Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Fragrant Rhododendrons

Ever since I read the book Tales of the Rose Tree by Jane Brown and learned that the earliest rhododendrons, brought to England from Nepal and China by plant explorers, were fragrant, I’ve been searching for a fragrant rhododendron. Seattle is rhododendron city; there’s a rhodie on every block, practically every yard. It’s our state flower after all. But, despite sniffing every rhodendron I passed, I couldn’t find one with any scent. That’s partly because, as with other highly hybridized flowers, the scent has been bred out of them in favor of big blossoms and vivid colors.

Then on May 1, when I was leaving the Museum of History and Industry after a great reunion of Nearby History participants, I smelled the most intoxicating fragrance. I looked around and the only blossoms in sight were on a huge rhododendron with large white flowers. So I thought I would try sniffing the blossoms. Ah! A heavenly aroma. A truly fragrant rhododendron.

A few days later, I was celebrating an impromptu May ceremony with some friends, tossing wreaths into the lagoons at the end of the Arboretum, when I saw another white rhododendron, right next to the gatehouse that leads into Broadmoor. I pointed it out and we went over to smell it. Again, that intoxicating fragrance, a lot like honeysuckle. We stuck our noses deep into the blossoms to inhale the scent and when we raised our heads, there were smudges of pollen on our noses and sticky pistils. The flower had lured us, hapless pollinators, to spread its seed around. A perfect ending for May Day.

The photograph above is not either of the bushes described but it may be the same cultivar. This is Polar Bear and it’s a fragrant rhododendron offered for sale by Banwy Valley Nursery in the UK.

The Berkeley Horticultural Nursery has a wonderful list of fragrant rhododendron cultivars.

I was especially fascinated by the distinctions made in describing their scents. Bill Massey is very fragrant with cinnamon/chocolate overtones. Fragrantissimum smells of honeysuckle and nutmeg. And Fragrantissimum Improved has “an almost tropical fragrance with nuances of jasmine and cloves.” McNabbi smells like nutmeg and Mi Amor has hints of musk and tarragon. Paul Molinari has the scent of wild honeysuckle (I have a feeling this is the cultivar I enjoyed) while Scott’s Valentine smells like jasmine. It’s enough to make me run out and buy some rhododendrons for my garden.

One thing this flower project is doing for me is making me fall in love with flowers I always disdained (like the bergenia and the big showy, scentless rhodies).


Poppy & Mei said...

I swear I can smell that pic! Xxx

Don said...

You will find there are a number of species rhododendrons that are fragrant that will grow in the Seattle area - R. arborescens, auriculatum, and fortunei. R. edgeworthii is my favorite, but is a little tender. Then there are whole series of Loderi hybrids - King George, Venus, etc. and the Naomi series that are very fragrant. You can find these at a number of WA nurseries - Whitney Gardens in Brinnon, Hammond's in Arlington, Lake Tapps Rhododendrons in Bonney Lake, and some at Wells Medina in Medina. Greer Gardens in Eugene, OR also has many of them and does ship.
Don Smart - American Rhododendron Soc.

Waverly Fitzgerald said...

Thanks for your recommendations. I love how blogging immediately connects me to the experts. I look forward to smelling many fragrant rhododendrons in the next few weeks.