March 13, 2010

Enjoy rhododendrons longer

— Rhododendrons are a reliable standby of the Maine garden, blooming in spring. The small-leaf rhododendrons, with PJM being the standard, bloom earlier, and the large-leaf rhododendrons, such as Nova Zembla or Roseum Elegans, bloom later.

The typical suburban garden will have a couple of each, and as June arrives, the focus of the garden turns to other plants.

But members of the Maine Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society take their rhododendrons more seriously. Earlier this month, R. Wayne Mezitt, owner of Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton, Mass., addressed the Maine chapter about ways to extend the season with rhododendrons and their close relatives, azaleas.

The PJM was named for Peter J. Mezitt, Wayne's grandfather and the founder of Weston Nurseries, and was introduced by Wayne's father, Edmund, in 1939.

Extending the season involves plants that add color and other interest over a long period. And that includes more than blooms.

''We want plants that look good when they are not in bloom,'' Wayne Mezitt said, ''plants that have interesting bark and foliage.''

A few of the small-leaf rhododendrons -- officially called ''lepidote,'' but don't bother to remember it, because most companies are shifting to the term ''early rhododendron'' -- bloom as early as April, but in much of Maine, the blooms won't come until early May.

I'm going to mention a few specific varieties that struck me, but if you want to check out all of Weston's offerings, go to www.westonnurseries.com.

April Snow has pure white blossoms and bright green foliage that in winter contrasts nicely with its yellow stems. April Song has pink and white blossoms about the same time as April Snow, also with yellow stems. Its foliage turns yellow in the fall and mahogany in winter.

Mrs. J.A. Withington III is an early bicolor with lavender and white blossoms that first appear like miniature roses and dark foliage that turns to mahogany in winter.

The standard PJM will bloom a bit after the three mentioned above and has brilliant lavender pink blossoms usually in early May in southern Maine. Its foliage is aromatic and turns mahogany in winter.

Olga Mezitt, a Cary Award winner in 2007, is dark pink and blooms a week or two later than PJM. Landmark blooms about the same time as Olga and has a dark pink color that looks red from a distance and leathery leaves that are bronze to mahogany in winter.

Weston's Crescendo blooms later in May and is unusual in that the blossoms come out a light pink and darken as they mature. The leaves are larger than most small-leaf rhododendrons and vary along the stem.

June Pink is one of the latest-blooming small-leaf rhododendrons and has clear pink blooms and bright green foliage all year long.

Most large-leaf rhododendrons -- elipidote -- bloom from mid-May to June, although there are a few that bloom in July.

Big Deal has ivory blossoms that come earlier than most and bronze foliage in winter. Glacier Queen has large, pure white blossoms and is a tough plant. Henry's Red is very hardy and good in shade, and the dark red flowers are even more deeply colored at the throat.

Tapestry is dark purple with an even darker throat, hardy with dark green foliage. New Century has pale yellow flowers, while Golden Scepter has a more golden flower and is a slow grower.

Summer Peppermint, Summer Rose and Summer Storm are the latest bloomers, but Mezitt didn't describe those to any extent, and I couldn't find them on the Weston Web site.

Azaleas are related to rhododendrons and are generally divided into evergreen, which means they keep some of their leaves all winter, and deciduous, which drop their leaves. The evergreens generally bloom earlier.

Among the evergreens, Abigail Adams has bright pink flowers and blooms in late May or early June, Bixby is compact with red flowers, and Pink Clusters is hardy and very floriferous.

Among the earliest deciduous azaleas are Anna's Smile, which is pink and semifragrant; Baltic Amber, which has a yellowish orange bloom; and Frank Abbott, which is almost red and tough.

A bit later, Ribbon Candy has pink flowers with white stripes, and Weston's Innocence is white, vigorous and easy to grow.

The latest bloomers, coming in during July, are Framingham, with dark pink buds coming out in pink/peach flowers; Millenium, with red flowers; Pennsylvania, which is very late to bloom; Weston's Lemon Drop (yellow) and Weston's Sparkler (pink). The latter two both keep their blossoms for two weeks or more.

LOST DISPLAY GARDEN

The Maine Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society lost its display garden this year when the University of Southern Maine changed the rules for the Stone House, located near Wolfe's Neck Farm in Freeport.

The chapter has moved many of its plants, and is considering a new spot for the garden. Some of the plants went to the rhododendron garden at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay. Members are also looking at other sites, including Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth.

The chapter is also interested in new members. Membership is $35 a year or $40 for families and includes newsletters and a chance to get more plants. The national Web site is www.rhododendron.org, and the Maine chapter's president, Jerry Goodall, can be reached at jmgoodall@verizon.net or at 797-2956.

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

tatwell@pressherald.com

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