Hardy hybrid blooms despite our cold clime
One of the most beautiful rhododendrons is in flower these days, despite the unseasonable weather. This is Loder's rhododendron, claimed to be the finest of the many thousands of rhododendron hybrids that exist. Rhododendron species cross-breed freely and many nurserymen and keen amateurs have sought to improve on nature, successfully in this case.
Loder's rhododendron is named after its breeder, Sir Edmund Loder, who had a large garden in Sussex. He was a keen grower of rare rhododendrons and one that he particularly admired had a significant problem. It was too tender to grow in Sussex. The species he wanted to grow was Rhododendron griffithianum, a remarkable species with large white fragrant trumpet flowers on a large bush with reddish branches.
It came originally from north-east India and did not tolerate frost. Loder decided to cross this species with a related species from a much colder region in Sichuan in northern China. This was Rhododendron fortunei, which also has large flowers in pink, but not as large and not as well-shaped.
The two species hybridised easily and the first seedlings were raised about 1900. Many different seedlings were selected and named, all quite alike, so much so that they are now sometimes referred to as the Loder Group. They share some outstanding characteristics.
They are hardy and can cope with frost and cold weather, which was Loder's original objective. They all have huge flowers, broad, open, lily-like trumpets to 10cm across, carried in a loose truss in groups of three to 12. The varieties vary but many of them open from pink buds and fade to white, and they are all sweetly scented, some a bit more than others.
The best known variety is the pink-budded and white 'King George', a real delight to the eye when seen up close. 'Pink Diamond' is similar but more pink. 'Venus' too is pink, a deeper shade and fades to pale pink. 'Loder's White' has white flowers, not as well scented as others, the throat of the flower flecked with red. All kinds are evergreen with large shapely leaves.
Like most rhododendrons, these hybrids need acidic soil and they thrive best when given some light shelter overhead. Dappled light and some direct sunshine for part of the day is ideal. They like woodland soil and should be mulched with leaf mould every few years. In a large garden, they can be grown as a large bush, or as a small tree for a smaller garden.