A World of Rhododendrons
by Jaime Jensen, Garden Manager at Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
There are more than 1,000 species of Rhododendrons found in the world, plus thousands of cultivated varieties. Rhododendrons fill the towns and forests on the Mendocino Coast with color from January to June. At the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, you can find exotic and rare species as well as cultivars of many sizes, shapes, and hues along winding forested trails. The town of Fort Bragg is teaming with Rhododendron enthusiasts whose gardens show off personal collections and locally-bred varieties. You can even spot them blooming along the highways. Around here, you may find that people affectionately refer to their “rhodies” as if they are rare jewels, and some of them really are that precious.
I came out to the Mendocino Coast because I have always been enraptured by the majesty of redwoods. The first Rhododendron I noticed was the California native Rhododendron (R. macrophyllum) tucked beneath the towering giants. Rhododendrons growing under the redwood canopy must reach for the light with long branches and a small smattering of waxy leaves. Although these forest dwellers could be accused of being spindly or leggy, their lavender floral display will appear to levitate in illumination if you manage to see them at just the right moment with just the right light. This is the kind of spectacle that will stop you in your tracks. I can see why plant lovers throughout the ages have looked at these wild Rhododendrons and thought, “I’d like to take that plant home!”
This time of year, it would be impossible to overlook the plethora of vibrant rhodie blooms with Fort Bragg’s abundance of fabulous home and community gardens. All over town, rhododendrons are animated by the spring breeze, blooming brightly enough to cut through the foggy grey backdrop. Vermillion trusses sit atop the bare branches of deciduous ’Mandarin Lights’ azalea. Each spring, evergreen rhodies display their colors — ‘Anah Kruschke’ becomes laden with magenta flowers, ‘Jean Marie’ with classically red blooms, and ‘Else Frye’ boasts fragrant flushed white blooms with a bright yellow throat. The curbside appeal of a Rhododendron is undeniable, and there is more to it than just flowers. Take a closer look at the bark or the underside of the stunning symmetrical leaves. On Fern Canyon Trail at the Botanical Gardens, you may feel as if you are walking through an exotic jungle under the cover of big leaf varieties.
Rhodies have so much to offer and we don’t take it for granted here on the coast. Years of plant hunting and selective breeding have made it possible for our area to host California’s largest Rhododendron Show. Each year, the Noyo Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society partners with Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens to showcase some of the best rhodie specimens on the west coast. The John Druecker Memorial Rhododendron Show (May 4 and 5, 2019) is a sight to behold with a typical show displaying more than 800 entries. It is the event of the year for Fort Bragg flower lovers. Everyone is invited to enter their best truss for judging. The winners can boast that the prettiest flower in town came from their very own backyard! If you haven’t been to a flower show this is where to start; the sensory pleasure is sure to elevate your mood.
If your visit to the Mendocino Coast has inspired you to plant a Rhododendron of your own, the Nursery at Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens offers more than 30 varieties in shades of cream, pink, orange, purple, and red. We also have some deliciously scented varieties, and varieties that are suited to live in hotter inland climates.
Allow yourself some time this spring to be inspired by these woodland beauties. Investigate their outrageous flowers, and undulating trunks. Let the cheerful Rhododendrons change the way your day goes, even if it is just for one moment of simple appreciation. Plant love just feels so good!
Information specific to the Rhododendrons listed above and the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens can be found at www.gardenbythesea.org.
This article was published in the Mendocino Travelers Guide – Spring 2019