Growing and Caring for Rhododendron

Growing and Caring for Rhododendron

By Michael Jenkins

Rhododendron is a classic garden plant, grown around the world as a shade feature or to add a burst of seasonal color to landscaping. With a huge variety of varietals, sizes, and colors available, Rhododendron finds its way into many different kinds of gardens and around many different homes. It’s a versatile landscaping plant, and well worth considering for your own garden. So whether you’re new to Rhododendron and just considering planting one or whether you have a mature specimen on your property that needs care, let’s dig in and learn more about Rhododendron!

What are Rhododendrons?

Members of the family Ericaceae, there are over a thousand species of Rhododendron, with various sub-varietals of most species. This makes the family especially versatile for gardening purposes—there’s likely a rhododendron that will work for your needs regardless of your landscaping aesthetic or garden design.

The origins of the rhododendron are a bit murky, as the various species are found all around the world and have been since ancient times. The greatest concentration of diverse species seems to be in the Himalayas, which suggests that the rhododendron may have originated there. However, there’s evidence that it might have origins in China, Southeast Asia, or even New Guinea. The truth is we don’t  know for sure, but it’s an intriguing botanical mystery.

Selecting a Rhododendron for your Garden

The first part of selecting a rhododendron for your garden is to consider the space available. If you’re working with a more compact space or a container garden, you might consider a more compact varietal like “Yaku Sunrise”, “Purple Gem”, or “PJM Elite for containers and “Landmark”, “Cunningham’s White” and “Bubblegum” for compact shrub rhododendrons. If you’re choosing a container varietal, remember that rhododendrons don’t root that deeply so you’ll need a stable container with a relatively wide base in order to avoid the plant tipping over.

Climate also plays a role in rhododendron varietal selection—warmer climates need a varietal like “Sneezy”, “Percy Wiseman” or “President Roosevelt” while colder weather may call for “PJM”, “Pink Rosebay”, or “Roseum Pink.” As always, a local garden store can be a great source of information as to which varietals grow best in your region. In selecting a climate-appropriate type of rhododendron, you’ll save yourself the trouble of having to shelter it during inclement weather, which is a real boon with these plants.

Where, When, and How to Plant Rhododendron

Rhododendrons are fundamentally forest plants, so they prefer dappled light and rich, well watered soil that is a bit acidic. The roots are delicate so relatively loose soil that is moist but not saturated is a must for a healthy rhododendron. It’s best to avoid southerly exposures and direct sun, as these plants don’t typically thrive under those conditions and may weaken or even die over time.

If your soil is relatively high in organic matter, with an acidic pH, there’s generally no need to fertilize rhododendron. Very mature plants may benefit from an application of a balanced fertilizer for acid loving plants—as a quick tip, fertilizers made for blueberries work well—applied in late winter or very early spring. This can reinvigorate blossom production and give your plants a new explosion of color when they bloom.

Pruning is generally not necessary, but removing flower clusters as soon as blossoming is complete does help ensure that the plant will flower next year. Be careful not to damage the young buds at the base of the spent clusters! If you do need to prune or trim your rhododendron, do so after the flowering period has passed and follow general common-sense guidelines for pruning a shrub.

A Lasting Garden Gift

Rhododendrons can live for decades or even centuries, so the shrub you plant now will be providing beauty and joy for years and years to come. A rhododendron is a lasting and engaging landscaping feature that brings personality and color to any space, so we hope you’ll consider adding one to your garden if it’s the right fit. If you have photos of your rhododendrons in bloom, please share them—we love seeing your gardens and all the beauty they contain!

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