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Gillian Vine is overwhelmed by the number of New Zealand-bred rhododendrons.
A reader phoned me to suggest a story about spring flowers, adding that it seemed to be a particularly good year for rhododendrons.
The conversation sidetracked into the importance of buying local, then went on to New Zealand-bred rhododendrons, so it seemed my topic was decided.
By 1855, a Taranaki grower was advertising hybrid rhododendrons for sale and the province proved perfect for the shrubs.
Taranaki later was at the forefront of breeding new varieties, but it was in Dunedin that the country’s first official hybrid was produced. Nurseryman William Martin, of Fairfield, bred Marquis of Lothian about 1880 and it is still a well-regarded variety.
David Tannock, who was the superintendent of the Dunedin Botanic Garden (DBG) from 1903 to 1940, was responsible for the establishment of the Rhododendron Dell in 1914; some of the original plantings still exist.
Things were going nicely in Canterbury, too, with leading breeder Edgar Stead prefixing his plants with Ilam, the Christchurch suburb where he lived. To me, Stead's Ilam Cream is still one of the most attractive lemon rhododendrons, thanks to the pink accents on the blooms.
Jeff Elliott carries on the Canterbury work, with his Kiwi Magic a standout.
In Dunedin, as elsewhere, amateur hybridists were responsible for a lot of a new varieties.
One was Robert Balch, deputy director of the DBG, and the deep red rhododendron that bears his name is just coming into flower in Balch’s Island, the corner of the Rhododendron Dell that commemorates his work.
Other Balch hybrids were Alpine Meadow, Blue Mist, Rosebird and Dainty Lass. There is a good specimen of the tall-growing Blue Mist at Tannock Glen, in Opoho, a garden well worth a visit.
On Balch’s Island are several shrubs bred by Bruce W. Campbell (1921-1984). He worked for Allied Press, was the Evening Star garden writer and for many years edited The Star Garden Book, was a foundation member of the Dunedin Rhododendron group and still found time to hybridise rhododendrons at his Ravensbourne home. Waireka (1963) was named after the street where he lived and Rothesay (1983) is a fine choice for a smaller garden.
I have never seen Ember Elf, Bruce Campbell, Cream Delight, Manapouri Sunrise or Ed Hillary, but I hope they are still being grown.
My favourite Campbell rhododendron is September Snow. Still available at some nurseries, it is a superb white with brown stamens, felted leaves and heavenly perfume. Despite the name, it starts flowering from mid to late August, a most welcome harbinger of spring.
In November, be sure to visit the DBG for the lovely display of City of Dunedin. Found just inside the main gate, it was bred by Margaret Hughes, of Tapanui.
There have been other local breeders, too, like C. A. McLaughlin’s pretty little lavender Dalkeith and Birchfield; David Sumpter’s Dainty Lass; Bennett’s seedling; and Mrs J. Kerr’s Moonlight Sonata.
With lots of New Zealand choices, it could be time to extend the “buy local” and support Kiwi hybridists’ efforts, starting with a rhododendron or two.