form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care

Buds, Shoots and Leaves: Rhododendron De-flowered


Rhododendron 'Noyo Dream' has rich green glossy leaves, contrasting beautifully with the graceful, weeping Dacrydium cupressinum.

‘Noyo Dream’ has rich green glossy leaves, contrasting beautifully with the graceful, weeping Dacrydium cupressinum.

Say Rhodendron to most people, and they will envision shrubs dripping with large, showy blossoms. Indeed, the name comes from two ancient Greek words meaning ‘rose’ and ‘tree’. We toured the Mendocino Botanical Gardens and the nearby private Gardens at Harmony Woods last week, but we focused on ‘dendron‘, rather than ‘rhodo‘!

Rhododendron macabeanum graces the stone bridge at Harmony Woods.

Large leaved Rhododendron macabeanum graces the stone bridge at Harmony Woods.

November is not the time of year when Rhododendron are thought to take center stage as garden divas, or are even believed to shine as notable members of the chorus.  However, by selecting plants with attributes other than simply the showy trusses, one can have the exuberant floral display in spring, AND have gorgeous  foliage, bark and structure all year round. The Rhododendron macabeanum, pictured above, has enormous leaves of bright, deep green, which are plenty decorative during the months that the plant is not in bloom.


A hand and arm provide scale; R. macabeanum really has huge leaves!

Many Rhododendron serve year-round as stunning broad-leaved evergreens.  They can have glossy, textured or pubescent (downy) foliage in a wide range of greens, with lovely shapes and interesting branching and bark.

Rhododendron, Mendocino Botanical Gardens

R. ‘The Honorable Jean Marie de Montague’ has chartreuse buds, which are echoed in the surrounding plantings.

Rhododendron provide form and interest to the garden even when most of the other plants have gone dormant for the season. Like Magnolias, they set their buds the year before they flower, so they carry them through the fall, winter and early spring.  Both their leaf and flower buds are structural, and are often contrasting colors of chartreuse, rusty brown or maroon.

Rhododendron, foliage plants, evergreen shrubs

R. yakushimanum x ’Sir Charles Lemon’ is a beautiful shrub with rusty accents.

Many Rhododendron share another feature that requires closer observation, but provides fabulous year-round drama: contrasting leaf undersides.  R. yakushimanum x ‘Sir Charles Lemon’, pictured above, while an attractive shrub from any angle, displays its hidden assets only when viewed from below:

3.Rhododendron yakushimanum x ’Sir Charles Lemon’

The weak autumn sunlight warms up the cinnamon-colored undersides of the leaves of R. yakushimanum x ‘Sir Charles Lemon’

R. neriiflorum var. neriiflorum ‘Rosevallon’ is really coy.  It’s an unassuming plant (which doesn’t even have a particularly showy flower) with narrow, deep green elliptical leaves.  Hidden beneath those leaves, however, are deep claret undersides, which match the tightly furled flower buds.  This is a seldom seen plant–if you encounter it, be sure to turn the leaves over!

Rhododendron neriiflorum var. neriiflorum ‘Rosevallon’

Look at the way the buds and the leaf undersides are color-coordinated!

Other cultivars have extremely decorative leaves, with a range of colors and patterns far beyond what most of us associate with Rhododendron.  This stunner, pictured below, which we saw at The Gardens at Harmony Woods, is not available commercially, and it has been nicknamed ‘The Hybrid’ because it is a result of so many crosses between both species and hybrids.  There are others of similar hue, however.

foliage shrubs, evergreen shrubs, conifers, rhododendron

This Rhodie reads ‘blue’ in the landscape, especially when contrasted with its deep green ruff of Cryptomeria j. ‘Ryukyu Gyoku’.

Up close we can see that the blue cast comes from a fuzzy white coating:

foliage plants, evergreen shrubs

Rhododendron ‘The Hybrid’ with its sugary coating.

R. pacysanthum is another Rhododendron with silvery blue leaves.

species rhododendrons, foliage plants, blue foliage, glaucous foliage

Rhododendron pachysanthum has silvery leaves that are decorative enough to be flower clusters.

There are even variegated cultivars, such as ‘President Roosevelt’, which provides plenty of interest in the autumn and winter garden.  This beauty is part of the collection at the Mendocino Botanical Gardens.

variegated foliage, evergreen shrubs

Rhododendron ‘President Roosevelt’ at the Mendocino Botanical Gardens

Many Rhododendron also have deeply textured leaves, some of which are puckered, which is botanically described as ‘bullate’.

Crinkly green leaves add texture to the autumn garden.

Rhododendron brachysiphon has shiny, bright green crinkly leaves

Then there is Rhododendron edgeworthii, which has not only texture, but cinnamon-flocked stems and leaf undersides.  The Gardens at Harmony Woods has a lovely specimen that we were able to examine in detail:

foliage plants, evergreen shrubs

Rhododendron edgeworthii is worthy of close inspection

There are even Rhododendron that make their statement by the shape of their leaves.  R. orbiculare subsp. orbiculare (that should make it doubly clear to all that the leaves are round!) has crisp green lily-pad leaves with chartreuse buds and veins.  It is one of the most charming plants we encountered, and needs no flowers to assert its individuality or its garden-worthiness.

Rhododendron, foliage plants

The leaves of R. orbiculare subsp. orbiculare look like lily pads

And did we mention the bark? Rhododendron are often big shrubs (remember that ‘dendron’ means ‘tree’) and when the larger varieties or cultivars get some age on them, some display gorgeous, peeling bark, often cinnamon-colored.  This Rhododendron ciliicalyx x formosum is one of the best:

Rhododendron cilicalyx x formosum

This Rhodie, at the Mendocino Botanical Gardens, gives paperbark maple a run for its money

Or take a look at  Rhododendron ciliicalyx, one of the genetic parents of the plant pictured above, planted amongst the ferns at The Gardens at Harmony Woods:

Foliage plants, interesting bark

Rhododendron ciliicalyx

If you must have fall color in your garden, don’t rule out Rhododendron for that, either.  Some, such as the Exbury hybrids (commonly called azaleas) are deciduous and provide as much autumn color as maples and ginkgo.  This one at the Mendocino Botanical Gardens caught our eye and drew us from afar:

azaleas, fall foliage

Rhododendron ‘Exbury Hybrid’ at the Mendocino Botanical Gardens

This little R. ‘Washington State Centennial’ at Harmony Woods was in full fall glory when we visited:

Azalea 'Washington State Centennial', deciduous shrubs, fall color

Hard to believe that this is a Rhododendron!

And if you think that the leaves only get a chance to show their glory in fall and winter, take a look at R. ‘John Paul Evans’ which, in a burst of confused enthusiasm, flushed new growth on one branch just in time for our visit to Harmony Woods:

Rhododendron nuttali form, foliage plants

R. ‘John Paul Evans’ has violet new foliage and large, textured leaves

This nuttallii form was a 2013 American Rhododendron Society pick of the year, and supposedly has huge, fragrant blossoms.  We fell in love with the crinkly violet leaves!

Both the Mendocino Botanical Gardens and The Gardens at Harmony Woods are in USDA zone 9b or Sunset zone 17, meaning that freezes are rare.  However, there are many, many hardy Rhododendron.  If this essay has inspired you to learn more, try the American Rhododendron Society (ARS) for a wealth of information about cultivars and how to grow them.

The Gardens at Harmony Woods are private, but are open by appointment to members of the ARS and the American Conifer Society; members may consult their directories for information.  Non-members: one of the benefits of belonging to these societies is access to wonderful private gardens, which provide enjoyment and inspiration for your own gardening endeavors. Membership is inexpensive and opens up new worlds of plants and people!



14 thoughts on “Buds, Shoots and Leaves: Rhododendron De-flowered

  1. Are the Rhododendron with silvery blue leaves adapted to be in sun rather than shade loved by the majority? The only real problem with rhododendrons is that nothing grows under them and they crowd out native plants here in Europe; even with your enthusiastic post they are unlikely to find a place in my garden

    • Christina,

      Like most Rhododendron, those with silvery blue leaves prefer shady spots. We understand that in your Mediterranean climate Rhododendron are not suitable and would not be happy! For those with woodland gardens, especially those with acidic soil, that enjoy summer rainfall, Rhododendron are a wonderful addition. There are many plants that also thrive in those conditions, and will happily grow underneath, next to and above the rhodies. Rhododendron are unlikely to crowd out natives as they are slow-growing, require year-round rainfall and do not self-sow.

      Of course the broader theme of this essay was to encourage gardeners to look beyond the obvious attractions of a plant, in order to provide more than an ephemeral floral display. This is especially important when one is using up a lot of garden real estate with a large shrub.


      Jan and Sara

      • Meant to add that the invasive Rhododendron is only one species – R. ponticum, which we would not ever advocate planting even if it were not invasive. It is not particularly interesting as a foliage plant and it suckers like crazy, making it a poor choice for a rootstock as well, as it often suckers below the graft. We suspect that a contributor to the invasiveness may be grafted plants suckering from the rootstock and then the rootstock taking over. Don’t apply the attributes of R. ponticum to other R. species, and stay away from R. ponticum!

  2. Wonderful installment! Loved the headline.

  3. Great pictures and descriptions. I visited that garden almost 20 years ago and I’ve heard from friends in Ft. Bragg and Eureka that it has really grown beautifully. I’m a “rhodoholic” in the American Rhododendron Society from WA State.

  4. I love all the textures and colors of these rhododendrons. Here in Washington I can’t see the rhodies for the rhodies! They are everywhere and I appreciate taking a closer look at these beauties. And the Dacrydium…wow! It’s stunning, I haven’t seen one before. Thanks for the tour!

    • Thanks Elaine! Yes you can grow them up there. Here we really need to be coastal for them to thrive. Keep your eyes out for Dacrydium – there is one at the Mendocino Botanical Gardens, one in the private garden that we photographed and one at Western Hills in Occidental (CA). They are the only ones that we have ever seen! Jan and Sara Sara Malone 909 Mustang Court Petaluma CA 94954 707-486-0444 Form and Foliage – follow our blog Form and Foliage on Facebook

  5. The conifer looks like Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Imbricata pendula’. Is that correct?
    Great picture!

    • If you’re referring to the first photo, that is a Dacrydium cupressinum. It is a stunning plant. There are not that many ‘in captivity’ – there is an enormous specimen at the Mendocino Botanical Gardens and one at Western Hills Garden in Occidental. We’ve got ‘Imbricata pendula’ in the garden here and we love it, but the Dacrydium is more graceful.
      Jan and Sara

  6. Okay gals – I am soooooo jealous. So many stunning Rhodies – none of which I can grow in my Zone 3b garden, but your photos make it seem like they’re right in front of me. Anyway, for me the exotic foliage is what attracts me to this amazing genus (though who doesn’t love big beautiful blooms) – as you point out throughout your post, they bring form, structure and texture in abundance to a garden composition. I think I’ll have to move to a warmer climate……..


    • Sue the two gardens in which we photographed these rhododendron are in Sunset Zone 17, the mildest in Northern California, very heavily marine-influenced. It essentially translates to USDA Zone 10. We agree that those plants are stunning! Our broader purpose, though, is to encourage people in any zone to look beyond the obvious attributes of a plant, and to plant those that have more lasting appeal than a few weeks in spring. It’s just a little easier in some zones than others!
      Jan and Sara

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