Big-leafs are a delight to see and feel
I have to stop myself asking about flower color when Richie Steffen enthuses about rhodies. With connoisseurs like Steffen, it's all about the leaves.
And not just any leaves, but brawny, platter-sized stretches of leathery green, often backed with bronze or silvery fine hairs called indumentum. Not that these darlings of the plant world don't have lovely flowers, too, but that's only a couple of weeks of the year. The 50 other weeks, they earn garden space with a bold display of textural foliage, often growing so treelike with age that you can walk beneath and look up into a canopy of green.
Maybe that's why I keep mistaking big-leafed rhododendrons for magnolias. They're that grandiose — and they look as if they hail from some Southern plantation where it's nice and warm. In truth, many big-leafed species have been rediscovered in China since it opened up in the early 1990s, and the plants are quite hardy.
"A decade ago, big-leafs were so scarce they were almost mythic," says Steffen. "It used to be it felt as if you were chosen when you had a big-leaf in your garden."
To see and buyThe Rhododendron Species Foundation and Botanical Garden has a fall plant sale, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sept. 22, 33663 Weyerhaeuser Way S., Federal Way. For information, call 253-661-9377 or see www.rhodygarden.org.
Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens on Whidbey Island has a fall plant sale Oct. 6-7. For details, see www.meerkerkgardens.org.
Steffen, coordinator of horticulture for the Miller Botanical Garden, and Rick Peterson, co-executive director of the Rhododendron Species Foundation, grow at least 20 species of big-leafs in their home garden. One of Steffen's favorites is R. auriculatum, a late-bloomer that sports fragrant, white, trumpet-shaped flowers July into August. He also admires R. calophytum for its bright green, distinctively narrow foot-long leaves. And R. rex is one of the easiest big-leafs, reliably winter hardy, with dramatic leaves backed in thick silvery fuzz.
"I always think of big-leafs as guy plants," says Steffen. "It's all about size and performance." Since it takes these giants at least 10 years to flower, each bud is keenly anticipated. And how large will those leaves get? In the case of R. sinogrande, they stretch to 2 feet long if you keep the plant well-watered and fertilized when young. And here's the girly part: This monster has creamy yellow flowers with a pretty red blotch. It grows 18 feet tall, and can be a little tender, so you want to plant it in a protected spot.
"Remember that big-leafed species aren't doused in bloom like a typical hybrid," Steffen points out. "They're more subtle and elegant," he says with a laugh.
The key to growing big-leafs to their full potential is to plant them in well-drained soil enriched with plenty of compost. And water, water, water — when the buds start to grow in early spring, then once a week all summer.
Since these rhodies tend to dominate a garden scene, Steffen suggests hefty companion plants that can hold their own, like ligularias, hostas and the larger ferns. Big-leafs are quite a sight growing in a pot, held up so you can really appreciate the felt-like undersides of their leaves. They'll grow happily contained for a few years before needing to be transplanted into the ground.
Steffen's final comment convinces me I have to, somehow, find a place in my garden for a big-leaf. "I see lots of savvy gardens," says Steffen. "And what amazes me is that almost every one of them has at least one big-leaf species of rhododendron in it."
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is email@example.com.