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Rhododendrons at Ness

Ness Botanic Gardens has a rather special place in the history of rhododendronsin western horticulture. The founder of the Gardens, Arthur Kilpin Bulley, sponsored George Forrest and Frank Kingdon Ward to collect plants from western China. Forrest collected plants from western Yunnan and is responsible for introducing over 240 new species of Rhododendron into cultivation in the West. Ward collected further afield and is still one of the relatively few plantsmen to have collected in Tibet. Several plants found in the gardens are thought to originate from collections by Forrest and Ward. One of the best rhododendrons is a large R. decipiens (x hodconeri) in the Pine Wood that is thought to have been collected by Forrest. This species is a natural hybrid between two species found in Yunnan, R. hogsonii and R. falconeri.

Historically Ness had around 800 different rhododendrons growing in the gardens. Much of this diversity was due to Ken Hulme's (first director of the Gardens 1957 to 1989) passion for them and more recent wild origin introductions by Dr Hugh McAllister (gardens botanist 1972 to 2010). The climate at Ness is somewhat challenging to grow many rhododendrons due to our dry and windy weather as rhododendrons especially larger leaved types prefer more sheltered conditions.  This has led to a decline in the number of plants here. Despite this, many smaller-leaved species and hybrids are able to cope with the conditions and continue to grow well at Ness.

Difficult to identify

Rhododendrons are generally difficult to identify due to the huge range of natural variability within each species. Simply put two individuals of the same species can look completely different from each other.  Also many species will readily interbreed with one another, and this has led to great uncertainty in the naming of manyRhododendrons. To further add to this uncertainty, there are an estimated 50,000 named cultivars in existence. The differences between some these cultivars can be very small, for example, differences in the size of flowers.  All this makes identification of unlabelled plants very difficult.  At Ness we have been trying to identify the plants in the gardens with mixed success to date. Auditing and identifying the plants is a time-consuming process, but we do have several local experts we call on regularly for help. So if you see a plant you like but find no label on it or just a label that reads 'Rhododendron' and then a number it just means we haven't identified yet.



Growing Rhododendrons is easy

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