However you describe it – red is red. Landscaping with a red splash is like telling the world “I am here!” What better to brush your home world with than a red rhododendron! A lot of homeowners (my wife included) shy away from “Rhodos”. Why? For one thing, the word itself is tough to say and spell – too many syllables and too many vowels! Perhaps, like my wife, an early experience with a rhododendron wasn’t the best. The little weak-greened plant in the sun next to the sidewalk never grew, never bloomed, and just was a loss. Such a sad life for a plant that knows no bounds in color, energy, and adjectives.
There are thousands of cultivars developed by botanists comprising every color in the rainbow and a few that may not be there. Combine that with the hundreds, if not thousands, of natural varieties from the mountains of Nepal and Japan to the Appalachians and our Pacific Northwest and the gardener has unlimited choices. My favorite color is red – scarlet, ruby, cherry, cardinal, carmine red.
The Rhododendron is alive with red – not relaxed or laid back, but vibrant, energizing, scalding, living red. True, there are other good Rhododendron landscape colors – purple is popular, pink is pressing, white is wonderful, lavender is luscious – but red is riveting! Consider a four foot high and wide red rhododendron with glossy green foliage against your bland earth-tone gray or tan home with its non-descript white or brown trim. Splash! Your home is now alive, warm, inviting, traffic stopping, gripping, pulsing with energy!
Ready to look at a Rhododendron Red? Here are a few although I am told photographs cannot capture the intensity of redness that the human eye discerns.
How difficult is it to raise a baby Red? First and foremost – choose a location wisely. Morning sun is best and afternoon sun will stress leaves that are meant for woodlands to their limit. Full sun is deadly for a new planting. But you have seen large, brilliant rhododendrons in full sun, right? Believe me these are mature plants that didn’t enter this world in bright sunlight. Perhaps they were shaded by trees that have been removed over the years but now since being firmly established they have learned to live and breathe in full sun. That is the exception to a rule that says partial sun is best – dappled sun is better.
But aren’t rhododendrons picky about soil? Yes, they are. Heavy clay soil will restrict growth of adventurous root systems and keep green leaves and bright blooms at bay. Iron is an essential ingredient and clay has plenty but iron can only be released with an acid soil. Without iron, leaves are yellowish, blooms non-existent. Our clay soil is acidic but if we choose to plant a fledgling rhododendron next to a sidewalk or concrete foundation, rainwater will leach alkaline particles from the lime in concrete to mix with adjacent soil and neutralize natural acid in clay and decaying vegetation. So plant the red rhododendron away from the edge of the house, driveway, and sidewalk giving it room for growth as well.
And water? If your location doesn’t drain well and water stands after a rain – don’t drown your rhodo by asking it to swim. Well drained soil is a must! Give those fibrous roots air in a moist environment and they will spread seeking iron, magnesium, and nitrogen. Our clay presents many problems. It holds moisture, compacts as it dries, and forms unbreakable clods. When planting the newly hatched rhododendron as with most plants, dig down several inches below your root depth and remove the clay from a wider than pot planting hole. Don’t throw the clay away. Mix it with an amendment such as garden soil, natural mulch, peat moss, some vermiculite – all of which tends to lighten the heavy clay but retains the mineral wealth and acidity of our clay environment. Do not bury your new plant. Let it sit on top of your mixture and backfill spreading the fibrous roots over a wide area. Keep the crown of the root system at the new ground level. Don’t pack the backfill. Add it to the hole gently making sure that the clay has been thoroughly mixed with your additive. Thoroughly water your new landscape jewel and cover with light mulch – not straw or leaves and don’t let it dry out – ever.
Fertilize lightly early in the spring and after blooming with a rhododendron or azalea food that comes with mineral additives. Tone down any fertilizer in late summer and fall and remember to keep your plant mildly moist but never water saturated. Encourage below surface root growth with a light, airy environment and you will be rewarded.
I like to pinch spent blooms off as they fade and just enjoy the rich green leaves for the rest of the year. You have to be careful pinching blooms as new shoots emerge right next to the spent bloom and a careless snap will mean no new leaves and fewer blossoms next spring.