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Respectable Rhododendron

By Audrey Stallsmith


Three girls, engrossed, were wrenching full clusters
Of cerise and pink from the rhododendron,
Mountaining them on spread newspaper.
They brassily picked, slowed by no chagrin. . .

"Fable of the Rhododendron Stealers" by Sylvia Plath

I’ve never been highly enthusiastic about rhododendrons, probably because there is a magenta-flowered type especially ubiquitous in this part of Pennsylvania.  Just a few miles from here looms one bush the size of a small house—or at least a house trailer!

But I have to admit that even the flowers of the magenta rhododendron are stunning up close.  And there are a wide variety of other colors available which most folks in these parts unfortunately never get to see.

Its ability to churn out showy flowers in less than sunny conditions probably is what makes this particular shrub so popular.  Quotes from old books prove that it also has been much used in England.  The following description appears in one of E. Phillips Oppenheim’s novels:  "As he came up the field towards the house he looked with pleasure upon the great bed of gorgeous-coloured rhododendrons which bordered his lawn, the dark cedars which drooped over the smooth shaven grass, and the faint flush of colour from the rose-gardens beyond.” (A Millionaire of Yesterday)

The genus derives its name from the Greek rhodos (“rose”) and dendron (“tree”), a puzzling connection because the trumpet-shaped flowers look nothing like roses to me, though they sometimes are called rosebay as well.  Perhaps “rose” refers to a common hue of the flowers rather than their shape. 

Some of the more unusual varieties were discovered by Scottish plant explorer, George Forrest, who deserves to have a movie made about his adventures.  On one of his first trips to southwestern China in 1905, the Catholic priests with whom he’d been staying and many of their converts were slaughtered at the instigation of local Tibetan lamas (Buddhist priests), and Forrest narrowly escaped. Although he had to abandon his finds and flee for his life, the experience didn’t discourage him from returning to the region several more times.

Rhododendrons are toxic, which may be why they stand for “danger” and “beware” in the Language of Flowers.  Their nectar has been known to kill honeybees, and the honey produced from that nectar can make humans ill, though seldom fatally so. 
“Ev’n as those bees of Trebizond,” T. Moore writes, “Which from the sunniest flowers that clad/ with their pure smile the garden round,/ Draw venom forth that drives men mad.” 

Turkish farmers used to sell that honey to foolhardy people who wanted to get high on it, so perhaps rhododendron isn’t quite so respectable after all.  Even the smoke of its burning can be poisonous.  Oddly enough, the plant has been used medicinally, but I wouldn’t try it! 

Hereabouts, the most spectacular rhododendrons tend to grow in cemeteries, where they have remained undisturbed for years, proving that they can outlive us all.  Still, I suspect rosebay always will be one of those homey shrubs that people associate with the white picket fence, the rose bush, and the lilac tree. 


Rhododendron image is from Curtis's Botanical Magazine, courtesy of