer! (I'd also been wondering just how widely it could spread, and the patch from which these shoots were climbing was huge!). The pictures I saw from the Miller garden made it look like a darling little rock garden plant. Hopefully it is more behaved in the full sun and poor soil in the bed off my parents' back patio!

A young R. arizelum shows off its dark green leaves with persistent rust-colored tomentum, as well as flashing a bit of indumentum from its upper branches. How scandalous!

A legion of Blechnum penna-marina spreads as far as the eye can see, raising fronds high in defiance of the giants above. Ok, seriously, I couldn't believe the massive carpet this diminutive deer-fern relative had formed. It spread out for several square yards.

One of the more stunning of the "giants above" in this case was R. sinofalconeri. As there was another form of this species nearby that didn't have nearly as spectacular tomentum on the new growth, serious collectors will want to note that this form is SEH #229. For a photo of the blooms of this species and for more information please click here.

R. sinofalconeri SEH #229 underplanted with Gaultheria forestii, a relative of our native salal with occasionally fragrant flowers and blue fruit.

Another of my very favorite plants from the entire visit, R. rushforthii tempts with leaves made of solid silver, held on yellow-green petioles. Surprisingly, this rhododendron belongs to the group known as vireyas but is hardy down to 10 degrees. It grew unprotected in the garden for several years. Looks like their making another attempt, with this and several other nearly-hardy vireyas. For my part, this spectacular plant would be worth growing in a pot and protecting in the winter for that silver-blue foliage. 

The shimmering green leaflets of this form of Sorbus sargentiana are set off by bright red petioles. It's rare to find that kind of coloration in a temperate species growing in shade.

One of my favorites of the big-leaves, R. hodgsonii bears shiny silver tomentum on its new leaves and is hardy to -5F
 After departing from the land of the big-leaves, we looped back up through the garden nearly to the entrance, but we were not yet prepared to leave this botanical wonderland and delved instead back into the garden to catch some trails that we skipped previously.
What are they feeding their poppies?! This sculpture of a Meconopsis is over 6 feet tall. Made of metal, this blue poppy is appropriate for all climates.

In one section of the garden, my nose detected the most wonderful sweet, spicy smell, with a faint woodsy undertone. I followed my nose from plant to plant before arriving at this Dryopteris pseudo filix-mas. The scent wafted for several yards, making this large but rather typical-looking fern a new favorite in my book. I simply couldn't believe the scent was coming from this fern!

Growing in far more shade than I had thought possible, I spotted the glowing embers of Embothrium coccineum, or Chilean fire tree.

While I'm sure it would produce more fireworks given more light, this shows a greater adaptability than I had previously read of for this species, giving me more confidence to try it in my own garden. 

The fantastic and fragrant flowers of R. decorum (guessing, since there was no label I could see) grace the garden in late spring. I don't know why, but I just love rhodies that have more than the typical 5 lobes to their flowers. They seem more exotic. This adaptable species grows quickly to 8 feet in 10 years, eventually growing to 18 feet or more.

The glossy leaves of R. wiltonii are beautifully textured and have a thick, woolly indumentum underneath.

The new growth of R. tsariense makes the whole shrub appear to be sprinkled with a generous helping of cinnamon.

The dainty flowers of R. campylogynum nod gracefully over a long season.

The low, mounding plants originate from the mountains of southwest China, Tibet, Burma, and Arunachal Pradesh and encompases a wide range of colors, from the coral and pink in this photo to a deep plum purple which is nearly black.

R. cerasinum is another species with a wide range of colors, including red...

And this pink and white bicolor. Other colors include fantastic red and white bicolors and a gorgeous red-violet.

The fuzzy leaves of R. leucaspis crave attention . . .and maybe cuddles?

The sweeping berm in this photo is actually R. keiskei, a species that ranges from ground-hugging to shrubby and bears pale yellow flowers.
 Since it was well-past lunchtime and we had spent several hours feasting our eyes on rhododendrons, we decided to make our way out of the garden. But not before stopping at the nursery to peruse the offerings.

The beautiful, pale green new growth of R. coeloneuron contrasts beautifully with the darker older leaves, and are set off nicely by the tawny fuzz on stems, petioles, and leaf undersides.

R. chamaethomsonii 'Little Vixen' reveals dark purple underskirts. What a tease! 
 And I can't end this post without sharing what followed us home.

This collection of R. rex ssp. rex should be hardy to below 0F, and the new growth is absolutely covered in white tomentum. My first big-leaf!

How could I leave without my own R. campanulatum ssp aeruginosum? That blue new growth is to die for!

R. decorum ssp. decorum will provide an intoxicating late spring fragrance and exotic white to palest-pink flowers.

One of the hardier forms of R. maddenii, to 5F, will also grace the garden with fragrant, white flowers with a yellow throat in early summer, and will eventually develop smooth, exfoliating bark for year-round interest.

Wait, that's not a rhododendron! Yes, I found this Comptonia peregrina in the half-off section and couldn't resist. I fell in love with this East Coast native during my summer in Massachusetts. The sweet, cinnamon scent and finely textured leaves gives this plant its common name, sweet fern. It's rather rangy at the moment, thus just the close-up shot, but once it gets established in the garden it will be a beautiful, somewhat wild-looking, tough, drought-tolerant and deer-resistant addition. It's adapted to poor, sandy soils but is also tolerant of clay. It's so hard to keep myself from rubbing the leaves to release that sweet cinnamon fragrance though! I need to keep my hands off so it can keep a few leaves!

And last but certainly not least, R. faithiae. I love the new growth, flushed purple with bright coral midveins.  The leaves can be over 10 inches long on this large, tree-like rhododendron. The big, fragrant white flowers appear in summer. This is the first introduction of this species into cultivation and therefore information and pictures are hard to find. According to the Flora of China, it can grow 4-12 meters (about 12-40 feet) in the wild. The RSF plant catalog estimates 6 feet in 10 years.
And that wraps up my latest visit to the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden. I'm thinking I'll have to visit again sometime this summer to see what else is happening in the garden. You can follow the garden on their Facebook page to check when there's something to see. Thanks for sticking with me through this series! Hope you enjoyed it!


  1. So many rhododendron goodies once again! The big leafed group of rhododendrons are still very much underrated and underused by exotic gardening enthusiasts here. Hopefully that'll change soon.

    1. I'm surprised they aren't used more there. I would have thought they'd be quite popular, and there's a wider range of big-leaves that can grow in the UK than in the PNW.

  2. The big leafed rhododendrons are my favorites as the large evergreen foliage evokes the tropics for me. I have a couple of them from RSG but you featured even more that are new to me. I've added Dryopteris pseudo filix-mas sounds delightful!

    1. They are one of my favorite groups, too. That fern really amazed me! I couldn't believe the scent was coming from it!

  3. What a fabulous series of posts!

  4. My first visit to the RSG a couple of years ago was a revelation to me, all those leaves with tomentum and indumentum, and the colorful bracts and candle-like new growth just blew me away. Thanks for sharing your photos. If you do make it back up here this summer, let me know, if it's a weekend that I'm not out gallivanting around, I could meet you for lunch or even for a look around the RSG.

    1. I'd love to! If I don't go up for the rhodies there are many other places I want to see up that way

  5. I still can't believe how varied and beautiful Rhododendron foliage is! Thanks for sharing your obsession.

  6. Other then being a very informative series, it proved you are a true Rhododendron fiend. Your passion for it is contagious. Good luck with the large leaf Rhodi you purchased, it's a beaty. If I could only fast forward 10 years to see how it all looks in the garden...

    1. Thank you, chav, I'm glad you enjoyed it! Hmm, a fast forward preview of that rhodie (and all my other plants) would be a handy feature.

  7. Complete foliage overload, thank you. I particularly liked the R faithiae, which is new to me.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. R. faithiae is pretty new to everyone except those who discovered and introduced it. It's one of my favorites out of this round of purchases as well. Big leaves AND fragrant, what's not to like? The bright midveins really set off the dark new leaves.

  8. Rhododendron posts with the emphasis on foliage are a rare delight. Some big-leaved varieties that are hardier that R sinogrande have set the wheels turning.

    1. It's a shame more people aren't aware of the diverse beauty of rhododendron foliage. And there is an expanding selection of hardier big leaves, as more species and forms of previously collected species are introduced into cultivation.

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  10. You are a truly engaging writer Evan....Even me, jaded plant geek that I am, got caught up in your enthusiasm. I'm looking forward to keeping in touch with you through your blog....which BTW is a great thing to show on your resume....

    1. Thank you, Tom! That's very flattering, coming from you. I included the links for this series in my email to the RSBG. Actually, these posts were shared on the RSBG's Facebook page this summer. Hopefully Steve Hootman, the director and curator, saw them then or will have time to read them now.


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